Bruce Pascoe’s Whoppers: In a Class of Their Own

‘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

22 comments
  • Peter Smith

    Loved the post; despair about children being fed such rubbish. What to do about it is the problem.

  • Doubting Thomas

    It’s really startling to see how all-pervasive irrelevant American terminology has been absorbed and exploited by brain-dead politicians. This in the mail today:

    27 May 2020 10:04 AM AEST – Chester release – Remembering our First Nations People who have served

    MEDIA RELEASE
    Wednesday, 27 May 2020

    REMEMBERING OUR FIRST NATIONS PEOPLE WHO HAVE SERVED

    THIS National Reconciliation Week, all Australians are encouraged to learn about our nation’s shared history, cultures, and achievements, and to explore how each of us can contribute to achieving reconciliation.

    Minister for Veterans’ Affairs and Minister for Defence Personnel Darren Chester said Reconciliation Week provided an opportunity to reflect on the service of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and their contribution to Australia’s wartime history in every war and conflict since the Boer War at the turn of the twentieth century.

    “This year’s theme for National Reconciliation Week ‘In This Together’ is a perfect representation of how Indigenous men and women have served our nation alongside non-Indigenous men and women for more than 120 years,” Mr Chester said.

    It’s estimated that at least 1000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people served during the First World War despite regulations that discouraged their enlistment. In the Second World War more than 3000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people served.

    “One of those who served in the First World War was Corporal Harry Thorpe, from my electorate of Gippsland, who enlisted in February 1916 and arrived on the Western Front later that year,” Mr Chester said.

    “During his service Harry was involved in the operations near Ypres in Belgium and was involved in the dangerous job of seeking out German infantry hiding in dugouts and pill boxes — his great courage and leadership earned him a Military Medal and a promotion to Corporal with his citation reading, “By his splendid example and disregard of all danger he inspired those under him”.
    “On 8 August 1918 the Allies began their major offensive and the following day Harry was wounded for the third and final time. Corporal Harry Thorpe is buried in the Heath Cemetery in France, alongside his friend and fellow Indigenous soldier Private William Rawlings, another Military Medal recipient who was killed on the same day.”
    Sadly, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were not even classed as Australian citizens until 1967, but that didn’t stop them from serving their country with honour and distinction.

    “While wearing the uniform Indigenous men and women were treated with respect and dignity, however, tragically this was not the case in their civilian lives,” Mr Chester said.

    “Today, I am proud that the Australian Defence Force boasts more than 1800 full-time permanent Australian Defence Force (ADF) members who identify as Indigenous, which represents 3.1 per cent of the total permanent ADF workforce. This is up from 2.8 per cent last year.

    “To those Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who have served, and are currently serving, I say a simple and heartfelt, ‘thank you for your service’.

    “Over the course of National Reconciliation Week, I encourage all Australians to take a moment to pause and reflect on the service and sacrifice of Indigenous service men and women in times of war, conflict and peacekeeping operations.”

    ENDS

    Office of the Hon. Darren Chester, Canberra ACT.

  • March

    Thanks Peter. ABC are doing their very best to ignore alternate viewpoints on this in complete disregard to the paper-thin charter it is founded upon. An outline of the complaint that appears to have triggered the addition of the small note to ABC Education’s web page is outlined in the following ABCnewswatch post:

    “The tale of the stuffed emu outlined below is another example of that failure. This time it involves a site developed by ABC education that promotes one man’s point of view about Australian history while ignoring errors in that view and failing to provide an alternate perspective supported by the historical evidence.”

    https://abcnewswatch.blogspot.com/2020/05/stuffed-emu-how-abc-education-fails-to.html

  • Peter OBrien

    March,

    thanks for this link and I wish I had been aware of this post earlier. It is a very comprehensive coverage of this complaint and I thank all involved for the support and extensive references to Bitter Harvest.

  • March

    It’s been sitting in draft form for a while. Your article prompted me to post it, so it only went up this morning.

  • NFriar

    Thank you, thank you and thank you.
    You give we fair Australians hope.
    Keep making Their ABC accountable for their actions.
    Have you tried approaching:

    ‘an obscure Body called the Australia Curriculum and Reporting Authority (ACRA); they are a political body not an educational one and it is their governance that sees Federal and State politically appointed officials horse trade over inclusion of topics.”?

  • NFriar

    @ Doubting Thomas – have you corrected the Honorable Darren Chester:

    “Sadly, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were not even classed as Australian citizens until 1967,.”
    There never ever was a flora and fauna act – not even for our flora and fauna. ( I am assuming the Hinourable Minister is refering to this promulgated myth.
    That all natives became British Citizens in 1788.
    And ALL Australians – became Australian citizens in 1949.

