It was a big night for Bunurong author, Uncle Bruce Pascoe on Friday. The Dark Emu (a critically acclaimed non-fiction work about Indigenous agriculture) novelist went home with the prestigious Person of the Year award at the National Dreamtime Awards— and did so wearing his first owned suit.
"I have gone out my way for you mob. I've never owned a suit," Uncle Bruce said as he accepted his award. The audience laughed and cheered in response.
Despite writing an award-winning novel, an industry which offers countless of exclusive and formal event invitations, Uncle Bruce tends to stick to his casual, somewhat scruffy, look. He may be one of the biggest names in Australian literacy, but, after all, he is not only a product of Australia's counter-culture movement, but he's also a man who spends his days fishing and farming in country Victoria. Bruce Pascoe does corporate like the Real Housewives do joggers and sweatpants.
"I can’t wear ties," he told NITV. "I just feel like I’m being choked and enough of our people have had that experience, so I’m not going to be the next."
Bruce received an invitation to the National Dreamtime Awards, unaware that he would be receiving the evening's top award. Instead, he told just one thing.
"I was told that it was formal, so I thought, aw, I’d better get organised," he told NITV.
"I was in Melbourne with my daughter and I said, 'can you help me with this problem that I’ve got'. And she was aghast because she’d never seen me in a jacket.
"So it was a serious problem and we took it seriously. So there’s a Salvos in Collingwood and we rocked along there and tried on a few jackets— I did, she didn’t —and um, we got vest and a jacket and a shirt and the jackets were so cheap, I bought two," he chuckled.
"I’ve got a beard and I’ve been mistaken for a homeless person before, I think everyone just thought I was off the street gammin a room."
Bruce shares his humility in buying clothes and dressing up,
"I checked into the hotel and I had all these clothes in my arms and I was juggling all these bags," he told NITV.
"And I was checkin’ in and all these people were lookin’ at me and I realised I had all these Salvos tickets hanging off them as well, you see. And I’ve got a beard and I’ve been mistaken for a homeless person before, I think everyone just thought I was off the street gammin a room," he laughed.
So how has Uncle Bruce lived 70-odd years and gotten away without owning a suit?
"Well refusal is one of the things that always works," he joked.
"When I was a school teacher and I had a really good boss (Basil Moss, now passed) and he said to me, 'Mate, I’m under pressure'.
It was the 1970s, so he was under a lot of pressure from the school council that all these young new teachers weren’t wearing ties, and he said, ‘it would help me a lot if you’d wear a tie. And if you wear a tie, you can have anything you want for your department'.
It was the 1970s, so he was under a lot of pressure from the school council that all these young fellas [new teachers] weren’t wearing ties, and he said, ‘it would help me a lot if you’d wear a tie. And if you wear a tie, you can have anything you want for your department'.
"So it was a pretty good deal. So I did buy a tie— I’ve still got it, but I haven’t worn it since," he said.
Bruce's department, drama and English were rewarded with a video camera. Bruce reflects on the joy of teaching under Mr Moss.
"So we had all these Koori kids and there were Greeks and Slavs and people from South America," he said.
"It was Northern suburbs of Melbourne and all the poor kids went to the same school and we just had a ball and I think about it a lot. We had such good fun.
I just think nowadays it would be so hard to do what we did, because we were filming in the suburbs and going to kids homes. The paperwork you’d have to do now would just kill you and we just got away with murder in those days.
"It [Mr Moss' passing] was really like losing a father. I really looked up to him. He taught me a lot about teaching and he taught me a lot about people and he taught me a lot about honesty."
Uncle Bruce took his daughter, Marnie as his plus one to the high profile Dreamtime Awards. He says events like these not only are an opportunity for him, but for his family also.
"She [daughter, Marnie] lives in Melbourne and I live on the Wallagaraugh, so we’re 7 hours apart.
"I took her to see Dark Emu at the Opera House with Bangarra. And we had a fabulous night there. I had my granddaughter there with me as well who likes dancing, so I was always determined that she would be there, if that’s the way she goes with her life, that she might remember that occasion, meeting Stephen Page and all the dancers.
"Just being the company of my daughter is wonderful," he said.
While the National Dreamtime Awards could be classed as any other big affair, with its music performances, awards ceremony, red carpet and fancy dress code, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander event specifically recognises the work and talent of Indigenous Australians.
"I was thinking about all the Elders from the past who go no recognition, no recognition at all," Bruce says.
"You know, people leading up to the Referendum who worked their guts out for that on behalf of our people, probably for no pay at all and probably got pilloried in the press. They did all that on behalf of our people for nothing.
"In the 30s and 40s when life was really hard, there were people who were working on behalf of our people to get better health and education. In the 1880s, there were people desperately trying to save the lives of our people. And in the 1780s, once again, our people were going to war for the land.
"I think of all those people who got nothing, no public recognition, apart from jail, so it's important to recognise the people who are doing these jobs today. But circumstances are much better now than they were then. And in my opinion, these awards are to remember those who got none."
NITV's coverage of the National Dreamtime Awards can be viewed via. Facebook.