Bruce Pascoe on Aboriginal culture and history
Speaker(s): Bruce Pascoe
Date recorded: 14 Nov 2017
Thank you very much. And I'd also like to acknowledge the Wurundjeri and Bunurong people and the land itself.
Getting away with murder. The Deputy Prime Minister of this country in the year 2017 said Aboriginal children should not be taught their own culture and language, because it would retard them. Her fellow ministers and advisors weighed in with the opinion that Aboriginal culture was flawed, because we hadn't invented the wheel, or done anything useful with the land. Some went so far as to say child abuse was one of our cultural traits.
There is nothing post-colonial about Australia. It still has a Raj mentality and a vindictive adherence to colonial myth. Our country has never really investigated the colonial legacy. Preferring to express horror at the inadequacy of the Indigenous population and the need to control the destiny and band-aid the wounds, and if a crisis in health and education is perceived, it is better to send in the army than teachers and doctors. Taking the land from people as the spoils of religious wars, made more efficient and lethal by the creation of great ships, allowed the Europeans to extend their influence to all continents. That the Chinese visited many of those continents before the Europeans but chose to socialise and trade with the inhabitants rather than murder them and steal from them, is another story and another psychology.
The European brain was so intrigued by its own superiority that it rendered every civilisation they encountered as savages. It didn't matter that the First Nation people of Vancouver built two-storey houses. Didn't matter that the First Nation people of the Pueblo had advanced cities. That the Aztec and Mayan were as wealthy as any other nation on earth. That the Australians invented bread and society. Yes, society. For the world's oldest town, and oldest by many thousands of years, is found in western New South Wales.
Of course, Australians refuse to visit the fount of civilisation, because it questions every myth we make about ourselves. For Christians to remain Christian and worthy of their religion, the people they kill must be asking for it, and the land they steal must be handed to them like a windfall apple.
But the Pope had a way of helping the Christian conscience sleep at night in dreams of civilised excellence. In 1493, Pope Alexander VI decreed a papal bull, called The Doctrine of Discovery. In response to the voyages of Columbus, the Pope decided the Church must explain and ratify the attacks on indigenous peoples and the theft of their lands.
The rationale goes like this: if a people do not recognise the name of Jesus Christ – and you'll be surprised how many people on different continents did not – then it was the duty of the Christian to take their land and bring them into the light. Most of those brought into the light had that light extinguished immediately, by Christian swords. Many Christians still yearn for the same solution, and so do many Muslims.
Christians had many bland formulae for explaining away the imperial deeds. The English artist Edward Hicks painted countless versions of the Kingdom of the Branch, where quaint scenes of lambs and lions lying down with each other – a trick incidentally, which has been very difficult to repeat – and then being led from the wilderness contain a small cameo in a dark corner of the painting.
There's the dark corner. I was familiar with the stupid kid lying down with the spotless leopard, and just accepted it as part of the smarmy kitsch of Christianity, until I peered into that dark corner and saw the fine print of the Christian promise.
In the version of that trope prepared for the Americans, the Puritan William Penn of Pennsylvania fame is talking to a group of First Nation Americans after the end of the Indian Wars. The Indians have lost everything but a bunch of feathers and are forced to treat with Penn from a position of hopeless disadvantage. They decide that if Penn walks from sunrise to sundown in a straight line, then that line should form the side of a square of land that Penn could call his own. Of course, the Penn family trained sprinters to race across the land, in relay, and thus ten-fold the area claimed. Ah, the Christian spirit. The Puritan genius.
The poverty of the European spirit and the devilry of its intelligence created a massively unequal world. And that inequality is blamed on indigenous peoples instead of the nature of the European mind. In Australia, that meant crushing the oldest civilisation on earth, and the creators of bread, language and democracy.
Almost no Australians know anything about the Aboriginal civilisation, because our educators – emboldened by historians, politicians and the clergy – have refused to mention it for 230 years.
Think for a moment about the extent of that fraud. Imagine the excellence of the advertising required to get our most intelligent people in 2017 to believe it. Imagine the organisation required in the publishing industry to fail to mention Aboriginal agriculture, science and diplomacy. Don't blame Pauline Hanson. Don't blame Geoff Blainey and Keith Windschuttle. Blame Manning Clark, Gough Whitlam and every editor of Meanjin and Overland, for they too were guilty of that omission.
