Taking sides over ‘Dark Emu’
Lawyer Russel Marks gives below as much evidence as anyone would need to identify Bruce Pascoe's claims about Aboriginal history as false.
Yet he also attacks people who have brought Pascoe's lies to public attention. He finds it objectionable that the critics are "right wing". He says that the right’s mission is "to extinguish the basis for Indigenous sovereignty and self-determination".
That is an extravagant conclusion to draw from criticisms of one stupid book and completely ignores the much more obvious conclusions to be drawn from the criticisms: That the critics object to lies as the basis for history. Since when is exposing liars wrong?
Marks is however writing for a Marxist organ so being "anti-Right" is probably his ticket to being published there. His essay is very long winded so I have abbreviated it below, but I give the link to the full article for use by anyone interested in a string of irrelevancies and bigoted assertions
It wasn’t until the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards’ judges voted Dark Emu its book of the year in May 2016 that it began to attract major attention. The book was adapted by the Bangarra Dance Theatre in mid 2018, by Pascoe himself for children (as Young Dark Emu) in June 2019, and as an ABC documentary by Rachel Perkins’ Blackfella Films (planned to be screened this year). These last two adaptations in particular brought Dark Emu to the attention of Australia’s reactionary right, which has now built a sizeable echo chamber inside such institutions as Quadrant, Spectator Australia and the Fox News–styled Murdoch stable, including Sky News Australia and, of course, The Australian.
Andrew Bolt, who rose to prominence during the early 2000s by attacking the Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission’s 1997 Bringing them Home report into the Stolen Generations, wrote his first Dark Emu column for the Herald Sun on November 17, 2019. In it and many since, Bolt relies heavily on an anonymous website, Dark Emu Exposed, which purports to “expose” and “debunk” what it asserts are the book’s many myths, exaggerations and “fabrications”. In the same vein, regular Quadrant contributor Peter O’Brien produced a book – Bitter Harvest: The Illusion of Aboriginal Agriculture in Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu – published in December 2019 by Quadrant Books.
But all this attacking and leaping and defending doesn’t do much to resolve the issues. And there are issues. Dark Emu rests on a foundational truth: that the European explorers saw things (and, from within their own worldview, wrote them down) that the first settlers (and the institutions that supported them) didn’t want known (because they were busy expanding the colonial frontier, which necessarily meant acting illegally), and that subsequent settlers couldn’t see (because those things were no longer in evidence). Had Dark Emu merely made this point by quoting explorers’ journals, the right’s attack would have no force.
But throughout Dark Emu, Pascoe regularly exaggerates and embellishes. One example: he quotes Thomas Mitchell’s description of large, circular, chimneyed huts Mitchell observed near Mount Arapiles, in western Victoria, on July 26, 1836, but leaves out the words “which were of a very different construction from those of the aborigines in general”. Pascoe adds his own commentary: Mitchell “recorded his astonishment at the size of the villages”; he “counts the houses, and estimates a population of over one thousand”; and “the evidence is everywhere that they have used the place for a very long time”. But in his own journal, Mitchell doesn’t express astonishment, he doesn’t count and he doesn’t estimate a population size. Nor does he present any evidence that would support a conclusion about longevity of residence.
Granville Stapylton, Mitchell’s second-in-command, recorded seeing one hut “capable of containing at least 40 persons and of very superior construction” on July 26. Pascoe includes this, but not the rest of Stapylton’s sentence: “and appearantly the work of A White Man it is A known fact that A runaway Convict has been for years amongst these tribes.” That could be a reference to the well-known escapee William Buckley (who was found by John Batman the previous July), or it could be a racist myth. The point is that Pascoe simply left it out.
By themselves, examples like these split hairs. But they’re all the way through Dark Emu. Together, such selective quoting creates an impression of societies with a sturdiness, permanence, sedentarism and technical sophistication that’s not supported by the source material. In speeches and interviews Pascoe is known to reach even further. And far too often Pascoe relies on secondary sources, including those obviously pushing ideological barrows.
My observations here will no doubt be seized upon with glee by Bolt, O’Brien and co as further proof of their accusations against Pascoe. It may even be seized upon by those instinctively defending Pascoe’s reputation as evidence that I’ve gone to the dark side. None of these reactions would be helpful, though they would reflect the way we conduct public debate now: “facts” matter much less than “values” and the identities they both draw from and support.
