Crikey is this week publishing a series of stories on Dark Emu and its much-lauded author Bruce Pascoe, in light of the recent critical examination of Pascoe’s thesis by anthropologist Peter Sutton and archaeologist Dr Keryn Walshe.
Through the publication of Farmers or Hunter-Gatherers? The Dark Emu Debate, Sutton and Walshe have effectively blown the whistle on Pascoe’s work. Given how influential Dark Emu has become in recasting Australia’s history, this forensic unmasking represents an important moment.
In tackling this topic, Crikey is aware of how caught up Dark Emu has been in the tiresome culture wars that dominate the public discourse. That makes it a fraught exercise.
There is a good argument that the culture wars are really between white people playing their own game of identity politics: the conservatives versus the progressives is getting as old as the Hatfields and the McCoys — and about as useful to the rest of us.
In the middle are the people who are, rightly, fed up that they can’t raise a question about a prevailing ideology without getting their heads blown off.
Journalist and author Stan Grant, one of Australia’s sharpest observers of Indigenous affairs, puts it this way: “It is really interesting what this whole story reveals about us. It is a real culture war issue. And I just can’t stand either side of the culture wars.”
Human rights lawyer Dr Hannah McGlade told Crikey: “We are not left or right in this debate. We are Indigenous people. This is about our culture, identity and human rights.”
The veteran Tasmanian Indigenous leader Michael Mansell has pointed the finger at the failure of journalists to ask questions that might not accord with their “progressive” view of the world.
The Sutton and Walshe critique was released with a careful media strategy aimed at avoiding the work being framed as a shot in the culture wars. The book was unveiled in the Nine mastheads rather than News Corp (which might have brought the book larger readership). The journalist who wrote the Nine feature, Stuart Rintoul, is an experienced hand with no barrow to push.
The real concern — especially for the Indigenous people Crikey has spoken to — is ultimately about cultural appropriation: that a “white” take on history, such as that Pascoe is accused of propagating in Dark Emu, insults Indigenous Australia and passes the wrong information to Indigenous kids about their people’s achievements.
This appraisal needs to be set against white Australia’s need for a myth as a salve for its guilt about the colonial invasion of Indigenous Australia. That is what Dark Emu offers: a description of a people’s achievements that white people can relate to and a way to atone for it.
There is an ancillary debate, which the Sutton/Walshe book has inadvertently reignited — that about Bruce Pascoe’s claimed Indigenous identity. The topic is usually avoided in polite company. It is seen as off-limits to question someone’s bona fides when they say they are trying to piece together their past.
At the same time, though, the identity question matters more and more to the integrity of Indigenous Australia. As Crikey has become aware, there is a heated debate about Pascoe’s identity among Indigenous people because false claims are, in the words of one person Crikey has spoken to, contributing to the breakdown of Indigenous identity.
Bruce Pascoe has accused his opponents of using questions over his identity to discredit Dark Emu. Yet the author himself insists that he be known as an Indigenous man, repeatedly claiming links to three separate groups — the Bunerong, Tasmanian and the Yuin — despite two of these groups outright denying his claim, and the third claim now being subject to serious dispute, as we reveal in our series.
At its most serious, the Pascoe story is — potentially — an indictment of Australia’s cultural and arts organisations. The University of Melbourne has its own questions to answer over the appointment of Pascoe to a professorship. It also raises genuine questions for the so-called progressive media, which has largely vacated the space when it comes to any scepticism of the Pascoe enterprise. Sutton and Walshe have themselves pointed to the failure of journalists to go to the primary Indigenous and academic sources of knowledge.
In so doing, it has been left to the left’s bogeyman, News Corp columnist Andrew Bolt, to make the most telling points on Pascoe and Dark Emu.
There are two vital voices missing from the debate. One is the author, who has not responded to our requests for comment. The other is influential academic Professor Marcia Langton, who has been one of Pascoe’s strongest supporters. Langton has described Dark Emu as “the most important book on Australia which should be read by every Australian”.
Langton is also the natural foil to the anthropologist Sutton. She graduated with honours in anthropology from the ANU in the 1980s and gained a PhD for her work on Aboriginal society in the Cape York Peninsula. Like Sutton, she is a Fellow of the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia. Langton, however, has declined our requests for comment.