Parents, Is Young Dark Emu Appropriate for your Child?

Parents, Is Young Dark Emu Appropriate for your Child?

In 2019, Mr Pascoe published a school children’s version of his Dark Emu book, entitled Young Dark Emu – A Truer History (1). Concurrently, his publisher Magabala Books published a Teachers’ Guide to Young Dark Emu (2) to assist teachers of Year 4 and Year 5 students, that is, 9 to 11 year old children.

Parents should preview Young Dark Emu and its associated Teachers Guide and then decide if the material it contains is appropriate for their particular young child. For example, many of us agree that the depiction of a violent conflict in colonial Australia in Young Dark Emu is inappropriate for very young children. In addition, Young Dark Emu presents no counter-balancing, positive examples of colonial life and the good, constructive relations that occurred between the Aborigines and the settlers.

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Discussions of violent colonial massacres are not suitable topics for 9 year old children.

- Image from Young Dark Emu - ‘Conflict on the Rufus’- page 12

Even Professor Marcia Langton appears to agree with our concerns.

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Distinguished academic Marcia Langton has warned against ­“scaring the living daylights” out of children when teaching the history of violence against indigenous people.

Professor Langton told the ­National Press Club it was important to be careful when teaching schoolchildren about Australia’s bloody colonial history. We must not “scare the living daylights” out of kids, she said.

- The Australian, Thursday, September 26, 2019

Parents need to assess the suitability of this material for use with their children given the significant number of ‘Trigger Warnings’ that are included in the Teachers Guide to Young Dark Emu - A Truer History by Bruce Pascoe, compiled by Jennet Cole-Adams.

These ‘Trigger Warnings’ include :

“Some of the themes explored in Young Dark Emu are confronting and contested” – page 2

“Young Dark Emu contains language and concepts that may be challenging for students at the Year 4 and 5 levels.” [Ages 9-11] – page 2

“Young Dark Emu contains many historical primary sources, some of which contain language and descriptions regarding First Nations People that are considered inappropriate today. – page 4

“Some of the ideas and themes explored in Young Dark Emu, such as frontier conflict, may be distressing or challenging for some students. Students may not wish to be active participants in class discussions and this should be respected.”- page 4

“…warn students that they may find some content sad or confronting.” – page 5

In an age of rising mental depression, and given the stress and anxieties that our young children are under today, parents may want to seriously consider the appropriateness of a school text that requires ‘Trigger Warnings’ such as the above, especially for 9 to 11 year old children. Are your children at this age emotionally developed enough to handle material such as this?

Worksheet A – Strong Words

A confronting example in the Teachers Guide to Young Dark Emu - A Truer History by Bruce Pascoe occurs on page 5, under the section heading, “The land grab.” Students are to be :

‘challenged to consider differing perspectives’ of ‘colonisation and frontier conflict.’

Teachers are to,

‘introduce this activity by exploring the image on page 12 with your students. Point to the settlers and ask students what these men might be thinking and feeling, then do the same with the Aboriginal men.’

The ‘image on page 12’ is a stylized version of the sketch by W.A. Cawthorne, “Conflict on the Rufus, South Australia”, which according to Young Dark Emu, was published in The Illustrated Melbourne Post of 1866. The original sketch depicts a group of 10 Europeans on horseback in a conflict with a large band of some 35 Aboriginal warriors, four of whom appear to have been killed or wounded.

The student Worksheet A then invites students to select words from the listing, “Colonist, Invader, Land owner, Murderer, Native, Pioneer, Resistance fighter, Savage, Settler, Thief, Uncivilized and Warrior”, to fill in the thought bubbles below:

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Worksheet A for students to fill in the thought bubbles with words from the politically inspired list.

Footnote: This image caption is incorrect - see below.

This highly negative ‘conflict’ image and exercise is not balanced elsewhere in the book by an image or worksheet showing an example of a good, positive co-operation between the Aborigines and settlers during colonial times, which frequently occurred.

