Bruce Pascoe is a man of many talents. His varied career has spanned teaching, farming, bar-tending, working on an archaeological site, lecturing, researching Aboriginal languages as well as writing.
His thirteenth and most recent book Dark Emu: Black Seeds – Agriculture or Accident? explores the writings and paintings of early colonialists in order to deconstruct over-simplified portrayals of Indigenous life and to examine the agricultural and scientific discoveries of our ancestors - who were far from simply hunter-gatherers.
First of all congratulations, not only did you win the Premier’s Award, but you also shared the new Indigenous Writer’s Prize. What do you think of the growing recognition of the work of Indigenous authors?
I think it’s going to be great for Australia. Aboriginal people have always had a story to tell and have always been storytellers and artists and singers and dancers and we’ve just brought this into the general Australian culture and non-Aboriginal Australians enjoy it and are starting to embrace it. I’m hoping that this is the start of a better conversation.
What does it say about colonialism in Australia that a people's innovations and agricultural methods were destroyed and never spoken of again?
Well it means people were trying to deny Aboriginal agency in the landscape, probably trying to deny Aboriginal possession of the soil, probably trying to deny that Aboriginal people were intelligent enough to produce these systems and that would all be to do with trying to steal the land in the first place.
What were some of the key agricultural methods that you found in your research?
Well I relied on the explorers because I realised, having been trying to get Australia to engage in this debate for a little while, that the only people they really respected where the explorers. So I just used the explorers’ journals alone and their records are evidence enough.
Thomas Mitchell rode through nine miles of stooped grain, so people had a crop that they were harvesting, stooping the grain so that it would ripen before they began to prepare it for grinding into flour. On the other side of Australia, Lieutenant Grey had come across yam pastures that went to the horizon they were that big. Aquaculture was everywhere right around the coast and up the rivers.
At Brewarrina there was one of the biggest aquaculture systems in the world and some scientists are saying it’s the oldest human construction on earth.
This is an incredible devotion of labour and tells us a bit about the methods that Aboriginal people were using. We saw that in other parts of the country that explorers saw Aboriginal people irrigating their crops and they were never credited with having done that before. But our old people were very wise and very gentle with the land and much more accomplished at providing food for themselves and their families than some of our legislators have given us credit for.
Why is it important for 'mainstream' Australia to actively learn about this history and it be integrated into the curriculum?
Well I think it’s very important for a people living in a county to know its history. I think it’s very important for people to know world history and I think it would be very important for Australian students to learn the incredible social order that had been created. The ecological rules alone would make sure people got the water they needed, the food they needed but if we also brought in the law then people would hopefully stop killing each other too.
It will make such a difference to the country when we can have a conversation when each of us understands the same history.
It doesn’t mean we stop playing NRL or stop playing cricket it just adds a real depth and a real age to the culture. Most world cultures don’t last for two thousand years and here we are with a culture that is at least 60,000 years old.
What conversations do you hope your book contributes to within Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities?
I hope that it makes our young people proud. Aboriginal people so proud of their culture that they want to be part of it, so proud of what those old wizards created on this country that we want to be a part of it too. I think that’s a great ambition for our people, we had it once and its still part of our core belief. We need our young people to take our culture seriously and be proud and not believe what has been taught in schools… that Aboriginal people were hopeless, all of that kind of nonsense. We need to realise that that wasn’t the case and stand up and be proud of our culture. It’s the best in the world.