What omission? Well, let's look at what the explorers reported of the Aboriginal agricultural economy, and see if you can remember any priest, parent or professor alluding to it.
Lieutenant Grey in his 1839 exploration of parts of Western Australia – so far unseen by Europeans – saw yam gardens over five kilometres wide and extending a distance past the horizon, further than he could see, simply because they had been so deeply tilled he could not walk across them. So Thomas Mitchell, in the country that is now the Queensland–New South Wales border area, rode through nine miles of stooked grain that his fellows describe as being like an English field of harvest. Isn't that word, stook, an interesting word when applied to what we thought we knew about Aboriginal history?
Isaac Beatty saw the hillsides of Melbourne with terraced in the process of yam production, and that the tilth of the soil was so light, you can run your fingers through it. Mitchell saw these yam fields stretching as far as he could see near Gariwerd in the Grampians. He extolled the beauty of these planes, assuming that God had made them so that he could discover them, not once thinking how peculiar it was for the best soil in the country to have almost no trees. This was a managed field of harvest. George Augustus Robinson saw women stretched across the same fields of horticulture in the process of harvesting the tubers.
Charles Sturt had his life saved in Central Australia when he came upon people who were harvesting a river valley and supplied him with water from their well, roast duck and cake. Both Mitchell and Sturt described the baked goods as the lightest and sweetest they had ever tasted. How many historians have read those comments? And yet not one has considered that it would be in the nation's commercial and culinary interests to find out the particular grasses from which those flours were made. How many thought that it would be interesting for our children to learn at school?
Ian Kerr noticed that. As he brought the first vehicle into the plains south of the Echuca, his cartwheels turned up bushels of tubers. Once again, some of Australia's best soils were almost bereft of trees. The plains having been horticulturally altered to provide permanent harvests of tubers. Unlike Mitchell's self-indulgent congratulations, Kerr was aware who had produced this productivity and later recognised that it was his sheep that destroyed it.
James Kirby is one of the first two Europeans in the country of the Wadi Wadi, near Swan Hill. They pass gigantic mounds of bullrushes, cumbungi, stacked up and steaming, and wonder about the vast enterprise but never think about the productivity of that plant. Aboriginal people were harvesting the base of the stem as a delicious salad vegetable and making mounds of the leaves to process starch. Just one more source of baking flour. Kirby notices a man fishing on a weir his fellows had built across the river. Well, Kirby assumes, with great reluctance, that blacks had built it, but only because he knows he's the first white man to see them.
The construction of the dam included small apertures at the bottom so that water and fish movements could be controlled. Kirby describes the operation: 'A black would sit near the opening, and just behind him, a rough stick about ten feet long was stuck in the ground with the thick end down. To the thin end of this rod was attached a line with a noose at the other end, a wooden peg was fixed under the water at the opening to the fence, to which this noose was caught. And when the fish made a dart to go through the opening, he was caught by the gills. His force undid the loop from the peg, and the spring of the stick threw the fish over the head of the black, who will then, in a most lazy manner, reach back his hand, undo the fish and set the loop again around the peg.'
The man refuses to look at Kirby even though he knows Kirby is watching. Already, the Wadi Wadi have decided correspondence with Europeans is not to their advantage. But this man can't hide his pride in the technique. You could say his manner was insouciant.
But how does Kirby explain the operation? He writes, 'I have often heard of the indolence of the blacks and soon came to the conclusion, after watching a black fellow fish in such a lazy way, that what I had heard was perfectly true.' So weirs and constructions, machinery and productivity, all rendered by Kirby as laziness. Wasn't he describing an operation, which would fit neatly into any description of European inventiveness and industry?
Now for reasons, which are almost impossible to explain, I have found myself at the meetings of two different universities in the last month, where staff were asked to beam with excitement because their university had been rated 23rd and 17th in the world, for a particular area of scholastic endeavour. The first ten horses at the Melbourne Cup win something. I think the 10th horse gets a biscuit of hay, and the jockey, a wallop that Uncle Alec knocked back last Christmas. And I've seen under-age soccer teams where every child got a trophy, but 23rd and 17th? Isn't that a bit like every toddler gets a Kinder Surprise?
