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  • Coranderrk: We will show the country by Giordano Nanni and Andrea James
  • Sean Carleton
Coranderrk: We will show the country By Giordano Nanni and Andrea James. Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press, 2014.

Theatres of contact, conflict and resistance abound in the annals of colonial history.1 Yet, as Australian boxer Damien Hooper’s defiant donning of an Aboriginal Flag T-shirt during the 2012 London Olympics recently revealed, Indigenous peoples continue to find creative ways to express and perform anti-colonial resistance.2 Historian Giordano Nanni and Yorta Yorta playwright Andrea James contribute to this oppositional tradition with Coranderrk, a companion guide to their play of the same name. Nanni and James blend theatre and history to examine how Indigenous peoples in what is now known as Australia navigated colonial justice during a special 1881 Parliamentary Inquiry into the living conditions at the Coranderrk Aboriginal Station. Nanni and James skillfully deploy a form of verbatim theatre, known as “tribunal theatre,” in which primary documents from an inquiry or court case—such as letters, articles and testimonial transcripts—are used to stage a play. In Coranderrk, sources from the 1881 inquiry are reproduced and supplemented with additional historical content to fully showcase Coranderrk residents’ struggle for land, dignity and self-determination. Coranderrk will thus appeal to both historians and drama scholars interested in creative ways of confronting colonialism’s past and present.

Coranderrk forces Australian colonialism to take centre stage. In the Introduction and Chapter 1, Nanni and James outline the devastating results of colonial dispossession in the British colony of Victoria during the nineteenth century, which saw settlers occupy Indigenous ancestral lands (in particular those of the Wurundjeri peoples of the Kulin nation). In the 1850s and 1860s, settlers’ pastoral practices pushed the Wurundjeri and their hunter-gatherer economy to the margins. Six reserves or “stations” were soon created to protect Indigenous peoples throughout the colony. In 1863, the Coranderrk Aboriginal Station was established as a result of a campaign by Wurundjeri families supported by sympathetic settlers such as lay preacher John Green, who became the de facto manager of the station. Green and his wife, Mary, worked with local families to ensure the station was self-supporting. However, the colonial society growing up around Coranderrk felt that the station’s independence and economic success in hops production offered Indigenous peoples an unfair advantage over settlers. In 1874, the Board for the Protection of Aborigines unilaterally fired Green. His unjust dismissal mobilized Coranderrk residents who rightly perceived Green’s sacking as a threat to their autonomy. Nanni and James explain how, in response, the residents wrote letters and enlisted influential allies in politics and publishing to protest the decision. Their efforts succeeded. In 1877, a Royal Commission was called, and then in 1881 the colonial government struck an inquiry to further examine Indigenous issues. For the first time, Indigenous peoples in Victoria won the right to use their own voices to speak truth to colonial power.

In Chapter 2, Nanni and James present Coranderrk’s script, which uses actual documents from the inquiry to bring to life dissenting Indigenous voices from Australia’s past. The 1881 Parliamentary Inquiry lasted just over two months; of the twenty witnesses called before the inquiry, nine were Indigenous. The testimonies of racist and reactionary non-Indigenous witnesses such as the Reverend Strickland, Christian Ogilive, the Reverend Hagenauer, and Edward Curr are recounted first, and then Indigenous voices are given the chance to respond. While Nanni and James emphasize that the inquiry was not a “level playing field” (30) in that many Coranderrk witnesses were unfamiliar with the English language and European questioning practices, their calls for justice come through clearly and effectively. Indeed, Coranderrk witnesses, such as Barak and Alice Grant, articulately challenged the operating assumptions of colonial Victorian society and mounted a defense of Indigenous authority and autonomy at Coranderrk. As an influential elder, Barak proclaimed: [We would like it] if […] the Government leave us here, give us this ground and let us manage [Coranderrk] and get all the money” (89). Indigenous participants also spoke in unison to demand Green’s reinstatement. Nanni and James argue that Coranderrk members were being strategic...

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