Misreading Dark Emu

Aug 15, 2021

Criticisms of the book Dark Emu and its author, Bruce Pascoe, continue to appear, and to become more puzzling. It is as if the overwhelming popularity of Pascoe and his message have disturbed comfortable convictions about Australian history shared across a wide segment of Australian society.

Many seem to have accepted that Pascoe has been proven to be quite wrong, particularly with the publication of Peter Sutton and Keryn Walshe’s book Farmers or Hunter-gatherers? The Dark Emu Debate, which assured us that Aborigines were hunter-gatherers and had no ambitions to become farmers.

Is the implication that we need no longer be concerned about their subsequent history? But that history, as created by the settlers, is the major topic of Bruce Pascoe’s book.

I want to show that the detailed, disparaging interpretation of Dark Emu in Peter Sutton’s chapters in Farmers or Hunter-gatherers is seriously misleading. (Keryn Walshe’s archaeology is less relevant here.) The anthropologist’s irritated corrections of some careless referencing and reckless claims made in a popular, non-academic text ignore Pascoe’s themes, arguments and intentions.

Dark Emu is not about whether Aborigines were agriculturalists or hunter-gatherers, but about how they were seen by explorers, settlers and other observers. Pascoe is challenging popular beliefs about Aborigines. His modest aim, he said, “is to give rise to a possibility of an alternative view of precolonial Australia.” The public recognised this message as a valuable corrective to public and political misconceptions. Farmers or Hunter-Gatherers? shows almost no interest in popular knowledge or public sentiment. Thus, the disagreement is less about the status of hunter-gatherers than about “who is to be master” of Australia’s colonial history.

Full disclosure: Like Peter Sutton I began the profound experience of anthropological fieldwork with a remote Aboriginal community in the 1970s. My original research in southern Arnhem Land explored Rembarrnga women’s traditional lives. Subsequently the cultural interface and race relations became the focus of my ethnographic work.

Sutton’s fieldwork gave him a deep understanding and abiding fondness for those Wik people he calls the Old People and their “classical culture.” His meticulous research into their languages and traditional lives attracts respect. But Dark Emu is not about an allegedly static precolonial past. It is about Australia’s history.

Catching fish a lazy way

Sutton subjects Dark Emu to repetitive micro-analysis, but he ignores the book’s main theme, which is made clear when Pascoe quotes a young settler’s observations in 1897 in his introduction:

a black would sit near the [weir] opening and just behind him a tough stick about ten feet long was stuck in the ground with the thick end down. To the thin end of this rod was attached a line with a noose at the other end; a wooden peg was fixed under the water at the opening in the fence to which this noose was caught, and when the fish made a dart to go through the opening he was caught by the gills, his force undid the loop from the peg, and the spring of the stick threw the fish over the head of the black, who would then in a most lazy manner reach back his hand, undo the fish, and set the loop again around the peg.

Despite this ingenious system, the settler concluded:

I have often heard of the indolence of the blacks and soon came to the conclusion after watching a blackfellow catch a fish in such a lazy way, that what I had heard was perfectly true.

Sutton turns the argument around by repeatedly accusing Pascoe of reviving “the old Eurocentric view held by the British conquerors of Aboriginal society.” But when was Eurocentrism discarded? It is true that anthropologists of the twentieth century were dedicated to understanding and respecting Aboriginal traditions and often admired the complexities of kinship, ritual, religion and the economic system. But such work, perhaps inadvertently, reinforced public images of a static society — in the singular — with ancient practices that intrigued intellectuals, but would inevitably give way before modernity. That inevitability is affirmed by the anthropologist’s emphasis on contented hunter-gatherers, thus relieving us all of the colonial guilt that Pascoe’s book evokes in some readers.

Old facts

Sutton focuses repetitively on “the facts.” “Evidence” would be a better term to decribe detailed knowledge of traditional societies and their marked variation across Australia. None of us has direct experience of precolonial societies, so some humility would be appropriate when claiming knowledge of them. Social facts require interpretation and attract debate, for instance about how assumptions shape even the most scientific observers’ interpretations, and how specific terms carry value judgments. Foraging and farming are not only descriptive terms; together they carry a commonsense meaning of progress through time.

I am also fond of facts and there are many facts about Wik history that tell of a century of bloodshed, land theft and interference throughout Cape York before Sutton arrived there in 1970. Sutton lived with people who, he claims, “in many cases had been born and raised beyond the reach of the British Empire.” His companions must have been very old indeed to have escaped the influence of settlers who arrived in Cape York in the ninteeenth century with the protection from the Queensland state apparatus.

Sutton’s professional work as an expert witness in Native Title cases might explain his respect for facts over interpretation. Native Title courts, operating under the Native Title Act, are tasked with identifying traditional owners of particular country. The process is adversarial, so there is little room for considering the ambiguity of the alien concept of “property,” or taking account of changing circumstances, let alone of shared responsibility for an area between the moieties — mother’s country and fathers’ country.