Teachers and students are also only invited to focus on one reason that a massacre may have occured, namely as part of a ‘land grab’ by settlers. However, there are often two-sides to the interpretation of an historical fact. For example, the “Massacre of Rufus River” did occur in 1841, resulting in the death of some 30 to 40 Aborigines, but the background to this conflict is much more complex.

For many years previously, countless friendly interactions, with no major conflict or loss of life, occurred in the Rufus River region between the Aborigines and colonial explorers initially, and then subsequently with the ‘Overlanders’, who brought stock to Adelaide through this area. The Aborigines then started to attack the Overlanders, killing their stock at first, then some of the Overlanders were also killed. This led to reprisals against the Aborigines, which was considered illegal at the time, unless in self-defence. Reprisals, or ‘payback’, and revenge killings were also widely practiced by the Aborigines and acceptable under their own customary law. The Police and Government tried to control the violence and enforce the law between the combatants. A subsequent Government enquiry into the Rufus River violence found that the troubles were primarily caused by the Aboriginal groups not receiving the promised food and clothing for the sexual services provided by the Aboriginal women to the European men.

These details above can be readily found in a publication of the State Library of South Australia here

The exercise in Young Dark Emu instead skews the narrative to emphasis the only motive for the violence being due to a ‘land grab’, where the Aboriginal people are ‘massacred’ so the land can be ‘stolen’ by the settlers, when in fact the issues at Rufus River were much more complex and involved Aborigines creating conflict over lack of payments from the Overlanders who were passing through.


Footnote : We also note that the illustration in the Worksheet A is the same as the ‘Conflict on the Rufus ‘ illustration on page 12, but is mis-captioned as “Details from ‘A Skirmish Near Creen Creek’ 1876. State Library of Victoria. This is a completely different illustration as can be seen adjacent, which is only one more example to illustrate our point that Young Dark Emu is factually incorrect.

Worksheet B – Evidence of Agriculture

The intellectual background to this Worksheet B in the Teachers Guide to Young Dark Emu - A Truer History by Bruce Pascoe is very poor and our children deserve better. The aim of the worksheet is to present a narrative that Aboriginal society was not a ‘hunter gatherer society, but rather a settled, agricultural society where Aboriginal people :

1. Selected seeds for planting

2. Prepared the soil

3. Harvested the crop

4. Stored surpluses

5. Lived in permanent houses

Teaching young Australian children that Australian Aboriginal society was not a hunter gatherer one, but instead was an established and settled Agricultural society is factually incorrect and not supported by the academic and scientific community.

The children are presented with a multiple choice of the ‘evidence’, which allows them to select options that invariably lead to the conclusion that yes, Mr Pascoe’s provided ‘evidence‘ does meet the criteria for each of these five requirements for the existence of Agriculture in Aboriginal Australia. Students are then easily led to believe that the Aborigines were not hunter-gatherers, but were instead settled agriculturalists. This is completely the opposite of the accepted academic and scientific view, which overwhelmingly describes Australian Aborigines as hunter gatherers.

The ‘evidence‘ offered by Mr Pascoe is not robust evidence at all and does not support the contention that Australian Aboriginal society was agricultural. It is very misleading to students to let them think that Mr Pascoe’s examples constitute ‘evidence’. No qualified academics or scholars are on the record as saying that Australian Aboriginal society was not a hunter gatherer one.

Mr Pascoe offers the following as ‘evidence’ that Australian Aboriginal society was an established and settled agricultural society, to which we provide rebuttals.

Lieutenant Grey - Pascoe’s Quote

…passed two native villages, or as the men called them towns – the huts of which they composed differed from those in the southern districts, in being built, and very nicely plastered over the outside with clay, and clods of turf…

Lieutenant Grey’s full quote is :

“Being unable to ford the river here we followed it in a south-east direction for two miles, and in this distance passed two native villages, or, as the men termed them, towns, the huts of which they were composed differed from those in the southern districts in being much larger, more strongly built, and very nicely plastered over the outside with clay and clods of turf, so that although now uninhabited they were evidently intended for fixed places of residence.”

