The kinship question: Bruce Pascoe and the long search for his mob

By David Hardaker

July 15, 2021

Pascoe describes himself as a Bunurong, Tasmanian and Yuin man, despite two of those communities having rejected his claim more than 18 months ago.
Pascoe describes himself as a Bunurong, Tasmanian and Yuin man, despite two of those communities having rejected his claim more than 18 months ago.(Tirin aka Takver, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons)

At the end of 2018 Bruce Pascoe was in the spotlight for yet another honour, this time at the National Dreamtime Awards, a premier event celebrating Indigenous achievement and broadcast by National Indigenous Television (NITV).

Pascoe’s award for person of the year was the climax of the night, recognising the Dark Emu author for his “significant contribution” to the advancement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait people. Of all the awards he’d received, this one, he said, made him the most proud because it came from “our people”.

Amidst the glitter and the black tie splendour of the awards at Sydney’s Star casino, Pascoe made light of his shambolic ways. He hadn’t owned a suit in all his then-71 years, he said, and only got one because he was told he needed “something formal”. “I have gone out my way for you mob,” he joked.

Warming to this theme he told NITV: “I can’t wear ties. I just feel like I’m being choked and enough of our people have had that experience, so I’m not going to be the next.”

Pascoe’s words bonded him powerfully to the shared pain of Indigenous dispossession and the tragedy of Aboriginal deaths in custody and youth suicide. It was also an audacious leap from his own experience: Pascoe had grown up white in inner Melbourne in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, missing the profound hardship and discrimination experienced by Aboriginal Australians. When he was a student at university, Aboriginal people were not even counted in the census.

How important is Pascoe’s identification as Indigenous? That night it was everything.

“Bruce Pascoe says Aboriginal blood matters only as much as you want it to. It matters a lot to Pascoe,” journalist and author Stan Grant wrote in The Monthly. “There are many Australians with Aboriginal ancestry who don’t fashion that into an Aboriginal identity. Indeed, some may think it impertinent — if not offensive — to do so.”

Grant observes that, along with his bushy white beard, Pascoe has “taken to being photographed with a red headband, a traditional signifier of the Aboriginal man of high degree” as part of “carefully cultivating” his public image.

Grant says he doesn’t want to interrogate whether Pascoe is Indigenous or not. The interesting thing to him, he says, is the construction of the “Pascoe identity”. 

“You can’t separate the man out from the book,” Grant told Crikey. “Dark Emu is a myth to the construction of identity for Bruce Pascoe and for Australia.”

Others see any questioning of Pascoe’s claimed ancestry as unconscionable, offensive and/or a waste of energy. They don’t want to be caught up in what they consider to be the political agendas of conservative commentators. Establishing identity is also fraught with practical difficulties because of the destruction of records or because ancestors might have hidden their aboriginality.

For others, though, it matters a great deal.

Pascoe routinely describes himself as a Bunurong, Yuin and Tasmanian Aboriginal man. It’s how he has been introduced for several years and is, self-evidently, a powerful claim to the lived experience of being Aboriginal. It is also how he described himself in a sworn affidavit he made for a Federal Court hearing, seen by Crikey, dated November 2019.

However, two of those communities, Bunurong and Tasmanian, have flat-out denied Pascoe’s claims. As well, Crikey’s investigation now raises serious questions about Pascoe’s claim to Yuin ancestry too. 

Our investigation also shows that Pascoe has claimed an additional family connection to the Wiradjuri people of NSW. 

Outside the golden halls of the Star casino there are Aboriginal people with and without a media voice who decry the identity which they consider Pascoe has built for himself.

Back in 1987 Pascoe set up shop on land in Cape Otway, 220 or so kilometres south-west of Melbourne. The former teacher turned writer was publishing the work of other authors through his business Pascoe Publishing. Corporate documents show that Pascoe, age 40 at the time, described himself as a journalist.   

