By STEVEN WINDUO
IN the Melbourne Writers’ Festival I participated in three sessions. The first session featured indigenous authors Bruce Pascoe, Eugenia Flynn and myself. Eugenia moderated it.
Pascoe, an Aboriginal elder of the Bunurong/Tasmanian Heritage and I shared the conversation on indigenous peoples, spaces, stories, and place in the modern world.
Our conversation was free-flowing, but anchored in a space that all three of us shared as indigenous peoples living in Australia and PNG. We share a common ancient history of peoples voyaging to get here over land and sea.
We recognised the common heritage of our people invested in the stories, arts, the language, and in the ways of our people. Some of our practices and knowledge as ancient people kept us alive and safe from all kinds of disasters, both man-made and natural calamities. We developed highly advanced skills of agricultural cultivation and food preservation. We developed highly sophisticated knowledge of the seasons and conservation. All of these things and knowledge systems we negated with the arrival of the Europeans and the western technologies and ideological apparatuses.
Pascoe and Flynn made me feel the power of speaking as an indigenous person. We spoke about our struggles, as our successes were never celebrated – the same fate our ancestors faced against the elements of nature and the man-made world. Scientists for example, were dismissive of the indigenous world’s knowledge of conservation and climate change. How did indigenous people survive in New Guinea and Australia for thousands of years?
Pascoe published a book that talks about the food production in Australia before the arrival of Europeans, telling how the First People of Australia used their knowledge of agriculture to survive for thousands of years.
Dark Emu Black Seeds: Agriculture or Accident ?(2014) is Pascoe’s book that won the Book of the Year Award (2016), NSW Premiers Award (2016), and was short-listed for the Victoria Premier’s Literary Award for Indigenous Writing (2014) and The Queensland Literary Award (2014).
The same animal, the cassowary/emu occupies an important place in our indigenous stories and societies. I have investigated the cassowary woman story prevalent in many Asian-Pacific societies, particularly in Papua New Guinea.
The Dark Emu, Balame or the creator spirit Emu, left the earth after its creation to reside as a dark shape in the Milky Way. The emu is inextricably linked with the wide grasslands of Australia, the landscape managed by the Aboriginals. The fate of the emu, people and grains are locked in step because, for the Aboriginal people, the economy and the spirit are inseparable. Pascoe is a very powerful writer. In the book, he says Europeans stare at the stars but Aboriginal people also see the spaces in between where the Spirit Emu resides.
Pascoe puts forward a compelling argument for a reconsideration of the hunter-gatherer label for pre-colonial Aboriginal Australians. The evidence insists that Aboriginal people right across the continent were using domesticated plants, sowing, harvesting, irrigating and storing – behaviours inconsistent with the hunter-gatherer tag.
I valued and respected the indigenous conversation in which we received interesting questions from the audience. We answered questions on indigenous languages, multiculturalism in Australia, climate change, immigration, and stories of our peoples, without needing to justify every answer.
The Melbourne Writers’ Festival is a celebration of creativity and literary expressions. An international event organised in Australia, but draws major writers and thinkers from around the world.
Speaking as an indigenous author is empowering. I am speaking from the heart and soul of my being. I am conscious of the role I have as a writer attached to the indigenous space and also to the modern world where other cultures and peoples also co-exist.
I recognise the importance of listening to the subjugated minority voices in a world of competing discourses and ideologies. I also respect the space given to the indigenous voices to speak without worrying about who authorises who to speak first. Some interesting and controversial conversations were heard among those who attended and I came away feeling that perhaps we had not been listening enough to the voices of our indigenous people.
The Western industrial nations and their scientists are unwilling to step outside of their comfort zone to listen to the wisdom and practical knowledge that indigenous peoples offer in medicine, climate change, and conflict and resolution.
If anything, we need to write the indigenous books to capture our experiences as First Nations people.
By STEVEN WINDUO