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Testimonies of forced removal

posted 16 Apr 2013, 14:07 by Fiona Cram   [ updated 11 Aug 2013, 12:57 ]

Linda Smith (1999, p. 144) writes, “There is a formality to testimonies and a notion that truth is being revealed ‘under oath’.” This formality provides a structure for speakers to talk about often painful events and their impacts, in a context where people are primed to hear what is said. Audience questions and responses are moderated so that the speaker and what is said are treated with respect.

Rebecca Devitt (2008) has written about the role of testimonies from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC) 1996 inquiry into the separation of Indigenous children from their families. The aim of the inquiry was to ‘assist the healing process of those who have been past policies of assimilation’ and to play a significant role in ‘healing the nation’ and to ‘help prepare the way for reconciliation’ (Devitt, 2008, p.50).

The telling of individual stories of removal gave people a sense of ownership in the inquiry, enabled them to represent their experience, created a record for future generations, and constructed a history of removal for Australians. Devitt then explores how testimony facilitated the fulfillment of the healing function of the inquiry.

There was anecdotal evidence that giving their testimony to the inquiry supported people’s individual or family healing. An Indigenous woman who had presented her testimony said, “Everyone I have spoken to has said it is like the world has been lifted off their shoulders, because at last we have been heard. For me I have grown stronger and now am able to move forward” (Devitt, 2008, p.61). However Devitt was critical of the lack of ongoing support for those giving testimony and people leaving the inquiry with unresolved issues. Giving testimony was also anecdotally linked with negative effects, especially for those who told their story for the first time.

Devitt writes that despite attempts to engage the nation the inquiry had only limited influence on the knowledge and understanding of non-Indigenous Australians, with this not helped by the Coalition Government’s lack of apology for removal policies and practices. The focus of the inquiry on ‘victimhood’ was also criticised as excluding those who thought of themselves as survivors as well as those who had had positive experiences of removal.

Devitt concludes that the healing goals of the inquiry were too ambitious. “Nevertheless, the inquiry contributed to an acknowledgment of the personal pain suffered by Indigenous people because of removal practices, bringing the issues of Indigenous child removal to widespread public attention.”

Lessons from Devitt’s analysis of the inquiry are useful for researchers wanting to use testimony as a research method.

  • The first lesson is about who is excluded by our framing of the testimony we are interested in. For example, a ‘victimhood’ framing may exclude those who don’t consider themselves to be victims, and yet their testimony may be valuable and informative.
  • The second lesson is about ensuring there is good support available for people: before, during and after their testimony. We should always remember that our research may be the first time someone has shared their story, and that this may be traumatic for them.
  • The third lesson is about our expectations of how people’s testimonies will be received and who our audience is. It is important that we aren’t overly ambitious in our promises to participants about the potental impacts of their involvement in our research. Perhaps the promises we can make and keep are that providing their testimony will give them a voice and allow their experiences to be recorded and shared with others like them, and with those who need to know about and understand their experiences.

Related posts

Testimony, 4 April 2013

A testimony to education, 5 April 2013

Oral Testimony Project, Panos Institute, 17 May 2013

Testimony and Human Rights, 18 June 2013

'Village Journey' - testimonies of assimilation by legislation, 10 August 2012