Yindyamarra and the Dark Emu debate: a way forward for academic scholars

Author: The Fenner Circle is an Indigenous-led, student-led study group based at the Australian National University.

In June 2021 Peter Sutton and Keryn Walshe participated in an ANU In Conversation, where they discussed their book, Farmers or Hunter-gatherers? The Dark Emu Debate. This ‘conversation’ prompted some consternation in the Fenner Circle, which lead to a yarn focusing on the debate surrounding the book, rather than the book itself. In collectively reviewing the range of materials on Dark Emu, which you can find at the end of this decoloyarn, interest and passion amongst Circle members was so great that the yarn went for two hours and expanded even further.

The Circle collectively decided to write an op-ed on the topic. Originally, they had hoped to publish the op-ed on a well-known website featuring scholarly explainers for public readers. However, the website did not have a system that would allow them to publish the piece unless the Circle named individuals as authors, and they would not amend their system to do so. The Circle decided to withdraw the piece.

While in colonial institutions a small group of senior managers/editors are authorised to publish viewpoints on behalf of the organisation, Indigenous approaches to best practice and fact checking are centred on collective accountability and often involve many detailed conversations with lots of different authorities and thinkers, before anyone can speak on behalf of a group. To write this op-ed, a small team of writing coordinators sought reflections from each person who attended the yarn. The coordinators then edited the reflections into a draft article, which was sent to all yarn attendees provoking further discussion and reflection. This iterative process of compiling and editing by the writing coordinators and discussion and reflection with yarn attendees continued until a final version was agreed on, which was then sent to all Circle members for final endorsement. Collective authorship of this piece, recognising the collaborative writing process and collective ownership of the views expressed, is therefore non-negotiable. At Decoloyarning, we are proud to publish the Fenner Circle’s contribution to the Dark Emu debate and endorse it as genuinely reflecting a collective position.


What is it about Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu that is so polarising? As PhD scholars and early career researchers we feel compelled to ask this question of our fellow academics. Not only are we dismayed at the quality and tone of the current debate around Pascoe’s book, but we are disappointed in the rhetoric employed by our academic role models. We expect senior academics to act with respect and honour when providing comment on other people’s work, particularly when the object of critique is a book written outside of academia.

So, we ask those in positions of power to act with yindyamarra. 

Yindyamarra is a wiradyuri transitive verb defined as acting slowly with respect, politeness, gentleness and honour, and demonstrating this toward one another. While we can’t demand yindyamarra, we propose it could be a key concept within academia.

We further suggest yindyamarra is critical to interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research, particularly when that research involves First Nations peoples and knowledges. The significant lack of respect given to research conducted across interdisciplinary knowledge forms is troubling for us. As First Nations and non-Indigenous scholars working with Indigenous knowledges and Country, we all have two critical responsibilities. The first is to establish methodologies that align with complex Indigenous knowledge systems, even if they challenge established western academic truths. The second is to actively avoid colonial academic practices that only acknowledge the (usually non-Indigenous and male) academic ‘expert’ as the sole conduit for ‘truth’. For us, yindyamarra is the first step toward achieving these goals.

In their book “Farmers or Hunter-gatherers?” Sutton and Walshe claim to have critiqued the historical accuracy of Dark Emu through the lens of academia without bias or personal criticism to the author. Indeed, this book provides a more nuanced account of traditional farming/gathering practices questioning why many deem European farming practices as superior. But the subsequent commentary and debate stemming from this book has leveraged semantics to attack and criticise not only the core concepts within Dark Emu, but also its author, Bruce Pascoe. The author talk at the ANU/Canberra Times ‘Meet the Author’ event on 21st June 2021 is a key example of the problematic nature of this commentary. The language used at this event was blinded by disciplinary assumptions and lacks the standard of scholarship we expect of senior academics. We argue the disproportionately negative academic response to Pascoe’s work has been wholly unnecessary. 

Applying yindyamarra, we see Dark Emu for what it truly is – a book that occupies a significant place in the development of the broader societal understanding of complex Indigenous relationships with, and on, Country in Australia. It was not written for Indigenous people, but for the wider public who had little understanding of the sophisticated and ingenious land and water uses of First Nations people before colonisation. In drawing together historical texts and science to specifically address colonial myths (deliberately using the language of those myths), Pascoe’s Dark Emu provides a conduit for positive discussion on truth-telling and how the nation might move forward. In a time when we are taught that the ‘impact’ of our research is just as important as its rigour or validity, we can clearly see that the educational value of Dark Emu far surpasses the academic inaccuracies that are being focused on by scholars. Further, we see Pascoe’s response to this debate as a clear demonstration of yindyamarra.

Decolonising requires meaningful dialogues and robust debates, methods that academia is known for excelling in. Sutton and Walshe’s scholarship had the potential to enrich a rigorous discussion on this topic and add to the momentum generated by Dark Emu. Instead, we see that the preoccupation with colonial-era semantics in this debate has fuelled discriminatory and racist language. Under the guise of academic robustness, the debate continues to disregard Indigenous knowledges and voices, maintaining the systematic suppression of First Nations people. Colonial undertones persist in the on-going use of the language and processes of our troubled past. The current debate does little to heal relationships between colonisers and First Nations peoples, and it shows a lack of insight into how such criticisms would resonate within the wider community.

So, we remain mystified and disappointed by the ongoing debate around Dark Emu. Will this toxic practice of scrutiny further entrench colonial academic positioning? Will it normalise the targeting of authors who are outside the bubble of academia? In no way are we suggesting that academic debate should resile from rigorous challenge, but we ask that senior academics strive for methodologies that include unmediated Indigenous voices and knowledge. We ask that our role models in academia work with, not against, those trying to make a positive impact. We ask simply for yindyamarra.


Continuing the yarn

Here is a selection of the materials the Circle collected throughout this process.

Keen, I. (2021) Foragers of Farmers: Dark Emu and the Controversy over Aboriginal Agriculture Anthropological Forum, DOI: 10.1080/00664677.2020.1861538

Sutton, P. & Walshe, K. (2021) In Conversation recording, https://soundcloud.com/experience_anu/in-conversation-with-peter-sutton-and-keryn-walshe

Gammage, B. (2021) The Great Divide https://insidestory.org.au/the-great-divide-pascoe-sutton/

Griffiths, T. (2019) Reading Bruce Pascoe https://insidestory.org.au/reading-bruce-pascoe/

Norman, H. (2021) How the Dark Emu debate limits representation of Aboriginal people in Australia The Conversation https://theconversation.com/how-the-dark-emu-debate-limits-representation-of-aboriginal-people-in-australia-163006

The Monthly also has contributions by Stan Grant, James Boyce and Mark Russell (behind a paywall) to the broader Dark Emu debate.


If you would like to learn more about best practice when working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples, we recommend True Tracks by Terri Janke as a great place to familiarise yourself with the thorough ethics and protocols First Peoples endorse in writing and publishing.

This is not the first time decoloyarning has featured the suggestion that academic writing and publishing need decolonizing. If you are is keen to pen a decoloyarn about the need to decolonize publishing, we’d like to work with you.