8 July 2009, Art Gallery of NSW, Sydney, Australia
Bruce Pascoe is a writer, editor and anthropologist of books such as Convincing Ground, Dark Emu and Fog a Dox. He is from theBunurong clan, of the Kulin nation.
Mr. Kirby was walking along the Murray River in 1839, and he came across a fisherman who was sitting on a weir that he had constructed into the river, and had made it in such a fashion that all the water was channelled through the weir and any fish that wanted to move up the river had to do so through a small net that had been placed in the river. Mr. Kirby sat down under a tree and watched this operation for some time, and noticed that there was a stick arrangement anchored into the ground, very fine, narrow stick and being tied down, so it had a lot of tension on the string, and the tie disappeared into the water.
He wasn't sure what was going on, whether it was a fishing rod or what the arrangement was, but then he noticed that a fish ... The stick released, and a fish flung over the fisherman's shoulder and landed behind him. Mr. Kirby noticed that the man was aware that he was being observed, and casually reached behind him, picked up the fish, and tossed into a basket and then leant back on his elbow and waited. This went on, Mr. Kirby's observation, for an hour or more, and every few minutes, another fish would be flung back over the fisherman's shoulder, and he would, with great insouciance, toss it into the basket.
Aboriginal people sometimes get a bit nervous when other aboriginal people use big words, but I'm a bookish sort of a person and I grew up with words and I loved them. Aboriginal people traditionally spoke seven or eight languages. We were the great wordsmith of the world, and one day, we'll recover that pride in the words. I'm happy to use insouciance because that's exactly what Mr. Kirby observed.
This man aware of being observed was proud of his achievement, and a bit disdainful of this other man watching him. He didn't even speak to the man, but he did observe how the tie from the springing stick was tied on to a noose. Every time a fish swam through the noose, it triggered the peg that was holding the noose down, and it flung the fish out of the water. This was engineering, and the man was very proud of his achievement.
A man called Mitchell, on the Narran River on the Queensland-New South Wales border, right about the same time, rode through grasslands up to the withers of his horse, rode through those grasslands for nine miles. Throughout the nine miles, grass was stooped like the old English stoops that was set in piles, and he rode through this for nine miles.
Leichhardt was another man who visited that country and disappeared. Another man called Gregory came and followed in Leichhardt footsteps and hoof prints. They camped because they were tired and felt they were lost when they saw aboriginal people on these grasslands, and they witnessed them for three days while they repaired their carts, while they fixed up their horse's saddlery, they recovered their spirits and their health.
For three to four days, Gregory's people witnessed people harvesting grain. Then he saw a phenomenal thing. He saw people sowing grain, and the next day, saw people irrigating that grain. Later on, the harvested grain from the last season were sorted into stores, and some of it was put in pouches and worn around the neck, and was destined to be traded to neighbouring peoples. This was a trade in grain.
Mr. Smith from the Northern Territories, part aboriginal man, came across a number of people building what looked to him like a dam. He watched very carefully and very circumspectly, because these weren't his people. He stood back a mile off from this project and just watched. Eventually, the old men motioned him into the camp. He asked them about what they were doing. They said, "Oh, we're going to do another one tomorrow. You can watch that too if you like." The next day, another dam was built. That dam had an exit from it into some channels, which ran through flat ground, and those people were irrigating a crop.
Ernest Giles' brother, a bit earlier than this, was travelling through the Northern Territory, and came across huge stores of what he discovered was grain stored up in platforms three metres off the ground. Each of those stores weighted a tonne. He had never seen anything like it before, but it didn't stop him stealing it, because, once again, he was an explorer. He was lost, and he was angry. He took the grain that had been stored for the harvesters.
There was a woman of Cape Otway, and it was me who discovered her secrets, because near my home, near the Cape Otway log house at that time, I came across a midden that had been exposed by a great storm. Cape Otway is pretty good at having great storms. The face of the midden had sheared away and exposed a whole lot of tools, and they were the normal tools that you would find, axes, scythes, hammers, augers, bone spear points for sewing clothes.
