Introductory activities

What is history?

Edward Hallett Carr was a British historiographer who, in 1961, published a book, What is History? In it he asserts that history is essentially the interpretation of the facts that a historian gathers to present an argument. Carr’s ideas have been challenged in more recent times but his central thesis, that History is interpretative rather than objective, still has force and is very relevant to our study of Dark Emu.

In this book Carr argues that historians are not objective and detached in their re-telling of the past, but that they choose their facts and interpret them according to their personal ideological beliefs; we can only see the past through the lens of the present.

In Dark Emu Bruce Pascoe has written a popular history in which he draws upon the observations of early European explorers in Australia to challenge the long-held belief of ‘white settler’ Australians that Aboriginal people were ‘primitive hunter-gatherers’ with no concept of attachment to and ownership of the land. (Students should listen to this ABC podcast that shows that Aboriginal people did, in fact, have a very deep connection to their land, their Country).

Students should be asked to consider as they work through this unit why it has taken 250 years for settler Australians to come to a fuller ‘understanding of the past’ and indeed for some, that understanding has still to be achieved. The answer may lie in the deliberate misrepresentation of Aboriginal people as a colonial way of justifying their violent dispossession.

Whose history?

On page 104 of Dark Emu, Bruce Pascoe refers to ‘the national story’. He means the dominant story that Australians tell about themselves and their country. He understands that at the moment, this story does not include the achievements of pre-colonial First Nations people.

  • Discuss with students the idea that a dominant version of Australian identity is based on the twin myths of ‘the bush’ and ‘the Anzacs’ that are endlessly recycled by groups such as advertisers, farmers’ associations and the Australian War Memorial so that this dominant version has come to seem natural. (Here the word ‘myth’ does not mean an untrue story, but rather a story that people tell each other about their history, their present and their future). Representations of people, places, events and things within these myths will construct a version of national identity that suppresses other possible versions and privileges certain groups in society at the expense of others.
  • To check out the above contention ask students whether they have ever been asked to contribute money at their local supermarket to help drought-stricken farmers, or discuss with them what happens at their school on Anzac Day.

To illustrate what a challenge to the dominant national story can look like, ask students to carry out the following exercise:

  • Research with students the story of Eliza Fraser, after whom Fraser Island off the coast of Queensland is named. Explain to students that after she was shipwrecked on 22 May, 1836, she finally reached the island with her party and lived for some time with the local Indigenous people, the Badtjala, sometimes known as Butchulla. The important point to make with students is that Eliza Fraser claimed later that she was kidnapped and badly mistreated by them and that this led to a retaliatory massacre by British soldiers.

Then explain to students that in contemporary times the descendants of the Badtjala people have ‘written back’ against Eliza Fraser’s version of events aka the dominant story of what happened in 1836. Show them the short animated interactive documentary, K’Gari, that provides an Aboriginal perspective on the story of Eliza Fraser.

K’Gari gives an alternative version of an event in Australian history. It is actually in binary opposition to the dominant story; that is, it lies at 180 degrees opposite to Eliza Fraser’s story.

Bruce Pascoe’s aim

However, Bruce Pascoe does not aim to rewrite the national story from an entirely Indigenous point of view. He says in his introduction (page 3), ‘…by adjusting our perspective by only a few degrees, we see a vastly different world through the same window.’

  • In recent times an Indigenous presence has been introduced into Australian schools in the form of a week-long ceremony called NAIDOC Week.
  • Ask students whether they think NAIDOC Week has given them a ‘window’ into Indigenous Australia.
  • Discuss with them whether they think NAIDOC Week is as important to the ‘national story’ as Anzac Day. To do this they can reflect on how the two ceremonies are conducted respectively in their own school.
  • Ask them whether they think that NAIDOC Week lies at ‘a few degrees’ or 180 degrees to the dominant story of Australia.

Whose interest was served by early histories?

As an example of an early history of colonial settlement refer students to the book, In North Queensland: Early Days by Edward Palmer (the teacher can locate this book at Project Gutenberg) that was published in 1903. In it, Palmer writes about the occupation by white settlers of the state of Queensland. As part of the introduction a Mr G. Phillips writes:

The author of this book, the late Edward Palmer, was himself one of that brave band of pioneer squatters who in the early sixties (the 1860s) swept across North Queensland with their flocks and herds, settling, as if by magic, great tracts of hitherto unoccupied country, and thereby opening several new ports on the east coast and on the shores of the Gulf of Carpentaria, to the commerce of the world. In writing of these stirring times in the history of Queensland, Mr. Palmer has dealt with a subject for which he was peculiarly qualified as an active participant therein.

  • Use a wall map to illustrate the country that Phillips is referring to: virtually the hinterland of the present state of Queensland from Rockhampton north to the Gulf of Carpentaria.
  • Have students look at the AIATSIS map of Aboriginal Australia.
  • Then ask students whether they think that the territory of Northern Australia was unoccupied. Ask them to suggest why Phillips would have made this statement.
  • This short animation (located towards the end of the webpage) offers a visual representation of the government-sanctioned occupation of large areas of Queensland to support this short extract from Edward Palmer’s account of pastoral expansion in North Queensland in the 1860s.
  • To counter the statement that Northern Australia was unoccupied, refer them to sections in Dark Emu in which Pascoe has quoted the observations of the famous explorer, Charles Sturt, about the achievements of Aboriginal people on land further south e.g. the creation of ‘vast and pleasant grasslands’ produced by Aboriginal stewardship (p. 33); the building of substantial houses ‘…made of strong boughs fixed in a circle in the ground’ (p. 106).
  • Ask students why they think colonial settlers (and their apologists like Phillips) and historians of the time ignored the evidence of settled Aboriginal communities provided by the journals of Sturt (and other explorers like Major Thomas Mitchell).
  • It would be useful for the teacher to explore Phillips’ use of language to represent the occupation of this country as a heroic venture (‘brave band’, ‘as if by magic’, etc.). Do they agree with Edward Carr that historians are influenced by their own ideologies? Of course, Phillips is not a historian but he has written a foreword to a popular history written by Edward Palmer.
  • What do students think were the attitudes of Australians at the time (‘the present’) that Phillips wrote these comments about ‘the past’?
  • Ask students what it is about their ‘present’ (and his) that has allowed Bruce Pascoe to write Dark Emu.