We seem desperate for the world to acknowledge our excellence but unable to investigate our own history. We have had 230 years of scholarship in Australia from over 25 universities but not one of them has wondered about the Aboriginal domestication of plants and the vast fields of agriculture witnessed by the explorers, the so-called unchallengeable founts of knowledge of Australian history. We stab out our eyes rather than regard Aboriginal achievement in this country. Our best citizens go to extraordinary, noble and understandable lengths to protect the innocent refugees from war. But we still allow First Australians to have their money quarantined for crimes they have yet to commit.
The reason for the national antipathy to racial politics in this country stems, I believe, from the national ignorance of Aboriginal culture and economy. And that ignorance has to be laid, in part, at the feet of our learning institutions. A legion of professors and doctors at our universities decided it would be unnecessary for our golden youth to know what the explorers witnessed of Aboriginal excellence.
Today, we wring our hands because the Darling River stops flowing in January. We seemed bemused when the over-ploughed soils of the Wimmera blew about our heads in Melbourne in the '60s, '70s and '80s. We wonder why we cannot get a second yield of hardwood blue gum from the forests of Tasmania, Western Australia and Victoria. So in apparent wrath at the vagaries of nature, we poison that weedling second crop. We have ruined the soil, but we'll blame Greenies for crop failure and unemployment, rather than blame the poor science on the massive and soil-destroying machinery.
But like the baker's blinkered horse, we cannot look behind. We cannot admit that First Nation land management – and when I say First Nation I'm not talking about Pauline –First Nation land management, finely tuned over 100,000 years, might have the ability to clear the fog from our brain. Even today, our agricultural scientists seem to be surprised when the Aboriginal domesticates thrive in the soils and climate to which they were born.
Oh, we love to talk about bush tomato, lemon myrtle and wattleseed, because they fit our venal understanding of hunting and gathering. But when asked to consider the virtues of agricultural products grown on fields so wide the explorers could see neither their beginning nor their end, we become flummoxed and querulous. These crops are perennial. They were staples of Aboriginal diet and economy. The word staple suggests permanence and utility, and both the latter two words were the sole basis for the application of terra nullius.
I don't mean to berate, but the hour is late. Aboriginal health and education continues to fall far below the national average, and the incarceration rate of Aboriginal Australians should be the shame of the nation, instead of a prickly nuisance. Australia seems to wash its hands of this state of affairs, never seeming to wonder how dispossession and the failure of the nation to believe our pre-colonial and post-colonial histories works on the psyche of both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people.
If we are to make a nation rather than a mere economy, we have to absorb the history. We don't need to worry about how Aboriginal people got here, because archaeology seems to be proving Aboriginal opinion. That we've always been here. We have to worry about how the rest of us got here and who to thank.
Australia is a drying continent. World and national inaction on the human contribution to climate change is leading to a situation where we will soon be growing mangoes in Canberra. Aboriginal domesticates do not require any more moisture than the Australian climate provides. No more fertiliser than our soils already contain, and as they are adapted to Australian pests, they need no pesticide. These plants are an environmental boon to the nation. Apart from the fact that, as they're all perennial, with the large root masses of plants adapted to dry conditions, they sequester carbon. If we only dedicated 5% of our current agricultural lands to these plants, we would go a long way to meeting our carbon emission reduction targets. And you have to believe me in my maths there, because I failed Form 3 Arithmetic at Fawkner High School. My father thought that was a good qualification for me to study accountancy.
These are achievements and opportunities. And the biggest opportunity is the chance to begin a conversation with Aboriginal Australia about the real politic of our history. Forget the gnashing of teeth and the gushes of tears for this state of affairs. Let's get down to tin tacks.
We can and will provide employment for remote Aboriginal communities. We can and will provide health and education professionals. We can and will enjoy the improvement in national well-being, and we will do it as a public, because the political system is failing us. We know politicians will refuse to consider anything which challenges their control. Parliamentary vision is dead. When any prime minister wrings his hands and sheds tears of remorse, you know at the first drop of moisture that he intends to do nothing.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people meet at Uluru. And despite the diversity of opinion, the frustration, the old enmities, they thrash out a statement so modest, so considerate of reality, that many Indigenous people are appalled that something so vague and general can be the product of such long consideration. And yet, the prime minister dismisses it out of hand, as being too ambitious.
