Will the history wars ever end?

Bruce Pascoe, Andrew Bolt and the history wars.

A corrobery of natives in Mills Plains. John Glover, 1832.

In an interview with NITV News on Monday, an elder of the Warramiri people, Terry Yumbulul, denied he authored a letter published on Andrew Bolt’s blog. The letter emerged from a phone conversation between Yumbulul and Josephine Cashman. In this letter Yumbulul denounces key arguments in Bruce Pascoe’s ground-breaking book Dark Emu and calls for an investigation into Pascoe’s Aboriginal ancestry.

When asked if the letter misrepresented his beliefs, Yumbulul replied “Yes. The whole lot of them.” Contrary to the letter, Yumbulul states that he does not speak for all Yolngu people, only Yolngu Warramiri people. He also suggests the letter contains factual inaccuracies. 

It has since come to light that sections of this forged letter replicate, almost word for word, paragraphs in both a journal article and website. 

The repeated attempts by conservative forces to discredit Bruce Pascoe are part of a broader cultural war designed to disenfranchise Aboriginal people and deny Aboriginal people sovereignty. 

These attacks on Pascoe’s Indigeneity ignore the fracturing of familial ties under the weight of settler colonialism. They ignore a (continuing) history of child removal, racial violence, assimilationist policies and privileging written documentation, only haphazardly maintained, over Aboriginal oral testimony. Terrifyingly they suggest that only those with darker skin than Pascoe are “authentic” Aboriginal people. 

Andrew Bolt is just one in a long line of right-wing footnote detectives including Keith Windschuttle who have combed through the work of “black armband” historians to find instances however minor – a slight misquote or a poor citation – to suggest that historical investigations by a new wave of scholars intoxicated on postmodern theory lack credibility. 

Andrew Bolt is also just one in a long line of conservative shock jocks including Keith Windschuttle and Bettina Arndt who have, with the support of the Australian press, falsely claimed credentials and expertise they do not possess. When questioned by journalist Rick Morton for The Saturday Paper, Bolt evaded multiple times confirmation that he had read Dark Emu

Like any other book, Dark Emu is certainly not perfect. But eager readers must take some of the blame for miscomprehension. It is tempting, for example, to assume that what occurred in western Victoria – underground food storage, the construction of huts with stone foundations and the development of complex drainage systems and fish and eel traps – occurred all across Australia. 

But land management practices were diversified according to locale. This nuance disappears at times in texts such as Bill Gammage’s insightful best-seller The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia. Bringing together a wealth of evidence, Gammage argues that Aboriginal burning was a continent-wide phenomenon. However, his claim that Australia was a “single estate” erroneously suggests environmental history can be contained by as archaic a concept as the nation. 

As Professor Ian Lunt asserts in a blog post on Australian environmental history: “Locality matters, and ecological observations – historical and current – can’t be traded like swap cards across the country side.”

It may be that firestick management, while irrefutably a near continent-wide trait, was not used everywhere. It may be that, while First Nations people pursued meritorious ecologically-sustainable practices, they themselves were not completely immune to environmental destruction. 

The relentless pursuit of a grand national narrative homogenises highly varied Indigenous cultures and histories. It seeks to create order where nature is at once chaotic, dynamic, resilient and vulnerable. History, a notoriously conservative academic discipline, is an identity project that speaks to the nation perhaps more than the fields history leeks into – anthropology and archaeology. If someone tells you they are an Australian anthropologist, you tend to take no notice of the Australian prefix. If someone tells you they are an Australian historian, your mind immediately jumps to Australian history as a field. 

The odd timing of the public fire ecology debate illuminates the disconnection between academics and the wider reading public. While the public views Dark Emu as a revelatory book which has terraformed the scholarly landscape, prominent historian Tom Griffiths has described the text as a “compelling yet curiously old-fashioned account of Indigenous history”. 

Little in Dark Emu is particularly new to students of local history. As early as the 1960s, paleobotanists, anthropologists and archaeologists such as Bill Jackson, Rhys Jones and Norman Tindale, and later historians like Rupert Gerritsen, were attempting to overturn the misconception that Aboriginal Australians were hunter-gatherers by provocatively applying the labels “firestick farming” and “agriculture” to Indigenous land management practices.

This coalition of researchers have proven that Indigenous people have, for thousands of years, deliberately burned the Australian landscape in specific mosaic patterns to regenerate land, expose animal tracks and burrows, herd animals into specific zones and hunt. In certain regions, they constructed terraced gardens, cultivated land, created paths through dense shrub and built stone-walled dams and large-scale drainage systems.

Certainly, the publication of Dark Emu and its subsequent transformation into a Bangarra Dance Theatre production, a children’s book – Young Dark Emu: A Truer History – and a planned television show represent watershed moments in Australian cultural history. Pascoe is a masterful storyteller with a background in both fiction and non-fiction writing. Where academics have failed to engage the public, Pascoe has a reach and a turn of phrase few academics share. 

It is this talent that makes critics so scared. When we acknowledge that nature – what the invaders perceive as wilderness – was always a human creation, we see the frail basis for terra nullius and settler colonialism in Australia. We see the frail basis for a lack of treaty with Aboriginal communities. We see that some Australians are so scared that they will go to any lengths to smear Bruce Pascoe. These Australians seem to feel no shame in centring intergenerational trauma and publicly picking apart Pascoe’s deeply personal journey of self-discovery. 

When Josephine Cashman requested Peter Dutton investigate Pascoe’s Aboriginal ancestry, claiming he was benefiting financially from his fabrication, the Australian Federal Police dropped the case almost immediately. The AFP were unable  to identify any Commonwealth offences. 

While Josephine Cashman has been sacked from the senior advisory group for an Indigenous voice to parliament, the fact that she was able to obtain such a position underlines exactly why a vast number of Aboriginal Australians oppose constitutional reform and express skepticism of the Uluru Statement, and why sections of the far left do too. 

Not only has she attempted to silence Pascoe, she has suggested, with all its links to scientific racism and the militant policing of Indigenous identity, a formal register to examine people’s Aboriginality.

The late Aboriginal elder Tauto Sansbury once estimated that 60 to 70 percent of Aboriginal people do not support constitutional change. Persistent bureaucratic paternalism, wariness of ceding Aboriginal sovereignty and resentment towards the lack of veto power if constitutional recognition, via the establishment of First Nations voices in decision-making processes, succeeds help to explain the preference for a legally-enforceable treaty. When you have Josephine Cashman representing you, is it any surprise that many Aboriginal people would vote no to constitutional reform? 

With Bolt, Cashman and co reviving the corpse of a fire ecology debate settled long ago in scholarly circles, and never questioned within Indigenous communities, you have to wonder whether the so-called “History Wars” will ever end. It’s just the latest in a cultural war designed to disempower First Nations people. 

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