Written by Bruce Pascoe in 2014, Dark Emu claimed to recover a forgotten history of Indigenous Australia. Pascoe’s book asserted that before European colonisation, Aboriginal communities were not ‘hunter-gatherers’ but used complex farming practices, baked bread, built houses, lived in large settlements and invented democracy. Dark Emu even claimed that this history goes back 120,000 years — twice that of current scholarship.

The book sold a quarter of a million copies and attracted some of Australia’s most prestigious literary awards, including Book of the Year and the Indigenous Writers’ Prize in the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, and the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Indigenous Writing. Dark Emu has since inspired a children’s book and a stage play, and is being taught in Australian schools.

But Pascoe’s scholarship is shoddy. And this week, even the newspapers that once defended him have acknowledged as much. The piece published by both The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald drew national attention:

Two leading Australian academics have savaged the best-selling Indigenous history book Dark Emu for being riddled with mistakes, accusing its author Bruce Pascoe of lacking “true scholarship” and ignoring Aboriginal voices.

In a new book, Farmers or Hunter-Gatherers? The Dark Emu Debate, anthropologist Peter Sutton and archaeologist Keryn Walshe claim Professor Bruce Pascoe’s work is “littered with unsourced material”, uses selective quotations and exaggerates “weak evidence”…

Until recently, those who raised concerns about Bruce Pascoe and Dark Emu have been dismissed by the corporate media as agitators and even racists. Aboriginal businesswoman Josephine Cashman was among many to critique Pascoe — including his shaky claims of Indigenous ancestry.

At the time she spoke up, Cashman was serving as a senior advisor to Federal Indigenous Affairs Minister Ken Wyatt. She produced a letter denouncing Pascoe from an Indigenous elder which the elder later withdrew and claimed was false. Following these events, Wyatt dismissed Cashman from her advisory role, saying her position was “no longer tenable”.

But according to Josephine Cashman, there was a simpler reason Ken Wyatt sacked her. “I think I was asking too many questions,” she told Andrew Bolt on this week’s The Bolt Report. She continued:

I’m a proud Australian and I was taking the responsibility of being selected to such a senior committee very seriously. And I was asking a lot of questions because there is — and it’s a fact — a lot of corruption in Aboriginal organisations… As a person who wants to do the right thing for all Australians, I felt I had an obligation to ask these questions.

On the show, Andrew Bolt labelled Dark Emu “Australia’s greatest literary hoax” and he called on Ken Wyatt to apologise for promoting Bruce Pascoe and for sacking Cashman for blowing the whistle on him.

Ken Wyatt has stood by Pascoe’s claims to Indigenous ancestry. “If Bruce tells me he’s Indigenous, then I know that he’s Indigenous,” Wyatt has told reporters. “He would not be making that claim knowing that he would know both of his family lines.”

Josephine Cashman disagrees. “How can we have an Aboriginal voice to Parliament when we’re potentially being run by fake Aboriginals with an ideology?” she asked Andrew Bolt.

Beginning in 2020, Cashman has been speaking up on behalf of Indigenous communities hurt by the corruption within what she dubs the ‘Aboriginal industrial complex’. She warns that decisions are being made by just a handful of players while communities on the ground are not being properly consulted.

Cashman is also concerned that Pascoe’s shoddy scholarship is being used to drive a wedge between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. Any critique of Dark Emu is met with the suggestion that “people are uncomfortable about looking at Aboriginal people in a different light”. Pascoe scolds his critics, claiming, “Some people are so fixated with Aboriginal incapacity that any thought of a sophisticated Aboriginal civilisation undermines the validity of the colony itself.”

In other words, if you question Pascoe’s book, you’re a racist. This manipulative rhetorical device makes use of the same ideology currently causing deep divisions the United States.

“I prefer to be on the side of truth,” Cashman told Bolt. She feels that Australians can be proud for resisting the unnecessary divisions seen in other countries. “I am really pleased… that this hasn’t denigrated into an ‘us-against-them’ debate… I think it shows a level of maturity in Australia.”