It was Reconciliation Week last week in Australia and this year’s theme was ‘grounded in truth’. It highlighted Aboriginal and Torres Train Islander peoples’ call for a process of truth-telling about Australia’s colonial history as a way of healing historical wounds. Because let’s face it, someone has to – there’s a leadership void where the political classes are concerned (apart from in Victoria, of course).
While this country remains in deep denial about the trauma white settlers visited on this continent (just change Australia Day goddammit!!), I figure one small, small way that I can contribute to reconciliation between Aboriginal and non-Indigenous Australians is to educate myself better about the wrongs of the past and to understand their impact on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. I shake my head whenever I reflect that I never learned anything about this trauma during my decades of formal Australian education.
Young Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe is the perfect entry point for this. By reexamining journals and drawings from early Australian settlers and explorers, Bruce Pascoe paints a radically different picture of Aboriginal people and their culture.
At the heart of this book is a challenge – reconsider what you’ve been taught about the colonisation of Australia. It is not as the white history books tell it.
Through first-hand white settler accounts, Pascoe shows us that Aboriginal people had sophisticated means of managing the land to minimise erosion, bush fires and excessive cultivation. There’s evidence of an Aboriginal woman baking bread 50,000 years before the Egyptians next did it. There were permanent houses, man-made wells, planted fields of yam – in other words, organised settlements surrounded by managed farmland. All evidence points to Aboriginal people having sustained themselves on the land in complex ways for 60,000 years before settlement. Most importantly, it destroys the assumption that Australia was terra nullius (land belonging to no one), the notion upon which Australia’s entire legal and cultural structures are based.
The beautiful thing about this book is that it is powerful and persuasive without being didactic. It mentions the battles, the massacres, the disease and starvation. But that is only part of the narrative. What comes through strongly and proudly is that Australia is home to one of the richest and oldest continuing cultures in the world.
Young Dark Emu is a junior version of Pascoe’s Dark Emu, which has collected a litany of awards and accolades. It’s perfectly pitched to a younger audience, balancing authentic story telling with age-appropriate concepts and language, whilst never becoming patronising. Moreover, its a gorgeous book; the illustrations and the graphic design make it a delight to hold and to read.
What shines through these pages strongest of all is hope; hope for a more equitable and accurate understanding of our heritage. As Pascoe has said about the success of Dark Emu: “It just goes to show that Australia is changing its mind about its own history — there’s a conversation going on, and people are using the book to open that conversation.”
Let the conversation be a long and honest one, grounded in truth.
I received Young Dark Emu from the fabulous Magabala Books in exchange for an honest review.