Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe, is an excellent book to inaugurate our Book Club’s proceedings which commenced early this year, thanks to the conveners Renee Cawthorne and Zehra Ahmed.
Pascoe is an Aboriginal writer, researcher and educator, with ancestry combining Tasmanian and the Boonwurrung (Bunurong) clan of the Kulin Nation on the western side of Port Phillip Bay, Victoria.
Dark Emu presents a view of Indigenous Australian history and culture different from conventional academic accounts and radically contrary to mainstream popular narrative.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people received insufficient and often distorted representation in cultural studies and, especially, Australian history. This resulted in large part from political context where indigenous Australians were dispossessed, marginalised and suffered many decades of political and civic exclusion, institutionalised and inherent in practice. To justify this the colonist constructed a narrative, depicting indigenous people as primitive nomadic tribes. Civilising primitive land and people was framed as a noble endeavour, where ends justified means.
In this context, “nomad” was a judgemental term with negative connotations – and people who are not settled or cultivate land (according to European model) do not have a title or claim to the land. So, the insulting term “nomad” helped to perpetuate the infamous myth of terra nullius - nobody's land. “Hunter-gatherer” term, which circulated in both popular and academic spheres was more neutral, but it fed the same narrative about the “primitive dying race.”
Dark Emu is packed with quotes and references from original sources that collectively challenge the narrative of the Aboriginal people as nomadic hunters. This would be surprising to many ordinary readers and prodding the minds of mainstream academics. But Pascoe is not alone. There is a growing body of research and writing, showing on numerous levels, that the traditional portrait of primitive nomads can no longer be sustained. We are facing a tremendous shift in how the indigenous culture, society and economy in precolonial times is understood and how it would influence the future rights and dignity of dispossessed people.
Furthermore, this shift will influence the broad field of knowledge because there is not yet an adequate model in the anthropology tool box to account for the socio-economic manner of land use and the provisioning of resources, emerging from current research and re-examination of older theories. We would need to consider propagation of plants beyond fire-stick farming, large storage of crops, reliance on grains in large parts of arid Australia, village-type settlements, dams and irrigation, large construction projects and substantial architecture, all combined with what looks like pretty sustainable (at least in comparative terms) economic and social systems.
While the Dark Emu presents a passionate polemic with distorted history, it also projects into the future. This new knowledge, that Pascoe outlines in his book, will enrich us all. It will compel us to respect indigenous cultures as our own. Perhaps we’ll draw from this knowledge some ideas for the better use of land with its increasingly stressed resources. And I hope we will see our indigenous brothers and sisters, with their long tradition and collective wisdom, participating equally in this knowledge-based quest for our common better future.
Bruce Pascoe. Dark Emu, Black Seeds: Agriculture or Accident? Magabala Books. 2014.