State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 43 Autumn 1989


Constructing Kooris In The 20Th Century Victorian Press

Most Victorians of European descent in this century have never met a Koori: the name most Aboriginal Victorians now give themselves. The Koori population reached its nadir of less than a thousand people in the 1930s and has recovered slowly to 12, 611 in the 1986 census. Kooris were (and are) not only a small fraction of the Victorian population (about 0.4 per cent), but most have lived in country regions away from the main population centres until the last generation. Even those who have journeyed to or resided in Melbourne in recent times have tended to cluster in the inner city or become invisible as isolated house-holds in populous outer suburbs. Therefore most Victorians only know about Kooris indirectly, but nonetheless they have constructed popular ideas about Kooris via their mothers’ milk, their peer group, popular fiction, ephemera such as postcards and souvenirs, and lastly via press reports.
Gaining access to popular images is no easy matter. One of the difficulties of researching press reports — apart from what it all means — is finding the items. Victoria is well served for parts of this century by the Argus index (1910–1949) but even that can be a tedious slog to and from the microfilm reader. Thus I was delighted when embarking on a study of Kooris in 20th century Victoria to be given permission to use the Herald and Weekly Times cutting files — a privilege not lightly given. Once there, I found to my initial displeasure that the Herald had placed its Aboriginal file from 1924 to 1973 on microfiche. There were 80 of these ‘eye-benders’ in all, containing over 4,000 frames: each including up to 5 cuttings, perhaps 10,000 cuttings in all. The items cover the Melbourne daily press reportage of Aboriginal affairs Australia wide: the Herald, the Sun, the Age but rarely the Argus.
My slow resentful grind through the fiche was heartened by the realisation that the transposition of the cuttings to microfiche meant they could be made accessible to a wider audience, including my La Trobe University students. Fortunately my approach to the Herald and Weekly Times regarding sales of the fiche came at a propitious time. David Syme and Co. (the Age) had previously blocked sales, but during its uncertainties over ownership early in 1988, agreed to restricted library sales. Thus copies of the fiche have recently been acquired by the State Library (found at LTmf 27);) the Borchardt Library, La Trobe University; and the Library of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, Canberra. The value of this fiche series is immense to researchers from VCE students upwards. While the collection is not indexed; is confined to several major papers (including the finest in the country); and the technical quality of the fiche is mediocre; the series can help date issues for further research in other press and historical sources. Thus it is a good entree into the rich but decaying world of newspapers at the State Library.
But how copious and important are press reports on Kooris? The bulk of the items in the fiche cuttings are non-Victorian material which would seem an accurate reflection of the press at the time. The Victorian reports that do exist are meagre in size and number prior to the 1940s. Their coverage is also disappointing in these early years, being mainly concerned with the several hundred people living at the Lake Tyers reserve. However, the controversy surrounding Lake Tyers from the late 1920s is well reported. Aboriginal voices rarely appear in the press until various Aboriginal organisations produce spokespersons from the 1940s onwards. Before the second world war, we catch rare but important press glimpses of Kooris speaking their minds in court, acting boisterously at the Antwerp Regatta, or struggling to survive at Framlingham settlement. Such voices and actions perhaps are reported more fully in the local press, which references can be pinpointed by the fiche.
Press reports are inevitably more valuable for white perceptions than black. They can help us chart the changing definitions of Kooris by white Victorians. And as the press moved to greater use of the more powerful medium of press photographs in the post 1940s, its power to shape public perceptions of Kooris dramatically increased. The two dominant ideas in press photographs were Kooris as victims and Kooris as assimilators to white Australian culture. Press photographs brought riverbank fringe camps into the view of white Victorians and represented young Kooris making it in secretarial and trade courses in Melbourne. The Harold Blair holiday programme tugged the heart strings of Melburnians every summer in the 1960s with images of wide-eyed Aboriginal children from rural Victoria and elsewhere who were seeing the wonders of Melbourne as guests of white families. Both images were one-dimensional, white constructions; Kooris simply as victims or assimilators. Recently more complex notions have emerged in the press, ones more controlled by Koori people.
There is a wealth of material in the State Library's newspaper collection on Kooris, increasingly so as the period of one's interest approaches the present. The Herald fiche collection is a useful tool to control the mountain of decaying hard-copy and row upon row of shining cannisters of microfilm.