Warrimay woman and lawyer Josephine Cashman’s Twitter stream is divisible into two distinct periods – let’s call them “Before Bolt” (BB) and “After Bolt” (AB) – with the demarcation point on November 20, 2019. The BB stream shows Cashman’s personal brand management. As managing director of her own Big River Consulting company, she was rapidly building a national profile with which she spoke about issues facing Aboriginal people in contemporary Australia. She had chaired a subcommittee of the Prime Minister’s Indigenous Advisory Council from late 2013 and had just been appointed an inaugural member of Minister for Indigenous Australians Ken Wyatt’s Senior Advisory Group alongside Marcia Langton and Tom Calma. She appeared on ABC’s The Drum at least six times during 2019.
Then on November 20, Cashman retweeted Bolt’s third column relating to Dark Emu and added: “Mr Pascoe is not an Aboriginal person or accepted by community.” And: “We call for a NSW database.” She was referring to a database of people officially registered as Aboriginal. Canada has had one since 1951. Most Aboriginal leaders in Australia have historically rejected the concept of registration, after the terrible ways governments used classification and registration systems during the “protection” era.
The driver of Cashman’s public interventions during her AB period has been, apparently, an urgent need to expose Pascoe’s claim to Aboriginal heritage, which she is convinced is fraudulent. Bolt is convinced too. He notoriously lost a racial discrimination case in 2011 brought by nine fair-skinned Aboriginal people after he had written columns accusing them of having “chosen” to identify as Aboriginal to advance their careers. Pascoe was one of those accused, but he didn’t join the legal action, later writing that Bolt “would have had a field day”. Bolt’s certainty derives mostly from Dark Emu Exposed, which has published what it says are the relevant birth, death and marriage records that show Pascoe’s entire family tree originated in England.
Fraudulent claims to Aboriginal identity are taken very seriously by Aboriginal communities, and not just because of the measures available to Aboriginal people – from legal services to literary prizes to academic positions – in recognition of specific needs and to promote affirmative action. Fraudulent identity claims are often experienced as disrespectful and hurtful. “My son is Yuin,” Cashman tweeted on November 24, “and his father doesn’t know who [Pascoe] is.”
Pascoe’s defenders want to see Cashman’s repeated misfires as proof of his bona fides, as listed in his profile in Dark Emu’s 2018 edition.
But Pascoe’s bio for an essay in the 66th issue of Griffith Review, published in early November 2019, dropped his claim to Tasmanian ancestry. That was after he was confronted by Tasmanian Aboriginal women at a language conference in Victoria. By the end of that month he would need to drop the Bunurong claim as well, after Jason Briggs, chair of the Boonwurrung Land and Sea Council, sent a letter to Bolt stating Pascoe had no ancestry there either “to the best of our knowledge and research”. On January 22, activist and lawyer Michael Mansell, who had famously alleged mass identity fraud during the 1996 elections of the now defunct Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, published a long letter in the Tasmanian Times in his capacity as chairperson of the Aboriginal Land Council of Tasmania. Respectfully and carefully, Mansell said he understood why people have leapt to Pascoe’s defence “in the face of attack by the likes of right-wingers” such as Bolt. But Pascoe’s defenders, Mansell wrote, “have rolled two separate and distinct issues – Aboriginality of the author, and what he writes” – into one. Pascoe is not Tasmanian Aboriginal, Mansell wrote.
Regarding his claims to Yuin heritage, at least four senior members of the Yuin nation have publicly confirmed Pascoe’s membership, and one has expressed disappointment at Cashman’s Twitter campaign.
The publication of Sally Morgan’s My Place in 1987 encouraged many Australians who had been raised “white” to wonder and to seek details about their heritage. Some found Indigenous ancestry; many didn’t. It was around this time that Pascoe began his own search. To dismiss his claims as “fabrication”, as the right does, may be far too harsh, though it’s unclear why Pascoe made public claims to Bunurong and Tasmanian ancestry without, apparently, first confirming it with those communities. People are complicated. Pascoe himself has denounced non-Indigenous writers who falsely claim Indigenous identities in order to enter Indigenous-specific literary awards.
For all its problems, Dark Emu is not merely weathering the attacks. It charged back up the nonfiction bestsellers’ list and has occupied the number 3 spot for the past fortnight.
Pascoe himself has lately stayed away from the limelight; wisely, given the rancour. Most of his energies over the summer have been concentrated on defending his home from bushfires. As with most public debates in the age of Twitter and Fox News, there seems little possibility of kindness or compassion or shared understanding here.
Since it reorganised to protect settler Australia’s colonial legacy, the right has been on a permanent seek-and-destroy mission, setting its coterie of mainstay attack-dog columnists and narrowcasters on what they see as objectionable individuals with relatively brief and middling influence. For Cashman to have hitched her wagon to the right’s stampeding horses seems unwise in the extreme, given the right’s mission: to extinguish the basis for Indigenous sovereignty and self-determination.