Dark Emu, Bruce Pascoe

ANZLitLovers Indigenous Literature Week, 4-11 July 2021

Dark Emu (2018) has been well reviewed over the past two or three years, and as Lisa/ANZLL sent me my copy more or less at the beginning of that period I have been remiss in not reviewing it earlier. Pascoe, a man of Bunurong, Tasmanian and Yuin heritage, of course uses this book to argue that the Indigenous people of Australia were much more than ‘just’ hunter-gatherers, but were in fact custodians of the land who built houses, sowed grain and had a pan-continental system of governance that allowed the various language groups to live largely in harmony.

The advantage of my review being late is that I will be able to incorporate some recent papers which argue that Pascoe has overstated his case. At the base of these arguments is a new book by “eminent Australian anthropologist Peter Sutton and respected field archaeologist Keryn Walshe”, Farmers or Hunter-gatherers? The Dark Emu Debate (2021). No, I’m not going to read it, but the book has led to spirited reviews in The Conversation and in the daily newspapers. Pascoe has responded that he welcomes this debate.

ANU senior lecturer Christine Nicholls in her review in The Conversation of 15 June 2021 says that Sutton & Walsh demonstrate that Pascoe was selective in the way he used sources – the journals of early explorers – to imply that “all along Aboriginal people were farmers and/or aquaculturalists”, and that he deliberately failed to interview the few remaining people who have led or are leading, traditional lives [see for instance Two Sisters]. Though the two books are sometimes in agreement –

[Sutton & Walsh] portray classical Australian Aboriginal people as highly successful hunter-gatherers and fishers. They strongly repudiate racist notions of Aboriginal hunter-gatherers as living in a primitive state. In their book, they assert there was and is nothing “simple” or “primitive” about hunter-gatherer-fishers’ labour practices. This complexity was, and in many cases, still is, underpinned by high levels of spiritual/cultural belief.

Nicholls

Right at the beginning of Dark Emu, Pascoe makes clear that his concern is the system 18th and 19th century anthropologists used to rank societies – with hunter-gatherers at the bottom, then primitive agriculturalists, then traders and so on. By ranking them at the very lowest rung, the British were able to argue that Indigenous Australians had made no attempt to take possession of the land and therefore it was technically unoccupied, terra nullius. The concept of living in harmony with the land, which is the basis of Sutton & Walsh’s argument, was ignored, or to be kind, not understood. Pascoe, understandably perhaps, attempts to make his argument on his opponents’ terms, attempts to show that his people were above that lowest rung.

Hunter-gatherer and farmer are both settler/colonial labels, and the long prevailing negative interpretation of hunter-gatherer has been used as a weapon against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples (as a justification for terra nullius)

Pascoe, The Age, 12 June 2021

Michael Westaway, an archeologist, also in The Conversation (18 June 2021), is open to Pascoe’s views and is testing them at the site of known village and Indigenous stone quarry in the Channel Country in central Australia

We have been working in a landscape that provides an important test of the Dark Emu hypothesis. In partnership with the Mithaka Aboriginal Corporation, who occupy the Channel Country in Central Australia, we have begun investigating Aboriginal settlement sites, pit dwelling huts (known as gunyahs) and quarries.

Our landscape study, published in the journal Antiquity, has found over 140 quarry sites, where rock was excavated to produce seed grinding stones. We have also developed a method to locate traces of long-lost village sites.

Were First Australians farmers or hunter-gatherers? Contemporary archaeological research suggests it’s not such a simple dichotomy. Understanding the Mithaka food production system may well tell us whether such terms are a good fit for defining socio-economic networks in Aboriginal Australia.

Westaway

Stuart Rintoul in The Age, in a “review” which illustrates perfectly why I can’t be bothered with mainstream media’s focus on personalities over books and ideas, discusses the background to the Sutton & Walsh book, and also the racist response of the right to Dark Emu.

And that is as far as I got before I left Perth last week to come to Melbourne. Now, the following Thursday night I’m sitting have tea waiting till it’s time to leave (due to boring logbook stuff) to go back home. If I don’t post this tonight then my next opportunity will be next Wednesday. I’m a big fan of Lisa’s Indig. Lit. Week and I’d be sorry not to contribute. I’m already sorry about not commenting, not to Lisa’s daily posts, nor to BIP’s prolific #ReadIndigenous series. I’m going to have a lot of catching up to do. Yes, I know we all do what we can, but I’m still sorry (sad).

As it happens, my current audiobook is Archie Roach’s memoir Tell Me Why. If you don’t know, Archie Roach is one of the great singer songwriters – I last saw him at Perth’s Quarry Amphitheatre, a wonderful venue and a great night – Indigenous, and of course, one of the Stolen Generation (here’s They took the Children Away). I’ll try and remember enough to review it when I get home.

So, back to Bruce. Dark Emu concludes with

The start of that journey [to equality] is to allow the knowledge that Aboriginal people did build houses, did cultivate and irrigate crops, did sew clothes, and were not hapless wanderers across the soil, mere hunter-gatherers. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were intervening in the productivity of this country, and what has been learnt during that process over many thousands of years will be useful to us today. To deny Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander agricultural and spiritual achievement is the single greatest impediment to intercultural understanding and, perhaps, to Australian moral wellbeing and economic prosperity.

Stirring words. My impression is that Pascoe has put the advocate’s case, his people’s case, and has done it well, though probably with some understandable hype. He has certainly made the impression he wished and has in particular had some influence on how Aboriginal history is now taught. More power to his elbow.

.

Bruce Pascoe, Dark Emu, Magabala, Broome, first pub. 2014. New edition 2018. 229pp.
Christine Nicholls, Farmers or Hunter-Gatherers?, The Conversation, 15 June 2021 (here)
Michael Westaway, How our archeological research investigates Dark Emu’s idea of Aboriginal ‘Agriculture’ and Villages, The Conversation, 18 June 2021 (here)
Stuart Rintoul, Has Dark Emu been debunked?, The Age, 12 June 2021 (here)
Mark McKenna, Bruce Pascoe has welcomed the Dark Emu debate, The Guardian, 25 June 2021 (here)