Over the school holidays, I had the pleasure of attending the launch of Bruce Pascoe’s new book, Young Dark Emu, along with my eight-year-old daughter. Young Dark Emu looks at the highly advanced land cultivation methods developed by Aboriginal people in this country through the eyes of early colonial settlers, who often struggled to make sense of what they were seeing. The book is written for children, but it is also very informative for grown-ups reading it with them.
There are three aspects of this book that make it a wonderful resource for transforming the way that Indigenous and non-Indigenous people relate to one another in this county:
- What it tells us
- How it tells us
- How it links to broader conversations about Australia’s future
What Young Dark Emu tells us
Young Dark Emu tells us that Australia was a place of great capacity and innovation long before boats arrived from Europe. It gives us rich details about farming methods, fishing technologies, and the use of fire to manage the land. It teaches us that bread was invented right here in Australia, and points out the importance of this invention to humankind.
At the launch of his book, Bruce Pascoe explained that when he was growing up, he was taught at school that Aboriginal people were hunter-gatherers who roamed the land seeking opportunities to kill animals and pluck berries in order to eke out their subsistence. As he grew older, he began to realise that what he had been taught at school sat very awkwardly with what he learned from his grandparents and other Aboriginal elders, who described long histories of intentional cultivation of the land, and management of steady and reliable food sources. This tension prompted him to research the historical accounts of early colonial settlers to learn more about what they saw when they arrived.
Pascoe’s research sought a truer history of Australia, and Young Dark Emu makes this history accessible to children. Its focus on land management and cultivation sheds light on a key point that has fuelled conflict in Australia since colonial times:
Before the British claimed Australia as their territory, they declared it terra nullius – which means ‘land belonging to no one’. Although they knew Aboriginal people lived here, the British argued Australia was not settled because there was no evidence of houses, towns, roads or farms. Britain used this reasoning to claim Australia (p. 44).
Young Dark Emu teaches us that houses, towns, roads, and farms did exist, along with a thriving economy and a grain belt that stretched across the entire continent. It also teaches us how the arrival of hooved and hungry animals decimated that grain belt and the economy it supported.
Speaking truth to conflict is well recognised as an important component in peacemaking processes, and has been identified as a crucial factor for reconciliation in Australia. Truth-telling is embedded in the Yolngu concept of Makarrata put forward in the key document produced by the First Nations National Constitutional Convention in 2017, The Uluru Statement from the Heart:
Makarrata is the culmination of our agenda: the coming together after a struggle. It captures our aspirations for a fair and truthful relationship with the people of Australia and a better future for our children… a process of agreement-making between governments and First Nations and truth-telling about our history.
Young Dark Emu is a powerful tool for Makarrata. Not only does it speak truth to conflict, it does so in a way that peacefully engages people from all walks of life.
How Young Dark Emu talks to readers
Speaking truth to conflict can be a painful process, and one that can either escalate or transform tensions. Research on communication in conflict settings suggests that howwe say things is even more important than whatwe say (Putnam 2006). Strategic communication requires careful attention to the emotions involved, the relationships between different people involved in the conflict, and the intended impact of the communication (Cloke & Goldsmith 2000). When we engage in truth-telling processes with the aim of transforming relationships between people with histories of conflict, it is extremely important to take care in how we express ourselves and, crucially, how our expressions of truth will be heard by people who are emotionally involved in the conflict.
Young Dark Emu expresses the truth about Aboriginal and colonial history in a way that is gentle and engaging. It recounts the stories of early settlers with empathy for their struggle to make sense of the new world they were exploring. For example, Pascoe acknowledges that:
Aboriginal farming would have looked very different to farming in England. Aboriginal people grew crops that were native to Australia and used tools and techniques suited to their environment (p. 33).
He speaks about colonial settlers in a way that refrains from spite, and gives credit where credit is due:
Charles Sturt was a good bushman and a great writer (p. 47).
At the same time, he exposes how entrenched racism limited the ability of many settlers to appreciate the advanced technologies of Aboriginal people. Rather than expressing his own thoughts on this, he offers the words of the settlers for the reader to judge. For example, after a detailed description of a fishing tool that automatically catapulted fish out of the water and onto a riverbank, one settler remarked that:
I have often heard of the indolence of the blacks and soon came to the conclusion after watching a blackfellow catch fish in such a lazy way, that what I had heard was perfectly true (p. 41).
When my daughter read that passage it stopped her in her tracks. ‘Lazy!?! How could he think that was lazy? That thing he was using to catch fish was genius!’ This opened a door for us to talk about prejudice and stereotypes, and laid groundwork for my daughter to broaden her perspective on race relations.
How Young Dark Emu links to broader conversations
Reading Young Dark Emu clarified, for me, how much all Australians have to gain from learning the true history of our country, and how much we have to lose from teaching Australian history as if it is something that really only began when Captain Cook landed here.
Recognition of Aboriginal history reinforces how important a First Nations Voice is to all Australians. I refer, again, to the Uluru Statement from the Heart:
We seek constitutional reforms to empower our people and take a rightful place in our own country. When we have power over our destiny our children will flourish. They will walk in two worlds and their culture will be a gift to their country.
By showing us examples of sustainable land management and food cultivation, Young Dark Emu demonstrates some very important aspects of the gift that a First Nations Voice offers us all.
By gently exposing the opportunities missed by early settlers to learn from agricultural technologies specifically developed for the new land that was confounding them, Pascoe’s work also shows us how racism and fear of ‘the other’ can derail human progress. It prompts us to imagine how life might be different if Australia’s first European settlers had embraced Aboriginal farming methods early on, if they had taken steps to preserve native food supply and carefully constructed aquaculture systems, if they had acknowledged critical fire management techniques.
As our country reckons with the growing challenges of climate change, we can no longer afford to refuse the gift of a First Nations Voice. The concluding page of Young Dark Emu presents our children with an impression of what is at stake:
Baiame, the creator Spirit Emu, left the earth after its creation to reside as a dark shape in the Milky Way. The emu is inextricably linked with the wide grasslands of Australia, the landscape managed by Aboriginal people. The fate of the emu, people, and grain are locked in step because, for Aboriginal people, the economy and the spirit are inseparable. Europeans stare at the stars, but Aboriginal people also see the spaces in between where the Spirit Emu resides (p. 73).
Pascoe shows us throughout this book why listening to the people whose culture evolved in tandem with the land we now share is crucial to building a sustainable economy. More importantly, he gets us to listen by teaching our children to take pride in the rich flora, fauna, and cultural heritage of the land where they live.
Young Dark Emu, along with Pascoe’s more in-depth publication, Dark Emu, are important tools for helping Australians embrace the gift of a First Nations Voice, give thanks, and pay our respects to the people it represents. In my ten years of practice with Community Works, it has been a privilege to witness and learn from the great ingenuity and innovation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. We welcome opportunities to support the traditional custodians of the lands that make up Australia, and commit to listening to their voices and following their lead.