Australians will have to make the hard yards themselves. A parliament of barristers and lawyers can draft legislation, they just can't imagine what has to be drafted. We might allow the politicians to think our plan is their own idea. Sometimes it's the only way to get them to concentrate. But we have to formulate that idea, and it has to be done after long consultation with Aboriginal Australia. Real talk. Equal talk. Not reconciliation, or recognise, or close the gap formulated on the assumption of our inadequacy. But a true conversation about what was lost, and what was gained, and how that has forged the national schizophrenic psychology.
We have to read Sturt, Mitchell, Warburton, Giles and Gregory. And we have to try to quell the triumphal urge while we read. We have to try and read beyond the daring and hardship of the explorers and the vast riches they discovered. We have to read for the cultural economy of Aboriginal Australia, which they've witnessed and described and which is housed in this building. We also have to restore the sections in Lieutenant Grey's journal where he speaks about Aboriginal housing, irrigation, agriculture and road making. Because when the journal was edited and published, those were the only items left out.
Maybe that's a job for a university that doesn't want to be satisfied with a Kinder Surprise for being 27th best in the world at something. Maybe there's a university that wants to investigate the root of the oldest civilisation on earth. The civilisation that invented bread, society, language and the ability to leave us 350 neighbouring nations without land war. Not without rancour, for that is the human condition. But without a lust for land and power. Without religious war, without slaves, without poverty, but with a profound responsibility for the health of Mother Earth for over 120,000 years. This is not a noble savage sentiment. It is the iron-clad rigour from reading the true history of the country. I think Australia is capable of this rigour. I think we must absorb the pain and weariness such rigour will demand of us. Temper democratic, bias, Australian.
This man is Mannalargenna. Eighty per cent of Tasmanian Aboriginal people today are related to that man. Simply because he was virtually the last man. His hairstyle has been created by using pelletised clay in the locks of his hair. After George Augustus Robinson, the missionary who was paid to collect Aboriginal people and send them to the islands of Bass Strait, Mannalargenna felt that he had betrayed his people, or at least let down his people. So as the bough of that ship with George Augustus Robinson at the helm ground into the sand of the beach of Green Island, Mannalargenna cut every lock of his hair and threw it into the sea. A more profound statement of disillusionment, of devastation and disappointment has hardly been made in the world's history.
This stone was found by a young Aboriginal Wiradjuri man in the Australian Museum. There wasn't just one of them, there were thousands of them. Thousands of those stones. The stone is that big [indicates size with open arms]. It's too heavy to use above your waist. It was attached to a right-angled handle. The leading edge had only ever been used in the soil. Only one of the stones in the museum was labelled. This one is called a bogan pick. It is a plough. it is a land-turning tool used by Aboriginal people. There are thousands of them that have never been described in any academic text other than what the explorers described.
Here's an opportunity. We can't look at this and be devastated by its absence in our scholarship, because here is the opportunity for young scholars and old to examine these things. To dispel the myth that we've allowed to cloud our eyes.
After Jonathan Jones, who found that first stone, told me about it – sent me that photograph – that photograph, which should change the mind of Australia about its own history and change our relationship with Aboriginal people, forever. I was in Daylesford talking to some permaculture people and I happened to be able to get to the museum, and I found a glass cabinet with eight or nine of these stones in it. And they were called 'unusual stone'.
Once again, the leading edge has never been used on stone or wood, only ever in soil. And they truly are unusual stones, because they are Aboriginal earth-turning tools. None of your children, or grandchildren, or yourselves have ever heard of these things. And we pride ourselves on coming 27th in the world for something, and now is our opportunity to become first in the world at discovering our history and being honest about it. It's not going to be easy. It's going to be unpleasant. There's a lot of grievance to be held and expressed, but we have to be up for it. We have to be patient. We have to be brave, and we have to see it through. Because otherwise, our history is deluding us. We are deluding ourselves about how come we live in this wonderful land. This beautiful land we call Australia, and look what we've done.
Norman Tindale was laughed out of the country for describing Aboriginal grain areas. And yet, when we look at this map that was produced recently of his findings where Aboriginal people had been harvesting grain over thousands of hectares, and the dotted line, which also encapsulates the grey areas, is the Aboriginal field of harvest. It goes right through the centre of the country. The current Australian wheat belt is the grey area. Aboriginal people were harvesting most of Australia. We now know that that line should extend right through here. [Indicates] So roughly half of Australia was under crop to Aboriginal people.