What’s at stake?

In terms of the relationship between settler Australians who have come to Australia from other places around the world and Indigenous Australians, the country has reached a decisive moment. In recent times, Indigenous leaders gathered at the iconic site of Uluru and composed the Uluru Statement from the Heart that asks that their voice be enshrined in the Constitution. The idea is that a panel of Indigenous representatives should be included in the structure of the federal parliament to advise parliamentarians on any legislation that affects Indigenous people. This suggestion has been opposed by conservative politicians who have tried to appeal to the racial prejudices of their constituents.

What will prevail? The past or the present?

Another history

In 2018 a new history of Australia, Deep Time Dreaming by Deakin University historian Billy Griffiths was published. As the name suggests this was a history not of post-colonial Australia but of 65,000 years of pre-colonial Australia. Griffiths based his history on the work of archaeologists like John Mulvaney, Rhys Jones, Isabel McBryde and others whose work since the 1960s has shown that the claims made by Bruce Pascoe in Dark Emu, based on the journals of white explorers, are scientifically correct. Here are some of the interesting points made in Deep Time Dreaming that teachers could discuss with students:

  • That since they arrived on this continent 65,000 years ago Aboriginal people had constantly adapted to changing environments (periods of drought, extreme flooding and so on).
  • That Aboriginal people had not just adapted but were also ecological agents, managing the Australian landscape.
  • That the countryside observed by the English in 1788 was not a wilderness but rather a product of millennia of Aboriginal management.
  • That Aboriginal clans had occupied their land over very long periods of time, revealed by archaeological evidence. (The archaeologists used an approach called stratigraphy, the drilling down through levels of land sites to show continuous occupation of Country over many generations.)
  • That Aboriginal occupation of the continent, rather than being ‘timeless’, (a colonial trope used to prove that Aboriginal people had done little with the land), involved great changes in culture and the environment over a vast period of time.

Billy Griffiths asserts that there is no such thing in Australia as ‘non-Indigenous’ culture, that modern Australia sits over 65,000 years of the Indigenous shaping of this place. This idea is evident in Tony Birch‘s novel, Ghost River, which brings together a creation story and archaeology.

In the novel Ghost River two young Aboriginal boys living in the working-class suburb of Collingwood, Melbourne, in the 1960s form an attachment to both the Yarra River and a marginalised group of homeless Indigenous men who live near to the river. To both the boys and the men the river has a spiritual and symbolic meaning. However, the Yarra River is not the ‘ghost river’. Tony Birch suggests that in pre-historical times before the arrival of white people another timeless river, part of ‘deep time’ flowed underneath the Yarra. This sounds like an Aboriginal creation story but, in fact, as Tony Birch points out in Meanjin Quarterly (Summer, 2019):

Beneath the surface, commencing on the bed of the contemporary (i.e. the Yarra) river’s mouth, the ancient Birrarung River continues its journey. I find it comforting to know that although we cannot physically see the old river. It is there; a repository of story and knowledge. (p.133)

Creation story and science come together and again support Bruce Pascoe’s thesis.

And now, to Dark Emu itself

Share with students this extract from an interview with Bruce Pascoe by Jade Richardson for Verity LA (October 19, 2016). The interviewer reports that:

For starters, he wants to clear up a few true facts about Australia’s past. His most recent work, Dark Emu, is a non-fiction study of pre-colonial Aboriginal culture and conditions. It is a carefully told and well-evidenced proof that no, Australia was not empty and uncared for when the British colonists arrived – and yes – Aboriginal people were very much involved with cultivating, settling and working the landscape using engineering, crop raising, irrigation, horticulture, building and patience – which is nothing short of gob-smacking news to your average ‘Aussie’.

  • Ask students what they think Jade means by ‘gob-smacking’.
  • Do they agree that most Australians would know very little, if anything, about traditional Aboriginal society or culture?
  • Ask students if they are surprised by what Jade Richardson has to say.

Thinking about the title

In the same interview Pascoe explains the title of the book. ‘He named his book Dark Emu to honour the starless void in the Milky Way, shaped like an emu and riven with ancient Aboriginal story about the power and beauty of darkness, emptiness, the creative spirit.’

  • Ask students whether they think that naming the book after an Indigenous observation of the heavens is a powerful way of signalling Pascoe’s project to challenge a white view of Australian history.

Today the British explorer Captain James Cook is regarded as the bringer of Science and British law to this continent, as if Indigenous people did not have their own explanations of the natural world or their own laws and customs.

  • Explain to students that Western science has its counterpart in Indigenous astronomy. This knowledge of the stars goes beyond creation stories and acts as a guide for everyday activities in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities throughout the year. The stars are a way to navigate space, like a compass, and time, like a clock or calendar.

Dark Emu asks us to seriously question what we think we know about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. It puts forward the argument that the hunter-gatherer label as applied to Indigenous Australian people by colonial settler society is inaccurate and demeaning, and offers historical evidence that, in addition to ‘hunting and gathering’, which itself requires a very sophisticated knowledge of the environment, Indigenous people cultivated the land in pre-colonial Australia. Bruce Pascoe argues that by the time of colonial occupation Indigenous people in a number of places had reached the stage of early agricultural development, which in turn led to sedentism (i.e. staying in one place) and the construction of permanent housing and other associated infrastructure. More broadly, Pascoe’s text is concerned with sustainability and living in harmony with a living planet, and questions whether the dominant capitalist paradigm of exploitation of resources, commercialism and consumption is the one best suited to these aims.

In this way, the book deals with themes of power and discourse, societal change, and intercultural relationships and understanding.

The text is essentially an extended essay advocating strongly for a reassessment of pre-colonial Indigenous Australians as ‘mere’ hunter-gatherers and advocating for their knowledge of Country to be incorporated into modern Australian approaches and thinking. (Pascoe uses the word ‘mere’ in an ironic way to undermine the notion that hunter-gathering is simple, requiring little knowledge of the land.)There are no characters or plot as we are used to in fictional work, but historical figures are included with whom we can engage and identify as important identities in Pascoe’s argument.

