Dark Emu, Indigenous agriculture and colonisation
“Colonial explorer Sir Thomas Mitchell wrote that he rode through 9 miles of stooped grain. He wrote about seeing massive fields of murnong tubers in Western Victoria.”
The above is an excerpt from a TEDxSydney talk given by Indigenous historian, writer and anthropologist Professor Bruce Pascoe in 2018.
Using colonial journals, Professor Pascoe has shattered the pre-existing ‘colonial narrative’ that Aboriginal Australians were primitive ‘hunter-gatherers’ prior to British arrival.
His award-winning non-fiction book ‘Dark Emu’ used the one historical source he knew most Australians saw as legitimately true, to demonstrate that Aboriginal peoples were farming prior to colonisation.
These early colonial journals indicate that the systems of food production and land management developed by Aboriginal Australians have been blatantly understated in modern retellings of early Aboriginal history.
Professor Pascoe insists that they have not only been misrepresented, but deliberately overlooked.
“Most Aboriginal people didn’t know this stuff because they’d had an Australian education and they’d lived under Australian political rule, so you don’t find out these things because the whole myth of the colonisation is against you being able to learn these things,” he told radio program The Wire.
“Aboriginal people started writing to me before and after Dark Emu had come out with incredible information about how our people managed the land and how we managed crops – how we managed food production, how we managed food preservation and food storage and these things you just don’t hear about, and we ought to. It’s Australian history, and our young people ought to know these things. It shouldn’t be hidden from them,” he said in the program.
The book has had an impact both nationally and internationally, challenging the way Australian history is viewed.
“I speak to so many Australians, both black and white, who say the book changed their lives.” he told The Wire.
‘Dark Emu’ won Book of the Year and the Indigenous Writer’s Prize in the 2016 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, and is also the source of inspiration for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander dance company Bangarra’s latest work by the same name.
On top of his writing and public appearances at events such as Sydney Writer’s Festival and Vivid Sydney, Professor Pascoe is also focused on developing a national food industry that drives the production and commercial retailing of Aboriginal foodstuffs, and that employs Aboriginal people.
It is an area he has been working in for over five years, and where he has seen the rest of the country finally catching on to the value of traditional food sources such as native grains and tubers, yam daisies and bush tomatoes. This research includes working with Indigenous communities regarding revitalising their lands with regrowth of native plants.
Professor Pascoe’s work in the revitalisation of Aboriginal food production and land management not only promotes and preserves Indigenous knowledge and culture, but has the potential for positive impact on Indigenous employment as well as national health, wellbeing and environmental sustainability.
His research, literary output, and nation-wide public appearances bring Indigenous knowledge and culture to a wide audience, and puts Indigenous perspectives at the forefront of public debate.
In March 2018, Professor Pascoe received the Australia Council Award for Lifetime Achievement in Literature, which acknowledges the achievements of eminent literary writers over the age of 60 who have made an outstanding and lifelong contribution to Australian literature.
He also received the ‘Vice-Chancellor’s Social Justice and Human Rights Award’ at the 2018 UTS Human Rights Awards, which recognises an outstanding contribution to the advancement of social justice or human rights at the local, national or international levels.
Professor Pascoe is a Bunurong, Tasmanian and Yuin man. He was born in Melbourne and grew up on a remote island in the Bass Strait.