The one thing the Native Title process has in common with traditional Aboriginal practices of dispute resolution is the considerable time involved. In Arnhem Land, I saw Aboriginal people resolving major disputes through slow, careful dialogue. Each speaker sought common ground and avoided causing offence to rivals with the aim of avoiding violence. The process was not adversarial but based on negotiation.

Sutton is incorrect when accusing Pascoe of denigrating Aborigines as “mere hunter-gatherers.” This is careless reading: Pascoe was quoting others’ use of that term, emphasising the pervasive belittling of the natives in early observers’ texts. Such belittling is still with us. The common term is racism.

The past is not the history

Studying the past is not the same as studying history. Sutton claims access to an authentic, unchanged native tradition, but he leaves us ignorant of how the Old People related to white explorers, land-hungry settlers, missionaries and miners and their beliefs about “savages.” Missionaries enticed Wik people to become sedentary, but when a massive bauxite deposit was discovered under the mission houses at Mapoon the people were forcibly moved and their houses burned down. Sutton may admire the Old People but, surprisingly, his work lacks any interest in living, changing, adapting and resistant Aboriginal societies — let alone our colonising forebears that labelled Aborigines “mere hapless wanderers.”

Sutton has not always ignored the Aboriginal present. He was an activist in Queensland in the 1980s, actively promoting recognition of Aboriginal culture and land rights. But his 2009 book The Politics of Suffering was his anguished response to the violence among contemporary Wik people. Sutton held the liberal policies of cultural recognition responsible and endorsed the Howard government’s 2007 Northern Territory Intervention. As fellow anthropologist Basil Sansom observed: “Sutton now argues that Aboriginal culture (Australia-wide) is bad [and] should not be conceded space to flourish.” It is only the Old People’s culture that Sutton admires, and we know what happens to old people.

Affluent foragers

Social evolutionism was upended by anthropologists when they recognised that the agricultural revolution was the “worst revolution in human history.” The American anthropologist Marshall Sahlins famously named foragers “the Original Affluent Society” because they had limited needs and abundant leisure. Humans had lived thus across the whole globe for millennia before agriculturalists developed major food surpluses, storage and denser populations. There followed cities and slaves, poverty and affluence, inequality and injustice — a downward spiral for humanity.

Anthropology students were taught the superiority of hunter-gatherer societies, but Sutton must know that primitivist thought remains alive today in popular imagery and convictions despite the work of anthropologists like Stanley Diamond. Admiration for hunter-gatherer societies is often derided as romantic primitivism, even by some anthropologists.

Pascoe shows how easy and convenient it was for settlers to share the conviction that Aborigines had not developed into modern humans and that a natural evolutionary process meant they had to give way to advanced Europeans. And that idea has not been eradicated. A further, repeated emphasis in Pascoe’s book is how settlers’ farming practices destroyed what Aborigines had preserved. Pascoe — along with most people — sees agriculture as a “development” from a simpler economy and in this he affirms that the continent was inhabited by dynamic societies. Such a view is more in line with scholarly knowledge of the deep human past than is Sutton’s emphasis on the Wik’s stasis. Social change may have been imperceptible for long periods, but human societies are living entities, not static or self-satisfied as the “Old People” appear in Sutton’s work.

Admiration for Pascoe’s book stems from its “profound challenge to conventional thinking about Aboriginal life on this continent” (Marcia Langton) and a critique of Australia’s “underlying supremicism” (Penny Wong). Sutton says primitive imagery of Aborigines is “a colonial-era fiction long expunged from Australian law.” But the Native Title Act was only passed in 1993 against powerful resistance and two centuries of primitivist and racist assumptions. Aboriginal ownership is still vigorously contested, moreover, and Sutton’s professional life as a Native Title anthropologist depends on that contestation.

Social archaeology

Anthropologists are often confused with archaeologists who study the evidence of human societies before written records emerged. Contemporary anthropology retains its focus on cultural specificities and variations, with the practice of ethnographic fieldwork ensuring that the discipline has a contemporary focus on living cultural histories and responses to changing conditions, rather than merely the past.

Perhaps Pascoe’s popularity has annoyed some, but I am more troubled that a classical anthropological text such as Farmers or Hunter-Gatherers? presents Aborigines as the Old People who belong indisputably to Australia’s past. Because it ignores living social history, Peter Sutton’s work can reasonably be defined as social archaeology. Sutton may have missed the work of the anthropologist Eric Wolf, who in 1982 urged social anthropologists to move beyond images of timeless, unchanging native societies and attend to post-colonial histories that are in urgent need of documentation.

By failing to address Bruce Pascoe’s historical themes, Sutton appears to be tilting at windmills. He may be right in seeing Dark Emu as a challenge to work that confines its attention to old Aboriginal people with long memories in remote places. But tilting at the windmill of contemporary popular, public and political thought doesn’t enhance the reputation of our discipline. It is the Native Title Act’s emphasis on Aboriginal traditions that keeps social archaeology alive in Australia and diverts interest from the varied ways Aborigines once lived and have since adapted, responded, resisted and perhaps most importantly thought about the culture that now dominates the continent. It is not Sutton, but Pascoe who encourages such progressive thought.

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