feature | Bruce Pascoe

spring 2008
ISBN 978-0-9775171-9-0
published 31 August 2008


Bruce Pascoe on a way forward for Indigenous and white Australians

When Australians consider the Rorschach blot of our history, whites see a sheaf of wheat and a merino’s horns, and the blacks a severed hand.

We don’t see the same history so we can’t see eye to eye.

We all want resolution of dangerous threats to the health and welfare of Indigenous people, but when you approach the issue from such opposing views of history the results can only be superficial and temporary. We might improve the health and safety of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in some communities, but the conflicting views of the past condemn us to gulfs of incomprehension in the national relationship.

We must close the gap on health but also on how we see the ink blot of our history because otherwise most Australians believe they are doling out charity to a blighted minority and Indigenous Australians feel shut out of the national story.

If we assume explorers and anthropologists like Sir Thomas Mitchell, Charles Sturt, Edward Eyre, Ernest Giles, Alfred Howitt, George Robinson, Augustus Gregory, John McKinlay, Peter Warburton and others were not committing porkies in their diaries, then let us look at the blot from their witness.

If you saw people excavating earth to build a dam, tamping clay and ant bed into the base to make it waterproof, if you saw them plant seed saved from last year’s harvest and irrigate that planting from the dam or stream diversion or blocking off an entire stream to cause it to flood across the grain field, if you saw that grain field harvested and stooked, if you saw the green crop bundled behind brush fences and burnt so that dried grain fell into storage vessels, if you saw the grain ground on large mills, if you saw the excess stored in stone silos, skin bladders or mud and straw rendered vessels, if you saw people herding young waterfowl into a stockyard for fattening, if you saw engineers constructing thousands of kilometres of water races, tunnelling through rock, gauging the hydrology to within millimetres, if you saw permanent fishing weirs built so that the fences flattened with the incoming tide and could be erected on the outgoing to trap fish in storage ponds, if you saw a stone house with vegetables growing on the turf roof, if the door of that house had a message telling neighbours where the occupants had gone that day, if that house overlooked the landscape of weirs and tuber fields, if the oven outside that house had been swept in readiness for that night’s meal, if you saw that baskets inside the house were full of fruit or wrapped parcels of smoked fish and preserved plums, if you saw those things, what would you call those people?

There’s a view that white Australia inherited a savage land, a view that comes from the scrambled blot of history education most of us received in school.

Thomas Mitchell rode through miles of stooked grain; Sturt, Giles and Ashwin reported on the tons of stored seed; Winnecke, Smith, Gregory and others saw the irrigation; Robinson, Griffith and numerous squatters saw the stone houses; and many observed fish traps in operation right across the continent and its islands. That some of these people couldn’t believe their eyes and promptly forgot their witness to these things is exactly the kind of imperial blindness many resort to as a default vocabulary so that the words ‘primitive’ and ‘savage’ replace the evidence of agriculture.

Oh, I know many of you will hate that word applied to the activities reported by the explorers, I know most Australians are more relaxed about the term hunter-gatherer or nomad, but you can only maintain that belief if you think that Mitchell, Sturt, Giles and fellows lied.

Bill Gammage, Australian National University professor, says that many academics are nervous about using agricultural terms to describe Aboriginal plant husbandry: ‘Even when a cultivator’s word might be apt, most non-Aborigines are squeamish about using it.’

The fact that we’ve edited first-hand accounts of Aboriginal food harvests in our minds and declared them to be accidental collections or the work of hunter-gatherers might be a necessary function in the minds of Christians when they kill people to take their land, or it might be a simple misreading of the blot because you weren’t expecting to see any other image than your own crops and stock, the smoke from your own civilised chimney.

It doesn’t really matter which is the case because the fact that we have excised whole fields of knowledge from the consideration of our children means that black and white Australia now stand looking at each other in anxious bemusement across a canyon of incomprehension.

We can’t even use English in the same way. The invasion of the continent is more perfectly described as colonialism than imperialism, but today the word ‘colonial’ has been rendered as a description of rustics driving bullock wagons and stoic women lighting kerosene lamps. The menace of colonialism has been leached from the word as memory of how the land was conquered dribbles from our memory.