This text will almost certainly be challenging for senior English students. It will ask them to question and reassess many of the ‘truths’ that they have learned about their world to this point. There is also a risk that students will feel uncomfortable engaging with discussions of race. This unit, and particularly the preliminary introductory activities, are designed to set the book in a contemporary context, make teachers more comfortable with discussing the book and allow students to speak their minds on a range of issues pertaining to pre-colonial Aboriginal society and its role in helping to develop modern sustainability.

The first two activities should be conducted while the students are still reading the text.

Setting the circle

Place chairs in a circle and explain to students that learning was done in a circle for thousands of years in this country.

Tell the students that much of the work in this unit is going to be done in this same way, and they should be prepared to participate in group discussions on the book and its themes.

New ways of thinking

To paraphrase E.H. Carr, cultures and worldviews are never static; people view the past and re-write its history from the perspective of the present. The following exercise is designed to illustrate to students that what seemed sensible in the past can now be reviewed using new ideas of the present.

The point of this exercise is to allow students to see that existing systems may be improved upon and are constantly being shaped and reshaped by people from a position of new knowledge and moral thinking.

  1. Ask the students to reflect on their years of schooling as their time as secondary students draws to a close. Facilitate a discussion on what they would change in the Australian schooling system if they could. Some conversation starters might include:
  • school timetabling (start and end times)
  • the necessity of uniforms
  • curriculum changes
  • more experiential learning.
  1. Another good example of how societal norms and worldviews can change over time is the success of the ‘Yes’ campaign in the 2017 Marriage Equality plebiscite. Obviously, the view of the majority of Australians towards non-binary sexuality had changed significantly from past attitudes.

Make the point to students that in the same way, with greater knowledge and information about pre-colonial and colonial-era Australian history, hopefully a majority of Australians will view the past (and the present) through the ‘same window’ but from a perspective a ‘few degrees’ away and accept the wisdom of Dark Emu.
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Two ways of seeing the world

The settler view: Journal entry
  • Ask students to imagine that they are colonisers exploring the Australian outback in the early 1800s. Ask them to write a journal entry describing what they see, the trials that they need to go through, any encounters they have with wildlife and Aboriginal people, etc. Encourage the students to use their imaginations – this is going to form a crucial learning experience for them as they explore the book and its themes.
A counterview: a conversation between two Aboriginal men
  • In her novel The Secret River Kate Grenville narrates a confrontation between her protagonist, William Thornhill, and two Aboriginal men who obviously resent greatly Thornhill’s invasion of their land. The historian Inga Clendinnen criticised Grenville for representing the thoughts and feelings of Thornhill but not those of the Aboriginal men who are described mainly in terms of their actions.
  • Ask students to adopt the point of view of the two Aboriginal men and write a short script of a conversation between them when they come upon the Thornhills on their land. Then ask the students in pairs to perform their scripted conversations to the class.

Unpacking colonialism

Background note: Colonialism and imperialism are two sides of the same coin. Powerful metropolitan and usually European countries (e.g. Great Britain, France, Spain, the Netherlands and others, etc) took control of other less-developed countries and claimed sovereignty over them. This is what James Cook, on behalf of King George III, did in 1770 at Possession Island when he declared the eastern part of Australia a colony of Great Britain.

Declaring sovereignty was not necessarily the same thing as taking ownership of land. Imperial countries generally felt that they had to negotiate the exchange of land or sign a treaty with the Indigenous people of the country. This did not happen in Australia where sovereignty and control of property happened at the same time as Henry Reynolds points out in his book The Forgotten War. (This was contrary to nineteenth century international law.) In fact, at the time of Federation, 1901, the federal government in Melbourne had limited control over large parts of the continent and no control at all over remote areas where Aboriginal people continued to exercise sovereignty over their land and lives. In fact, even today Indigenous activists and lawyers point out that Aboriginal people have never ceded sovereignty.

However, colonial settlers supported by soldiers from their home country generally felt a sense of entitlement in occupying the land of others. To do this they often needed to tell themselves myths like the one that students will now study.

The myth of ‘progress’: How to take land from others

  • Show students American Progress (1872), a painting by John Gast. (The picture depicts the female personification of Manifest Destiny leading American colonisers west. Her representation dominates the picture, as the painter has presented her as a sort of benevolent giantess. She holds a school book in one hand and is spooling out telegraph cable with her other. Before her, a coloniser rides aggressively at a herd of buffalo. Similarly, a group of colonisers aggressively approaches a group of Native Americans, who look terrified.)
  • Discuss with the class this picture and facilitate its analysis.
Some key focus questions:
  1. What is this picture saying about progress?
  2. What do you make of the representations of Indigenous people in this picture?
  3. What do you think this picture says, on the one hand, about exploiting the land for money and, on the other, about responsibility to nature and the environment?

Conversation through structured yarning 

Divide the class into groups of five to six students. Remind them of how Yarning Circles work. Make sure that they observe the process.

Set up the key conversational question for each group to discuss: Did Aboriginal Australians have a civilisation?

(Remember that colonists argued that Aboriginal people had not developed the land and did not have a complex civilisation. This became a powerful argument for dispossessing Aboriginal people of their lands.)

However, before students can arrive at an answer to this question in a meaningful way, they should work their way through the following activities.

