That Deadman Dance—an imaginative story about indigenous Australians and European settlers

By Gabriela Zabala
22 December 2011

That Deadman Dance by Kim Scott, Sydney, Australia: Picador, 2010, 400 pp.

Set in the 1830s, Kim Scott’s That Deadman Dance is a fictional account of early contacts between the local indigenous people, the Noongar, and the first European settlers in the area now known as Albany, on the south coast of Western Australia. The book won this year’s Australian Miles Franklin Literary award. Scott, who is of Noongar descent and won a Miles Franklin prize in 2000 for his novel Benang: From the Heart, has also published short stories, children’s books, poetry and non-fiction works.

The main protagonist in That Deadman Dance is Bobby Wabalanginy who quickly learns the ways of the settlers, joining them on whaling expeditions and working the land. He is welcomed into the home of a wealthy family where he develops a close friendship with daughter Christine Chaine.

The story also contains a particularly interesting relationship between Dr Joseph Cross, a retired British military surgeon, and a Noongar elder, Wunyeran. Despite the lack of shared vocabulary, they develop a firm friendship. Cross stipulates that upon his death, he is to be buried with Wunyeran, Noongar style, a request that is honoured.

As the British settlement expands, however, encroaching on more Noongar land, white township leaders decide that Cross’s burial site is inappropriate and he is eventually reburied in a new cemetery with other ‘important’ settlers. By contrast, Wunyeran’s grave is desecrated, the burial hole having been hastily refilled and then savaged by dogs that scurry away with the dead man’s bones. These events have symbolic significance and aptly characterise the relationship between coloniser and colonised and the destruction of the Noongar’s way of life.

With natural food supplies increasingly depleted by the settlement’s overfishing and hunting, the Noongars begin helping themselves to the settlers’ stores of food and other goods. The response to this attack on “private property”—an alien concept to the Noongar—is brutal. These events portend for the Aborigines an end to the freedom they enjoyed for millennia and they begin to rail against these “ghosts” that they initially trusted but who have overstayed their welcome.

Bobby, who sees the possibility of straddling both worlds, adopts, in the face of growing friction, a conciliatory attitude to the settlers that is eventually rebuffed. These tensions lead to the novel’s denouement.

The novel’s narrative is linear, traversing a decade in which settler and Noongar cultures are explored. Relationships are irrevocably transformed by the requirements of European settlement, a process characterised by some historians as part of Western Australia’s “friendly frontier” between the two races. [1]

Scott told Bookseller + Publisher that he struck upon the “deadman dance” idea after learning about a military drill performed by marines with British navigator Matthew Flinders, who briefly visited Western Australia’s southern coast in 1801 and forged friendly relations with the Noongar people. An Aboriginal elder had apparently mimicked the movements, which were later transformed into a Noongar dance and practiced by successive generations.

The book’s intentionally ambivalent title, Scott said, was because the Noongar probably viewed the settlers as not entirely human—as “djanaks: devils or ghosts, perhaps, thus ‘dead men’.” The adaptation of the dance, he continued, may have signalled the “beginning of the end of a way of life, and thus for the novel’s central character Bobby, and his community, an ending.”

That Deadman Dance also explores how ancient Noongar links to the land—there is evidence that the Aborigines have inhabited the southern coast of Western Australia for 47,000 years—shaped their initial response to the European settlers. Scott imagines the Noongar would have regarded the arrival of European ships as “part of the spirit of the place”, even though the settlers “seem dead” and do not “live and feel the same way.” [2]

Scott’s novel, which is based on extensive archival research and told from the perspective of different characters, shifts between the ‘voices’ and consciousness of the Europeans and the Noongar. The history of what is still today a politically charged theme is refracted through highly poetic and creative lyrical prose.

“Bobby wondered if he could explain what his people were saying. Could he? Sheltered like an insect among the fallen bodies of his ancestors, he huddled in the eye sockets of a mountainous skull and became part of its vision, was one of its thoughts. Moving across the body, journeying with the old people, he drank from some transformed still-bleeding wound” (p.52).

The description of a whaling expedition is effective and finely tuned: “Jak Tar threw. The harpoon stuck, the whale shook itself…the harpoon came loose. Tails waving goodbye, the whales were gone. The men sat at their oars, bowed heads shaking as whale backs rolled into the distance, breath tolling, their spouts a semaphore of farewell. Perhaps with a ferocious Chaine barking from the steering oar, or an equally fiery and wilful harpooner pointing the way they might yet have won themselves a whale. But not today, not this pod, not this Jak Tar” (p.315).

Scott’s stylistic approach, although aesthetically appealing, has limitations. This, together with some character development weaknesses, gives the novel a certain sense of unreality. Each character has a voice but there is nevertheless a feeling that it is the author and not the characters speaking. There is a sense of dissatisfaction, at least for this reader, because most of the characters do not really live as complex and contradictory beings. The lack of any deep internal conflict as the drama unfolds renders these characters a little too one-dimensional.

Scott’s poetic lyricism is also difficult to sustain for 400 pages and gives the novel a dreamlike quality where concreteness and substance is sacrificed in favour of style.

In an interview with publisher Pan MacMillan, Scott states that there are “political imperatives now to do a resistance polemical thing and to assert identity, but those early Noongar would probably be really interested in how you could use the novel form to just be expressive and where you could get with telling a story like that, particularly using the point of view of non-indigenous characters.”

Scott is wise to resist those claiming that the world can only be cognised through “identity”—gender, race or sexual orientation. While he rejects such formulaic approaches to writing, Scott nevertheless functions in an artistic environment where this approach largely prevails. That Deadman Dance tends to give the impression that if perhaps a voice of reason, such as Dr Cross, had prevailed then the course of social development could have been altered.

Whether Scott fully understands it or not the conflict between the nomadic and property-less Noongar and the settlers was historically inevitable. The underlying force behind British colonial expansion and conflict with indigenous populations in Australia and elsewhere was the capitalist profit system and the drive to secure control of raw materials, trade routes and markets against its European rivals. Aborigines were tolerated by the settlers only to the extent that they did not impede this objective.

Notwithstanding these questions, Scott is a fine writer and with That Deadman Dance sensitively and with great imagination brings to light an aspect of Australian history that little is known.

Notes:

[1] Although some historical studies regard Western Australia as a “friendly frontier” during the nineteenth century, there were sharp conflicts between the settlers and the indigenous population. The colony’s first governor, James Stirling, believed in 1831 that if the Noongar attacked en masse the entire settlement would be threatened. When the Noongar raided a flour mill in 1834, Stirling and a group of militia took revenge by massacring 30 Noongar in Pinjarra. Many other massacres occurred, one of the worst in 1841 at Lake Miniup.

[2] The Other Side of the Frontier: Aboriginal Resistance to European Invasion of Australia, Henry Reynolds (1991), notes that white in Aboriginal culture is associated with death and that in mourning rituals pipe-clay was used extensively as body and face paint. Aborigines also believed that the white men were from unknown regions, or the spirit world, and were therefore “dead men.”