Lost in Australia’s vast archive collection are records of Indigenous people, places and languages, once not seen as valuable enough to bother documenting — but now the forgotten stories are being unravelled.
John Morseu is a Torres Strait Islander man who calls Australia’s most northern tip home, but he has spent years in Canberra scanning the collections of the National Library of Australia.
He is one member of a small team of Indigenous Australians working to shed light on the volumes of untapped historical records on Australia’s first people.
“It’s quite exciting, it’s looking back at my own cultural identity so you’re looking at the pictures, what your grandparents used to live in, the lifestyle your grandparents used to live,” Mr Morseu said.
“It’s kind of emotional but also very empowering, being a young person and giving back to community.
“I found one of my grandfathers, he was called Yankee Ned, Ned Mosby. I found a photo of him in our collection which was really fascinating … it was quite a shock finding him in a library in Canberra.”
It comes at a time when more Australians than ever before are investigating their Indigenous ancestry.
There has been a 23 per cent spike in requests for family information at Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS), with many inquiries from people displaced from their family and country at a young age.
The National Library’s assistant director-general of collections Alison Dellit said they know they have a wealth of knowledge hidden in their collections.
“[We have] a lot of material that might relate to a particular Aboriginal group in Australia, that wasn’t recorded in the 1920’s or 1930’s because it wasn’t seen as important at the time,” Ms Dellit said.
“It’s quite emotional to watch and to be part of, to understand this real unlocking of knowledge and systems and structures that exist in these collections that may never have surfaced.”
Mr Morseu said the work is often difficult, and compares it finding a needle in a haystack — there are more than 10 million items in the National Library’s collection.
But he has managed to find unpublished maps, pictures and audio recordings, which he takes back to his community, which helps him decode the material.
‘Help us to heal and move on’
Craig Ritchie, the head of AIATSIS, believes it is more important than ever that archive material is made available to Indigenous people.
“Helping to rediscover those connections and reconnect with their family is a really, really important part of helping them as individuals, but also helping us as a community to heal and move on,” Mr Ritchie said.
The number of Australians identifying as having Indigenous ancestry is at an all-time high, with a huge increase of about 100,000 in the last five years.
When Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were first counted in the national census after the 1967 referendum, they made up just one per cent of the population — it has now grown to almost three per cent.
“People are feeling much more comfortable identifying themselves … On the back of that people are then investigating their story and where they come,” Mr Ritchie said.
Katina Olsen is a Wakka Wakka and Kombumerri woman from Queensland, and was lucky to stumble upon her family’s works in the national collection at AIATSIS.
She is one of the growing number of Aboriginal people turning to see what the records tell her about her relatives and their stories.
“I found a copy of my great Aunt’s book … It’s pretty special, I now really realise how smart she was as a women documenting stories and language,” Ms Olsen said.
“There’s some language and things that have been passed down through my family but I’m a bit of a keen bee and I want to know more.
“[I want] to actually publish it and put it on paper, so we can go back to and draw from it and it’s there for generations after.”