    And yes Peter I have your book.

  • Michael

    Elizabeth Beare, Michael’s Wife
    Wonder when the ABC are going to do the stoning wombats to death for food bit.

    And quote Watkin Tench on the state of aboriginal women’s thumped scarred heads.

    All just livin’ the good life, pre-contact style.

  • Lonsdale

    To Elizabeth Beare, Michael’s wife.
    What is the reference to the wombat stoning bit? I have some similar but not sure what you are referring to. Great example of reality.

  • Michael

    Lonsdale, three idiots recently were video’d stoning a wombat to death for obvious fun. It made headline news here in Australia, but the perpetrators got away with not being charged and jailed for such an outrageous piece of obvious taunting cruelty to a dumb animal in this modern day and age by claiming aboriginal heritage (they had to ‘claim’ it because you couldn’t see it) and saying it was an age-old tradition.

    It was sickening. Some ‘elders’ did come in and say that wombats were stoned in the pristine days or yore, for food, and then eaten, although I suspect they were more likely bashed with a Nulla-Nulla which would have been more effective and less tiresome. The march of civilisation has now suggested we kill quickly and do not engage in outright cruelty with regard to animals and that bashing a woman’s head with a Nulla-Nulla is also undesirable.

  • Michael

    The above comment written by Elizabeth Beare, Michael’s Wife.

  • L Louis

    L J Louis
    Responsibility for inflicting Pascoe’s partisan travesty on schoolchildren can be sheeted home, in large measure, to the devastation of university scholarship- as I argued in my critique of Dark Emu, published in shortened form in Quadrant online 11th February 2020, The Academic Abetment of Bruce Pascoe’s Travesty.
    Professor Lynette Russell AM, Director of the Monash Indigenous Studies Centre, is referred to as a leader in the history profession who has contributed to Australian Indigenous history, especially in the areas of anthropological history, colonial and imperial history, nineteenth century ‘race’ relations, theory and indigenous archaeology, gender and ‘race’; Indigenous oral history and narrative construction; and museum collections and exhibitions. The professor enthuses, “I’m a big fan of the book because it’s had such a huge impact.” “What Bruce has done is trawl the records and found fantastically rich and useful material”. She has not acknowledged receipt of my critique which I forwarded to her; and I also had no response from Professor Marcia Langton AM , Foundation Chair of Australian Indigenous Studies at the University of Melbourne, who weighed into the controversy about this worthless fabrication, elevating Dark Emu, to “the most important book on Australia”.
    All universities have Indigenous Studies Centres with relatively large numbers of staff. In frustration, I emailed my critique individually to over 100 of these staff, and received one reply. It expressed interest, and advised me of the nasty consequences of taking sides. There were also replies from staff at the University of Tasmania agreeing with my demolition of Dark Emu; but their courses had been abolished without explanation, except for the alarming announcement, “From 2020, all degrees in the university’s College of Arts, Law, and Education will include Indigenous content”.
    The University of Melbourne has announced that it will invest at least $6 million to launch an Indigenous Knowledge Institute for world-leading Aboriginal knowledge, research and education.
    Peter O’Brien with Bitter Harvest has destroyed any shred of credibility for Dark Emu by citing the text of explorers’ journals on which Pascoe relies, exposing distortion and deceit. I could also go on about his ignorance and misuse of the findings of world renowned archaeologists. This is a partisan, political tract, that has no place in the classroom.

  • Lonsdale

    Thanks, Elizabeth.

  • Peter OBrien

    LJ
    thank you for your comment and for your efforts to bring Pascoe to account.
    As you will no doubt know, ‘Professor’ Lynette Russell is one of the authors of the Mt Elephant megalith myth which Pascoe relates in Dark Emu and which, for those who are interested, I cover both in Bitter Havest and also, in more detail, here https://quadrant.org.au/opinion/history-wars/2019/11/fauxboriginality-the-mount-elephant-myth/ . It is a product of the tertiary unit “History 202 – sophistry as a tool to expose colonial racism’.

  • lloveday

    “….the alarming announcement, “From 2020, all degrees in the university’s College of Arts, Law, and Education will include Indigenous content”.
    .
    At a Parent-Teacher night, I asked my daughter’s year 12 math teacher how he would address the part of the curriculum for the Linear Programming module requiring students to relate Linear Programming to Aboriginal culture; he just looked at me with the wry look of a smart young man who knows it’s BS (and knew I also knew it was BS and was just stirring), but is powerless to oppose the bureaucracy,
    .
    I can’t know how he was expected to relate complex mathematical procedures to a culture that did not even develop or adopt simple arithmetic, but I do know he did not bother addressing it – he had enough potentially useful things to teach. But could he get away with that now, 8 years later?

