‘When you’re on a good thing, stick to it’. Like most kids growing up in the Fifties and Sixties, Bruce Pascoe would have learned that adage. And it has stood him in good stead, certainly in recent years. On that principle he has managed to parlay the extraordinary success of his fictional history Dark Emu into a children’s version, countless speaking gigs and media appearances, a two-part ABC documentary to be screened later this year and a digibook on the ABC’s Education Webpage.
The same could be said of his Aboriginality. Why claim to be only Yuin, or Burnurong, or a Tasmanian Aborigine when you could be all three? A member of not just one but three mobs! You can’t get more Aboriginal than that, I wouldn’t have thought. But that’s another story. When I embarked on the Bitter Harvest project, I did so because both Keith Windschuttle and I were horrified at the idea that Pascoe’s faux history would establish itself in our classrooms. That was our prime motivation in exposing Dark Emu. Keith knew, from bitter personal experience, that facts don’t matter when it comes to much of what passes for history these days. But it certainly shocked me when, amongst others, the ABC, which has vigorously promoted Pascoe, simply ignored even the existence of my expose let alone any arguments I presented.
But, undeterred, we soldier on and now take a look at Pascoe’s ABC Education presence, which can be found here. It comprises a prologue and 14 four-minute video clips on various topics such as Sturt’s encounter with a large tribe of Aborigines at Coopers Creek. This is a short summary of an episode described in Dark Emu where Pascoe claims, untruthfully, that this encounter took place in the desert, that Sturt and his party were dying and that the Aborigines rescued them. In another one he covers Aboriginal housing wherein he first sets up a strawman along the lines that white people think Aborigines lived under a piece of bark leant up against a tree (many of them did, in fact). He then quotes from Sturt and Mitchell to show that the Aborigines built huts of varying styles and sizes, somewhat undermining his basic premise of white ignorance. He describes these dwellings as ‘houses’, which they clearly are not, at least not in the way we would think of a house. He seems to think that the fact they built shelters for themselves (an activity at the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs) is somehow significant.
A chapter titled Grain and Bread looks at an archaeological survey that supposedly pushes Aboriginal occupation of the continent back to 65,000 years ago. Pascoe sets great store by this length of occupation and, in Dark Emu, uses it to buttress his claims of the sophistication of Aboriginal technology and culture, such as the baking of bread. Does it seem counterintuitive to him, I wonder, that he has to delve so far back in the past to prove the sophistication of 19th century aborigines? If they were so advanced back then, why were they so backward when Cook arrived? Pascoe would argue that their technology and culture were sufficient for their needs and suitable for their environment, which would prove only that they were content – not that they were sophisticated.
Other vignettes in the series are more spiritual. There is one about stone tools and another on birds and totems. They are superficial in the extreme. Just to give you a taste, here is the transcript of one entitled Trees and Connection:
This is a grey box. This is one of the hardest timbers in Australia and a long time go someone cut a shield or coolamon off here and the tree will start to repair ‘cause it doesn’t kill the tree. Our old people would be careful about not killing the tree but using the tree or asking the tree if it was OK to take a piece of bark. But this was done a long time ago ‘cause you can see the tree is trying to grow back over it. But they didn’t just do it over here. They did it twice … This old grey box is still going.
This tree had company last night. A wombat came by. I love to see that around here.
I don’t think this hill would have looked much different at all. They’ve always been here, these trees and the old people would have been very conscious that this is family here and that tree is as much a part of the family as the little baby sitting in the coolamon by the fire, y’know.
We believe the country is our mother. So if the country is our mother and she is old we have to look after her. She doesn’t have to look after us. It is our responsibility to look after her.
So everything we do on country we have to do in recognition of her needs. So if we want to grow food, if we want timber, if we want to grow vegetables or even if we want to sit in a beautiful place and go fishing, we’ve still got to ask our mother because she has given us everything and we have to acknowledge all her gifts. Even like this little stick. Y’know a young person might say that’s a bit of dead wood. Well, have a look at this ‘dead wood’ (fungus is attached to it). It’s alive. It is never dead. It is creating new life. The new life is all around us. All the birds depend on these as well (gestures to trees). Everything is related to everything else. Nothing is dead, nothing is wasted. Everything on earth is part of our life.
These (trees) are very old. I love the fact that they’re here – all around here. Different types of trees. They’re like family y’know. Everyone’s different. Everyone’s got a job to do. Everyone looks different. So do the trees. But these trees have known each other for a long time. Every morning when the sun comes up I look around and go, eh family here. All my family. Mmm Beautiful.
Here is the text that accompanies this chapter:
Bruce Pascoe takes us for a walk on Country. We learn about the importance of trees, their cultural significance and how we can read their histories.
Bruce introduces us to the idea that the Country is our mother and that trees are family. How does this understanding of the environment shape the way it is cared for? Consider the way Aboriginal people used bark to make a shield or coolamon. What does the scar on the grey box tree tell us?
In this video, Bruce says everything is related and nothing is dead. What do you think he means by this?
What do you think “connection to Country” means?
