Maker unknown and the decentring First Nations People

My blog post about the need to centre First Nations Voices in GLAM (galleries, libraries, archives, museums) collections.

I used to discuss missionaries’ papers and their usefulness in regards to First Nations family history as part of my work. Unfortunately, this usually lead to me discussing the missionaries themselves. This was hard to avoid as the collection would be named after missionary and the descriptive information available mostly related to them.  But, I hated it. Mainly, because it centred a non-Indigenous person in a story about First Nations people. This is common as much of the First Nations cultural material in GLAM collections originates from non-Indigenous people who recorded or collected (probably stole) First Nations culture.

As result, there are shields in collections that their records state ‘maker unknown” but clearly articulate that it is part of the “Smith” collection or photos of First Nations community members in collections that have insufficient title “Aboriginal woman & Aboriginal boy” but the metadata clearly states creator “Thomas Smith” or manuscripts in collections titled the “Awabakal language by Thomas Smith”. All of these examples decentre First Nations people. They also imply that First Nations knowledge or culture doesn’t exist until it gets white acknowledgement. That our culture, like our land, needs to be “discovered”. Furthermore, it doesn’t recognise First Nations people as creators of culture and history or as knowledge holders, but rather gives them the roles of subjects.

This still continues today. You often see non-Indigenous researchers who are researching First Nations culture being solely credited on the research output and only acknowledging and/or thanking the community or individuals where the cultural knowledge comes from. Whereas, the First Nations community and knowledge holders should be credited as co-authors of the output and should have have their names listed before the non-Indigenous researcher.

Also in art, there are many non-Indigenous artists who use their art to highlight contemporary issues of racism and colonisation faced by First Nations people. However,  often their creative output again solely credits them as the creator. Additionally, their art can centre a non-Indigenous person in a discussion of First Nations issues and could take up space that a First Nations voice could fill.

Both of these examples lead to the continuation of GLAM collections being filled with White voices on First Nations culture. There are other ramifications to this as well, such as access. For instance, I heard stories of people trying to access photos of their family members in collections but can’t because of copyright restrictions.

What can we do about it?

Firstly, we should minimise White voices in regards to First Nations culture whenever possible. If a boomerang is on display, then the inscription below it should focus on the community it came from and cultural information around it, not the non-Indigenous person who donated it to the collection.

 To compliment that, we also try to work with First Nations communities and add more cultural information to our catalogues and records. One of the reasons we centre non-Indigenous people in discussions about First Nations cultural heritage material is because it is the only information we have available. Adding more cultural information to our records would rectify this. 

Also, we should respect Indigenous intellectually property. When a non-Indigenous person deposits First Nations cultural heritage into our collections, we should ensure community or individuals where the cultural knowledge comes from are also are acknowledged as copyright holders and as such have a say in the access conditions of the material.

Digitally rearrange collections. While, it may be chaotic to physically divide and disperse the “Smith collection”, we may be able to do so in digital spaces. In these spaces, we may be able to organise and classify material by the First Nations community it comes from and by digitally removing  First Nations material from the “Smith collection” we decentre “Smith” from this First Nations story. Additionally, in digital spaces we can prioritise cultural information above information relating to provenance in the metadata. 

Lastly, have your collection development or acquisitions policy prioritise First Nations cultural heritage material created by First Nations people. 

In summary, many of us are aware of the Eurocentric bias in GLAM institutions, but we got to be aware how current practices contribute to that bias. Centring the non-Indigenous person who wrote, painted, photographed, collected, etc First Nations cultural heritage material does contribute to the devaluing of First Nations voices takes away their agency and places First Nations people and their cultures as subjects and that is why we need to work to prevent this from continuing. 