Living here, Pascoe came into contact with trailblazing Indigenous artist Lin Onus. The two were born a year apart. Onus would later be honoured by the Victorian government’s Aboriginal Victoria department, as “an artistic revolutionary” who was “first and foremost an activist”.

His paintings and sculptures had drawn attention to the stark realities of life in Aboriginal Australia, while “challenging audiences to take action”.

Lin Onus died in 1996. Such was the bond between the two men of art and literature that 20 years later Pascoe would be invited to deliver an oration to honour Onus’ life.

According to Crikey‘s sources, Onus’ Indigenous identity and political activism were a powerful model for Pascoe.

The Bunurong

It’s unclear when Pascoe began to claim ancestry with the Bunurong (also written as Boonwurrung) people of Victoria. However in early 2020, when questions swirled around his identity, the Boonwurrung Land and Sea Council publicly shunned Pascoe and his claimed ancestry. (Pascoe has claimed the link may have been through his great-grandmother.)

The council’s chairman Jason Briggs issued a statement to The Age saying the organisation had “a sophisticated ancestral database of all peoples and families who can rightfully claim to be of [Bunurong] descent”, and that Pascoe wasn’t on it. 

Briggs reaffirmed the council’s rejection of Pascoe when contacted by Crikey.

“We’re running a native title claim and I’ve got more reports on my desk than I care to mention,” Briggs said. “In a community like ours we all know who each other is. We don’t accept Bruce Pascoe as part of our community.

“We’ve had enough.”

Tasmania

After the Bunurong community rejected Pascoe in 2020, next came the Aboriginal Land Council of Tasmania. Chairman Michael Mansell has reaffirmed Tasmania’s rejection of Pascoe in a detailed statement to Crikey, pointing to gaps in Pascoe’s story when it comes to claimed family links to Tasmania. 

Mansell referred to “the pattern of Pascoe’s elusiveness on challenges to his identity claims”. There were “no names, no direct statement about from whom he gets Aboriginal heritage, all general and vague — but powerfully suggestive, leaving the reader to conclude there must be something there”, Mansell said.

Crikey has confirmed that Pascoe attempted to gain proof of Tasmanian Aboriginal ancestry at the end of 2013 in the months before Dark Emu was first published in March 2014.

The Wiradjuri connection

Crikey is aware that in an application made to the Elders Council of the Tasmania Aboriginal Corporation, Pascoe claimed he was told by an uncle that the family was Aboriginal when he was 16 years old.

Pascoe also claimed his family had recently learned of a connection to the Wiradjuri people of central NSW — a claim not previously reported.

Claims of Tasmanian Aboriginality have been notoriously difficult to establish. A major factor is the sheer scale and brutality of the assault on Tasmanian Aborigines by white settlers, colonial authorities and subsequent governments. Another is the destruction of records. 

Notwithstanding that, Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre Heather CEO Heather Sculthorpe told Crikey that Pascoe had not provided the information to persuade them that he had Tasmanian Aboriginal ancestry.

Sculthorpe also took aim at “the high profile people” who, she said, associated any questioning of Pascoe’s claims to Aboriginality with being “a fascist or a Bolt supporter”.

“The intellectual laziness of the commentators astounds me,” Sculthorpe told Crikey.

The Yuin claim

There is a three-part definition usually applied to claims of Indigenous identity: self-identification, recognition within community, and documents that confirm descent.

According to Professor Bronwyn Carlson, head of Indigenous studies at Macquarie University, the three-part definition is a government initiative, generally used in relation to government programs and services. It was not a requirement for Indigenous people to obtain, nor did the definition allow for “the range of experience that Indigenous people have had and continue to have in relation to their identities”. 

“The court in Australia has found that in the event of unstable or unsatisfactory evidence of descent that community recognition would suffice,” Carlson told Crikey

“In regard to what organisations are the authority, the government placed the authority in the hands of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community … where the person lives, came from or is accepted by.”

