In this episode of Biographers in Conversation, Joel Stephen Birnie chats with Gabriella about My People’s Songs: How an Indigenous Family Survived Colonial Tasmania, his historical biography of Tarenootairer (c. 1806–1858), his earliest known ancestral grandmother, and her two surviving daughters, Mary Ann Arthur (c. 1821–1871) and Fanny Cochrane Smith (c. 1832–1905). These three extraordinary matriarchs fought for the Indigenous communities they founded in Tasmania, sparking a tradition of social justice that continues in Joel’s family today.

Joel Birnie introduces us to Tarenootairer, Mary Ann and Fanny and reveals why he felt compelled to write My People’s Songs. He explains his goal in writing the book, why he chose to structure My People’s Songs around three self-contained biographies of Tarenootairer, Mary Ann and Fanny, and why he shares their stories from their perspective and in their voices. He discloses how Mary Ann’s fight for autonomy laid the foundation for contemporary Indigenous politics and how he chose to portray Mary Ann’s role as a voice of self-empowerment for Tasmania’s Indigenous people.

In My People’s Songs, Joel explores Fanny’s skilled and tenacious political advocacy and how her persistence resulted in her receiving a higher pension and an increased land grant despite intense opposition from Tasmanian politicians and some sections of the media. Fanny challenged the false declaration of Indigenous Tasmanian extinction; Joel shares with us its crucial impacts during her lifetime and today. Few archival records exist of Indigenous peoples’ lives in nineteenth-century Tasmania and those that are available lack an Indigenous perspective. They are also tainted by colonial half-truths, interpretations and propaganda. Joel describes his research strategy and how he overcame the many challenges involved in piecing together such fragmentary evidence that was biased by a colonial lens.

Shortlisted for the 2023 Ernest Scott Prize

Shortlisted for Scholarly Book of the Year in the 2023 Educational Publishing Awards Australia

Tarenootairer (c.1806–58) was still a child when a band of white sealers bound her and forced her onto a boat. From there unfolded a life of immense cruelty inflicted by her colonial captors. As with so many Indigenous women of her time, even today the historical record of her life remains a scant thread embroidered with half-truths and pro-colonial propaganda.

But Joel Stephen Birnie grew up hearing the true stories about Tarenootairer, his earliest known ancestral grandmother, and he was keen to tell his family’s history without the colonial lens. Tarenootairer had a fierce determination to survive that had a profound effect on the course of Tasmanian history. Her daughters, Mary Ann Arthur (c.1820–71) and Fanny Cochrane Smith (c.1832–1905), shared her activism: Mary Ann’s fight for autonomy influenced contemporary Indigenous politics, while Fanny famously challenged the false declaration of Indigenous Tasmanian extinction.

Together, these three extraordinary women fought for the Indigenous communities they founded and sparked a tradition of social justice that continues in Birnie’s family today.

From the early Bass Strait sealing industries to George Augustus Robinson’s ‘conciliation’ missions, to Aboriginal internment on Flinders Island and at Oyster Cove, My People’s Songs is both a constellation of the damage wrought by colonisation and a testament to the power of family. Revelatory, intimate and illuminating, it does more than assert these women’s place in our nation’s story – it restores to them a voice and a cultural context.

‘A tour de force.’

– Prof. Lyndall Ryan

‘A brilliant and harrowing recreation of lives once treated so cheaply.’

– Prof. Janet McCalman

‘In this powerful work of historical biography, Joel Stephen Birnie weaves together the life stories of his ancestor Tarenootairer and her two daughters, Mary Ann Arthur and Fanny Cochrane Smith, to tell an often painful but continuous Indigenous account of the Tasmanian experience. Tracing the path of colonisation across the full nineteenth century through the lifespans of Tarenootairer and her daughters, Birnie’s book reframes the story of Indigenous Tasmania from a familiar one of colonial destruction to one of cultural survival. Methodologically innovative and profoundly moving, My People’s Songs foregrounds the interlocking stories of three women to reclaim the history of Tasmania through an Indigenous voice.’

 - Professor Giselle Byrnes & Professor Amanda Nettelbec

‘Birnie’s book questions Westernised, patrilineal narratives and focuses on the matriarchs of his family to restore Indigenous social, cultural and political histories. He deconstructs the fragmentary evidence and reassesses it alongside oral family histories and other records, such as contemporary art works and photographs. In reconstructing the narratives, he provides a deeper understanding of the dialogues between cultural and colonial structures to trace Tarenootairer and her daughters’ complicated lives. More importantly, Birnie adds Indigenous perspectives to their subjugated stories. Birnie also provides glimpses into Indigenous family relations. One instance relates to Truganini’s role. He refers to Truganini becoming a surrogate matriarch to Tarenootairer’s family upon her death, which ‘was of such strength that some of Fanny’s eventual 11 children, never knowing Tarenootairer personally, would cite Truganini as their grandmother’ (p. 48). That Truganini stepped in to assume the role is a testament to the importance of matriarchal cultural responsibilities. However, proving ancestry one way or the other is problematic, and Birnie shows this. Colonial practices of desecrating, exhuming, examining and exhibiting the remains of these family members, and their provenance, render them unsuitable for verification. No records exist proving parentage, and those that do may be incorrect. Government-enforced child removal practices have contributed to displaced and lost family lineage. Western practices have inextricably hindered Indigenous people from proving their bloodline. In any case, it is up to the Indigenous community, family groups and individuals to decide who is family and who is not. Birnie’s effort in My People’s Songs is an important contribution in doing so.’

 - Jennifer Bird, Australian Journal of Biography and History: No. 8, 2024 (ANU Press)

Joel Stephen Birnie
Joel Stephen Birnie

Joel Stephen Birnie is an academic, visual artist and filmmaker. Raised predominantly by his Indigenous Tasmanian family, he proudly embraces a multi-ethnic heritage from across the globe. Joel’s creative work has been exhibited in galleries and festivals across Australia, including in Darwin, Sydney, Adelaide and at the Koori Heritage Trust in Melbourne. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in Indigenous Studies and a Master of Fine Arts, and in 2019 completed a PhD at Monash, which focused on deconstructing and reconstructing the 150 years of European colonisation in Tasmania from a familial (Indigenous) perspective.

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