Peter O’Brien’s conclusion to Bitter Harvest (Quadrant Books), a powerful and clearheaded examination of the Dark Emu hoax, places Bruce Pascoe’s book in the political context of the present:
Dark Emu is nothing more than just another motif in a rich tapestry of grievance that seems to grow larger as it becomes more remote in time from the upheaval that changed the lives and culture of the Aboriginal people forever.
In Pascoe’s own lifetime that great upheaval was not in the distant past of all Aborigines, for even fifty years ago some still lived the existence of hunter-gatherer nomads, and their way of life is recorded in words, photos and films which he ignored.
December 28, 1966. At Patjarr in the Gibson Desert it was already over forty-seven degrees in the shade and young Richard Gould was setting out with a group of men, women, children and lots of dogs to observe a typical day of foraging. The thirteen-person band of Nyatunyatjara people (contemporary spelling) that Gould and his wife Betsy, two young American anthropologists, were accompanying had temporarily camped near billabongs at Patjarr, in the Clutterbuck Hills about 240 kilometres to the north-west of Warburton station.
The individuals the Goulds lived with represent those whose beliefs and traditional lifestyle have been so arrogantly discarded and distorted into a simplistic Eurocentric tale by Dark Emu. They are solid personalities, not the shadows Pascoe discerns and invents from scanning nineteenth-century explorers’ journals and the works of other writers. The events of this particular day are recounted in “A Day with the Desert People”, the opening chapter of Richard Gould’s book Yiwara: Foragers of the Australian Desert, his narrative of over a year spent with Aboriginal people in the Gibson Desert.
In 1969 the illustrated book was published in attractive editions by Collins in London and Scribner’s in New York. It was highly praised. In the Canberra Times W.E.H. Stanner recommended the young American anthropologist’s work and referred to “the deepening of Dr Gould’s intellectual respect for the desert people”. But then everything went violently wrong. The people Gould had studied and lived with became aware of Yiwara and realised he had betrayed their trust by publishing photographs of sacred images, describing secret rites and even identifying the people who had shared this information with him. In the desert the book had also been seen by women and uninitiated Aboriginal men who under Aboriginal law could be speared for this offence—not quite the “system of pan-continental government that generated peace and prosperity” which Pascoe has invented.
Order Peter O’Brien’s Bitter Harvest here
Billy Griffiths in his PhD thesis and book Deep Time Dreaming has discussed the work of Richard and Betsy Gould in Australia and noted the explosive and violent reactions their book created. When Gould returned to Australia in 1974 to attend an Alice Springs conference, men from Laverton drove 1500 kilometres to murder him, but arrived late. Withdrawn by its publishers in 1973, copies of Yiwara were destroyed in a public book burning at Warburton station.
The book is highly offensive to Aborigines, and at the same time its withdrawal has depleted valuable and possibly unique first-hand observations relating to the daily life of Australian hunter-gatherers. If Gould committed an unpardonable betrayal, then what of Dark Emu, in which Bruce Pascoe has robbed Aboriginal Australia of its essential and millennial experience of hunter-gathering and its associated beliefs and traditions and replaced them with an elderly counter-culturalist’s fantasy of Earth Garden agriculturists, hippie cooking and Green Left Weekly village/commune dwellers?
Academic Billy Griffiths, who has rapidly created a reputation as a noteworthy historian and writer, praised Dark Emu and described its author as “an indigenous writer, scholar and storyteller”. While all his readers may agree on the story-telling, the other two attributes are less sure. Surely Griffiths, and anyone who has completed a PhD thesis, must have an uncomfortable feeling that something isn’t right when looking at Dark Emu’s impressive bibliography and then at the footnotes where, as Peter O’Brien observes, only a third of these entries are actually referenced. And as an historian, I don’t understand why a writer who had delved so deeply into the subject (if you trust the bibliography) has depended so much on the secondary sources he uses in the book instead of experiencing the real pleasure of discovering the richness of the primary source materials available. O’Brien also observed, as Griffiths didn’t, that Pascoe in his concluding chapter quotes from and praises a thoroughly discredited book—Gavin Menzies’s 1421: The Year China Discovered the World. Surely no one who had actually done the reading indicated by the bibliography and recorded each title with such academically correct precision could ever have cited Menzies as a trustworthy source. Its inclusion is like basing the conclusion of an academic study of Tibetan Buddhism on Lobsang Rampa’s The Third Eye. For Magabala Books, any tip shop history is good enough for Australian readers and schoolchildren—it’s black, it can’t be criticised, it will win awards. Suckers.
