May 2018 Open Book Group – Dark Emu Black Seeds: agriculture or accident by Bruce Pascoe

Bruce is a scholar from Tasmania with an aboriginal heritage.

I suggested this book for the group after a number of friends told me it was a ‘must read’. I am very pleased that I took their advice because for me and I think the OBG group, it was a real eye-opener.

Pascoe’s thesis, in summary, is that aboriginal people had a much more highly evolved civilisation than was ever acknowledged by the first colonial settlers and those of us who came after.

He gave evidence of the fact that aboriginal people built sustainable houses, constructed dams, altered the course of rivers, sewed clothes, had an evolved system of agriculture which included cultivating and harvesting cops, mosaic burning to encourage growth, and storage of food. At a less tangible level they had systems of government, belief systems, and ancestral laws as well as a complex of languages which may have come from the same original root.

The impact of white settlement was, as we now acknowledge, devastating to aboriginal lives and culture. They were said to be ‘stone-age man’, hunters and gatherers, people who were very primitive and thus very easy to drive off their lands. The fact that they had a highly evolved culture was either ignored, not recognised or deliberately extinguished. It was then very easy to claim the country as terra nullius.

Our discussion ranged over many areas: the impact of the idea of private property and the fencing of areas; Western population and its need to expand; the lack of a formal written aboriginal language; the lack of resistance by aboriginal people to settler incursions compared to the resistance put up by NZ Maori people in similar circumstances; the fact that the parklike impressions of parts of Australia painted by early artists were possibly accurate – not so much the romantic eye of UK and French painters but an actual cultivated landscape; the fact it is only recently that aboriginal belief systems have been given proper acknowledgement; that aboriginal occupation may be as much as 65,000 years old and there may have been one language root.

Possibly the most telling part is Pascoe’s contention that the aboriginal populations had a system of pan-continental government that generated peace and prosperity. However he did not explore the fact of violence between tribes, cannibalism and other less peaceful aspects of their culture.

Most of our group were surprised at how much we had been sold the hunter-gatherer story (or the noble savage idea) and some of were interested in revisiting writings of some of the old writers – Daisy Bates, Violet Teague, W Stanner, Olive Pink, Mrs Aeneas Gunn etc as well as the recent books by Kim Scott, Billy Griffith and Nick Brodie. One area of interest was the way – often sentimental – that aboriginal people were treated in children’s books , and the fact that many Australians, especially in cities, had never seen much if anything of aboriginal people.

Thanks to our group of sixteen for a very lively discussion. And welcome to two new readers: Alisa Halkyard and Diana Bagnall. Notes by Jan Aitkin.

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