The Noble Savage
Decrying romantic visions of Indigenous people
A while back, one of my children came home from school and said, “Mum, they’ve been teaching us Dark Emu as if it’s real, but that doesn’t fit with what you told us about Indigenous society?” Dark Emu, for non-Australian readers, is a book written by Bruce Pascoe which asserts that Indigenous society was not a hunter-gatherer society as previously thought by settlers, and that Aboriginal people developed agricultural and farming methods. It has been published to considerable acclaim, won multiple prizes, and a version for young children has been released. It has also produced controversy, partly over whether the claims it makes are accurate.1 Pascoe is now an Enterprise Professor of Indigenous Agriculture at the University of Melbourne.
My response to my fourteen-year-old son was to provide him with Peter Sutton and Kerryn Walshe’s Farmers or Hunter Gatherers? The Dark Emu Debate,2 and to tell him that there were other views on Dark Emu for him to consider. Sutton is an eminent anthropologist and Walshe is an eminent archaeologist, and their work provides a scholarly and extremely well-researched rebuttal of the claims in Pascoe’s book.
I do not consider it my role to tell my son what to think, but to give him a full spectrum of informed scholarly views so that he can make up his own mind. I am disturbed that his school did not provide him with a credible and scholarly counter-view, but it seems that this is the norm: Dark Emu is accepted as truth, and no counter-view is presented.
I have been teaching Indigenous students since 1998. They taught me as much as I taught them. I have some Indigenous ancestry myself, thanks to a man who lived in Rockhampton in the 1870s. He might have been one of the Dharumbal people who lived around Rockhampton, and who hunted dugong and foraged for turtle eggs. Alternatively, he might have been a member of the Native Mounted Police, who came to Rockhampton around this time to massacre the Dharumbal, on the command of the colonial government. We don’t know any details, nor do we even know his name.
We do know that in 1873, Sarah Hillen, a woman from Shottisham in Suffolk, arrived in Rockhampton. Prior to coming to Australia, she’d spent time in London in a “Rescue Home” (an asylum for “fallen women”) and then married an Englishman named George Brown. She worked in Rockhampton as a barmaid.
In 1876, Sarah gave birth to a child named Emma Brown (my great-great grandmother). On Emma’s baptism records, Sarah stated that the baby’s father was her English husband, George Brown. However, Sarah must have been lying, because George Brown did not come to Australia with her. When Emma was born, Sarah had been in Australia for nearly three years and so Emma could not possibly be his child. Genetic tests show that numerous people in my extended family have Indigenous ancestry. All those who do are descended directly from Emma, and hence from her unknown but obviously Indigenous father. (Emma’s husband was born and bred in Scotland).
I never knew Emma, but I knew her daughter well: my beloved great-grandmother, known to all of us as ‘Grandma’, the matriarch of the Barnett family. She’d drop everything to help her seven children, their children and their grandchildren, and she’d cook up a storm if you happened to be passing and dropped in. She not only brought up her own children, but also several of her nieces and nephews, when their families fell into difficulties. She was generous, welcoming, and immensely strong.
I hope you realise that I was proud to discover I have Indigenous ancestry. However, I am also proud of my other ancestors: to name a few, the teenage convict pickpocket who bore the same name as my father and grandfather; the “scandalous” convicts I’ve discussed in an earlier post; the cleared Highlanders; the Irish rebels of various stripes; the English train driver who came here to find gold and ended up being Australia’s first train driver… There are so many interesting and varied stories. I’m so thankful to my Mum for discovering them: it is as if they live again for a moment.
I do not “identify” as Indigenous for the purposes of government benefits or grants. The disadvantages I have faced in life stem primarily from my disability and health problems, and my ancestors’ poverty and lack of access to education, which was as prevalent among my European ancestors as my Indigenous ancestors.3 I do not want to dilute the resources available to Indigenous people when there are many whose need is greater than mine.
When Dark Emu first came out, several “progressive” people told me and Dad about it with excitement. One person expressed the view to Dad that he no longer had to be “ashamed” of his Indigenous ancestors, because they were more technologically advanced than people had previously thought. Neither Dad nor I had been in the least ashamed of our ancestors. If anything, we found the enthusiasm for Pascoe’s thesis deeply disturbing: it showed that perhaps non-Indigenous people who counted themselves as “progressive” secretly wished that Australian Indigenous people had been more “advanced”.
