by Bruce Pascoe
I’ve been on boats and trains and plains all around the country supporting my book, Dark Emu, and the idea that Aboriginal people were not mere fauna and flora upon the plains of Australia but active agents in its care, nurture and agricultural productivity.
Lyn has had to shoulder the burden while I dash about the continent, but here I was on Sunday, at it again. I flew into Hobart but, selfishly, I had added a couple of extra days to the itinerary so I could follow family and culture on the north coast.
Chris Gallagher of the Writer’s Centre was her usual warm and elegant self and she picked me up and we drove to the Arts Centre at Moonah. I never go to the South Island without being conscious of what my family lost there. It’s a shadow in every foreign birch, every willow choked river, every quaint ‘colonial’ cottage. I feel sick.
But, there to greet me were Jim Everett, Tony Thorne, Greg Lehman and Patsy Cameron. Black writers all. We yarned up and then did our circus trick of talking about books and writing but the whole thing was upstaged by Craig Everett and his family of young dancers. Let not a bleak thought cloud your mind while young people take up the oldest culture on the planet. Pale, blue eyed, tender in their teenagery, but muscled up in their mind and with the staunchest hearts they dance for their people, their continuance.
The young Maynard girl and her Maori mate sang the place down. How are you supposed not to well up when surrounded by pride, grit and art. I love watching musicians, that soft rapture on their faces, that swaying loyalty to the beat of their mate’s musicianship. To the girl on the guitar I have to say that I saw the lyric in you and to the Maynard girl, I’d remember your Black name if I wasn’t so deaf, but you have the voice of an angel and the strength of a warrior, and anyone who loves Kev Carmody will be anointed by any decent god.
Craig Everett’s got a little rug rat that is powered by a Cummins diesel. Watch out for this kid. When extras were needed to dance this midget towed me out to the front. Little brother, I’ll never forget you and I took my shoes off because I’d never danced on my people’s country before and I wanted to feel it on my soles.
Patsy Cameron laughed and she is something else when she laughs but this woman has just become a doctor of letters and has the purple satin gown to prove it. It was a pleasure to ride in your truck sister with that gown tossed casually in the back.
It’s hard to kill black people. Poison works quite well, bullets are almost always successful, the baking divvy van in summer is often a winning manoeuvre, while the body slam, spleen splitting percussion for daring to sing Who Let the Dogs Out has been a gold medal for Australian justice and twice promoted by the Queensland police force. The Intervention, the dumping of nuclear waste on Aboriginal land (oh, you say it hasn’t happened yet, how naïve are you, we are run by Liberals and Labor in this country, the ultimate insult to the land is almost always inevitable), incarcerated children, jailed parking fine amnesiacs, the absence of rich fishing licenses in black hands prove that Australia is not post-colonial, there is nothing Australia Post about it.
But let’s not obsess about loss because it is true that it is hard to kill black people; the singers, dancers, storytellers, animators, academics and carers are too bloody strong.
So this is the mood for the following day, Monday. I drive through the heart of Tasmania, teeth grinding at the mock English streams (contrivances of birches, willows and mallards), the faux castles, the chocolate factories, the pretend Olde Wares Shoppes, but at the end of the track there’s Devonport’s Tiagarra Cultural Centre and the indomitable spirit of David Gough.
The Centre is forty years old but not because of Australia’s profound respect for the 80,000 years of Aboriginal culture, but in spite of it. The Centre has survived innumerable attacks from various Australian bureaucracies, authorities and the po-tasters of the law, but incredibly, like our people, it has survived.
There is only one enemy. Colonialism. If the imperial period was at an end we would not have Interventions, Deaths in Custody, white hood detentions of black juveniles, imprisonment for black people guilty of not being able to afford a barrister and we would not boo Adam Goodes because he was a black man named Australian of the Year.
But for the first time there seems to be a mood in the country, a tentative reaching for a better conversation between black and white. There is talk of constitutional change and even treaty. This talk wafts about indecisively but it’s a unique discussion and just because it founders from time to time it is not a reason to abandon hope. These are huge issues and their contemplation is bound to stagger under the burden of the baggage of ignorance and heavy old resentments.
Colonial Australians seem to have a taste for change and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island Australia must not let the moment pass. Brothers and sisters we have survived everything the colonists could throw at us but just as the tide begins to turn in our favour we spend too much of our energy fighting each other over the small spoils of grant money and the tattered robes of power.
If we disagree, let’s disagree outside the colonial court, let’s disagree within the old lore, the lore of dignity, patience and tolerance, and greatest of all, love of country.
And Australia what is there which will bind us? Donald Bradman. The Stump Jump Plough, Vegemite, a privileged white speed swimmer, Master Chef?
The belated examination of an ossified midden at Warrnambool reveals an age of 80,000 years. Din a ling, that’s 10,000 years before the out of Africa Theory and 75,000 years before the Egyptian pyramids. This is a remarkable country with the world’s most incredible culture and yet we’re still tolerating politicians who wonder why Aborigines didn’t invent the wheel.
Managing a continent without land war should be revered as the greatest Australian invention but instead of that we boo a footballer for having the effrontery to have pride in the world’s oldest culture and a political system that confederated the 400 sovereign states on the continent, a system of such exquisite subtlety and flexibility that those sovereign states never went to war in order to take another nation’s land. The only continent on earth where the culture did not degenerate into greed and imperial violence.
Aboriginal Australia has to live by those old rules because the world needs their restraint and Australia needs water in the rivers, soil on the land and unfracked water tables but only a system which values the earth over the rights of an individual who will live for eighty years.
Aboriginal lore contains everything needed for human survival, planetary survival, and it’s time we applied those old protocols, those old decencies, that ancient conservatism and restraint.
John Howard won’t like it but Johnno is still in love with an nintey year old queen on the other side of the world.
Look closer to home for an answer Australia and don’t go all squeamish just because it was first dreamed by a black mind.