Good Weekend Podcast: Academics Peter Sutton and Keryn Walsche dismantle Bruce Pascoe’s work in Farmers or Hunter-Gatherers: The Dark Emu Debate
The editorial sensation black emu rewrote our understanding of Indigenous history when it was published in 2014, but according to two seasoned academics in the field, there is little real evidence for many of author Bruce Pascoe’s grander claims.
Indeed, a new book by seasoned anthropologist Peter Sutton and archaeologist Keryn Walsche –Farmers or hunter-gatherers: the debate on the black emu (published by Melbourne University Press next week) – argues Pascoe’s book in fact devalues pre-colonial indigenous society. By claiming, for example, that our First Nations people lived in villages of thousands, or built stone houses, or sowed crop fields, or could have been the world’s first bakers, it fails as a work of d erudition and dangerously emphasizes the values of “ingenuity, sophistication and creativity”.
Sutton explains: “It’s the culture of intelligence, of invention, of change – constant change – constant boredom. Indigenous societies were the opposite of that. They attached great importance to the continuous reproduction of what had happened before.
The well-respected Sutton – who has spent half a century working with “the elderly” and studying Aboriginal culture – spoke about the latest episode of Good discussions of the weekend, with freelance writer Stuart Rintoul, who wrote this week’s cover story: “Debunking Dark Emu: Targeting an Editorial Phenomenon”.
Rintoul, who wrote last year Lowitja, an authoritative biography of Indigenous leader Lowitja O’Donoghue, believes black emu took off in part because reading and accepting the book became an act of “moral recovery” for goodwill white Australians.
With moderation of Have a nice week end Associate Editor Greg Callaghan, the discussion also revolved around how the book has become – perhaps inevitably – another line of the crop war. The one that divides people into different camps, the “black armbands or white palisades”, according to Rintoul.
“It has become a touchstone for the left and a lightning rod for the right,” he explains. “I think that’s why people have been so reluctant to question black emu, and so quick to adopt it too.
The two men are quick to point out that black emu has done a great service in rekindling interest in Indigenous culture and traditions. “The problem is, it’s garnered a lot of interest based on something that’s pretty riddled with factual errors,” says Sutton, “and fixing that is going to be a big job.”