Bruce Pascoe is an Indigenous writer from the Bunurong clan. Recognised as one of Australia’s most influential Indigenous historians, he thinks generations of Australians have been misled into the false belief that Indigenous Australians were a hunter-gatherer society prior to British colonisation.
Pascoe confronts that idea in his book Dark Emu, which uses primary sources to challenge the perception of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander societies being nomadic or hunter-gatherer and present evidence of Indigenous agriculture, textile manufacture and housing construction.
He told SBS News he believes the biggest misconception about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture is that they did nothing with the land or didn’t grow crops.
“That stems from, I believe, Australia’s nervousness about facing the fact that the country was invaded and the land was stolen,” said Pascoe. “And so, in retrospect, the country tries to say, ‘Well, Aboriginal people weren’t using it, so they don’t deserve it.’”
Pascoe also believes more attention should be paid to Aboriginal experience in agriculture, and how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples cultivated land over a period of 120,000 years.
He says the fish kill in the Darling River system over summer shows that Australians should be looking at crops that use less water.
“What Aboriginal people did was they concentrated on perennial plants, the plants that have really deep root systems, which enable them to access water way down in the soil and therefore become more energy efficient, and enables them to survive drought.“
Historical events aren’t the only subject of misconception, even prejudice, when it comes to views of Aboriginal society. In some quarters, the idea that Aboriginal people get a free ride compared to non-Indigenous Australians persists.
Pascoe says that Aboriginal people get nothing more than other people on the same level of income, in terms of family and child support.
“Just normal funding for the underprivileged in society is what Aboriginal people get,” he said. “Because I own land, it’s presumed that I got it easy from the government –that’s really hurtful.”
Pascoe believes Australia needs honest conversation to rectify misconceptions that Aboriginal people didn’t use the land prior to colonisation, and thus didn’t deserve it, or even weren’t human enough to have it.
“This is clearly wrong, and clearly a prejudicial stance simply to vindicate the invasion of the land,” he said. “Once we get over that – which is so clearly wrong that an eight-year-old child could put you right – then we can have a reasonable discussion.”