Required re-education readings: Dark Emu

An abridged version of this review has been published by Green Left Weekly

As a kid the way I was taught about Indigenous people was terrible. For one thing, the understanding of the Indigenous economy and technology was non-existent. I had this picture of people living in homes basically made of a bit of bark and maybe grass and sticks leaned up against a tree trunk. Kind of like I often now see kids doing  to make cubby houses. The impression was they spent their time wandering around and occasionally spearing a kangaroo or goanna for dinner.

Over the years I picked up bits and pieces of a more realistic and less insulting picture of Indigenous life, but it wasn’t really until I read Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe that it all fell into place such that I can maybe imagine in some detail how people lived.

The original inhabitants of Australia built comfortable huts of various materials, including stone in some areas. They farmed grains and root vegetables as staple crops in many areas. They created dams and weirs and canals to hold and move water. They traded valuable products like axeheads and smoked eels and fabulous possum-skin cloaks.

I don’t know if the valley here was a settlement, but I will guess what it could have looked like. Perhaps on the higher edges of the broad floodplain there were villages of huts made from basalt blocks and bent-over wattle trees and bundled reeds, comfortable insulated shelters in winter rain or summer sun. Earth ovens would cook feasts maybe of the bustard and mallee-fowl that used to live around here, and the yam daisy (from which the town Myrniong takes its name) which was probably farmed, maybe on the rich alluvial soils.

I can just about idark_emu_covermagine a trading meet-up somewhere around the confluence of the Lerderderg and Werribee Rivers. Greenstone axeheads from the Wurundjeri quarries at Wil-im-ee Moor-ring (Mt William, near Lancefield), perhaps smoked eels from the Gunditjmara eel farm at Budj Bim in Western Victoria; maybe sealskins from the coast, or possum skin cloaks from the forests in the ranges.

What became of all that is almost too sad to think about, as disease and hunger seem to have wiped out a large part of the Victorian population within a few years of the arrival of the sheep-farmers in 1835; historian James Boyce suggests most of the surviving Indigenous people of Victoria were living as refugees on the new streets of Melbourne by 1840. But recovering some memory of what was destroyed is positive.

I thought the book worth a comparison with one other recent well-read and well-publicised book about Indigenous economy and technology: Bill Gammage’s The Greatest Estate on Earth, which I critically reviewed, with Emma Murphy, here.

Pascoe actually acknowledges Gammage’s work, which undoubtedly gives a lot of credit to Indigenous people for a sophisticated method of managing the land. But how sophisticated? Perhaps only because Gammage chose fire as his focus, I came away from his book with a kind of impression that he thought Indigenous people only really had one tool for land management: fire. A tool they used masterfully, flexibly, subtly; but only one tool. Pascoe’s book seems to open up huge new vistas of a more diverse set of tools and methods, perhaps.

The other, even more striking contrast: the two authors’ attitudes to the relevant bodies  of research in the areas they write about. Pascoe communicates much of the latest research (since the 1980s, generally) in archaeology and anthropology with a real enthusiasm and apparent respect for the work.

Gammage, on the other hand, treats ecologists with disdain, preferring the anecdotal accounts of early European explorers as his primary source. He includes as an appendix a sustained polemic against leading ecologists and their views. Perhaps it should not be surprising that the ideologues of the IPA were quick to praise his book.

I also thought Gammage was pretty thin on Indigenous voices in his work, and it hasn’t been received with enthusiasm by all Indigenous people; watch this talk by Gunditjmara linguist Joel Wright for example.

As the critical review I co-authored suggests, I suspect with time Gammage’s thesis will be viewed as a poor piece of historical research and a poor understanding of Indigenous economy. I have higher hopes for Pascoe’s more modestly presented volume. This book is a fantastic and relatively short read and I commend it to everyone who lives on this continent, in particular those, like me, who aren’t Indigenous.

Dark Emu, Bruce Pascoe 2014. Magabala books, Broome.


One thought on “Required re-education readings: Dark Emu

  1. I entirely agree – “Dark Emu” is a marvellous book, full of insights and fantastically well researched… and a page turner too!! I passed it on to several people after ripping through it in only a couple of days. A real revelation – I had read Gammage’s book before and found it interesting but as you say, this one is better in a whole series of ways.

    Liked by 1 person

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