Carlson says that the lack of a clear definition of an authority means that it is “really about whether Aboriginal people accept his claim and accept him as being a member of the community”.

Ultimately Bruce Pascoe’s claim to Aboriginality has been accepted by some members of the Yuin community, based on the NSW south coast.

Yet as Crikey can reveal, a key community organisation, the Aboriginal Land Council of Eden, does not accept Pascoe’s claim.

Yuin man BJ Cruse, who has chaired the land council for most of the last 40 years, told Crikey that he couldn’t back Pascoe’s claim.

“As chairman of the ALC I definitely can’t and won’t say that he is an Aboriginal person. I can’t say that he is not, but I can’t say that he is,” he said.

“I can’t say anything about his character. I can commend him in a lot of ways for his strong beliefs. He’s a decent man and I do respect him for his staunchness raising issues for the Aboriginal people.

“But as chair of the council and as a born-again Christian I have to obey the law.” he said, “And I don’t have the power to accept him as Aboriginal.”

Cruse’s stance as ALC chair undercuts Pascoe’s claim to identity, which has otherwise been based on the support of three individual Yuin elders.

One of those has been Cruse’s own father, Ossie Cruse, a pastor of an Aboriginal evangelical church in Eden. Pastor Cruse is now 88 years old and was part of the early generation of Aboriginal activists who took political action in the 1960s. 

“I trust Bruce Pascoe as a human being,” Pastor Cruse told Crikey. “It’s his prerogative if he wants to identify with Aboriginal people.” 

Pastor Cruse said that challenging someone’s “nationhood” was “not a good thing”. 

“I don’t see the reason for it. No one’s got a right to hurt other people,” he said. “As a minister my labour is love. I love everyone.”

Pascoe’s second public supporter is Max Dulumunmun Harrison, a Yuin elder of the Ossie Cruse generation. Last year Dulumunmun Harrison told NITV that Pascoe had been “initiated into Yuin” and that he “carries Yuin law”. 

“That’s all you need to confirm,” he said.

Crikey has established that Dulumunmun Harrison had a cameo in the 2019 federal election as a “cultural adviser” to the anti-vaccination Informed Medical Options Party, which fielded candidates in the Senate. The party opposes “forced medication”, “compulsory or coerced vaccination” and “fluoride in our water”.

Pascoe’s third public supporter is Noel Butler who runs cultural enterprises on the NSW south coast. Butler last year told NITV that as far as he was concerned Pascoe “is my cousin — I identify him as my cousin”.

“If someone tells me they’re a horse, OK then, I’ll treat them like a horse,” he said.

“If somebody tells me their identity and I’ve known them for quite a while on that basis, then I have no reason to doubt someone’s identity or connection to my family, none at all.

“I don’t believe anybody has the right to question anybody on your identity. You are who you are and unless somebody has walked in your footsteps, as I said to Bruce, how can they tell you more about you than what you know?”

Butler also sits on the board of Pascoe’s Indigenous agriculture enterprise Black Duck Foods, which operates from Pascoe’s farm in Gippsland. As Crikey reported in this series, Black Duck Foods is a registered charity with tax-deductible gift status and is backed by First Australians Capital on the basis that it has a majority of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander members of the board. 

Pascoe has strong ties to the local Yuin community, providing employment for some via Black Duck Foods. He is also a director of the not-for-profit Twofold Aboriginal Corporation, which provides services to the homeless, disabled and poor in the local Aboriginal community.

It has been more than 40 years since Pascoe began piecing together his ancestry. He has one further avenue to pursue, through a land title claim lodged by the Yuin. Already the NSW native title agency NTS Corp has put together genealogies of the Yuin people to support the claim.

In the meantime Pascoe’s publisher Magabala Books continues to describe its prize author as a Bunurong, Tasmanian and Yuin man, despite two of those communities having rejected his claim more than 18 months ago.


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This article is curated from our sister publication, Crikey.

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