I started school at a place called Batchelor near a uranium mine called Rum Jungle in the Northern Territory of Australia. I went off to school each morning with an Aboriginal boy called Johnny who had feet that were so wide they didn’t fit into shoes.
And maybe he didn’t wear shoes because he wanted to feel the ground that he walked upon.
There is a book by Richard Trudgen Why Warriors Lie Down and Die that explains a lot about the people of East Arnhem land, not far from where I grew-up. It also explains, repeatedly through the book, that these Yolngu people have trouble understanding our world. They feel there is something they don’t quite understand. For them it is as though we (Balanda/whitefellas) are keeping something from them – not telling them everything.
That is how I often feel about the world. That when it comes to how our society is organised, and how decisions are made, a lot is opaque. So much doesn’t make any sense.
I often write things out, to try and understand.
I was never considered much good at English when I was at school, but I’ve persisted with the writing, and guess it is what I have become: a writer. I really value the people who read my articles, and especially those who subscribe at my blog for my monthly e-news updates.
I had a good number ‘unsubscribe’ after my last e-newsletter. The offending comment – from me – seems to have been:
I always think it good to keep an open mind about history. To understand context and all the available evidence before making a judgement. I am often dismayed by my countrymen. The vitriol with which Conservatives lampooned Bruce Pascoe’s book Dark Emu: so disappointing.
Some just hit the unsubscribe button at the end of the email. But others sent me comments. The comments tended to be along the lines:
Stick to your science please.
Though there is a recent comment at an unrelated blog post:
I love that you’re spreading your scientific wings Jennifer to provide us with information that is critical to our understanding of the global unrest and change.
When I pressed the point in my reply-emails to those who where ‘Gobsmacked’ at my comment; when I asked their specific objection to ‘Dark Emu’, it seemed to always come back to the authority of Andrew Bolt and questions of Bruce Pascoe’s aboriginality – which is arguably as much about history and culture as genetics, that is a science.
I’ve never done one of those ancestry DNA tests, but I’m guessing I have a Viking lineage.
Culturally though, I would arguably, be closer to the Australian Aboriginal. They say the first seven years of a person’s life are important in terms of their perspective and values.
The first seven years of my life were spent living in a mud-brick house in the hot and humid Northern Territory of Australia just up the hill from a billabong that is part of Coomalie Creek – just to the west of Kakadu National Park. Aborigines lived in a camp on the property and us kids swam in that one billabong, together. Me as white as a Norwegian and them as black as an Australian Aboriginal. We were stuck in the same place. That was the first seven years of my life. That was my reality. It was another thirty years before I saw snow.
I did not grow up with any of the experiences of people who lived in northern Europe, though that is probably my ancestry in terms of DNA. I don’t believe I could write anything useful about life where my ancestor came from – the cold northern latitudes – but because of my childhood experience, and then my academic studies and my later research – I do know something about the tropics, especially northern Australia.
My father went north, leaving Melbourne in the 1950s. He first had a job with CSIRO, in rice research at the Ord River in Western Australia. Then he worked for the Northern Territory government, running an experimental farm again growing rice. He employed an Aborigine as a tractor driver. As the story goes, he told the man that he would be paid properly for his work. But when the first pay day came around, he wasn’t. When my father enquired, he was told by the administration: because the tractor driver was a blackfella – he wasn’t entitled to full pay. He wasn’t entitled to be paid the same as the other tractor drivers. It didn’t matter that the blackfella worked harder or did a better job.
My late father fought the bureaucracy back then – for fairness for people who worked hard, irrespective of their colour. Then he left the government, and with my mother, took out two leases on land that was to be developed as a farm. He then fought the bureaucracy all over again. This time to be able to not clear the land of all its trees and sink unnecessary bores – while the bureaucrats insisted as part of the lease he ‘develop the water resource’. There were rules back then: if you had a lease you had to improve the land according to a set of instructions – it didn’t matter whether the instructions made sense financially or environmentally.
Eventually, on the day of my seventh birthday, my family left that property. We all piled into a Holden stationwagon and Dad drove south away from the rules governing the development of land in the Northern Territory. I remember the exact green colour of the car and how the billabong looked as we drove away; the water always so black from the tannins in the Melaleuca trees upstream. I remember that I had the top right bunk bed in the caravan we towed. My sleeping bag that was also green had a hood and a red tartan lining. My mother let me choose it from a mail order catalogue. It was incredibly exciting for me at the time, looking through that catalogue and deciding on which sleeping bag. Most everything else was left behind but I do remember taking, without permission, a poetry book and hiding it under the foam mattress on that top bunk. I still have that book with all the poems by C.J. Dennis. I would later take Readers Digests left lying around in the caravan parks we stayed at and hide them under that same mattress; back then the Readers Digest published poems and often they were by Clive James.