  • Alice Thermopolis

    “No one yet has claimed that dot art proves First Nations folk were the first to identify the coronavirus.”

    Agreed. Anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of trees knows that it came originally from the chestnut seed.and was spread undetected among children playing “conkers”.

    Skeptical? Google “chestnut seed pod image” and marvel at the striking resemblance between the spiked seed pod and the virus.

    Nature generally controls us, not vice versa.

  • Alice Thermopolis

    From: Vice-Chancellor
    Sent: Thursday, 28 May 2020 6:28 PM
    To: All Staff
    Subject: National Reconciliation Week 2020

    Dear UWA Staff

    “This Tuesday was National Sorry Day and I am sure many of you can still recall that glorious sunny day in 2008 when the then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd stood in the Australian Parliament and, on our collective behalf, said “We say sorry”. It is the day on which we respectfully acknowledge the thousands of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children taken from their families.” etc

    Professor Jane den Hollander AO
    Vice-Chancellor

    “Thousands” taken from their families?” Fact-check, please.

    Keith Windschuttle: https://quadrant.org.au/magazine/2010/01-02/why-there-were-no-stolen-generations/

    “My conclusion is that not only is the charge of genocide unwarranted, but so is the term “Stolen Generations”. Aboriginal children were never removed from their families in order to put an end to Aboriginality or, indeed, to serve any improper government policy or program. The small numbers of Aboriginal child removals in the twentieth century were almost all based on traditional grounds of child welfare. Most children affected had been orphaned, abandoned, des¬titute, neglected or subject to various forms of domestic violence, sexual exploitation and sexual abuse.”

  • wdr

    As well, the appalling nature of pre-Contact Aboriginal society needs to be examined. As the Aborigines did not domesticate livestock or grow plants for food, they had above all to keep the number of persons per tribe as low as possible to prevent excess mouths to feed. They did this by eliminating excess mouths.

  • lhackett01

    The following is my comment posted on the website of the bookseller “Booktopia” on 12 May 20:

    Having some knowledge about the many disparate Aboriginal cultures in Australia before settlement by the British in the 1700s, I was concerned about many of Pascoe’s assertions in his book, “Dark Emu”. To check Pascoe’s references, I purchased and read the journals of Mitchell and Sturt. I read, also, “The Life and Adventures of William Buckley” by John Morgan (1852). None support Pascoe’s contentions about Aborigines employing agriculture or being, essentially, other than hunter gatherers. Pascoe has misinterpreted and embellished the truth to depict Aboriginal subsistence lifestyles to be something they were not. While Pascoe writes well, he obviously is one of the many activists who wish to divide Australians, one group from another. Those who know, or should know, about Aboriginal history will admit that this book and its kind are what they are, works of fiction masquerading as truth in an attempt apparently to dupe the reader.

    Interestingly, my post has been removed recently. I have written to Booktopia today asking why.

  • Lacebug

    What Peter O’Brien fails to concede in Bitter Harvest is the INCONTROVERTIBLE FACT that as far back as 89,000 years ago, our First Peoples were building 40 storey skyscrapers, complete with lobbies, a primitive form of elevator, and even mezzanine levels. These skyscrapers were used as business headquarters for First Peoples’ insurance companies and financial institutions. Peter conveniently fails to mention these skyscrapers, the same as he fails to mention out First Person’s construction of box girder bridges (for access to hunting grounds) and the use of submarines by coastal First Peoples.

  • Blair

    “….acknowledge the thousands of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children taken from their families”
    The”Stolen Generation” Report cannot provide one example of a Torres Strait .Islander child being ‘stolen’ from his or her parents. It is a complete fabrication.

  • Karnjirrwala

    Bruce Pascoe is one of a long line of people who feels no compunction to make whatever he will about Aboriginal people. Apparently it is open season for anyone to misrepresent the former ways of life of the Australian aborigines, as if the truth doesn’t matter to them or to anyone interested in our species. There are versions of the Aborigines for environmentalists, new age spiritualists, educators, scientists, astronomers, botanists, nutritionists, Paleonuts, innate artists, mnemonists, aged care specialists, not to mention racists, evolutionists and their ilk. All of this motivated projection, and so little open-minded curiosity. An utter shame that he ABC is shelling out our dollars for Pascoe, but totally predictable.

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