Bruce Pascoe reveals his plight to re-learn his ancestral history and in turn, sow a fresh understanding of this continent's pre-colonial narrative.
Jennifer Scherer, Rachael Hocking

23 Jun 2019 - 12:19 PM  UPDATED 23 Jun 2019 - 12:19 PM

On his farm in Yuin Country, Bruce Pascoe tends to his freshly planted crop.

He is nurturing a harvest of Aboriginal plant species; “Kangaroo grass, panicum (native millet), weeping grass, murnong (yam daisy) and the lilies.”

The Yuin, Bunurong and Tasmanian man says Australia could learn a lot from using perennial plants.

“You’re not ploughing, you’re not using diesel, you’re not using chemicals or poisons of any kind [because] they’re Australian plants … they like the amount of rain they get here, because this is where they were born, they don’t need any fertiliser [and] they don’t need any pesticides because the insects in Australia are their mates,” Mr Pascoe told NITV News.

"If we started using Aboriginal agricultural know-how, it would go a long way to securing the environmental future of this country, that’s for sure.

“But the hardest thing for Australia to do, because we’ve failed at it dismally for 230 years, is making sure that Aboriginal people are included in the bounty of the country, the bounty that Aboriginal people actually produced by the way we managed the landscape.”

Mr Pascoe is passionate about the continent's deeply-rooted agricultural history prior to colonisation.

But the former teacher and best-selling author of Dark Emu, revealed to NITV News that there was a time he too was sold a lie about his own history.

“I was working with old aunty Aunty Zelda who I’d done a lot of work with before on language and she was a basket weaver,” Mr Pascoe said

“I didn’t have a car and she did, so we travelled a lot together and she was very friendly toward me.

“I think it might have been around the time of Bob Hawke talking about a Treaty and I must have expressed an opinion about there never having been a war in Australia … her whole demeanour changed, and she just asked me: ‘Do you really believe that?’

“I was shocked by the tone of her voice - from that point on I really had to learn my whole history again and I was just so grateful for her patience too - that she didn’t cut me adrift.”

At the time, a young man with a university degree, Mr Pascoe attributes a false narrative taught through the education system that caused the gap in knowledge.

“I suppose when I started talking to my Uncle and some Elders, they were telling me a version of history that I couldn’t believe,” Mr Pascoe told NITV News.

“It took me a little while of double checking in libraries and things like that, to my shame, before I realised they were telling me the truth and my whole schooling had been telling me a lie.”

“The process was just bloody embarrassing … it was shockingly shameful and hurtful and I’m just glad that those people had the patience to stick with me because I knew nothing.”

Delving into a pre-colonial past                                                                                          

With his curiosity providing the motivation to research pre-colonial history, Mr Pascoe was “shocked about how much information there was and how easy it was to get.”

“In most cases, you just walk up to a shelf- ‘A’ for Aboriginal and there it was.

“Thousands of people had read it, thousands of educators had read it, but they were reading it with a certain perspective in mind and it’s just shocking to think how prejudice let alone racism can bend your mind.”

Despite being kicked out of libraries and historical societies for his efforts to unearth truth, Mr Pascoe used the retaliation to spur him on.

A self-described "bookish sort of kid," he couldn't believe how much information was being swept under the rug.

“I had moments of anger, frustration and juvenile rage but the Elders would just shake their head at me and say, ‘no use getting upset son, we’ve got to get even.’

“And they’re quite right … you’ve just got to do the hard work.

"Anger’s easy: you can get angry you can blow your top, shout and scream and then it’s over ... what’s more important is slow, steady purposeful work."

This dedication to research led to the creation of Mr Pascoe's best-selling book ‘Dark Emu’ which offers a staunch rebuttal to colonial myths.

Dark Emu debunks the colonial hunter-gatherer narrative of Aboriginal people, instead revealing complex and ancient agricultural technologies used to farm and manage the land. 

“Australia’s reception of the book and the ideas has been incredibly enthusiastic,” Mr Pascoe told NITV News.

“But so many people say I want my 8-year-old kid to know this – what can I do?

“So, from a very early stage, I was always going to write the [companion version]; Young Dark Emu."

In picture book form, Young Dark Emu unravels the ancient agricultural use of Country by First Nations People for children.

“The fact that we [have] a kids version, [we] are talking about a film version – it is an indication that Australia really wants to change its mind,” Mr Pascoe said.

“Australia wants to learn its history and I can’t think of a point in my life when I could have said that, before now.”

Giving back to Country

Motoring through the fields on his red tractor, Mr Pascoe is on a mission.

He’s restoring old fences on the property to protect his seedlings and “keep the angry wombat out, keep the bowerbird out, keep the wattle birds out.”

“We are surrounded by wild Australia out here, everything wants to eat everything else.”

But Mr Pascoe says it is time to repair a more fractured relationship.

"Australia should say to itself: we can go into space and reclaim an old space ship, so how can’t we make sure that Aboriginal people are employed, how can we fail to educate Aboriginal kids, how can we fail to make sure their health is equal to the rest of Australia?" Mr Pascoe said.

“We don’t have to lose the Hills Hoist, we don’t have to worry about our barbecues, we don’t have to worry about private property.

“What we do have to do is make sure Aboriginal people are included in the health and bounty of the country … it should be an afternoon’s work."

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