‘That Deadman Dance’ as a Social and Political Commentary

The novel That Deadman Dance written by Kim Scott, an indigenous author, tells the significant history of Western Australian colonisation through the years 1826 to 1844. In doing so the novel discusses and develops many of the social and political issues that surrounded this era of change. These issues include cultural identity, assimilation as well as the ideas of love and family. Readers are invited to respond to these issues with empathy as well the urge to reflect on their own past and present lives. Such a response is provoked through the use of characterisation, plot development and language techniques such as imagery. Although Scott’s intent was to tell the story of the Australian Indigenous, particularly the Noongar, people the themes and issues are universal, thus can be applied to any country.

The years 1826 to 1844 are extremely important in Australian history, due to the great social and environmental shifts that occurred. People, mainly convicts, were arriving from European nations and claiming land freely, neglecting to acknowledge the original custodians of the land they now ‘owned’. The Indigenous peoples were confused as these settlers had a very different appearance and outlook on life. However the main contrast, between the two groups, came with the cultural identity of the two, specifically connection to land and spirituality. This difference is presented in the novel when Bobby and the two Chaine “children ran, Bobby out the front…but Bobby was gone, running down to the river.” [204] When the children are down by the river “Bobby sang one short phrase. Christine tried to repeat it, but her mouth was stone and word, her tongue cloth.” [205] This scene simply illustrates the differences between the settlers and Indigenous peoples. The use of young children to demonstrate a major social issue of the era provokes sympathy from readers, as it shows that even children were positioned to view Indigenous people as different. Another example comes later in the novel, with the development and expansion of the whale hunting industry. The settlers come to the bay with the intent of killing the whales to manufacture and sell their parts, leaving “a sky smeared red,”[242] each day and “dead whales floating in the bay, flags in their spouts.” [250] This greatly contradicts the spirituality and connection developed between Menak, a well-respected Indigenous man, and the dying whale he finds; “he was deep in the whale story of this place right now, resonating with it…he made an incision in the whale to release its spirit.” [248] This difference highlights the beginning of a much greater social divide that formed due to the contrasting cultural beliefs and morals of the Indigenous peoples and European settlers. At this point readers are positioned to think about the great differences in their cultures and how such division is still present in today’s society. As readers know the modern world is filled with inequalities and marginalisation of societal groups remains an unsolved issue, even within Australia.

“It had never dead men dancing in the first place anyway, but real live men from over the ocean’s horizon, with a different way about them.” [69] Settlers arrived to Australia with the intent of assimilating the Indigenous peoples into the settler’s culture and way of life. As evident in the relationship between Dr Cross and the young Bobby: “Bobby kept at his lessons and stayed in a hut, just as if he was Dr Cross’s own family.”[26] This close relationship demonstrates the metaphorical adoption many young Indigenous people experienced due to the settler’s wishes to incorporate them into their culture. This concept of assimilation was expanded and became an official policy in the 1930’s, giving the settlers the right to remove young Indigenous children from their families. Inevitably this became a major political issue after its introduction in the 1820’s to its abolishment well into the twentieth century. Developing the character of a young innocent child to demonstrate such cruel events, of our country’s past, readers are prompted to respond with contempt and anger at the way their ancestors treated others. Such a reflection lingers in the mind of the reader as they continue their daily life.

Dr Cross is a character that adds a lot of irony to the text, as he represents the acknowledgement and unity between cultures as well as being a contributor to their demise. From the start of the novel he is frequently accompanied by his “cough,” which readers assume is due to the disease tuberculosis, inevitably this is caught by many of the Indigenous people he associates with. The use of foreshadowing evokes feelings of fear from readers, as Dr Cross represents momentary harmony between the two communities, and it is inferred that his death is a trigger for a shift in this relationship. Following Dr Cross’s death we see “Kongk Chaine,” and, less so, Governor Spender attempting to fill his shoes and follow the path to unity he had laid out for them: “it is our moral duty…to help him move toward civilisation, and our friend Dr Cross established it as a priority.”[165] Unfortunately this attempt at assimilation didn’t last long as Chaine and the rest of the white community began to resent the “blackfella,” finding less and less reasons to keep them around. This is best demonstrated by the following quote: “We thought making friends was the best thing, and never knew that when we took your flour and sugar and tea and blankets that we’d lose everything of ours. We learned your words and songs and stories, and never knew you didn’t want to hear ours.” This quote perfectly summarises the purpose of the novel, to inform readers of the one sided effort made to achieve harmony during the colonisation of Western Australia. It reflects their confidence, inclusiveness and willingness to appropriate new cultural forms, including language, songs, guns and boats. Readers are very much invited to respond with disgust towards the white settlers, due to the not only physical but also psychological abuse afflicted upon the Indigenous peoples.

The two groups differ vastly in the idea of love and family. The white settlers are rarely described as in a community, simply because they were not united. They were composed of many different groups of people sharing only the intent to exert their power and expand their lands. This is demonstrated in the quote “Yankees and Froggies,” [186] as it shows the segregation between some of the distinct groups, making up the settlers. This image contrasts the Indigenous people, of the Noongar tribes, as they are always referred to as a community or a group, many people coming together to form one sharing their values and lifestyles. Although it is known that there is diversity throughout the Indigenous language and culture, the novel demonstrates their ability to respect one another and a sense of allegiance. This is emphasised by the repetition of the word “moort,” meaning family in all Indigenous languages. Readers of today’s society would likely possess strong values of family and protecting those you love, so this novel is carefully constructed to highlight these same values in Indigenous culture. This allows the readers to feel closer to the novel and its characters, inviting their response to be more in depth and personal. Family and community were a large reason for social concern in this era, as it added to the conflicts between “whitefella and blackfella,”[391]. For example Bobby says, “I cant be sorry I look after families and friends and many of you sitting here today,” [389] when reasoning his actions. This shows that Indigenous people had a mutual understanding with one another that they would protect and provide for each other, regardless of where they came from. However this value and understanding was not reflected in the settler’s culture, meaning they did not treat the Indigenous people this way. Over time this developed into a social and political concern, as disagreements and differences developed to acts of war and extreme mistreatment of the Indigenous people.

The novel That Deadman Dance is inspired by the history of early contact between Indigenous people and European settlers in Australia, in the years 1826 to 1844. The Indigenous peoples believed so strongly that they were embodiments of a spirit of place that they were impossible to conquer; they valued reciprocity and the subtlety of cross-cultural exchange. This however was not reflected in the settler’s culture and thus many social and political issues arose. The main reasons for the arise of issues was vast differences in regards to cultural identity, connection to land, assimilation and family. The specific use of characters, point of view, imagery and language invites readers to develop specific feelings and thoughts, intended by Kim Scott. These feelings include regret, empathy for the Indigenous peoples and willingness to reflect on their own lives to identify any aspects of segregation, discrimination and lack of inclusiveness still present in today’s society.