We did a harvest last summer at Mallacoota, at the airport because it's one of the last surviving pure crops of kangaroo grass that we could access. I've got to thank the East Gippsland Shire for allowing us to do that. I can't thank them for the boat ramp that has been built in a bay where it should never have been built. But they did let me harvest the land. We ground the grain into flour, and this [Shows slide] was taken at Lake Mungo. And this coming weekend, Mungo Man will be returned there.
I could talk for hours about how come Lady Mungo and Mungo Man were taken out of the sand where they were buried, traditionally, ritually. The first ritual burials in the world. And why one of Australia's academics put Mungo Lady in a suitcase and brought her to Melbourne. And how the people had to wait 40 years to get her back. To rebury their great-great-grandmother.
But we did get back. And those old girls, those people who work so stoically, so bravely to get their relations back, also wanted to get their food back. So they made the students go and harvest the grain, Panicum decompositum. And that Panicum decompositum grows in the sand of Lake Mungo. It only needs one watering from one rainfall, and it will produce grain that you can turn into flour and bake bread. [Shows slide] There's the bread. There's the loaves as they came out of that oven. You could smell them from 300 metres away.
I really hope that the cooks of Australia, the households of Australia, will want to bake this bread in the future, because your kitchen will smell beautiful for three days afterwards. It is a beautiful product, and we're only now starting to think about it.
Proud of that photo. That's my son and daughter at that harvest. My son said about my daughter, you only turn up for the photograph. We've been working for three days out here – ignoring the fact that my daughter's got three kids and has no time to herself at all.
I talk about Aboriginal culture and history. This is a whale. That's a stone whale, or a real whale. It doesn't matter which. And it's a story of how Aboriginal people survived the rising of the seas and how the whale told them how to move away from the ocean as it rose, but also warn the people that they would then enter the areas of their cousins and that they would have to negotiate the new occupation of that land with their cousins. And they would have to do it with peace. Probably the only time, in the world's history, that a people have moved onto other people's lands and not fought for it. This is our country. This is our history, and this is what we have to know about ourselves.
That's the kangaroo grass. And this very ugly photograph is of a grinding dish, which is 35,000 years old. This was used to grind grain into flour for the first time on earth, so I thought. And that's 17,000 years before the Egyptians thought of the same thing. They were too busy building pyramids at the time to think about bread. But I thought that was the correct date until in Arnhem Land last year, or the start of this year, a stone was found 65,000 years old. At Warrnambool, the midden site has now been aged at 80,000 years. Lake George in Canberra is showing signs of 125,000 years of Aboriginal occupation, which is 50,000 years before the Out of Africa Theory. There's a fair bit to do in the scholarship of Australia before we understand our real history of this continent.
This woman was working at the museum. She comes from Cuddie Springs, where the stone was found. She's Kamilaroi. She has her left hand beside a stone, which could easily have been used by her great-grandmother's people. Because even though that stone was so old, there were other stones with it, which are of more recent age. She is standing beside a piece of palpable Australian history, which is only now being investigated.
There were more stones in that village. Bill Gammage, who wrote that great book, The Biggest Estate on Earth, sent me this photo of a painting, because it shows murnong. The painting is actually called The Coming of Cattle to Cambatong Country, five years after Batman and Fawkner came to this town. So what those cattle have done, is they've eaten their way through the Aboriginal crop.
This is murnong. It comes out of the garden at Mallacoota where I've been growing murnong now for five years. A bush rat ate that murrnong and it had to walk past strawberries to do so. That is an indication of how beautiful this plant is and how Australian gardeners will love growing them.
Now someone in here knows Beth Gott. That's her on the left. And Beth Gott wrote the only paper about murrnong, and without it we would know nothing about the plant. Nothing. Beth Gott, 96 years old, still walks to work every day. And that woman virtually had to work alone. Had to challenge every male academic in her faculty over the years. And she did so for the sake of her country.
That's my son's plantation of murnong. This is microgera scapagera, a slightly different version. Still beautiful. When that field was produced, it was probably the biggest in Australia. So I'm doubly proud of that boy.