We left everything else, when we drove away. I did have a collection of pressed wildflowers in one of Dad’s technical books. They were left behind.
Wildflowers came up on the property after the burn-offs. The red earth would would be left with black charring, but from it would emerge the most delicate little flowers that were not there before. Dad would take me to inspect the areas that had been burnt, and I would keep an eye out for flowers.
And I’ve no idea where Johnny is now.
It is a fact that until very recently, having an Aboriginal ancestry was a major handicap. It you were ‘coloured’, it was something best hidden. Your aboriginally was best denied or hidden if you wanted to be treated with any dignity and to be paid a wage.
Women got the right to vote in Australia in 1902, it was another sixty years, not until 1962, that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders had the opportunity to vote in federal elections.
Apparently, the year before Bruce Pascoe published his book ‘Dark Emu’ he tried to establish his Aboriginality. But so far, he has been unsuccessful. I understand that being accepted often has less to do with your DNA or where you grew-up, but whether you are recognised by the group who now control such things.
I have never meet Bruce Pascoe. I enjoyed reading his book ‘Dark Emu’. I thought it an easy to read, touching on important topics and from an alternative perspective. I liked that he asked questions of the reader, provided some evidence, and covered a range of issues all on topics of great interest to me.
I have been meaning to ‘fact check’ some of his claims; but so far I have not put the time aside to do that. Many of Bruce Pascoe’s case studies were new to me, some I had previously read about in Bill Gammage’s much more technical tome, The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia. His general thesis accords with what I know from my research at the South Australian Museum back a decade ago into the Yaraldi of the lower Murray River, information in Richard Trudgen’s book, and others. There were communities, pre-European settlement, that actively managed the Australian landscape in ways that ensured protection from bushfires and so that different species of plant and animal had suitable habitat. These Aboriginal communities stored food, and passed on important knowledge across generations through songs and stories. This was a culture that cared deeply about land and water, which are the things that I have always cared most about. Bruce Pascoe captured some of this in a popular way in this book Dark Emu; that is my opinion. As regards his heritage and his Aboriginally, I find it hard to get too excited about this topic. It is of less interest to me than Prince Harry’s paternity. But I now realise it is of great interest to some of my readers.
According to an article in The Guardian from two years ago:
Pascoe identifies as of Tasmanian descent and Yuin by cultural law. Cashman, a member of the government’s senior advisory group on the co-design of an Indigenous voice to government, has previously questioned Pascoe’s Yuin ancestry on social media. She declined a request for an interview on Saturday but confirmed she had written to [Peter] Dutton.
The minister for Indigenous Australians, Ken Wyatt, rejected her call for an investigation into Pascoe. Through a spokesman, Wyatt said a member of the advisory committee should not have made a formal complaint about the writer’s Aboriginality.
“The minister does not believe this is appropriate,” a spokesman said.
Wyatt has previously said he does not support a register to assess Aboriginality. Last year, he defended Pascoe in an interview on Sky News, saying: “If Bruce tells me he’s Indigenous, then I know that he’s Indigenous.”
Pascoe has been fighting bushfires in east Gippsland and could not be reached on Saturday. His son, Jack Pascoe, said the fires had been burning on his father’s property, that many of the writer’s friends had lost their homes and one had been killed.
“Given the stress of the situation, our family is surprised by the timing of these allegations coming around again,” Jack Pascoe said.
“We stand by the identity of our family. The insinuation that my father has fabricated his heritage is hard to take because for him it’s an issue that has been part of the public discourse for 40 years.”
Jack Pascoe, who is the conservation and research manager at the Conservation Ecology Centre in Cape Otway, said the complaint seemed to be driven by the push by Cashman and others for registry of Aboriginality.
“I’d prefer to be talking about how our traditional ecological knowledge could help mitigate damage from bushfires and reduce risk to communities rather than be talking about these distractions,” he said.
Indigenous academic Marcia Langton, the co-chair of the advisory group, last year said on Twitter that Pascoe was collateral damage in a fight against the facts of Aboriginal history.
What I’m most interested in is Australia’s natural history and how it has been shaped through Aboriginal land management. But I’m also interested in which bits Bruce Pascoe got wrong in his book Dark Emu. I’m also interested to know what specifically he has got wrong about his identify and how this should be defined.
Bruce Pascoe has a new book out entitled Country – First Knowledges, written with Bill Gammage. I’m planning to review it in a future blog post, I haven’t finished reading it yet.
The image at the very top of this blogpost is an emu looking at the town of Denham in Shark bay Western Australia. I wonder what he/she sees. Shutterstock Item ID: 1551229643