  • Show students this YouTube clip: What is a civilization? Hold a class discussion on the various aspects of civilisation listed in the video.
  • Discuss with students the fairly obvious fact that the aspects listed in the video represent a European point of view.
  • Create a simple retrieval chart with two columns, one headed ‘European view of civilisation’ and the other ‘Aboriginal society and culture’ (as described in Dark Emu).
  • Ask students to list the aspects of civilisation outlined in the video in the left-hand column.
  • Then ask them to write down examples from the various chapters of Dark Emu to show that Aboriginal people, in their own ways, had met the criteria for being described as ‘civilised’. For example, one of the characteristics of a civilisation mentioned in the video is a ‘system of law’ so students can go to Chapter 6 of Dark Emu, find examples of Aboriginal law and write the examples into the right-hand column of their chart.
  • Complete the chart with input from students. (Small groups of students could be allocated a chapter each and then each group could contribute to the class chart.)
  • Ask students whether they think these aspects of ‘civilisation’ were visible to the early settlers in what they saw in Aboriginal society and culture, and if so, would they have behaved differently, not greedily and violently over-running Aboriginal land?
  • James Boyce in his history, 1835: The Founding of Melbourne and the Conquest of Australia and Van Diemen’s Land suggests an answer to that question: He says that an illegal squatter camp on the banks of the Yarra River in the Port Phillip colony marked the beginning of the illegal conquest of much of eastern Australia. The British government, which could have controlled the expansion of European settlement, failed entirely in its legal and moral duty.
  • At the end of his book 1835, Boyce suggests an alternative to what actually happened at the Port Philip colony. Point out to students the failure of the government of the colony to put into practice the official British government policy. Boyce criticises both Governor Bourke and James Stephen, the British Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies (1836–1847), for not preventing the violent conquest of Aboriginal land by squatters through the simple measure of denying formal land ownership to those who did not follow the law and instead took over land illegally.

Debrief the conversation with the students at the end of the session.

Do they agree that pre-colonial Aboriginal people had a civilisation?

What did they learn? Was there any dissent in the group?

Why do you think this was the case?

Do they think that Bruce Pascoe has made a convincing case?

As a matter of interest point out to students that the concept of Terra Nullius has already been exploded in 1992 by the High Court decision in the Mabo case.
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Personal response on reading the text

Once students have completed reading the text, move on to these learning activities.

Class discussion on Dark Emu

Facilitate a class discussion using the following focus questions:

  1. How did you feel while reading this text?
  2. What did you expect from the activities that we conducted while you were reading?
  3. What was challenging for you? Is there anything you are still finding hard to accept?
  4. How do you think this text would be received by the wider Indigenous community?
  5. How do you think this text would be received by the wider non-Indigenous community of Australia?
  6. A useful question that should always be asked about any text is, ‘Whose interest is served?’ Bruce Pascoe often reflects on why earlier historians did not reach the same conclusions he did from the observations of explorers like Thomas Mitchell and Charles Sturt. Why hasn’t the recent work of historians (e.g. Henry Reynolds), archaeologists (e.g. Billy Griffiths) and journalists (e.g. Paul Daley) been acknowledged and led to changes in the ‘national story’? Whose interest is served by the suppression and omission of their observations about Australian history? Why do you think this is the case?

(The answer probably lies in the continuing power of the white colonial story and the on-going colonial voice in Australian politics, especially among conservative politicians and the people they feel they represent. In a recent interview at the beginning of 2020, Sussan Ley, the Federal Minister for the Environment, articulated a prevalent point of view regarding Australian history when, referring to bush fires and climate change, she said, ‘200 years of human settlement in this relatively young continent is catching up with us’. Obviously, Ms Ley does not have much knowledge of Australia’s pre-colonial history or of its Indigenous people.)

  1. Bruce Pascoe does acknowledge the work of Bill Gammage, an Australian historian, who argued in his book, The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia, that Aboriginal people had virtually shaped the landscape of the whole Australian continent, using techniques such as ‘fire-stick farming’. Gammage’s thesis was supported by the Tasmanian geographer W.D. Jackson and the Canberra pre-historian Rhys Jones. Obviously, their views give support to Bruce Pascoe’s argument in Dark Emu. Even so there were those, especially natural scientists, who criticised Gammage’s ideas. Students should be alerted to some subtle points in response to Gammage’s overall thesis. For example:

The word ‘estate’ does tend to give the impression that the whole continent was managed in a homogeneous way. In fact, the continent was not a single place but rather a mosaic of different ecologies, all of which required different management strategies.

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Power and authority

Ask students to re-read Chapter 8, and particularly pp. 221–222 concerning the early explorer Angus McMillan. Point out to students that McMillan was able to treat the two Indigenous men, Johnny Cabonne and Jemmy Gibber, as slaves because of the institutional power that he had over them. (That is, his power came from the colonial government, which was the situation in all colonised countries.)

Unfortunately, colonial attitudes towards Aboriginal people still prevail in modern Australia. On 25 July 2016, the ABC broadcast a Four Corners report that disclosed the abuse of Aboriginal youths in the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre, a maximum security prison for juvenile delinquents located east of Darwin. Youths had been subjected to beatings and the use of tear gas.

Ask students whether they think that all Australians should be protected by the rule of law rather than being indiscriminately punished by gaolers.

Explain to them that the power of the state can be used to support one version of history over another.

Synthesising task – an alternative Australia


Because of official policy and decisions made at both the British government level and that of the colonial governments in New South Wales and Port Phillip in the early nineteenth century, the Australia that we now occupy suffers very serious and detrimental effects.

Of course, Indigenous people have suffered from that time onwards: devastating oppression and the loss of their cultures and their land, (their Country). However, the dominant culture has also suffered serious destruction of the environment over this period and especially in recent times with serious droughts threatening pastoral and agricultural industries in rural areas, destruction of the Murray-Darling river system and unprecedented bush fires reaching even to major city limits in 2019–2020. Some of these threats are, of course, the results of extraordinary climate change.

Your task

Imagine an alternative history of Australia based on a negotiated collaboration between two equal groups, white settlers and Indigenous people, instead of the laissez-faire occupation of the land and the destruction of the Aboriginal way of life allowed by Governors Gipps and Bourke.

Write a chapter for a history book based on an alternative vision of a future Australia. Consider the benefits of the contributions of the cultures of both groups. Your study of Dark Emu should provide you with some knowledge of Indigenous culture to which you can add, if required, other information gained from further research.

Some things to think about:
  • The leadership skills provided by each culture. For example, a hierarchical structure set against leadership based on extensive discussion among elders.
  • Ways in which the land could be shared to accommodate the different cultures.
  • The outcomes of a Yarning Circle in which participants from both groups learn by listening to each other, reflecting and accepting difference, and finally reaching consensus.
  • The rituals that might occur between the two cultures, e.g. taking time to learn each other’s languages, protocols, etc.
  • Differences in the exploitation/management of the environment.
  • Differences in religious/spiritual beliefs.
  • Ways in which the current political, social, economic and cultural situation for Indigenous people would be different if the strengths of Indigenous culture and civilisation had been acknowledged.