By Nathan Sentance

My Blog about Identity

The following post focuses the construction of Aboriginal identity and the effects that can have

This month’s GLAM Blog Club Theme is identity so I thought I would write about my own identity being a fair skinned Wiradjuri man and the construction of Aboriginal identity by colonisers. This topic was been discussed a lot recently, particularly in these two IndigenousX Guardian articles 1, 2 as well as Dr Bronwyn Carlson’s book the Politics of Identity and Dr Anita Heiss’ book Am I Black Enough for You.  There is also this Canadian First Nations perspective article titled Looking white and being Aboriginal

I remember when I was young saying to someone that I wanted to be Matty Bowen because like him, I was short, fast and Aboriginal. The response I got from this person was I can’t be like Matty because I’m not really Aboriginal like him. This was the first time in my life, I realised that people may not see me as Aboriginal and even though I grew up never thinking I was anything but Wiradjuri, that others may question my identity.

Being a fair skinned Wiradjuri man

Since colonisers arrived to this land mass they later titled “Australia” , they have defined who we are and what we do, identifying us as “Aboriginal” or “native” or later “Indigenous” among other terms. These terms were used to define us, not just as different, but to define us as inferior. Later, when colonisers starting pushing the assimilation agenda to fix what they called the “Aborigine problem” they continued to define and categorise us by either tribal or non-tribal, which later informed the blood quantum definitions and categorisation of us. That is when terms like “half-caste” and “quarter-caste”  started being applied to people.

This is not in the past, the media continues to proliferate and reinforce White created definitions of who we are and what we do. Now the definition is one of drunk criminals rather than savage natives, however both definitions achieve the same thing,  to characterise us as inferior as well as to dehumanise us.  There’s also the famous example of andrew bolt in the herald sun explaining who he thought was more Aboriginal based on what they looked like.

GLAMR institutions even play a part is this with their exhibitions that are curated by White people having simplified portrayals of First Nations peoples. Many exhibitions only tell stories of First Nations people as sad victims or as magical beings. This can create or fortify binary ideas on who First Nations people are.

This is why it upsets me when after I identify myself as Wiradjuri,  people say “you don’t look Aboriginal”; “you can’t be much Aboriginal” or “what percentage are you?” because it continues to reinforce  binary definitions of who First Nations people are. Definitions which have had very little input from First Nations people themselves.

This questioning or denial of my identity as a Wiradjuri man because of my fair skin may derive from the fact much of White society wants to deny and ignore how destructive colonisation has been on First Nations people. As Nayuka Gorrie points out “There are violent reasons many of us have fair skin” Acknowledging this may come with a guilt many people do not want to face.

Occasionally, this denial of First Nations peoples’ identity is done to derail discussions about racism. If you dismiss their identity, you can also discuss dismiss their experiences.

White created definitions of who First Nations people are extend beyond skin colour. Recently, talking with a Gamilaroi artist friend of mine, we were talking about his work, which very influenced by Tolkien and Gaiman and that it does not fit the mould of what is deemed Aboriginal art by mainstream society. As result, he is not considered an Aboriginal artist.  However, I argue, that because his art is influenced by his life as a Gamilaroi man, then it is Aboriginal art.

Fair skin privilege

I think it should be acknowledged while I identify As a Wiradjuri man, I do benefit from fair skin or “white-passing” privilege. I do not cop racist slurs from strangers (except that one time someone mistook me for being of Asian descent). I usually get to tell the story of myself rather than other people imposing a story on me based on the way I look. If people never met certain family members of mine, I could tell them that I’m white and they’d would not think otherwise. These benefits gain me access to elements of society that my darker skin brothers and sisters can not.

That being said…

Many fair skinned First Nations people are still affected by ongoing institutional racism and colonisation.  Our socio-economic statuses are still affected by dispossession, land theft and imposing of European customs and the dismissal of our own. Many fair skinned First Nations people also experience intergenerational trauma caused by the nation’s previous assimilation policies.

Furthermore, as Bennett notes in her study, while fair skinned First Nations people do not often experience obvious racism, they can experience micro aggressions such as people telling them that they speak well, not like other Aboriginal people or that they receive free houses. These experiences of racism along with a refusal of light skinned First Nations people’s identity can negatively affect their mental health and lead to severe depression and anxiety.


Identity is tricky for most people however it makes matters harder when imposed on you are stereotypes about who you are and what that entails. We should work to allow First Nations and other minorities to be able to define themselves.

I will end this post by adding link to a poem by Steven Oliver. The poem starts around the 50 second mark]

By Nathan Sentance