Even as he adds unmerited praise to Dark Emu, Griffiths does ask the clearly pertinent question: “Is it necessary to turn to Eurocentric language and ideas to acknowledge the richness and complexity of Indigenous economies?” No, it is not “necessary”, but it is necessary to find a place among the tellers of that history for initiated Aboriginal males. Even if Pascoe were shown to be Aboriginal, he is not an initiated man. He was not taught the knowledge needed to become a tribal man in childhood, he was not ritually circumcised in adolescence, there will never be a place for him among the men when sacred matters are discussed. Should he attempt to join them when they settle down to talk among themselves, he would be chased away or even speared for intruding his unwanted presence. You cannot be an Aboriginal historian of profound cultural Aboriginal history without being an initiated Aboriginal man privy to the religiosity and secrets of the culture, and here there is an explosive problem sitting close at hand in the Dark Emu bibliography.
Inside the impressive sixteen pages of those closely packed, small-type entries is a reference to Richard Gould’s Yiwara. Why does an uninitiated Aboriginal man have a copy of a book whose contents are sacred, none of his business, and whose possession of it could have him speared? Even in Western eyes, it is insensitive on the part of a self-identified White Aborigine. And if this does not matter to him then why did he not quote, as Billy Griffiths has done, from the non-sacred matters in the text? Pascoe has a book whose possession is offensive to Aborigines, and it stunningly disproves the theory he is trying to put across. If Pascoe were a white historian, I would accuse him of deliberately hiding evidence.
The faults with Dark Emu are exposed by O’Brien’s Bitter Harvest, yet this investigative book has been ignored by academia and the cultural media, who rely on flattering inside-book-cover quotes and the silly assertion from a journalist on the Saturday Paper, which is owned by one of Pascoe’s publishers, that Dark Emu is free of errors. O’Brien is not an academic historian—that is his strength. He is free from the deadly and dulling Left control asserted within the universities over the study of Australian history. O’Brien checked the uses Pascoe makes of his sources and discovered them to be abusive. Billy Griffiths, and all the others, have not checked what Pascoe has done and are prepared to see his divisive fiction taught in our schools. A post-hoax generation may one day angrily ask these historians: “Why weren’t we told?”
As a writer, Pascoe did not make a serious mark until he became an Aboriginal Writer, and while his racial claim for this distinction is widely accepted, though not by all Aborigines, it is not supported in a careful study compiled by genealogist Jan Holland. In a family tree, documented every step of the way and with no dark spots, no blank spaces on birth certificates, she follows his family just a few generations back to their roots in England. If she is wrong, he really should produce the documentary evidence he claims to hold.
Bruce Pascoe and I are from the same generation. At school we studied the same subjects and used the same textbooks, even though he attended a more prestigious high school. As we grew older we saw the same films, probably read Nation Review and perhaps voted for the same political party. He went to university and teacher’s college; I went to work. All these years later I look at my contemporary giving a public lecture and see a phoney. Pascoe has been photographed with his theatrical white flowing hair bound by a red headband. It may be different in Richmond where he was born but in other places these things have specific cultural meanings and are only worn by circumcised men. Perhaps he should return the headband to the prop table.
The author of Dark Emu is a sermonising moralist, not an historian—the nice phrase is from Richard Evans, in a quite different context—and it is not his first voyage into myth making. In 2007 his book Convincing Ground was published. Although he claimed to have done much research, he never noticed that the massacre story it is based on is false—there is no proof it ever took place. Its modern cultivation and use are part of contemporary race politics, and a greedy local power play over land and government subsidy. We will never have a truthful Australian history until we peel off the lies and myths on both sides of the black–white wall which academics are doing their best to build.
The Convincing Ground story had been driven along that year by a two-part ABC series—the production company commissioned to produce it was owned by Richard Frankland, a well-known local Aboriginal activist in the area where the event never happened. It was naturally one-sided and I complained to the ABC. Even before being acknowledged, my letter was leaked to the media by the attention-seeking director. A journalist from the Age rang and asked me to comment on Frankland’s statement to him that my connection with Keith Windschuttle compromised the integrity of the ABC—surprising, as his company had earlier approached both of us to take part in his documentary, a set-up so obvious we both refused. Earlier Keith had published my book The Invention of Terra Nullius and since then had become a director of the ABC—in the book I do talk of the Convincing Ground story and also noted an incredibly plagiarised history book which has helped the story along. I did not comment, but I did complain again to the ABC.
Frankland had sympathetically filmed two local Aborigines who touchingly endorsed the massacre story without their relationship to each other and the director being revealed. After I pointed this out, the ABC responded by saying that in Senator Aden Ridgeway’s introduction to Part One (not part of the film, but shown before it was screened) he said the documentary was “produced by award-winning film-maker Richard Frankland whose family and wider clan group tell us the moving and disturbing story of ‘The Convincing Ground’”. Later, and quite by accident, I came across an ABC “Public Report on Comments and Complaints” and found my complaint dealt with in these terms: “It was also assessed that some of the complex family relationships were mentioned in the introduction to the program by its presenter.” Complex family relationships? The people used in the documentary without noting their relationship to the director were Frankland’s brother and mother.
With the ABC’s vast experience in phoney documentary-making their version of Dark Emu, currently under production, is sure to be memorable.