Aboriginal history

Making Aboriginal History More European is Condescending, Says Indigenous Critic of Pascoe

8 July 2021

3.5 MINS

In one of The Australian’s most-read articles over the weekend, RMIT Adjunct Professor Victoria Grieve-Williams had scathing words for Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu, a book recently exposed for its fraudulent scholarship:

In 2014, Bruce Pascoe, exhibiting zeal and showmanship, produced a book that has now sold more than 260,000 copies. Surprise, it says that we Indigenous Australians are more like white people, and therefore, somehow, more sophisticated than “mere” hunter-gatherers.

Well thanks, but no thanks.

Grieve-Williams is a Warraimaay person from the NSW mid-north coast; an author and a widely published historian. Grieve-Williams is also the mother of Daily Declaration contributor and businesswoman Josephine Cashman, who has laboured — and paid a big personal price — in uncovering the Pascoe fiasco.

The bombshell article Grieve-Williams penned is entitled Dark Emu ‘hoax’: takedown reveals the emperor has no clothes. It begins with a quote by Peter Sutton, who recently co-authored a book to set the record straight on Pascoe’s false claims:

There is much terrible irony in Dark Emu’s struggle to shoehorn classical Aboriginal Australia into the supposedly advanced world of agriculture.

Grieve-Williams suggests that the Pascoe scandal is part of an illustrious tradition in which “Australians seem inordinately susceptible to a good old-fashioned literary hoax”. She lists a number of examples, including Ian Carmen, a white taxi-driver from Adelaide who pretended to be a Pitjantjatjara man and part of the Stolen Generation. Carmen ended up writing a fake autobiography that was used as a text in high school curriculum for New South Wales.

The point that Grieve-Williams makes is one that many Australians have missed in recent weeks: Bruce Pascoe’s critics aren’t the ones guilty of condescension towards Indigenous Australians — it’s his supporters who are insulting Aboriginal people.

Pascoe used unsourced material, poor research and exaggerations to claim that Aboriginal Australians were less like hunter-gatherers and more like agricultural Europeans in their use of the land before the arrival of the British.

Pascoe’s false claims have been amplified by the taxpayer-funded ABC and SBS, along with “high-level politicians, many journalists and sundry social media self-styled experts” in the seven years since its publication. Worse, critics of the book have been denounced as racists for disagreeing with Pascoe’s treatise. But this is back-to-front, says Grieve-Williams:

Pascoe’s thesis went entirely against my lived experience, learning as a child to the “summer” and “winter” camps of my mother’s people. They moved to the Barrington Mountains, even in snow, for fatter game and thicker furs, and returned to the coast for the mullet runs in spring, feasting and meeting with other groups.

The bunya bunya from the giant cones in the bunya tree, and the huge mulloway my grandfather caught, kept the family alive during the Depression. As a family, they moved out over country whenever they could for berries, fish, oysters and pippis.

These stories were a joyful reaffirming of proud hunting and gathering tradition.

Then came Dark Emu, and suddenly Aboriginal experience and pride in our culture was being subsumed by a tsunami of misguided appreciation for Aboriginal people as farmers. My grandfather had a thinly disguised, humorous contempt for farmers. No proud hunter has animals following him around.

She then recounts the recent “muscular take-down” of Dark Emu by Professor Peter Sutton and Dr Keryn Walshe in their newly-released book Farmers or Hunter-Gatherers: The Dark Emu Debate. Grieve-Williams explains that while this anthropologist-archaeologist duo consulted almost 60 Aboriginal “cultural mentors” for their tome, Bruce Pascoe mostly relied on “white explorers’ journals which are “extremely out of touch with living Aboriginal worlds.”

Referring to Sutton and Walshe’s work, she writes:

This book too is a defence of Aboriginal people as hunters and gatherers; as nomads; as a dignified and highly intelligent, spiritual people, who don’t need to be and have no wish to be farmers or horticulturalists. What is more advanced — living in such a way that the environment always provides what you need in terms of food and water, or interfering with that system of food production in order to plant and propagate? Pascoe has assumed that the second is more advanced. Some might say they are just different…

Pascoe’s polemical style indicates that he wrote his book against something. Was he trying to overturn more than a century of scholarship? Or does his book serve a different, even more dangerous purpose? Dark Emu writes Aboriginal people into the white Australian racist monoculture, making “them” comfortably just like “other Australians” (i.e. white people). This removes the danger posed by true difference, true belonging and thus the sovereignty of Aboriginal people. And it segues perfectly with the current penchant among white Australians for adopting an Aboriginal identity, which they can then distort to fit their own agendas.

It “beggars belief”, Grieve-Williams asserts, that Dark Emu even enjoyed so many literary accolades despite its shoddy scholarship:

Several academics including Sutton have said they thought the book would “blow over”, but in the seventh year of its release it suddenly started to grip the public’s imagination, and it is now, to the dismay of many Indigenous and other academics, being taught in schools, and in 2016, it won the Book of the Year Award and the NSW Premier’s Indigenous History Award.

Meanwhile, those who had long warned of Bruce Pascoe’s unscrupulous agenda — like Josephine Cashman — are left to rebuild their sullied reputations.

The question is, will the media that for so long promoted Bruce Pascoe ever admit they were wrong?

[Photo by Trevor McKinnon on Unsplash]

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