In the non-Aboriginal tradition, at least until recently, the purpose of historical study has often been the analysis of particular events in an effort to establish what ‘really’ happened as a matter of objective historical truth or, more modestly, to marshal facts in support of a particular interpretation of past events.
While interpretations may vary with the historian, the goal has been to come up with an account that best describes all the events under study. Moreover, underlying the western humanist intellectual tradition in the writing of history is a focus on human beings as the centrepiece of history, including the notion of the march of progress and the inevitability of societal evolution. This historical tradition is also secular and distinguishes what is scientific from what is religious or spiritual, on the assumption that these are two different and separable aspects of the human experience.
The Aboriginal tradition in the recording of history is neither linear nor steeped in the same notions of social progress and evolution. Nor is it usually human-centred in the same way as the western scientific tradition, for it does not assume that human beings are anything more than one — and not necessarily the most important — element of the natural order of the universe. Moreover, the Aboriginal historical tradition is an oral one, involving legends, stories and accounts handed down through the generations in oral form. It is less focused on establishing objective truth and assumes that the teller of the story is so much a part of the event being described that it would be arrogant to presume to classify or categorize the event exactly or for all time.
In the Aboriginal tradition the purpose of repeating oral accounts from the past is broader than the role of written history in western societies. It may be to educate the listener, to communicate aspects of culture, to socialize people into a cultural tradition, or to validate the claims of a particular family to authority and prestige. Those who hear the oral accounts draw their own conclusions from what they have heard, and they do so in the particular context (time, place and situation) of the telling. Thus the meaning to be drawn from an oral account depends on who is telling it, the circumstances in which the account is told, and the interpretation the listener gives to what has been heard.
Oral accounts of the past include a good deal of subjective experience. They are not simply a detached recounting of factual events but, rather, are “facts enmeshed in the stories of a lifetime”. They are also likely to be rooted in particular locations, making reference to particular families and communities. This contributes to a sense that there are many histories, each characterized in part by how a people see themselves, how they define their identity in relation to their environment, and how they express their uniqueness as a people.
Unlike the western scientific tradition, which creates a sense of distance in time between the listener or reader and the events being described, the tendency of Aboriginal perspectives is to create a sense of immediacy by encouraging listeners to imagine that they are participating in the past event being recounted. Ideas about how the universe was created offer a particularly compelling example of differences in approach to interpreting the past. In the western intellectual tradition, the origin of the world, whether in an act of creation or a cosmic big bang, is something that occurred once and for all in a far distant past remote from the present except in a religious or scientific sense. In Aboriginal historical traditions, the
particular creation story of each people, although it finds its origins in the past, also, and more importantly, speaks to the present. It invites listeners to participate in the cycle of creation through their understanding that, as parts of a world that is born, dies and is reborn in the observable cycle of days and seasons, they too are part of a natural order, members of a distinct people who share in that order.
As the example of creation stories has begun to suggest, conceptions of history or visions of the future can be expressed in different ways, which in turn involve different ways of representing time. The first portrays time as an arrow moving from the past into the unknown future; this is a linear perspective. The second portrays time as a circle that returns on itself and repeats fundamental aspects of experience. This is a cyclic point of view.
Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (1996)
via Delgamuukw v. British Columbia (SCC 1997)