Australian history is not black and white in Victoria Haskins' eyes. Indigenous and non-Indigenous experiences are entwined.
Growing up in Kununurra, Victoria Haskins - a historian aligned with the Research Institute for Social Inclusion and Wellbeing - experienced race relations in the Aboriginal-dominated town in northwestern Australia through a filter of childhood innocence.
Her friends were Aboriginal, but whatever cross-cultural tensions existed, they barely registered on the radar of a child in an outback upbringing in a place "where you could run from one side of town to the other in five minutes".
It was not until Haskins was a student studying history at the University of Sydney in the 1980s that she began to think more deeply about the issues surrounding black/white relations and Australian history.
A PhD scholarship offered the opportunity to study Aboriginal history but as an Australian of European descent she felt awkward about how to approach this history.
"There was a lot of criticism at the time of white historians writing Aboriginal history and I became quite paralysed about what sort of research I should do," Haskins recalls.
It was the chance discovery of a photograph showing her grandmother as a child with an Aboriginal woman that was to provide both the subject and purpose for her thesis.
Haskins learned that her great grandmother had been an activist for Aboriginal rights in 1930s and was outspoken against the removal of Indigenous children. The woman in the photograph was one of several young Aboriginal women who had worked for the family as domestic servants, after being removed from their own families.
"I was leaning then towards writing about the history of relationships between white and Aboriginal women, so I decided to frame my PhD around my great-grandmother's life story and how the personal narrative of her relationships with the women who worked for her could help us understand Aboriginal Protection Board policy at the time," she says.
Haskins' PhD was completed in 1998 and was published in 2005 as the book One Bright Spot. In the course of her research she was intrigued to discover that putting young Aboriginal women into domestic service was a key government policy prior to World War II and resulted in many adolescent girls being taken away from their communities.
The thesis became the springboard for what has become a career focus on cross-cultural relationships, particularly between black and white women, and the curious link between enforced domestic service and government protection policies.
Now an Associate Professor and part of the Faculty of Education and Arts' renowned team of historians, Haskins is married to John Maynard, head of Newcastle's Wollotuka School of Aboriginal Studies, whom she met at a conference in Newcastle. Coincidentally, Maynard was in the process of writing a PhD based on his grandfather's life story so the pair established an immediate connection.
Haskins transferred from Flinders University to Newcastle in 2006 and was last year awarded an ARC Future Fellowship, a prestigious four-year research fellowship, which has allowed her to extend her research to encompass the experience of Native American women put into domestic service.
During a Fellowship at Harvard in 2005 she discovered records that pointed to similar policy priorities involving Native Americans in the USA. There, the domestic service culture was enshrined in a system known as "Outing", under which Native American girls and young women were sent to work with white households, ostensibly for the summer school holiday break. But such placements often became permanent, and in some regions, as in Australia, the control of Indigenous women's domestic labour became institutionalized.
Haskins hopes to shed some light on why this form of regulation and intervention was so important to governments of the time and how it has subsequently affected relations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in both countries.
"What I am interested in exploring is how and why did governments seek to control that aspect of Indigenous life, what the impact of that was, and what it tells us about those societies," she says.
Haskins also has other research projects underway, including a joint long-term study with her husband on relationships between white women and Aboriginal men.
Her discomfort about being a white researcher delving into Aboriginal history has eased over the years as she has come to see the stories she has uncovered as part of an important shared history.
"I strongly think this history is a white history, too," she says. "It is something that needs to be understood as part of the white experience and it needs to be something that non-Aboriginal people are accountable for."