The purpose of this exercise is for students to speculate about a different (and better) contemporary Australia if white settlers had understood and honoured the strengths of Indigenous cultures and civilisation. In many ways teachers will see Aboriginal students taking a leadership role in classroom discussions. It will hopefully give them ideas to challenge negative ideas and stereotypes about Aboriginal peoples.
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The writer’s craft

Text structure

Dark Emu is not a traditional narrative. It is a piece of multi-genre writing incorporating elements of analytical and hortatory exposition with the historical recounts of various significant white Australian explorers taken from their journals. Overall the book is an analytical exposition (a piece of argumentative writing) that presents a strong case that Pascoe’s thesis (i.e. his central idea), which is that Indigenous people had created a civilisation on this continent long before white people arrived, is in fact a correct one.

Individual chapters in Dark Emu all serve to further the argument that there was a sophisticated, complex and sustainable society in Australia before European contact. The recounts of white explorers are used by Pascoe as evidence for his thesis.

These three text types give overall structure to the book.

Analysing the structure of the book

Step 1

Ask students to identify Bruce Pascoe’s thesis (i.e. the main idea that he is presenting).

Step 2

Facilitate a class discussion (possibly in a yarning circle) on the main arguments of the text. Ask the students to record the findings of this conversation in their own notes.

Step 3

Break students into eight groups, assigning each one a chapter. Ask each group to provide a summary of the chapter, outlining its main points and how it supports the overall argument (the thesis) of the book. Explain to students how the main arguments supported by evidence or data promote the overall thesis. This may be an ideal time to educate students on the features of analytical, expository, or argumentative essays.

Pascoe also sets out to persuade (hortatory exposition) readers to do something, to work towards a sustainable future in Australia using traditional Indigenous farming practices and ensure that Aboriginal people benefit from the exploitation of their intellectual property.

Direct students to the important issue of the intellectual and cultural property rights of Indigenous people.

Ask students to consider how ironic it is that Aboriginal people are stereotypically considered to be ‘primitive’ and yet white commercial businesses have made a lot of money out of the exploitation of the special knowledge that Indigenous people have, for example, of certain plants. This is commonly known as cultural appropriation but in many instances is quite simply cultural theft.
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Even though ‘characters’ are usually associated with fiction, it is possible for a non-fiction writer to create sympathetic characters to engage readers. There are a number of historical figures in this text and students should explore how Pascoe has used language to represent these characters and to position readers to adopt particular attitudes towards them.

Throughout the book, Pascoe paints profiles of several colonists through vivid descriptions using evocative language. This approach to characterisation brings the reader closer to the time Pascoe is describing, and creates an atmosphere where the reader feels part of the narrative.

Ask students to read the descriptions and quotes of Major Thomas Mitchell (p. 15), George Grey (pp. 17–18), Charles Sturt (p. 99–100), and Angus McMillan (p. 221–223) to see how Bruce Pascoe has used descriptive language to bring these historical figures ‘to life’ for his readers.


As Dark Emu is concerned with environmental stability on the Australian continent, students should be given opportunities to reflect on how the landscape, flora, and fauna have changed over time. You may like to ask the students to watch this ten-minute documentary, First Footprints, to contextualise the knowledge.

Ask students to research further one of these four places mentioned in Dark Emu:

  • The Bunya Mountains
  • The Brewarrina Fish Traps
  • Kooyoora National Park
  • Sutton Forest

Ask the students to produce a short report on their chosen site, answering the following questions:

  1. Who are the traditional custodians of this site?
  2. What was the significance of this site to Aboriginal people?
  3. How was it managed, and how is it managed today?

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Pascoe’s voice throughout the book strikes an authoritative but non-academic tone. One way this is accomplished is by using his own first-person voice to give detailed accounts of the writer’s personal experiences of living a more sustainable lifestyle.

Language and style

Pascoe employs literary devices closely related to persuasive or argumentative texts, so teachers might like to engage with general activities on these styles as they move into a closer reading of the texts. This section offers some activities that are best undertaken after reading the book, when students are ready to participate in a close analysis.

This is also a good opportunity to explore the concept of ‘register’ with students. Ask students to read the following quotes from the text and answer the subsequent questions:

And this baking wasn’t a one-off occurrence. Archaeologists found a 25,000-year-old grindstone at distant Kakadu in the Northern Territory: the bakers of antiquity. Why don’t our hearts fill with wonder and pride? (p. 30)

  • How does the use of a rhetorical question here reach out to readers and create an inclusive ‘our’, presumably all Australians?

There’s no contemporary market for these grains but I bet a stall in any city market could sell flours from these grains at premium prices to whole foods enthusiasts. Markets are created by entrepreneurs. Set aside a few paddocks and have some fun and I’ll eat my boot if it doesn’t yield a profit. (p. 66)

  • How does the writer use language in the extract to lower the formal tone of his book?
  • What does Pascoe mean when he says ‘set aside a few paddocks and have some fun’?
  • What is the effect of the idiom ‘I’ll eat my boot’? Answer with reference to the broader argument of the text.

One Aboriginal recipe suggests cooking the abalone in its own shell on hot coals. I tried this, expecting the flesh to toughen under these conditions, but instead found that it remained tender and even more flavourful… When it was ‘mutton fish’ they [Aboriginal people] were allowed to harvest as much as they wanted. Today they are gaoled for pursuing their traditional harvest. (pp. 92–93)

  • Why do you think Pascoe has shared this personal story with the reader? How does it engage you?
  • Why does ‘mutton fish’ appear in quotation marks here?

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Synthesising task/activity

Deficit discourse and the single narrative

Explain to students the meaning of ‘deficit discourse’. Essentially it means the belief among non-Indigenous people that nothing really happened on the continent of Australia for a vast period of time until the British arrived in 1788. It is based on the idea that Aboriginal people had done little with the land in pre-colonial time. It is this idea that Bruce Pascoe rejects so forcefully in Dark Emu (and Billy Griffiths in Deep Time Dreaming.) Of course, ‘single narrative’ refers to the white colonial story that students have already dealt with.