Those are the Brewarrina fish traps, arguably the oldest human construction on earth. Of course, no one ever goes there. No Australian. Million and a half Chinese people go and visit Lake Tyrrell in Victoria. No Australian goes there. The Chinese are interested in Aboriginal knowledge of the night sky. We almost seem to refuse to have anything to do with Aboriginal people in this country. And I can say we, because a fair portion of my blood is Cornish. Every time I speak about these things, I have to recognise the fact that my own family is conflicted. All of our families are conflicted. But there is something we can do about it. Because we have brains and we have hearts.
This is a fishing machine from Cape York peninsula. It's a photograph, so it's recent. Donald Thompson from Melbourne University took that photograph. A great Australian. It should be in every textbook in Australia, because that river had to be dammed to produce that system, because every fish in the river that wants to come downstream has to go through one of those two apertures. The whole thing is built on stumps. It's a piece of architecture. It's a piece of engineering. It's a piece of industry. And it's a perpetual fishing machine. And it can be closed off so that the fish just go on their merry way, and it can be opened again to operate it. It's a piece of wizardry. And no Australian student has ever seen that photograph in a textbook.
These are Aboriginal houses. Cape York. These houses could hold 25, 30 people. The ones in western Victoria, some of them could hold 52. And we know that as a fact, because one of the settlers who was negotiating to take the land from those people went into one of those houses for that negotiation, and there were 52 Aboriginal men already in there. There would have been 52 Aboriginal women, except they didn't want to meet him.
This is a fascinating photograph. These are widows caps. They're made out of gypsum. The same man I talked about before, Jonathan Jones, has found Aboriginal pottery in the South Australian museum at Adelaide. Pottery. Never been exhibited. Aboriginal pottery.
What are we doing with our time in this country? All this knowledge yet to be found, and we leave one of the great indicators of civilisation, according to European people. Europeans decide on what they think is civilisation and then describe the lack of it in other people, and one of those lacks for Aboriginal people was pottery. And these are examples of Aboriginal pottery. And I thought they were the only examples. Adelaide Museum is full of them, and we know nothing about it.
More examples of the beauty and serenity that Charles Sturt and Mitchell described of Aboriginal cemeteries.
Aboriginal houses in the Western District of Victoria. More houses appropriate to their location and the climate. More houses.
This one's interesting. Look at the scale. Big house, open at one end. Have a look at that opening. How is that supported? That is supported by a beam. It's a piece of architecture and has never been commented on. As far as I know, by Australian academics.
That's the bread that we made last summer from kangaroo grass. That's a chook. And that's a book.
So, thank you. Sorry to be so miserable, but that's our story. That's the Australian story. Thank you.
'Almost no Australians know anything about Aboriginal civilisation because our educators, emboldened by historians, politicians and the clergy, have refused to mention it for 230 years.'
– Bruce Pascoe
About this video
Listen to award-winning writer, editor and anthologist Bruce Pascoe, as he delivers the 2017 Stephen Murray-Smith Memorial Lecture.
In his thought-provoking and impassioned talk, Bruce calls for a reappraisal and re-examination of Aboriginal history and culture, misinterpreted and ignored since colonial times.
He argues that for hundreds of years there has been a failure to inform Australians of the success and achievements of Aboriginal culture, from land management practices to agriculture, irrigation and the construction of houses.
Evidence of millennia of agriculture and settlement was erased from reports penned by early explorers – the fields of cultivated grain, yam harvesting, fishing weirs, irrigation and homes of a society that has been proven to pre-date the 'out of Africa' theory.
Rather than perpetuating colonial-era myths, Bruce calls on today's scholars to bring to light the true story of the world's oldest civilisation, which not only invented bread and roads but also social settlements.
About the Stephen Murray-Smith Lecture
This annual memorial lecture commemorates the contribution to Australian intellectual life made by Stephen Murray-Smith, founding editor of Overland magazine. The lecture promotes research and debate in the broad areas of Stephen's interest and influence.
Bruce Pascoe, of Bunurong, Yuin and Tasmanian heritage, was awarded the New South Wales Premier's Book of the Year in 2016 for Dark emu, which argues for a reconsideration of the 'hunter-gatherer' tag for pre-colonial Aboriginal Australians, and attempts to rebut the colonial myths that have worked to justify dispossession.