'Emu Men': a new way to recognise and celebrate Indigenous fathers

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Father’s Day is an opportunity to celebrate men who have shaped and inspired us.

For many Indigenous peoples, this includes our biological father, adopted fathers, as well as our grandfathers, uncles, brothers, cousins, friends, and more.

Yet Indigenous fatherhood is a contentious topic in white Australia. Even today, mainstream perceptions often frame Indigenous men as dangerous, vagrant and neglectful.

These false representations can be deeply damaging to the psyche of Indigenous men, and potentially erode the fabric of our communities.

Indigenous fathering has emerged as a key priority in my research examining Indigenous men and masculinity. It is a topic of immense personal importance to me as a Euahlayi (Yuwaalaraay) man, a son, brother, uncle, husband and father.

Indigenous traditions of fathering

Stories of fathers are as old as Indigenous societies. Many First Nations in southeastern Australia continue to hold and transmit stories of the Creator, or All-Father, known in different places as Bhiamie, Bunjil or Dharamulan.

Fathering traditions are also evident in some Indigenous languages and kin structures. It is common for some Indigenous children to have not one father but many. This was particularly the case for a child’s patrilineal uncle, who is also known to the child as father.

In the late 1700s, some European explorers observed and recorded the centrality of fathering in Indigenous societies. For example, New South Wales Judge-Advocate David Collins observed Bennelong, a senior Eora man, returning from an outing with his sister’s child on his shoulders before cooking fish while his sisters and their children slept and ate oysters in the sun.

In 1793, Bruny D’Entrecasteaux “witnessed the tokens of tenderness that these simple and kind men displayed towards their children” in Port du Nord, Tasmania.

The evidence of Indigenous fathering in historical accounts can be hard to uncover because it appeared to be so everyday and unremarkable to Europeans and anthropologists. Yet casting an eye over these various recordings of history, from both Indigenous and European records, reveals the existence of strong, consistent and widespread traditions of care, nurture and love between Indigenous fathers and their children.

Breaking the bonds of fatherhood

Colonisation significantly impacted all Indigenous societies. The introduction of foreign diseases, violent frontier conflict, removal of people from Country, and removal of children are well established historical truths.

There were also colonial impacts on Indigenous families. Colonisation caused disruptions to Indigenous fathering in many ways.

Economic conditions meant many Indigenous men were forced to be away from their children for extended periods, such as when working in pastoral or pearling industries.

Legally, Indigenous fathers were replaced as agents of care and responsibility through various protection acts in Australia’s colonies. Discourses of “protection” broke apart Indigenous families, which affected mothers, fathers and extended family and their roles caring for their children.

Introducing rations removed important roles as hunters and providers. Notwithstanding some men who did continue to hunt, these traditional sources of food were supplementary to the rations provided by colonial and religious authorities.

Social and political assaults on Indigenous men as fathers

Last week, references to Indigenous men as “violent black men” and ‘woman bashers" were heard at the CPAC conference.

The racist cartoon by the late Bill Leake showed that even as recently as 2016, a mainstream media outlet such as The Australian considered it acceptable to ridicule and denigrate Indigenous fathers.

The 2007 Northern Territory Intervention demonstrates how demonising Indigenous men can be used as a political weapon. This was done by portraying Indigenous men as neglectful, violent, unsafe, and in need of heavy-handed government responses. “You’ve got to instil responsiblity,” said the then prime minister John Howard.

Positive representations of Indigenous Dads matter

In response to Leake’s cartoon, #IndigenousDads trended on social media platforms. These intensely personal homages of Indigenous fathers presented an antidote to the tsunami of negativity towards Indigenous fathers.

Other important representation of Indigenous men have been through the publication of the book Dear Son by Thomas Mayo, as well as a range of children’s books by men including Adam Goodes, Meyne Wyatt and Briggs. Indigenous performers such as Luke Carroll and Hunter Page-Lochard now feature regularly on the ABC’s Play School.

It is clear Indigenous fathering carries its own meaning and interpretation. Features such as sharing of fathering roles, transmission of culture, the making of young boys into men, and the public affection and displays of love fathers share with children.

I draw from the gendered patterns of Emus to describe these deep constitutions of fathering. Emus are unique in their gendered patterns. During nesting season female emus lay the eggs, but it is the male emus that sit on the nests to warm the eggs and keep them safe. After the eggs hatch, the male emu rears the chicks, raising them into adulthood.

Emus are especially important to some Indigenous groups across Australia. For many, they are creation beings and an important totem. They offer food and resources such as feathers, eggs, and ointments made from fat.

I suggest a new term – “Emu Man” – as an apt description of these deeply embedded Indigenous male roles. This unique and deeply Indigenous masculinity is highly valued and integral to healthy communities.

This Father’s Day, let’s all acknowledge and honour the unique place of Indigenous fathers, and celebrate their place in our families, and contributions to healthy communities.

Let the land blossom with Emu Men once more.

This article is republished from The Conversation is the world's leading publisher of research-based news and analysis. A unique collaboration between academics and journalists. It was written by: Bhiamie Williamson, Monash University.

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Bhiamie Williamson does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.