Was there any deeper meaning to a slab of stone acknowledging just one violent incident from 1849? Would anyone want to talk about it?
I decided to just go, with a single person lined up for an interview: Jack Johncock, a local Wirangu elder. I flew to Port Lincoln, where he lives, and hopped into his ute for the long ride up the coast to Elliston.
Immediately, I could tell it was the right call.
Jack — a tree trunk of a man who coaches footy and uses more Aussie slang than most of Parliament — provided me with more history and context than I could have ever imagined.
He explained in detail the extensive process Elliston went through to investigate what happened near Waterloo Bay, and the angry pushback that a few older white residents had mounted against the idea of using the word “massacre” to describe the act of shooting and pushing several Aboriginal Australians off a rocky cliff into the sea.
“They just don’t want to accept what happened,” he said.
Jack could kind of understand; there was a dispute about the numbers. Written accounts by English settlers identified three dead, while the Wirangu’s oral histories put the number much higher, at around 200.
What he and others argued for, ultimately, was the right to define the narrative — for Australia’s original inhabitants to have their account prioritized. And they succeeded. The monument now commemorates “an incident referred to by the traditional owners of this land as ‘The Massacre of Waterloo Bay.’”
But as we drove northwest on dirt roads and smooth highways past farms and bush, the theme of whose story of the land gets told kept coming up. Every few miles, Jack would point out a mountain, field or coastal outcrop with a name and spiritual tale that was thousands of years old.
There was damage, too.
About halfway through, Jack pointed to his left, to a patch of scrub without much vegetation.
“They overgrazed that area,” he said. “They overused the land.”
A little later, he pointed to his right, toward a distant lake that he said had also been ruined long ago.
“When they first brought their sheep here, they took over the water holes,” he said. “That was our people’s source of life, for thousands of years.”
Such small acts, which might not have looked like much to English settlers, are what led to many frontier conflicts in Australia.
Historical accounts show that hunger and the loss of land drove many of Australia’s first inhabitants to steal food; those thefts often led to reprisal killings, like those memorialized by the monument in Elliston.
Whether what happened in Elliston should be called a “massacre” strikes Jack as a moot point and an effort to “hush things up.” The dictionary definition of massacre does not require a specific number of dead, he noted, and he insisted that the benefits of bold reconciliation should not be discounted.
When we reached Elliston, it wasn’t hard to see what he meant. We sat together at a picnic table in the town’s main park with a pair of local officials. Jack and the two men had an undeniable rapport; it was clear they had been through a lot together to get the monument built.
A few minutes later, Jack yelled over to a young Aboriginal man, Robbie Pickett, who joined us as we finished our coffees. Robbie told me the process of overcoming resistance to the monument had changed how he and his people viewed Elliston.
“We feel a lot more at peace,” he said.
Jack agreed, declaring “a dark cloud has been lifted.”
Neither of them were bitter about the ugliness of the debate, which involved racist taunts and angry Facebook posts that intensified divisions.
They both said Elliston deserved praise for opening up the conversation in a public, transparent way that is rare in Australia, revealing both how far the country has to go, and how small towns can show the way.
“It is what it is,” Robbie said. He smiled. “We all just have to put our best foot forward.”
Right, I thought. When in doubt, go.
Like this newsletter? Sign up to get it in your inbox every Friday. Now here are our stories of the week, hand-selected for Australian readers.
The world is getting more dangerous with another rise in emissions.
Australia is one of the many countries pushing the limits of the Paris Agreement, putting us all on track for a more rapid confrontation with some of the most severe consequences of global warming.
Not good. Not changing anytime soon, either.
Confused about the protests in France and how they fit into other populist movements around the world? Same. Thankfully, this explainer breaks down what has the French so angry.
The main issue: France, like other Western countries including Australia, has seen a deep gap grow between its richest and poorest citizens.
I loved this visual dispatch that brings you into Eritrea with images and sounds.
It’s a country that rarely lets anyone visit or document daily life — proving again why “when in doubt, go” is valuable advice, even when it requires a lot of pushing and cajoling.
• Opinion: Australia’s Misguided Turn Inward: A decade of political self-indulgence is leaving the country without a credible voice in Asia, argues George Megalogenis.
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Maybe you’ve heard of Bari Weiss because of Twitter.
Regardless, Bari, a conservative writer and editor for the Opinion section whose wide-ranging insights are rarely predictable and often impossible to ignore, will be here soon to examine the alt-right and other interesting topics.
You can hear her (and meet her) on Tuesday at 6 p.m. at the Lowy Institute, where she will be in conversation with Michael Fullilove, Lowy’s executive director. Here’s how to R.S.V.P.