Further challenge to historical record on Aboriginal massacres

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Convincing Ground: Learning to Fall in Love with Your Country, by Bruce Pascoe. Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra, 2007, 302pp., Paperback, RRP $39.95, ISBN 13 978 085575 549 2, website.

Further challenge to historical record on Aboriginal massacresNo society should tolerate child abuse. Drastic measures are sometimes appropriate to break cycles. However, the uniformed force assembled by the federal government to occupy Aboriginal communities carries much lead in its saddlebags. One lump is the suspicion felt by Aboriginal people about the intentions of the government. This is a government, after all, that abolished the elected Indigenous assembly ATSIC. Another lump is the scar tissue that has covered Australian race relations since frontier times. The dishonesty and denial surrounding the dispossession of the Indigenous people ensures that government actions evoke scepticism and cynicism.

The image of uniformed, white officers appearing in Aboriginal communities, supposedly to restore order and protect children, gives eerie timeliness to Bruce Pascoe’s cry from the heart.

The 'Convincing Ground' on Victoria’s western coast was the site of a massacre of Aboriginal people, following a disagreement with whalers. The title captures the irony central to Pascoe’s thesis, as it reflects the invaders’ perception of the incident as a victory in the debate over land ownership.

Pascoe argues that there has been no meaningful discussion of ownership, because the frontier was pushed not by genuine settlers but by speculators engaged in a land scam. The Aboriginal people happily granted the first whites tanderrum, or right of passage, a right they traditionally gave other clans. When the whites stayed, the indigenous people could well have assumed that this meant acceptance of Aboriginal lore.



Most stories about early contact used euphemisms to disguise violence. The reports of those who led genocidal ‘reprisals’ against the Wathaurong and other clans sold the myth that Aboriginal people had disappeared or withered away before an awe-inspiring superior civilisation.

The accounts of the few humanitarians who condemned the killings look more critically at the records. Hints are found that admit the existence of a full scale war. Pascoe draws on oral histories of Aboriginal people and on archaeological evidence, particularly the remnants of stone houses, to debunk myths about Aboriginal people being primitive and unsophisticated.

Further challenge to historical record on Aboriginal massacresPascoe aims to correct the historical account, not just for the sake of justice and fairness, but also because our future will be tragic unless it is based in truth. He argues that this land offers great hope and opportunity to those who learn to love it, but that denial of its true history prevents us from enjoying its bounty.

He relates numerous examples from recent political controversies — the Wik legislation, children overboard, the sinking of the SIEV X, invasion of Iraq, abandonment of equal opportunity in education, water and salinity — to the failure to recognise the importance of truth and honesty and to heed what the land tries to tell us. Pascoe attributes depletion of natural resources of soil and sea to failure to respect the indigenous approach to population growth, consumption and land care.

Pascoe notes the survival of mistrust in the racist attitudes he experiences and observes. Many people who claim to love Australia betray their hesitancy through their treatment of Aboriginal peoples and cultures. At one extreme are landholders who destroy Aboriginal remains and cultural artefacts. At the other are left liberal social activists whose writings sometimes demonstrate a paucity of understanding that results from ignorance of this country’s true history.

Pascoe predicts a bright future should we learn to love our country. He sees a "Hague of the south. A clearing house of peace...everyone’s uncle rather than some people’s sheriff."

To love this land, we must overcome the culture which has hidden our history. You cannot pick a few convenient pages from this history, but must have "the whole book, every Australian leaf of it".

We must correct the impression that the only real Aborigines are desert nomads. We must avoid further destruction of Aboriginal languages, which can so adeptly describe a range of hills as ‘a bandicoot jump’ and a mobile phone as a 'yarna larka'.

Pascoe tells the prime minister bluntly that "the only thing that can restore the living standards of Aboriginal people is equity in the land over which they were once sovereign. Not slabs of land, but equity in the life of the nation".

Convincing Ground is a brave book. Because he gives such a personal account of the frontier and its continuing influence in Australian affairs, Pascoe risks being attacked by those who feel threatened by his uncompromising stance. Because he mentions some Aboriginal leaders in a positive way, he might well be dismissed by others. Because he makes such strong claims for Aboriginal society, for its longevity, democracy, wisdom and peacefulness, he will be criticised for idealism. But while artists, musicians, poets and playwrights have obliquely offered alternatives to white interpretations of race relations, Pascoe has laid down some direct challenges to the historical record. The best outcomes would be if other writers exercised similar courage in other regions, and if mainstream historians adapted their methodologies in recognition of the force of Pascoe’s arguments.

The federal government seems reluctant to read the 'whole book' of Australian history. To shield itself from inconvenient truths about the treatment of asylum seekers, it cited privacy concerns to exclude media from detention centres. That rationalisation will not do in Aboriginal communities, where privacy is so obviously violated. The entire nation has not just a right but also a responsibility to know what is happening there.

Creating local police states perpetuates historical injustices. This tactic sits firmly in the tradition of colonial paternalism which holds that the indigenous people do not deserve their children, their cultural systems or their land and so must live our way, or else disappear. Without their Aboriginal identity, they would have no claim to this land, which could be used productively — for weapons testing perhaps or nuclear waste disposal. What a foolish mob we are to reject the wisdom offered by this land and the people most intimately integrated with it.

 

 

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Existing comments

Paul Kelly wrote and performed two songs on the “Words and Music” album that aptly describe the Howard Government’s assault on Australia and Australians. The songs are “Little Kings” and “Gutless Wonder”. Like Mr Kelly, I fear for the future of this land under the yoke of we Europeans and the choices we make.
In its strangely articulated manner, Germaine Greer’s 2003 Quarterly Essay “Whitefella Jump Up” expresses the faint hope that the European sequesterers of these lands accept and join with the peoples of the country. Tony Smith's review shows that Bruce Pascoe has provided a valuable ‘how-to’ guide for that process.

David Arthur | 14 July 2007


I would agree with Bruce in his thinkings which are only human as a human should be thinking of his brother
gavin couzens | 11 October 2013


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