Book review Encyclopaedia of Aboriginal Australia with companion CD Rom Edited by David Horton Aboriginal Studies Press for AIATSIS RRP $150
Being an Indigenous Australian doesn't mean you have the answers to all the questions about Aboriginal culture and issues and that's why the Encyclopaedia of Aboriginal Australia is something of a "Dreaming Send".
Knowledge is power in anyone's language and this "first significant authoritative and comphrehensive reference on all aspects of Aboriginal and Torres Strait (ATSI) history, society and culture" is as invaluable to black Australians as it is to whites.
Produced by the Canberra-based Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies and published by Aboriginal Studies Press, this Encyclopaedia offers an Indigenous perspective and boasts 2,000 clearly written and informative entries.
It gives us the chance to write our own history and the power to project our own images and effectively puts into practice the much-touted theory commonly referred to as Aboriginal "Self-determination".
And with so little contact between black and white Australians it gives white Australians the chance to find answers to questions they don't know how or who to ask.
Adding weight to the Encyclopaedia's significance is the fact that more than 200 authors have contributed.
In positively reflecting the diversity within our culture it well and truly dispels the stereoptypical myth that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are all one and the same.
At the same time it shows that whilst Indigenous Australians take great pride in personal and group identity, we still, no matter where we come from are recognised and recognise each other.
The encyclopaedia does a good job in simultaneously recognising the diversity as well as the unity.
Complemented by 1,000 colour and black and white photographs, maps and drawings, it gives historical and contemporary sketches of significant places and people and profiles of the more than 500 Indigenous Peoples of Australia.
Land rights, arts and music, mining and royalites, Deaths in Custody, housing, language maintenance and legal services are just some of the contemporary issues featured in the Encyclopaedia.
I learned for example that exactly 99 Indigenous Australians died in Australian jails between 1980 and l989. That's nearly an average of one black death in custody per month.
Entries are by two main themes: Geographic Region and General subject. Condensing each entry to approximately 250 words would not have been an easy task, but it is its very concise and easy to absorb style that makes the Encyclopaedia such a great temptation. Then of course comes the dilemma of balancing historical and contemporary information and again the Editors efforts are commendable.
Obviously some issues need more explanation and thanks to a solid cross-referencing "see also" at the beginning of each entry, it is possible to elaborate by further reading.
Also on offer with the encyclopaedia is a CD-ROM and I asked newly crowned National Aboriginal Youth of the Year, Ms Yvonne Rigney for an appraisal and this is what she had to say:
"It was good to hear people speak and to listen to music and to see video clips and it didn't matter whether you were experienced at CD-ROM because it gave clear instructions about how to access information," she said.
"There were some spelling mistakes and there wasn't a lot of depth to the information but it offered a lot of cultural stuff, like understanding clans, moeities and kinship systems and by hearing people explain things made complex things easier to understand".
Her only reservation was that the CD does not have printing facillties but she thought that was justified for copyright protection.
In his introduction, General Editor David Horton said "Not only will this project help the indigenous peoples of Australia visualise their future, but it will ensure that non-Indigenous Australians remember their past. "The simple fact that this encyclopaedia exists is both a message to, and a message from, the Australian people".
Indeed it is a great chance for all of us to take a walk on the Black side of life in history and in present times. I hope it becomes as popular as a dictionary and is in all Australian homes.