Publication Date: Sep 2022
RRP: $34.95
ISBN: 9781922633187
Format: Paperback
Size: 153mm x 234mm
Pages: 256
Category: Australian History, Biography, Books, Indigenous Studies

My People’s Songs

How an Indigenous Family Survived Colonial Tasmania

Joel Stephen Birnie

Also available as an ebook from your favourite retailer.

Shortlisted for the 2023 Ernest Scott Prize

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

‘Over a hundred years, Joel Stephen Birnie’s ancestors Tarenootairer, and her daughters Mary Ann and Fanny Cochrane, endured abduction, rape, enslavement, destitution, despair and disease, while their family and their world died before their eyes. But they were not broken, and Fanny Cochrane’s voice comes to us still to declare their truth. A brilliant and harrowing recreation of lives once treated so cheaply.’ Janet McCalman

‘In this bold and original book the author shows how one of Tasmania’s best known Indigenous families survived colonial policies of extermination and extinction. A tour de force.’ Lyndall Ryan

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.

Read the review in Inside Story

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 cinemas across Australia, including...
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