Here’s another one I couldn’t resist, Birds and Totems:
I care for the birds. I depend on them for my happiness y’know. Without the birds umm things could get you down but the birds are my saviour ‘cause they keep me happy umm y’know. Hear that flycatcher whistling in the background now? The first time I’ve heard it this season. When it comes back y’know I’ve just registered it now. It arrived from somewhere else because this is its summer home and it turned up y’know four days before what we call summer. Umm but its arrival here is exactly the same day every year umm and I love to hear that. I love the continuity of animal life. (Spots bird on the ground) There we go. See ya my brother. Have a good day. I’m going to. I love that association with the animals.
(Spots birds in the distance) Snipe. Rare birds, very rare birds, snipe. Ah ha look. Black duck. Umburra! Umburra! Umburra is black duck. I don’t know the aboriginal name for snipe but snipe is a rare bird these days. But umburra y’know, a sweet little bird like that, an inoffensive little bird. Aboriginal people have got totems. I have one which means I’m not allowed to eat it – a certain kind of seafood umm which I used to love but I’m not allowed to eat it. My job is to look after it. So I know that I look after black duck and those shellfish. I know that someone else is looking after flathead and bream, kangaroo. And I’ve got brothers who are kangaroos. I’ve got brothers who are bream and sisters who are wallaby, eaglehawk and so I know that all the country’s being looked after ‘cause someone has responsibility for it.
Here are the teaching points accompanying this gem:
We take a walk on Country and learn how birds can signify a change in the seasons. Bruce introduces us to totems and tells us about the importance of black duck to Yuin people.
Totems are part of a complex spiritual system interwoven into some Aboriginal cultures. A totem can be a plant or an animal inherited by a language group or family. Those people then have a responsibility to care for their totems.
How does Bruce know that summer has arrived?
Bruce teaches us a Yuin word. What does Umburra mean?
That’s it? Two questions? What about:
1/ Does Bruce know the Aboriginal word for snipe?
2/ Do you think Bruce has a calendar?
3/ What specific shellfish do you think Bruce is forbidden from eating?
4/ Do you think he is keeping that a secret so he can get away with eating it in weak moments?
5/ What keeps Bruce happy?
The possibilities for probing questions are almost endless.
I provided those transcripts, rather than just invite you to view the videos online, because I think the plain written word more fully conveys the utter vacuity of these reflective monologues. If you watched the videos you might be distracted by random thoughts such as ‘why does Bruce Pascoe look so white?’
It might strike many of you that the episode on trees owes rather more to modern green-left ideology than anything found in Aboriginal culture. Aborigines may have been accidental environmentalists – their lifestyle, technology and numbers ensured that their impact would be minimal. But that’s as far as it went. Simple people they may have been, but they were also practical and, certainly, not so simple-minded as to believe that trees were their family.
The whole series has no coherence. There is no underlying theme that is developed throughout. As an educational resource it’s a bit like Beano but without the intellectual rigour.
The ABC website tells us that this ‘resource’ fits into the subjects of history, geography, science and technologies and is suitable for grades 1 to 10. I am not a teacher but I do have three grandsons at school. The youngest is cerebral, the middle one is more spiritual and the eldest is a smart-arse. Bruce Pascoe is unlikely to engage any of them for much more than a millisecond. But my main objection to this exercise in ABC self-indulgence is that they are purveying a product that is demonstrably fraudulent. To be fair, the text accompanying the prologue includes the following:
Note also that since 2019, Pascoe’s work has been evaluated differently by some people, who don’t agree with his interpretations of historical sources. This resource contains excerpts from the original texts and scientific evidence that Bruce draws on. We encourage you to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of all historical sources.
Which is all very well, but what kid is going to ‘evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of all historical sources’, particularly when they, themselves, have to go looking for them? I should add that this caveat, for what it’s worth, is almost certainly the result of the efforts of Quadrant contributor Marc Hendrickx who formally remonstrated with the ABC about the outright falsity of Pascoe’s work and got the anodyne response you would expect.
Reviewing this particular ABC offering caused me to reflect more generally on the entity that is ABC Education. A number of questions occurred to me.
What is the budget of ABC Education? Why does it exist? The ABC Charter simply includes in its list of services to be delivered – broadcasting programs of an educational nature. In this sense I take ‘educational’ to mean informative. It says nothing about establishing an educational program in a pedagogical sense.
Some weeks ago I asked the ABC the following questions:
What was the 2019 operating cost of the ABC Education unit?
Who heads up the unit?
How many staff are devoted full time to this endeavour?
Who decides what resources are suitable for inclusion in the webpage?
What qualifications do they have to carry out this function?
What methodology is employed to select resources published and to ensure that they are suitable?
What liaison is carried out with various curriculum authorities to ensure that resources conform to their needs?
How much was paid to Mr Bruce Pascoe for his contribution on Aboriginal Agriculture, Technology and Ingenuity?
What process was undertaken to determine that Mr Pascoe’s work was rigorous and suitable for inclusion?
To date I have not yet received a reply, but will look forward to sharing it with Quadrant readers when, and if, I do.
Peter O’Brien’s book ‘Bitter Harvest: The Illusion of Aboriginal Agriculture in Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu‘ is published by Quadrant Books and can be ordered here