It seems to me that there remains a question about whether the introduction of agriculture was always necessarily an “advancement” for many people.4 Moreover, the survival of Australian Indigenous people in such a harsh climate and environment was extremely impressive, and required intense social organisation, knowledge and skills.5
Indigenous people are a screen upon which modern fantasies of escaping our current world can be projected. It has always seemed to me that the stereotype of the “Noble Savage” is simply the flip-side of the “Ignoble Savage”. It suits those of an activist frame of mind to embrace the “Noble Savage”, to leverage their influence, and emphasise their prelapsarian wisdom.
While the Ignoble Savage stereotype dehumanises Indigenous people, the Noble Savage turns Indigenous people into paragons they can never match up to. It leads non-Indigenous people to romanticise Indigenous reality, and to overlook problems in Indigenous societies, or, alternatively, to place all problems at the feet of white people, a profoundly disempowering move which is contrary to notions of self-determination.
My Indigenous students were and are as varied as any other group of people: some wise, some lost and looking for wisdom, some traditional, some urban, some conservative, some progressive. In other words, they are just like the rest of us.
I don’t have a romantic belief that my Indigenous ancestor was a particularly good and wise person. Perhaps he was, but perhaps he was not. I simply don’t know. Indeed, if he was a member of the Native Mounted Police, he helped kill the Dharumbal people. That can’t be excused by simply saying, “The whitefellas told him to do it, it’s all their fault.” That robs him of agency, and of his humanity: he becomes a mere pawn in the greater and more important doings of the whitefellas. Nor did I feel a sudden connection to Rockhampton when we discovered our Indigenous ancestry. I am the same person, regardless of whether I have Indigenous ancestry or not. I have always loved this land: so beautiful, yet harsh in many ways.
A portrayal of Indigenous society as a halcyon paradise with no flaws is as two-dimensional and depthless as a portrayal of Indigenous society as an “uncivilised” hell. Absolutely, we can learn from Indigenous people and Indigenous cultures. I have done so, and I will continue to do so. Indigenous laws, customs and cultures are fascinating, in all their variety. Absolutely, many Indigenous people died and suffered after colonisation, from disease, massacres, and displacement.
However, this doesn’t mean pre-settlement society was a utopian paradise.6 For some, maybe it was; for others, maybe it wasn’t. All societies have both benefits and detriments. No society is without downsides, for at least some people. It’s part of being human: trade-offs, all the way down.
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I wonder if my realist cynicism derives from the fact that, in any society apart from the present, I would have died at birth or shortly afterwards, because I was born so prematurely.7 Even twenty years ago, I would not be able to avail myself of the botulinum toxin therapy which has enabled me to walk without assistance over the last few years.
I wouldn’t want to live a traditional Indigenous life, or a Roman life, or a medieval peasant life, or for that matter, any other life, apart from the one I have now, because I wouldn’t be alive. I don’t feel a nostalgic desire to live in the past, although I love history.
Yes, our society has flaws. All societies do. We’re in a time of particular flux and disturbance at the moment. Nonetheless, I count myself lucky to live right now.
There is also controversy over whether Pascoe has Indigenous ancestry as he claims. For me, what matters is not who his ancestors were, but the extent to which his argument is well-researched and accurate.
Disclosure: I am on Melbourne University Press’s Academic Advisory Board, but I was not on the board at the time the decision was made to publish Sutton and Walshe’s book, although I would have supported such a decision had I been on it at that point.
My parents were the first people in either of their families to go to school past the age of 14, to finish school, to go to university and to do post-graduate degrees. Bravo, my parents. I am what I am today because you were given opportunities and you made the best of them.
It has been suggested by some, in fact, that the move to an agricultural society was not something to be celebrated, and created huge problems for many human societies: see Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (Penguin, 2015) Ch 6, so it is unclear to me why people would be keen to see the development of agriculture as necessarily representing “advancement”.
Anyone who is tempted to look down on hunter-gatherers should go live in the bush for a few weeks. No, I’m not going to do this myself, despite an invitation from one of my former students to try it. I am entirely aware of exactly how hard it would be, particularly for someone with my physical problems. For the amazing nature of hunter-gatherer skills, see Robert L Kelly, The Lifeways of Hunter-Gatherers: The Foraging Spectrum (Cambridge University Press, 2013).
Some have argued that violence is inevitable in tribal contexts, and was endemic in many societies before the state pacified them: Lawrence H Keely, War Before Civilization: the Myth of the Peaceful Savage (Oxford University Press, 1996); Jared Diamond, The World Until Yesterday: What can we learn from traditional societies? (Viking Press, 2012); Stephen Pinker, The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence has Declined (Viking Press, 2011). However, these claims have been strongly contested: see eg, Stephen Corry, ‘The case of the ‘Brutal Savage’: Poirot or Clouseau? Why Steven Pinker, like Jared Diamond, is wrong’ (12 June 2013) at Open Democracy.