Frances Peters Little responds to Mitchell Rolls

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Reading Mitchell Roll’s essay entitled “Why I Don’t Want to be an ‘Ethical’ Researcher” I was reminded of a film conference I attended over ten years ago in Amherst College at the University of Massachusetts called ‘Shock of Recognition’. The conference was attended by Indigenous filmmakers from Colombia to the Northwest Territories of Canada. I was a rarity at the conference, not so much because I was not from the same continent, but because I launched an unintentional attack on some of the other panel members. The emotions of conference delegates peaked when Arapaho filmmaker, Eva Hamilton stated she chose to make films only about her own community because of the endless ridicule her people endured from unscrupulous Hollywood producers. Firmly concluding that only Indigenous filmmakers were capable of telling the truth in films about indigenous subjects, Hamilton, supported by a room full passionate film lovers and Indigenous rights activists, ceremoniously invited me to speak after adding her disapproving comments about the Aboriginal characters in Crocodile Dundee.

The paper I presented that afternoon I zealously wrote another continent away. Entitled “Accountability to the Community: But Who Are They?”, was written at a time when many other Indigenous filmmakers were busy rectifying the damage of previous films. My position, uncommon even in Australia at that time, was read word for word. I concluded with an example of my grandmother’s story. I argued that I didn’t think there was any such thing as absolute truth in any form of filmmaking and that some of our own high moral standards as indigenous film makers often stood in the way of truth. Hamilton, the Arapaho filmmaker, the woman of whose country I had been a ‘guest’ quickly responded to my presentation and stated “Well there may not be any such thing as truth, but there is one thing for certain, and that is there is such as thing as a non-truth. And Columbus did not discover America.”

Rolls’s essay raises many complex issues that other scholars have addressed previously in terms of unrealistic research ethics and imagined notions of the Aboriginal community however he does not acknowledge them. In my own essays such as “The Impossibility of Pleasing Everyone”, “The Community Game” and “The Return of the Noble Savage” I grapple my rights as an Aborigine from ‘the community’ to be protected from unethical researchers, and my right to express myself as a filmmaker and historian. However with Rolls’s article I think I would feel less anxious if he had not been so hasty to reprove “black issues groupies as holier than thou conspirators of political correctness.” You see I do not have a problem with political correctness, (which has become a most hackneyed and ambiguous term) but I do have problems with ‘culture police’ and self-righteous historians.

While I am encouraged by Rolls to continue to focus on the justifiable rights of Aborigines and historians, I am mindful of the pitfalls of debating these issues under the bloody-minded reign of a Howard government and a nation that thinks itself non-racist. But as historians continue to corroborate the benign intentions underpinning Aboriginal child welfare policies, Arapaho filmmaker, Hamilton’s words echo, prompting me to think, “while there may be no such thing as ethical history, there is nonetheless such as thing as non-ethical history. And thousands of Aboriginal children were maliciously stolen.”

Frances Peters-Little is an Aboriginal Historian and a Research Fellow at the Centre for Indigenous History at the Australian National University in Canberra. Frances is currently revising her thesis for publication with Aboriginal Studies Press entitled, The Return of the Noble Savage: By Popular Demand.

Read Mitchell Roll’s essay: “Why I Don’t Want to be an ‘Ethical’ Researcher”

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