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Tea Leaves

Acclaimed book points to a brighter Australian future

Alternative view of night sky in 'Dark Emu' illuminates debate on Aboriginal rights

An Australian Aboriginal man plays a didgeridoo at Government House in Sydney.   © Reuters

For most Australians the constellation that stands out in the night sky is the Southern Cross, a set of five bright stars with its main axis pointing south. But indigenous people see something else -- in the dark clouds surrounding the Milky Way, they discern the elongated image of a flightless bird.

This "emu in the sky," or "dark emu," is part of the creation story of Aboriginal Australia, and a touchstone of a new debate about the past and future role of the continent's first inhabitants. It is a story that resonates around the world, part of a growing international awareness of indigenous rights, including land rights, across regions from the Americas to Eurasia.

Archaeological research shows that Australia has been inhabited by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders for at least 60,000 years. But the arrival of British settlers in the late 18th century turned the world of the first Australians upside down, and largely swept aside their culture and custody of the land.

There have been attempts to make amends over the years, but the economic, political and social divisions between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians still run deep. As political and community leaders mull the possible shape of an indigenous "voice to parliament," there is a growing sense that educating younger people about Aboriginal culture must be one of the starting points.

This is where the writer Bruce Pascoe's landmark book "Dark Emu" -- and its 2019 version for young readers, "Young Dark Emu" -- come in. Pascoe's highly accessible writing has shaken the notion, long held among Australians of European descent, that the people living on the land when the British explorer James Cook sailed along the east coast in 1770 were nomadic hunters with no real settlements.

This assumption underpinned the British declaration of Australia as terra nullius (nobody's land) and its subsequent colonization of the landmass, with disastrous results for Aborigines.

Pascoe asserts that "the belief that Aboriginal people were 'mere' hunter-gatherers has been used as a political tool to justify dispossession" and that the determination of colonial administrators to discount Aboriginal achievements continues in contemporary Australia.

A version of "Dark Emu" for younger readers was released in 2019. (Courtesy of Magabala Books)

Theoretically, two key rulings by Australia's High Court -- "Mabo" in June 1992, which recognized native title, and "Wik" in December 1996, which decided that farming leases did not extinguish native title -- overturned the legal doctrine of terra nullius. But Aboriginal activist Claire Coleman claimed as recently as 2017 that many white Australians act as though this never happened.

Pascoe is not the first to argue that Aboriginal Australians cultivated the land, astutely managed animal and fishery resources, built permanent homes, practiced targeted burning of the land, had a complex spiritual awareness and a sophisticated understanding of their environment. Bill Gammage of the Australian National University covered similar ground in his book "The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia" in 2011, five years before "Dark Emu" was named New South Wales State book of the year.

But Pascoe's strength is his ability to use the words of the first white explorers -- men such as Thomas Mitchell, Charles Sturt and John McDouall Stuart -- to show how astonished they were to encounter examples of Aboriginal agriculture, aquaculture, housing and storage systems during their travels.

Prominent indigenous academic Marcia Langton calls "Dark Emu" the "most important book on Australia, and one that should be read by every Australian." Langton, chair of Australian Indigenous Studies at the University of Melbourne, was recently named a co-advisor to the federal government's "voice to parliament" project, which over the next 12 months will design models for indigenous views to be heard at all levels of government -- local, state and national.

Langton has argued previously for constitutional recognition of "First Australians," but conservative politicians argue that a referendum on this would not win support from Australia's 25.5 million people.

Ken Wyatt, the indigenous Australians minister in the conservative Liberal-National Party coalition government led by Prime Minister Scott Morrison, said recently that any "voice" would have to fully reflect the 800,000 indigenous voices in various Australian communities. In October 2017, Malcolm Turnbull, Morrison's predecessor, rejected a proposal put forward by 250 indigenous leaders known as the "Uluru Statement from the Heart." Turnbull said at the time that an Aboriginal "voice to parliament" would inevitably "become seen as a third chamber" of Australia's currently bicameral parliament.

Pascoe ends "Dark Emu" by saying that denial of Aboriginal achievement is the "single greatest impediment to intercultural understanding and, perhaps, Australian moral and economic prosperity." Whether the message of "Dark Emu" can help sway mainstream politicians will become clear over the new year. One promising sign: In September, "Dark Emu" was selected by the newly formed Parliamentary Book Club as the first book to be read at Canberra's Parliament House.

Geoff Hiscock is an Australia-based writer.

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