Discuss with students the limitations of the single narrative, and show them this YouTube clip. Ask them to consider how they have been positioned to understand Indigenous Australia, and encourage them to share stories.


Students should complete one of the following tasks:

  1. Ask students to write an argumentative essay that considers and responds to the following question: ‘How does Bruce Pascoe challenge a deficit view of Aboriginality in Dark Emu?’


  1. Find examples in Dark Emu where Bruce Pascoe uses persuasive language to convince readers that Indigenous people should benefit from their special knowledge of the land.

(Henrietta Fourmile, an Aboriginal academic at Central Queensland University, Cairns campus, has written on this topic.)

Then ask students to write a short hortatory exposition (a persuasive essay) to convince all Australians that Indigenous people should share in the wealth derived from their special knowledge.
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Ways of reading the text

History is an interpretation of the past based on available evidence. These interpretations can vary widely because of the ideology (a set of values, attitudes and beliefs) of the particular historian. Students should look at different accounts of the Battle of Pinjarra/the Pinjarra massacre in the Swan District of Western Australia in 1934.

The first steps would be to read:

Next, discuss with students these different interpretations of the one historical event. Ask them to reflect on how there can be such divergent accounts. Refer them back to E.H. Carr’s theory that history is ‘interpretive’ rather than ‘objective’ and that therefore historians will select the facts that support their worldview (ideology) at a given moment in history.

Bruce Pascoe’s book Dark Emu is his own re-interpretation of Australian history. It says things that might be considered controversial. It certainly challenges more conventional histories of Australia and asks us to re-imagine the history of Australia and question the ways that history has been written. Significantly, it asks us to consider the purpose that people have in writing history and implores us not to ignore evidence so that we can cling to an ideology that may never have been based on facts.

As such, there are two ‘main’ ways to read Dark Emu: as someone (the implied reader) who is prepared to consider Pascoe’s re-interpretation of Australian history, or as a sceptic unwilling to accept Bruce Pascoe’s thesis (and thus adopting an alternative reading of the text). Students should be able to read such a text with a sceptical point of view, but in such a way that they can acknowledge historical evidence, even when it challenges what they believe to be true.

Bruce Pascoe himself encourages curiosity and doubt in children.

Explain to students that the reading approach referred to above is called reader-reception theory. The idea is that the meaning of a text depends very much on the individual reader who will bring his or her previous experiences and understandings to the text.

Of course, this theory recognises that readers’ worldviews are socially and culturally constructed so that another way of looking at how readers will respond to Dark Emu is to explore the attitudes, values and beliefs of the discourses to which they belong. For example, how will a conservative social commentator react to Dark Emu? Or an Indigenous rights activist? And so on.


To illustrate this point, ask students to take part in a panel discussion about Dark Emu from the ideological position of an assigned role. This exercise will show how different readers will focus on different aspects of the text.

  • Ask each student to speak for about five minutes, beginning with a short overview of their role position and then a response to the text itself.
  • (It might be worthwhile to also dedicate some time to discussing these discourses in a group activity before conducting the panel discussion.)
  • At the end of the activity, facilitate a synthesising conversation where students reflect on their learning.

Bruce Pascoe has, for some years now, been attacked for his ideas by extreme right-wing political commentators like Andrew Bolt, who is employed as a broadcaster by NewsCorp. They have criticised Pascoe for his ideas in Dark Emu and have also challenged his status as an Aboriginal man.

The question then arises: ‘What is Andrew Bolt’s reading position?’

Obviously he makes an alternate reading of Dark Emu based presumably on his own conservative worldview but it is very likely that he goes a step further and makes a resistant reading from within the attitudes, values and beliefs of a very old white colonialist ideology. It is also possible, of course, that he operates within the ideology of a capitalist economic model to defend the powerful and wealthy. Or perhaps, both.
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Comparison with other texts

Dark Emu has struck such a chord in contemporary Australia that a version for junior readers, Young Dark Emu, has been published (a teaching resource is available at Reading Australia), a screen documentary will be released in 2020 and the Bangarra Dance Company performed a dance interpretation of the ideas in the book at venues around Australia in 2018.

To promote his book and the ideas in it Bruce Pascoe has appeared in a number of videos and at a number of speaking events. Show students this particular TEDx talk titled ‘A real history of Aboriginal Australians, the first agriculturalists’. Ask students to view the clip and then consider these questions:

  • Where does this particular point/story sit in the broader context of Pascoe’s argument?
  • Who do you think Pascoe’s audience is here?
  • Do you think this was a good choice to share with this audience?


Imagine that you are trying to persuade an audience of your peers of the merits of Indigenous sustainability practices in a fifteen-minute presentation. What stories from Dark Emu would you choose to tell? Justify your response. This activity can be done individually, in small groups, or even as a whole class discussion.
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Billy Griffiths is a historian at Deakin University. He is the author of a new history of Australia, Deep Time Dreaming, published in 2018. This is another story (based on archaeological findings) told from the Indigenous perspective that will add both to the national story and challenge the conventional ‘political voice’ of conservative politicians and right-wing social commentators. As the name suggests, this is a history not of post-colonial Australia but of 65,000 years of pre-colonial Australia.

Many recent texts written by Indigenous authors have introduced a powerful voice into the national story. Some of these include:


Non-fiction texts


There are many other texts by contemporary Indigenous novelists, film makers, poets and so on that students might like to read/view and share with their class.


Evaluation of the text as representative of Australian culture

A new ‘few degrees’ perspective: Preservation by Jock Serong

Jock Serong is a white Australian writer. His novel Preservation has been described as the first post-Dark Emu novel. In the storyline of the novel his characters walk along a beach in eastern Victoria until they turn north and walk up the coast towards Sydney. He has included in the story observations that could have been made by Sturt or Mitchell – see page 110 and page 159 for examples.