There was one little stone, about that big, like a size of a top or a matchbox, and I couldn't work it out. It had various holes drilled in it of different dimensions, had notches on the side, and it has straight lines, and I couldn't work out what this was. I worried about it for days, and days, and days, and eventually, my mother came down. She was living at Apollo Bay not far away. My mother is blind, deaf, and epileptic but quite well. I gave it to my mother. I said, "What do you reckon this is?" She felt it, and she said, "Oh, this is a sewing kit."
She felt the holes, and she felt the lines. She said, "I used to have on like this when I was a kid made out of tin," and it was for sharpening needle points, bone needle points, getting an edge on the fine side of the needle, and notches for cutting twine. It was a very, very intimate thing, and I was more or less ashamed to be handling it. I did so in ignorance, but it wasn't really my business. I returned all those things to the site, and they're still there. I go back every now and then and see them.
Another man called Todd in 1835 was one of the very first white people to visit Victoria. He was supposed to be guarding the land for John Batman. John Batman had gone back to Tasmania because his nose was falling off. John Batman, the great discoverer of Victoria, had syphilis and his nose was falling off. He went back to Tasmania. There was a reason why he had syphilis. There was a reason why a lot of aboriginal people and aboriginal women in Tasmania had syphilis too.
Todd was told to wait there and not upset the aboriginal people. Todd wasn't a bad sort of a man. Now, if he was look after your milk bar or your pub or your hardware store, you could rely on his abilities, because he does seem like a decent sort of a bloke. He talked to the aboriginal people as much as he could, learned some words, seemed to be kind, gave people the things that they seemed to be interested in, accepted what he was given in return. It was a nice warm weather. Everything seem to be going pretty well.
Todd, in his spare time, because he seemed to have a lot of it, was happy to fish with the people, but also to make drawings of them as they fished or as they participated in other cultural activities. One of these drawings is a line of women and girls bending over with sticks about that long, and it's a transformative piece of Australian art. Not very good, but it's transformative because the women were digging up a yam pasture field, that if you look at the scale, is probably six, seven acres wide. It's a big paddock. It's full of yam daisy, and that's what those women were doing. They were digging up the yam daisy, selecting the mature tubers, and pressing them down. When they had selected their tubers, they'd press down the remaining tubers to regenerate the crop.
You can see all this in Todd's drawing. We're very, very fortunate to have it, because the next year, there was no yam daisy in Victoria. Wherever a sheep had roamed, they came across the yam pastures. They gravitated to them because they were such good eating. Sheep, because of their dentition, are able to crop the basal leaves of yam daisies right down to the ground. A kangaroo can't do it. A wombat can't do it. A bandicoot can't do it, but a sheep can. They wiped out the yam daisy in one season. You hardly can find a yam daisy in Victoria now. Some people are growing them commercially, but if you go along the railway tracks around Werribee and places like that, you'll see plenty of them.
What do you call what all these people saw? What I saw, what Mr. Kirby saw, what Mr. Mitchell, what Mr. Gregory, what Mr. Smith, what Mr. Giles, what Mr. Todd, what were they looking at? I'm having a battle at the moment with senior academics in Australia, which I'm losing profoundly because I'm not an academic. I'm just a bloke who lives in the bush, but I can read. These are the things I've read. I'm saying to people, as I'm saying to you, I'm proselytising, I'm using you, it looks to me as if these are not the habits of hunter-gatherers.
Aboriginal people are called hunter-gatherers. What's all this business of irrigating crops, harvesting crops, having granaries of over a tonne and several parcels, trading grain, cultivating yam pastures, having 3,000 kilometres of eel races around the town of Koroit in Victoria? What is going on? This isn't hunter-gathering. I'm asking you what you think. If we can't use words like horticulturist, because I've had the ruler over my knuckles for suggesting such a thing, we can't say tilling, I was admonished for that, we can't say, apparently, farming, we can't say cultivation, what is going on?
I know it's not hunter-gathering. Aboriginal people in that era knew it wasn't hunter-gathering. Maybe the term hunter-gathering is just very convenient for people that wanted to take the land, because if you're hunting and gathering, your possession of the soil is itinerant.