A longer read than usual.
Engrossed by a history I had no (substantial) prior knowledge of, I put aside my usual leisurely reading pace to complete Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe, an Aboriginal writer. Published in 2014, I first heard of the book on an ABC comments thread on Facebook in 2017. The post was about Indigenous representation (I cannot recall the context), and I asked, out of genuine interest, what sources would be worth referring to so I could learn more. I got a few responses, with recurring mention of Dark Emu. I never ended up buying the book online, as I usually would, and I soon forgot about it. That is, until I found it in a bookstore earlier this year. I remembered the suggestion and bought it without hesitation. Although lost in the endless data of the internet, I would like to offer thanks to whoever brought it to my attention.
I mentioned this book in a piece only two days ago about Tony Abbott’s cynical acknowledgement of the term ‘invasion’ when talking about the European colonisation of Australia. At that stage, I had only read the first couple of chapters, and now that I have finished it I can do nothing but criticise our society’s general disregard and, in some cases, contempt for out Indigenous population. This is evident not only in our government’s outright opposition to Indigenous interests, but in our representation of them in our news, entertainment, and academic media, as well as (most strikingly) our education system.
As I stated previously, my own knowledge of Aboriginal history and culture was limited to what I had learned during a short camp in grade 5, and high school. A souvenir boomerang I still own is the extent of the camp’s value, with vague stories of the natives chasing animals across what imagined to be vast wildernesses – as most of inland Australia is today. In high school, we picked up Australian history with the ‘discovery’ of Australia by Captain Cook, who, despite seeing the natives, declared the land he saw ‘terra nullius’. Even if you take the view that Australia remained ‘undiscovered’, Cook was by no means the first; Gavin Menzies’ book 1421 (that I also have but have not read yet) says that China may have had contact with the Indigenous peoples of what is now the Northern Territory, and it was possible trade was ever so briefly carried out between them.
No, Cook discovered Australia for the British, but has no other claim. From then until now, Australian history seemed to only concern the colonists and, with the outbreak of World War I, saw Australia as a Federation still bound to the British Empire. The Indigenous received little mention in the modern history of our nation, and nothing of their history and practices before the explorers and settlers arrived was discussed in the classroom. As students, we were taught to understand we had wronged the Aboriginal peoples greatly, but were given almost no context for this and simply accepted the hunter-gatherer image that was portrayed. It was an incredibly skewed and partial view of the truth.
This representation of Indigenous history needs to change. The effects of this omission are obvious when engaging in discourse over Indigenous issues. The number of people who, even today, still justify our colonial roots by giving the ‘gift of progress’ to the ‘primitive natives’ is appalling. Any decent person would be shocked at such a statement, but sadly even these decent people lack the knowledge to appropriately refute them. Rethinking how we teach school children about our true history is a necessary step to changing the public’s image of our Indigenous population.
White Man’s Attitude: Then and Now
Statements, like the one above, trying to justify the colonisation in terms of societal progress, do not just spring out of modern prejudice. The blatant disregard for the Aboriginal peoples is evident from the start, when the explorers and settlers first started expanding their holdings in Australia. Using the journals of these first explorers, Pascoe is able to draw a picturesque view of pre-colonial Australia. While some limit their acknowledgement of such developments, many of the explorers make mention of a number of practices carried out by the natives; practices that were almost immediately forgotten or cast aside.
These include agriculture and aquaculture, with systems so well designed that vast tracts of land that, today, are comparatively barren were verdant fields of grains and yams. Dams were also built, both to allow the successful capture of fish with well-made nets and to shape the flow of water during flood seasons. The presence of housing and storage facilities are also mentioned, with some of the Europeans even occupying them in the generous hospitality of the natives. The use of fire in their agricultural endeavours was also noted as extraordinary, with specific timing and methods to allow the continuation of crops and wildlife. A few compared some scenes to the gardens in London.
All of this appeared in the writings of the European explorers and settlers. The same people were also the ones to explain how the land before them could be used for their own ambitions. Villages were destroyed and the ‘blacks’ were displaced or killed, a fact that is never explicitly stated but is inferred. The fields were trampled and eaten by livestock. The separation of children from their parents (a practice continued into the 1900’s) was justified by changing their perceptions of their own people to that of the Europeans. Some tried to discredit the Aboriginal origins of certain discoveries, calling for a ‘repossession of land’ that obviously had to have belonged to Europeans, or some more ‘superior’ race, who created them. In contrast, others determined European superiority by comparing Aboriginal civilisation against the Western world’s metric of ‘progress’, and therefore considered it their right to usurp those more primitive than themselves.
Such views today would be scorned simply on the basis of opposing racism, but too few know the realities of Aboriginal history and so we have become complacent with the casual ignorance. This has been to the detriment of our Indigenous population, who have been denied so much owed to them, and still face prejudice at the hands of what is essentially a colonial mindset of superiority in some white communities. At the very least, the first step should be proper recognition and acknowledgement. It should be a national effort to rethink our portrayal of Aboriginals in schools and academia, with necessary changes made to allow for greater public knowledge and understanding.
Pascoe lists a number of lessons we can take from Aboriginal society and from the actions of the European settlers. I won’t go into them here – I implore you to read the book yourself – but it is worth mentioning that our nation would greatly benefit from adopting certain attitudes from Aboriginal culture. With the general consensus of Aboriginal presence in Australia at around 60,000-65,000 years (with some estimates suggesting 80,000 years), these people were able to live in complete harmony with the land and each other.
War and conquest was unheard of; gatherings of immense social and cultural significance were prominent; deep spiritual ties with the land led to a bountiful existence. Pascoe believes deeper study of Indigenous culture and history could lead to many beneficial results for our country, and I am inclined to agree. I always knew my knowledge of our Indigenous people was lacking, and I knew they were more than what I had been taught, but Dark Emu transforms my understanding fundamentally.
World history is tainted with blood and warfare and it is called progress. Australia’s history would argue there is more than one metric to define civilised progress. 60,000 years of peace and coexistence among themselves and with nature; what I wouldn’t give to go back and see an Australia untarnished by outsiders, just to see what it looked like. Just to see that such a world is indeed possible to achieve.