Obviously Dark Emu has changed the worldview of many Australians including that of creative writers. Students may enjoy reading Preservation both as an example of historical fiction and for its new perspective on Indigenous people in colonial Australia.
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Mark McKenna is one of Australia’s leading historians. The following extract from his recent essay in the Quarterly Essay, titled ‘Moment of Truth; History and Australia’s Future’, demonstrates McKenna’s support for Pascoe’s central thesis and challenges the traditional history of settlement in Australia:

Equally, when we tell our new citizens that ‘Aboriginal people did not grow crops or set up homes to stay in one place as the British did’, we are peddling falsehoods. British settlers arrived to a carefully managed landscape. It was not natural. There was no wilderness or ’empty places’. Aboriginal people built villages, cultivated and harvested crops, dried and stored food, constructed elaborate stone walls, quarries, fish traps, terraced gardens, paths and fences. Australian ‘civilisation’ was already established. The challenge of incorporating Indigenous ecological knowledge – firestick farming is perhaps the most obvious – into the way we care for country today is one that we have only recently taken up.

(‘Moment of Truth’, Chapter 7, Mark McKenna, Quarterly Essay 69. Copyright (c) Mark McKenna 2018. First published in Quarterly Essay 69, Moment of Truth: History and Australia’s Future. Reproduced by permission of Quarterly Essay, an imprint of Schwartz Books Pty Ltd.)

The following texts are mentioned or referenced in Dark Emu to support Bruce Pascoe’s arguments:

Students could do some research on the main themes of these texts. Using the information that they have gained from their research about each (including content, style, genre, argument) they could then speculate on how each book might address each of the identified themes. This activity can be done individually or in small groups, with each individual/group choosing one text each to research. Groups will come back together and compare their findings, identifying the themes common to each text.
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Hopefully Dark Emu will change the way that non-Indigenous people in Australia think about themselves as Australians and about Australian national identity. Indigenous author Kim Scott, writing in The Monthly magazine (October, 2019, pp 36-37) thinks that there are some hopeful signs that a growing sense of confidence and assertiveness among Indigenous people in Australia will produce ‘a more nuanced sense of national identity.’ However, Scott points out that it is the regaining of heritage in Indigenous communities that will over time challenge an earlier version of national identity. In this article, Scott also acknowledges the courage of individuals like Adam Goodes who has made the effort to regain his own sense of identity as an Indigenous man.

Adam Goodes was a very fine, first-class AFL player for the Australian Rules Football team, the Sydney Swans. He is an Indigenous man but, as he has said, he did not know much about his Aboriginal heritage. However, over time he learned more about his culture and began to display his pride in it publicly. During a football match in which he had been heckled by the crowd, he performed a’ war dance’ in celebration after scoring a goal – making a point to the booing spectators. This aroused the great hostility of many spectators who then booed him mercilessly for match after match. Obviously, these people did not see Goodes as Australian but rather as an ‘other’. However, many other non-indigenous Australians supported him through social media and in other ways. Indigenous novelist Kim Scott suggests that this public support for Goodes will, like Dark Emu, lead to a new sense of Australian-ness. Journalist and commentator, Stan Grant, in his ABC documentary, ‘The Australian Dream’, tells Goodes’ story poignantly.

Significance to literature and the world of texts

Introduce students to a recent book by James C. Scott of Yale University entitled: Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States. Scott says that the usual story of human development from hunter-gathering to herding, to farming in settled communities is too neat. He argues that humans in the past (up to 3,000 years ago) did follow this path, only to pull back again when some of the dangers of the new settled way of life became obvious. These included crop failures, illness (because so many people were crowded together) and the introduction of slavery to provide a workforce. Fitting in with Scott’s thesis, Bruce Pascoe points out that many Aboriginal groups combined hunter-gathering with some of the aspects of a more settled life (crop cultivation, the building of semi-permanent houses, fish traps and granaries).

Ask students to discuss the possibility that Aboriginal people combined hunter-gathering with agriculture and herding but pulled back from setting up for themselves a full-blown hierarchy of state power exercised by a non-productive elite and funded by a tax on grain, so typical of states elsewhere in the world (for example, in the Fertile Crescent of the Near East around 5,000 BCE), because they understood some of the dangers of doing so.

The whole idea that hunter-gathering is ‘simple’ is based on a paradigm of evolutionary progress with human societies gradually moving from hunter-gathering to farming. Teachers could discuss with students some of the ideas that flow from this paradigm:

  • Is the human species really ‘moving forward’ in a steady path to progress? (There are many examples of humans collectively moving instead towards complete extinction e.g. the challenge of global warming.)
  • Was hunter-gathering really ‘simple’? Wouldn’t it have involved a very deep knowledge of the land and its wildlife?
  • Is agriculture always ‘good’, a positive development? (For example, the first English settlers in Virginia, USA, destroyed the land with their tobacco farming and then moved on to new land…and destroyed it, too.)
  • There is a narrative in Australia that says that nothing really happened on the Australian continent until the arrival of the British in 1788. This narrative has been comprehensively rebuffed by Bruce Pascoe (Dark Emu) and Billy Griffiths (Deep time Dreaming).

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Synthesising tasks

Task 1

Part A

Ask the students to read and consider this piece by non-Indigenous journalist Paul Daley, in which he re-frames some of the key figures of early settlement (e.g. Governor Lachlan Macquarie) as murderers. Contemporary Aboriginal writers who also write back against a dominant view of Australian settlement and its ‘heroes’ include Celeste Liddle, novelist Tony Birch and lawyer and academic, Irene Watson.

Next, have them write responses to the following questions and then discuss their responses with a partner. If appropriate, have the pairs share the results of their discussions with the whole group.

