Arguing the Absurd: Questioning Bruce Pascoe’s Indigeneity in 2020

When you’re secure in your own sense of self, says Evolve co-Director Aunty Munya Andrews, you don’t need to bring down other people. And we know it’s not up to Gudia (white people) to question an Aboriginal person’s identity. But what about when it comes from a fellow Indigenous Australian?

Last month, acclaimed author and Yuin man Bruce Pascoe had his Indigeneity thrown under the microscope. A fellow Indigenous woman had suggested that Pascoe, the author of Dark Emu, may have fabricated his heritage for financial gain.

The ensuing debate has posed many questions: some legitimate, others simply shining a light on the racist parts of Australia for what they really are. To help unpack this complex issue, we turned to Bardi Elder Munya for her perspective.

Released in 2014, Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu: Black seeds: agriculture or accident? dared to challenge some of the most deeply-rooted preconceptions held by white Australia. Drawing upon written accounts from explorers such as Charles Sturt and Thomas Mitchell, Dark Emu portrays Aboriginal Australia as a thriving and highly competent society, complete with construction, agriculture and engineering.

The book was an instant sensation. It received multiple awards and nominations, and garnered praise from both critics and the general public alike. Promisingly, parts of mainstream Australia proved that they were ready to accept the realities posed in Bruce Pascoe’s book. With so much potential to change so many minds, protecting Dark Emu’s legacy is paramount.

For Aunty Munya, the very fact that Bruce Pascoe and his Indigeneity has been questioned is outrageous.

“I don’t think that any Aboriginal person has the right to question another Aboriginal person’s identity,” she says.

“I think it’s shameful. As Indigenous people, our identity has been questioned since day one, when the invaders came to this country. It’s something that we’ve had to live with … and yet, here are our people doing the exact same thing.”

As jarring as it may seem to those coming from a perspective of privilege, the idea that members of an oppressed people might turn on each other rather than direct their anger towards their adversaries is not new. It even has a name.

“This is a perfect example of lateral violence,” explains Aunty Munya. “It’s bad enough having to face Gudia society, having white fellas question our identity, let alone our own people. To me, when people start doing that, it says more about them than it does about who they’re criticising.”

Therein lies the problem. The concept of identity can be tenuous. When one person’s sense of self informs the way he or she regards another, the importance of being able to establish some sort of connection, root one’s identity in something, really comes to light.

For Munya, this means Culture.

“[Justifying our Indigeneity is] not an issue for us – it’s an issue for other people,” she reflects, “though it’s an issue for some of us, of course, usually those who grow up without Culture and who don’t know how to behave properly as an Aboriginal person.” 

In a perfect world, it wouldn’t be an issue for anybody. But there’s even more of a problem when these sorts of conversations take place in a time of mass media: the incendiary nature of each new judgement – and the firestorm it creates.

“It’s stirred and scratched the surface of racism in this country again,” says Aunty Munya.

“There’s something about Gudia that I don’t understand. If we prove that there’s something very clever about our culture or society, they get very upset that we might actually have known about galaxies before Hubble and his telescope, you know?” She pauses. “I don’t understand what that’s about, denying us our cleverness and our ingenuity.”

Accounts of cleverness and ingenuity abound in Pascoe’s history of Indigenous Australia. But what he discovered during his research didn’t necessarily align with what he’d previously been taught.

“I had disbelief. I’d read the record and kept thinking to myself, ‘surely that can’t be right’, he told The Guardian.

While the idea of questioning Bruce Pascoe and his legitimacy is totally absurd, what can’t be ignored is the quality of his work – and the message it holds.

“All  Australians in this country should read Dark Emu,” says Munya. “I actually wish that I’d written [it] – it’s such a great book. He’s such a good writer, he’s such a good researcher. And he’s just committed to his people, Indigenous people in this country.”

“He’s done heaps and heaps – probably more than any other person that I know – in terms of educating white Australians about our people, our history, our culture. And overturning, more importantly, all of those horrible stereotypes, that we’re just nomadic people with no culture … and his books are all about showing that no, we were – and are – a clever people.”

The concept of one’s identity is a lot to unpack. So naturally, when others feel the need to judge or question, it’s the tangible qualities – fairness of skin, blondeness of hair, blueness of eyes – that are commonly cited as ‘evidence’ against a person’s Indigeneity.

But of course, this, too, is missing the point.

“We know our people. I walk the streets of Melbourne, Sydney, Canberra, whatever, and I often see a lot of what people might see as white Australians, but I look and see, ‘oh there’s one of our Mob,’ quite easily. So we know, because we also operate not just on the physical level, but on the spiritual level, so that we can feel who’s Indigenous or not, as well.”

While others are tirelessly arguing the absurd, the ripple effect of Bruce Pascoe and his work quietly continues.

Sales of his book increased when the question of his identity was referred to the Federal Police via the Minister for Home Affairs, Peter Dutton. Around the same time last year, he released a follow-up to Dark Emu penned especially for children. The book, Young Dark Emu: A Truer History was recently shortlisted for the 2020 Adelaide Festival Awards for Literature. Meanwhile, the ABC and Screen Australia have announced funding for Dark Emu to be adapted as a Television Documentary.

Aunty Munya reminds us what’s really important.

“At the end of the day, it really doesn’t matter. The work that he’s done – he should be honoured, just for that alone.”

(c) Evolve Communities, 2020

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