This means that the Aborigines were nomadic and were not living a settled, village life in these huts when Grey passed through. They would return at certain times of the year, when the local foods were in season, and then re-occupy these huts for a certain period, before migrating again to other regions.

Walter Smith explained - Pascoe’s Quote

“They chuck a bit there…Not much, you know. Wouldn’t be a handful…one seed there, one seed there…[of] course they chuck a little bit of dirt on, not too much though. And as soon as the first rain comes…it will grow then”.

Walter Smith explained - Full quote

Walter Smith was an Australian bushman born in 1893 on the gold-fields near Alice Springs. His father had a Welsh background and his mother was of Aboriginal descent. He worked mostly as a camel driver in the Oodnadatta and Western Desert regions. He never lived a traditional Aboriginal hunter gatherer lifestyle. He was interviewed in 1981 at the age of 88 and his ‘oral history’ of Aboriginal agriculture is what Mr Pascoe is relying upon as ‘evidence’ for the Aboriginal ‘agricultural’ practice of selecting seeds for planting.

When one reads the full interview of Walter Smith, conducted on 27/5/1981, one sees that he is referring to the practice of carrying small packets of seeds wrapped in emu feather bags, which were then bartered or given as gifts to other Aboriginal groups who passed them along to several more tribes. Only when the seed packets reached their final destination were they ceremoniously, according to their law, either eaten or broadcast over the sand-hills. These packets were far too small a quantity (‘just a handful’) to be classed as regular, ‘agricultural seed planting’ but instead, the practice of broadcasting one handful of seed, essentially just had a customary law function.

Mr Pascoe selectively quotes Walter Smith so as to support his narrative of ‘Aboriginal seed planting’. Below we provide a fuller quote with additional words that were omitted by Mr Pascoe.

“It was the old native’s practice…when they’re travelling to meet other Aborigines they carry that grass seed. They give it to others…Might be a Barkly mob and they bring it to this Alyawara mob and Alyawara mob will bring it to the Aranda…That Alyawara mob might get something in exchange for the seed to eventually pass back to the Barkly Tableland mob…they might get a couple of spears…red ochre or something they want…They might eat some of it [the grass seed] I suppose and some they must keep for their country. They chuck a bit there…Not much, you know. Wouldn’t be a handful…They chuck a little bit, spread it…one seed there, one seed there…[of] course they chuck a little bit of dirt on, not too much though. And as soon as the first rain comes…it will grow then. But they did not water the damn thing, they had to wait for rain”.

Walter indicated that there was an exclusiveness in connection with this grass seed exchange and planting, it being confined to [only some parts of central Australia]. Important mythological links determined the extent of the gift-exchange…”

– Kimber, R.G., “Resource use and management in central Australia”, Aust. Aboriginal Studies, 1984/number 2, 16-17.

Instead of being a routine, agricultural practice requiring the seasonal sowing of seed in the ground to produce a crop that could be tended and harvested year after year, what Walter Smith is describing is a customary barter and/or gift-exchange mechanism for certain tribes, in a small region, to trade items that they don’t normally have access to. The amount of seed, ‘a handful’, fulfills the customary law requirements of placing foreign seed gifts in one’s own country, but hardly would be able to provide enough crop to keep a tribe fed all year.

It appears that Mr Pascoe is using this interview from 1981, with a bushman of part Aboriginal heritage who did not live the traditional life, as his only ‘evidence’ that Aboriginal society across the whole of Australia were agriculturalists that regularly sowed grain crops. We don’t think that this is valid enough evidence to pass as a basis for an education for our children in the 21st century.

(1) Pascoe, B., Young Dark Emu – A Truer History, Magabala Books, 2019.

(2) Cole-Adams, J., Teachers’ Guide to Young Dark Emu, Magabala Books, 2019

Intellectual Honesty

Intellectual Honesty

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