Research Report 2008

Who’s that girl?

Her name alone conjures ideas of a lost race. Her character has settled into the local culture so deeply that she is synonymous with native people and the casualties of colonial settlement. If you’re from our province, you’d know her name. Shanawdithit. But if you call Tasmania home, you think Truganini. No, they’re not the same woman. But they represent the same idea — the last of their races.

Opposite sides of the world, with a remarkable network of similar stories, myths and cultural ideals.

Dr. Fiona Polack in the Department of English is working to find out how our societies have constructed these characters to represent ideas of colonialism, and why two islands on opposite ends of the world have devoted so much literary work to their tale.

Shanawdithit died in St. John’s in June 1829. The notice of her burial, recorded in the Church of England Cathedral Parish Register, described her as “very probably the last of the aborigines.” Less than 50 years later, in a very different corner of the British Empire, a Tasmanian aboriginal woman was being eulogized in similar terms. A headline in the Tasmanian Tribune read “Extinction of Tasmania’s Aborigines: The Last of Her Race – Death of Truganini,” the day after Truganini died in Hobart on May 8, 1876.

Perceived as the final survivors of their peoples, Shanawdithit and Truganini quickly became culturally emblematic figures. Shanawdithit still occupies a central place in the consciousnesses of Newfoundlanders and Canadians as does Truganini in the imaginations of Tasmanians and Australians. Both continue to be imagined in literature, art, film, music and popular culture.

Dr. Polack has received a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) Standard Research Grant for her research project titled, Last of her Race, Shanawdithit, Truganini and Settler Culture Inquietudes.

“Despite their iconic status, no full length study of cultural constructions of either Shanawdithit or Truganini and their astonishing parallels have been undertaken,” said Dr. Polack. “I hope to shed light on the processes by which regions and nations with histories of conflict between their indigenous and settler-descended peoples conceive of themselves.”

She said her project has broad social implications. “The persistence of aboriginal communities in Newfoundland and Tasmania has, for instance, been obscured at various times by the instance on Shanawdithit’s and Truganini’s respective statuses as ‘last.’” Dr. Polack’s research will result in a book comparing cultural figurations of Shanawdithit and Truganini for the early 1800s to the present day.

Copyright © 2008 Memorial University of Newfoundland