Fifteen thousand years before the Egyptians, Aboriginal Australians were grinding grain – making them very possibly the world’s first bakers.
Their aptitude with a grindstone (some have been found here that date back 36,000 years) is highlighted in Bruce Pascoe’s seminal 2014 book Dark Emu: Black Seeds – Agriculture or Accident? Indigenous Australians, Pascoe argues, were not hunter gatherers; rather they operated a sophisticated society with their own advanced pastoral systems.
The revisionist history book has now been transformed into a dance show. Bangarra’s Dark Emu premieres at the Sydney Opera House this Thursday before embarking on a national tour.
The idea came about when Stephen Page, Bangarra’s artistic director, wondered what he should do next after the opening of his critically acclaimed, sell-out production of Bennelong. Pascoe jokingly replied: “Imagine Dark Emu, the dance production.” “I did look at him and think, ‘Oh, that’s a challenge,’” Page recalls.
Dark Emu is having something of a moment. In 2016 the Wiradjuri/Kamilaroi artist Jonathan Jones referenced the book in barrangal dyara, a major art installation at Sydney’s Royal Botanic Garden. The ABC is launching a three-part television series next year; a children’s version of the book will be published in the next few months; and a UK edition is out now.
Page used the book as a starting point to explore, through contemporary dance, the vitality of the country’s flora and fauna, with pre-recorded quotes from Pascoe woven into the production. Directed by Page, in collaboration with the senior Bangarra dancer Daniel Riley and company alumnus Yolande Browne, the show will examine Indigenous life before the arrival of the first fleet.
“It’s a great opportunity for Australians to look at Australia with fresh eyes,” says Pascoe, who hails from the Bunurong clan of the Kulin nation. “It also brings a new audience to the book and a new audience to the ideas.”
Those ideas matter – not just to the past, but today, insists Pascoe. Many Australians, he says, remain “ignorant about how this country was governed and managed. That is brought about by an attitude to Australian history and what colonial powers have to do in order to convince themselves that they are legitimate owners of the soil.”
Colonialists, he asserts, cast Aboriginals as nomadic so they could claim the land as “terra nullius” – or nobody’s land.
Yet when Pascoe started reading the journals of early British colonisers more closely, he came across “repeated references to people building dams and wells, planting, irrigating and harvesting seed, preserving the surplus and storing it in houses, sheds or secure vessels, creating elaborate cemeteries and manipulating the landscape – none of which fitted the definition of hunter gatherer,” he writes in Dark Emu.
“Could it be that the accepted view of Indigenous Australians simply wandering from plant to plant, kangaroo to kangaroo in hapless opportunism was incorrect?”
Pascoe is adamant Australia continues to sport a national amnesia when it comes to Aboriginal history. “How come it never appeared in our curriculum? How come it never appears in any reference to Australia overseas? We accept an abysmal version of Australian history – and it affects all our decisions.”
He adds: “When infant mortality goes up, we send in the army, not the doctor, not the teacher,” referring to the Northern Territory Intervention. “It’s because Australians feel pity and contempt for Aboriginal people, not a sense of duty and care for the country.”
Or, to put it another way, as Pascoe did in an ABC radio interview: “Why are we not telling Australian children of the success and the achievements of Aboriginal Australia?”
Page is adamant that must be corrected: “For me it’s about art as a medicine, dance as a medicine – storytelling is a huge part of our lives.”
“It wasn’t terra nullius and Australia doesn’t deal with the guilt,” he continues. “There are hidden massacres that we don’t talk about. The Germans get it; they dealt with their guilt. We really have a problem with our First Nations history. That’s what the book is saying – people existed here.”
The production is abstract, rather than concrete, with a score by the long-term Bangarra collaborator Steve Francis. Key are scenes in which colonial farmers devastate the land through the introduction of European crops and animals.
One passage in Dark Emu runs: “The English pastoralists weren’t to know that the fertility they extolled on first entering the country was the result of careful management, and cultural myopia ensured that even as the nature of the country changed they would never blame their own form of agriculture for that devastation.”
Tellingly, Pascoe says many people who approach him at talks today are farmers – “considered to be the most conservative people of the nation, but they’re also very conscious for the earth. They are conscious that employing agricultural methods of Europe isn’t working here – it’s causing enormous damage.”
The dark emu of the title is the spirit creator. “We spend the first seven minutes in the void of the spirit of the dark emu,” Page say. “Through the work we play out the passing on of that spirit through agriculture.”
Page is aware that many people put Aboriginal land management “in the mythology pocket; the stories of the dreamtime. But it’s not. Even the seasons of wet and dry, it’s completely different to western systems.”
Pascoe says: “Aboriginal people believe that the earth is our mother and we owe her absolutely everything, because that’s where we come from and that’s where we are going to go to.” The dance production, he says, has “gone to the heart of the spirituality of mother earth and the human interaction of the growing of food”.
“Now we’ve begun this conversation, it’s going to be upsetting for some of us for some of the time but we have to do it … It’s not all smiles and cups of teas – there is some hard learning to do and unlearning to do as well.”
• Dark Emu premieres at the Sydney Opera House on 14 June before travelling to Canberra, Perth, Brisbane and Melbourne in July, August and September