You say potato, I say yam daisy; you say wheat, I say panara, or Microlaena stipoides. We might go our separate ways and survive, struggle on in our suspicion of each other, except that it would be useful to know that most grains harvested by Aborigines were gluten-free and many were drought-resistant and flourished in sand. Norman Tindale’s map of the Indigenous grain belt shows it surrounding the central deserts of Australia, and three to four times as large as the current Australian wheat growing region. This knowledge might be as important to Australia’s balance of trade as coal and iron ore … but it would mean an uncomfortable reflection on Indigenous agricultural activities. Can we afford to look away for the sake of national pride?

One of the transformative acts of humankind is the production of more food than is required for the next meal. The stores of various grains that so astounded Giles and the smoking chambers and aquaculture systems of western Victoria and elsewhere indicate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people had transcended the food acquisition of the accidental collectors. That people in cooler climates also produced houses of stone and turf and wore tailored fur cloaks is another story not often told to Australians.

But those omissions pale in comparison to our failure to consider the political, social and spiritual governance of the country. We know that there were over 250 language boundaries in Australia and we know that they have existed within those lands for many thousands of years because the vocabulary of particular languages is distinguished by reference to geological and climatic events peculiar to their area. Particular languages refer to the rise and fall of sea levels, desertification, volcanic eruptions and changes in river courses.

The vocabularies, combined with the description of events encrypted in dance and story, tell us that most languages have been in place for aeons. The number of the languages alone suggests that waves of imperial assault were either uncommon or unknown.

Three of the preconditions for imperial invasion are surplus food, weapons and the ability to organise raids. We know people entered each other’s lands to exact punishment for social and spiritual transgressions and we know these could be violent attacks. We also know that few were killed in any one event. Large-scale killings appear to have resulted in the colonial era when clans were hunted into their neighbours’ territory.

On most occasions, however, raids were swift and the warriors returned to their own land, their country, the country to which they had pledged their duty of care and observance of ritual.

If the preconditions of imperial war existed, why did it not break out, especially during times when the relative resource and climatic fortunes favoured some groups over others?

Was the imperial impulse absent or managed?

If we believe primary colonial accounts, it seems that the ability to conduct territorial war existed but was somehow restrained. Try to imagine the intensity of the diplomatic process necessary to gain a pan-national territorial consensus over 250 nations. The delicacy, the tolerance must have been orchestrated by people steeped in a spiritual tradition. The song lines were cultural, social, economic and spiritual conduits which allowed clans to interact and negotiate political behaviour. I believe I witnessed this at Yirrkala during the 2003 Garma festival where non-Yolgnu participants were excluded from some aspects of the ceremony, while strategies were organised across Yolgnu dialects. Such strategies are still being mapped out at regional events across the country today. Last year all the peoples surrounding Mount Kosciuszko met on the mountain to strike a negotiating position before meeting with various parks management and other government authorities.

There was something going on in Australia pre-invasion, and it continues today, and it defies the default position of white Australians who believe this was a savage land.

You don’t have to believe that this was some Arcadia of the soul – in fact, it would be dangerous to do so because Indigenous Australians constantly exhibit their humanity to hate, love, quarrel, honour, cheat, harass, trust, manipulate and collude in exactly the same proportion as any group of humans. It is the management of human qualities which should arouse our interest, for where else on earth have such long-lived civilisations existed?

This is the discussion Australia should be having because within that discussion will be found all the elements of how we conduct ourselves as a nation into the future.

There is hardly an Australian who doesn’t want violence and harm contained, in the Aboriginal communities where it exists, just as we hope it can be eliminated in any Australian community. Most Australians believe the self-destructive behaviours can be managed by good health, good education and employment opportunities. No-one can seriously argue against the need for action in this area.

But the white view of the ink blot of Australian history has resulted in the idea that this was a savage land, and the conscious or unconscious belief that Indigenous Australians are a spiritually inferior race in need of welfare. If this is the myopia necessary for Christians to justify invasion, it is a crippling injury; if it is the result of a nation’s failure to review its past, then it’s a failure of scholarship.

The ability to negotiate relatively peaceful civilisation over millennia is a trait unique in the world. The refusal to countenance its existence is petulance.

Until Australia embraces our entire history we are doomed to a dwarfed understanding of our land and ourselves. No republic, no anthem, no flag can hide us from our past.

Bruce Pascoe’s most recent book, Convincing Ground (Aboriginal Studies Press), is a discussion of Australia’s relationship to the land and the past.
© Bruce Pascoe
Overland 192 – spring 2008, pp. 12-14


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