  1. Why do you think we continue to celebrate the lives of proven murderers? Is such admiration ever justified?
  2. ‘How readily we believe those things that suit us,’ comments Daley. What things do you believe that suit you? Have you ever challenged these beliefs? If it were up to you to rename towns, suburbs or cities in Australia, what kinds of things would you base your decisions on? Tony Birch (The White Girl; Ghost River), in an article in Blacklines: Contemporary Critical Writing by Indigenous Australians 2003 about the re-naming of the Grampians to Gariwerd, reveals the difficulty of resurrecting Aboriginal place names because of the resistance of both white settlers and of Aboriginal people who see the project as just a way of exploiting Aboriginal culture for commercial purposes.
Part B

Ask students to conduct web research on five to ten place names from the local area that interest them. Where did the names come from? Do the stories surprise them? Ask the students to write a 30-word personal response to each of their selected place names.
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Task 2

Understanding the debate around Native Title is important to understanding some of the issues Aboriginal people continue to have with the Australian Government. Show students a variety of short video clips via YouTube on these topics: native title; Aboriginal sovereignty (explain that First Nations people have never ceded the sovereignty over their land); colonisation (explain that although the British government at the time of invasion took control of the country by force, it did not negotiate ownership of the land); and the need for a treaty between the Australian government and First Nations people.

Then, hold a yarning circle where students can discuss the above issues in detail. Ask students to consider why many Aboriginal people feel frustrated by native title processes, for example, Professor Mark McMillan points out that Indigenous people have never ceded their sovereignty and yet the Australian Constitution, designed for a federation, does not acknowledge the existence of Indigenous sovereignty as one aspect of federalism. Therefore, native title, a concept developed by the ‘white’ federal government of Australia has been constructed as the highest legal right Indigenous custodians can ask for. Professor Irene Watson also argues that the starting point for Indigenous recognition in the Australian constitution is acknowledgement of pre-colonial inter-nations’ legal arrangements that would then need to be incorporated into the constitution.

Following on from this discussion, ask students to consider how the Aboriginal people we encounter in Dark Emu may feel about the concept of land rights. (Should people have to fight for the ownership of land that they have never given away?)
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Synthesising Activity

The Dark Emu is a space between the stars visible in the Milky Way at certain times of the year. Indigenous people know that when the Dark Emu appears, it is time for certain ceremonies to take place, certain responsibilities must be observed and certain tasks must be carried out. Its use as a title for this book is reasonably obscure, but incredibly significant for decoding the overall meaning of the text.

Step 1

Ask students to research what the Dark Emu actually is. (This may be difficult as students should seek an accurate Indigenous description from a genuine source. This would be a good opportunity to bring in Indigenous community members for a discussion.)

Step 2

Now that they know the meaning, ask them to consider why Pascoe thought that this was an appropriate title for the book. Ask them to write a personal response of no fewer than 300 words in length. This will lead them into the first Rich Assessment task.
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Rich assessment task 1: Responding

Writing a book review

The context

Newly published books in Australia are often reviewed in newspapers and magazines both to provide an informed critique of the particular book and also to let readers know whether the work is worth their time reading or not.

If a non-fiction book, especially one like Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu, challenges conventional wisdom then it may also be picked up by either conservative or progressive newspapers that will then run favourable or negative opinion pieces about the book’s main ideas in their opinion pages.

Dark Emu was first published in 2014 and since then has caused considerable controversy, and will continue to do so as it contributes to the on-going debate in Australia about the recognition of, and possible reconciliation with, First Nations peoples.

Your task:

Write a book review for, say, a magazine like Australian Book Review or for the review pages of a leading weekend newspaper.

Use a guide for how to write a book review and make sure to use some of the following points that Pascoe has used in his book:

  • Aboriginal people were hunter-gatherers; however, they also interacted with their environment to ensure their food supply.
  • They used fire to manage their food sources, e.g. every year they would burn off around water holes to encourage the growth of sweet new grass to attract animals.
  • This approach to managing the land was an early form of pasture control or husbandry.
  • They also built semi-permanent villages. Aboriginal peoples in southern Western Australia and in south-west Victoria built substantial houses, often using stone.
  • In these locations they built weirs and eel and fish traps and they also dug wells to guarantee water supply.

Of course, these ideas are only a starting point for your review. You can draw much of your information from Dark Emu itself.
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Rich assessment task 2: Responding

Persuasive speech

Your task:

Dark Emu primarily argues for a historical reassessment of Indigenous ways of living, and suggests that there may be lessons in the old ways for farmers, conservationists, and politicians – but what about educators? Reflecting on the education system itself may be a particularly powerful retrospective task for students about to complete their secondary schooling.

For this task students will write and deliver a speech arguing for the more meaningful inclusion of Indigenous processes in modern Australian classrooms. In this speech, they should synthesise what they have learned about Indigenous life pre-colonisation and give specific examples of the learning that they believe would be useful for Australian school students in the modern world.

In completing the task, students may want to consider the following questions:

  1. What is the point of being educated?
  2. What are some of the challenges that we face as a nation today?
  3. What are the global issues that humanity faces today?
  4. What are the skills and capabilities that students will need to meet these challenges?

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Rich assessment task 3: Creating

Short story

Your task:

You are to write an engaging short story based on a significant incident or event from the text, Dark Emu. For example, you could choose an event from the journal of one of the white explorers, or you could perhaps respond to the photograph and accompanying text on page 152 of the book.

Firstly, write an Author’s note (about 250 words) in which you explain how you plan to use this event as the basis for a short story.

  • Give a brief recount of the event or of circumstances surrounding the event.
  • Describe the two or three characters who will feature in the short story.
  • Explain how you will amplify the event to make it entertaining to your readers.
  • Explain how you will try to build into the story one of the themes that Dark Emu deals with: sustainability, justice, hope, resilience, and social responsibility.
  • Explain how you will try to position your readers to adopt a particular perspective. (Will you use a focalising character, for example?)
  • Try to show how the unequal power relations between characters will be dealt with.

Now, use your Author’s note to write a full-length short story.

  • Choose an appropriate genre. Realism or action might be the most likely for this task.
  • Decide on point-of-view, e.g. first-person/third-person narrative.
  • Mould the recount into the typical shape of a short story: Orientation leading to Complication to Climax and Resolution. However, you could use the strategy of media res i.e. starting the story in the middle and then moving backwards and forwards.
  • Make sure to show as well as tell.
  • Choose a tense for the story. Past tense is fairly conventional.
  • Create a setting that suits the general mood of the story.
  • Give the characters appropriate dialogue.
  • Use literary techniques as appropriate, e.g. use of simile, metaphor, etc.

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