Dark Emu draws on accounts from European explorers to argue that history has whitewashed the fact Indigenous Australians had sophisticated agricultural practices prior to European settlement.
“The book has been incredibly successful and read by thousands of Australians and the support for it has been incredible,” Professor Pascoe says.
He is unsure why people would seek to discredit it, but says “certainly some people are uncomfortable about looking at Aboriginal people in a different light”.
“Some people are so fixated with Aboriginal incapacity that any thought of a sophisticated Aboriginal civilisation undermines the validity of the colony itself.”
Dark Emu calls for a reconsideration of the hunter-gatherer label for pre-colonial Aborigines and pushes for a return to more sustainable Indigenous land management methods.
The complaint, first published in The Australian, was referred to the AFP after Indigenous businesswoman and lawyer Josephine Cashman wrote to Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton accusing Professor Pascoe of “dishonesty offences”.
She disputes Professor Pascoe’s Aboriginal heritage and says he has benefited financially from government grants, university appointments and literary prizes awarded to Aboriginal people.
Professor Pascoe said he had not sought legal advice, although this might change if he was contacted by the AFP.
“I didn’t worry too much when I did start thinking about it, because I know who I am and I know who my family is and I know my place in the community and that place is very, very important to me and my extended family because we are all in it together.”
Professor Pascoe, 72, grew up unaware of any Indigenous heritage and did not identify as Aboriginal until he was 32.
He began researching his heritage after a conversation with his uncle.
Professor Pascoe has said he found Indigenous ancestors from both sides of his family, tracing from Tasmania, the Yuin people from the south coast of NSW and the Boonwurrung (commonly written as Bunurong) people.
The widely accepted definition of Indigenous heritage in Australia comprises three parts: self-identification, evidence of descent and community recognition.
Yuin elder, Pastor Ossie Cruse, questioned why Professor Pascoe’s Aboriginality was being disputed when he was accepted by his community.
“It does concern me because I don’t think anybody needs that, what’s the gain in it, particularly a person who has really had a hard life and found out they were of Aboriginal descent,” Pastor Cruse told The Sunday Age.
“Bruce has done a tremendous job to identify a lot of culture of significance to our people and that’s coming from his desire to identify. I have a lot of respect for him.”
However, the Boonwurrung Land and Sea Council says it does not accept Professor Pascoe “as possessing any Boonwurrung ancestry whatsoever”.
“We have a sophisticated (and utilised in a recent Federal Court of Australia matter) ancestral database of all peoples/families who can rightfully claim to be of Boonwurrung (aka Bunurong) descent,” chairman Jason Briggs said in a statement.
“We believe that Mr Bruce Pascoe should come clean about his real ancestry and stop abusing and benefiting from our community’s cultural integrity.”
(Professor Pascoe responded by saying his connection to the Bunurong is through the Tasmanian family not through Central Victorian Bunurong.)
Aboriginal Land Council of Tasmania chairman Michael Mansell disputes that Professor Pascoe has Tasmanian Aboriginal ancestry.
“We are such a small community down here … we know who has Aboriginal ancestry in Tasmania,” Mr Mansell said.
“He’s obviously a nice bloke who has a real sentimental connection with wanting to be Aboriginal, but that’s not the same as being Aboriginal.”
Ms Cashman, who has called for a formal register to assess people’s Aboriginality, said she was not available to speak to The Sunday Age.
Last November Ms Cashman tweeted that Professor Pascoe was not Aboriginal. “Bruce Pascoe is not Aboriginal. My son is Yuin and his father doesn’t know who is. Our communities find this offensive. Shame!” she tweeted.
She has also tweeted that there are at least two published books disputing Professor Pascoe’s historical evidence.
“Dark Emu is a fictional distortion. Pascoe claims Aboriginal people were not hunter-gatherers, distorts explorer records and claims Australian history is incorrect,” she tweeted.
“This creates devastating harm and Pascoe is benefiting financially.”
Ms Cashman told Sky News she made the complaint after being contacted by Aboriginal people in NSW and Victoria.
“My motivation is from my people, those people who are voiceless or who don’t have access to a voice and aren’t heard, Ms Cashman said.
Professor Marcia Langton, the foundation chair in Australian Indigenous Studies at the University of Melbourne, rejected questions about Professor Pascoe’s Aboriginality and says all the references in Dark Emu are correct.
“I don’t agree with running a campaign against an individual like this, I think this is unconscionable behaviour and I think most Aboriginal people would agree, not something that another Aboriginal people would do knowing what our history has been,” she told National Indigenous Television.
“We all know that it is very difficult for some Aboriginal people to prove they are Aboriginal because of lack of records, because of members of the family lying, because of shame about having Aboriginal ancestry, because of the hatred of Aboriginal people.”
She said as far as she was concerned the issue of Professor Pascoe’s Aboriginality was “settled”.
Professor Pascoe has acknowledged his links are distant, writing in his latest essay collection Salt that “clinical analysis of genes says I’m more Cornish than Koori”.
“I am sure a lot of non-Aboriginal people think that pale-skinned Aboriginal people shouldn’t identify, especially when it goes back to great grandmothers and great grandfathers and I understand that,” Professor Pascoe told The Sunday Age.
“I think Australians have the right to know that Aboriginal people who claim to be Aboriginal are actually Aboriginal but I think that conversation needs to be a decent conversation.”
Professor Pascoe told The Sunday Age it seemed to be a “common ploy” to question the identity of Aboriginal people but the community he belonged to was “totally supportive”.
“If they decided you had to have a percentage of blood quantum to be declared an Aborigine or go on some sort of register (and) I wasn’t on it, my life wouldn’t change at all because I am so deeply involved in the community and the community expect me to be involved,” he said.
Professor Pascoe said he had been “very moved” by the support of Indigenous Australians Minister Ken Wyatt.
“Not just Ken Wyatt but local Aboriginal man Ossie Cruse came out and said the same thing and my cultural leader, Uncle Max Harrison, said the same thing.”
“So many Aboriginal men and women have come out and supported me, people who know my family history and have helped me in the past identify lines in our Aboriginal family, those people have come out and reaffirmed what they told me 20 years ago.”
Professor PascoeHe said he doesn’t know Ms Cashman.
He said the controversy started with a website called Dark Emu Exposed, which claims peer-reviewed studies confirm Australian Aboriginal society was a “classic Stone-Age Hunter Gatherer Society prior to British settlement, with albeit a glimmer of an expected Neolithic advancement”.
“I am not saying Aboriginal people were like white farmers, what I am saying is they were engaged in a form of food production which is unlike hunting and gathering. We did hunt, we did gather, we still do,” Professor Pascoe said.
He said he had used the proceeds of Dark Emu to employ Indigenous people to use methods of traditional Aboriginal horticulture.
Professor Pascoe said the conflagration over the past week had been overwhelming.
“I got a call, my neighbour thinks I have lost my house, next minute I get a text from an Aboriginal man reaffirming our connection to Yuin and providing information I had never seen before,” he said. (The house was ultimately saved.)
“So I was down one minute, up the next. Then my mate rings back and says he thinks I’ve lost the shed as well, you know it was just a roller coaster.”
Jewel Topsfield is Melbourne Editor of The Age.
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