That Deadman Dance

Bobby Wabalanginy is a young Noongar Aborigine boy who loses his parents and thus spends more time than most among the ‘Horizon people’, those who came to his land on ships from somewhere beyond the horizon. A happy boy, his people believe that family includes the fish, birds and animal-life who communicate messages like the wind and the sky, all of whom they read with ease whilst the newcomers marvel at their abilities, as if it is by chance that they can predict the turning of the flames of a raging fire.

Bobby befriends Mr Cross who is trying to tame a piece of land in order to bring his wife and children to join him. Mr Cross teaches Bobby English and learns some of the protocols of respect between Aborigine people and begins to understand the logic of their ways. After his death, Bobby continues his lessons with Mrs Chaine and her twins, Christine and Christopher.

‘these men from the ocean horizon or wherever it is they come from, they do not leave even when the rains come and that wind blows across the water right into their camp.’

Kim Scott evokes the simplicity of Aboriginal life and their close affinity to nature and the environment, they are part of the natural habitat and leave little trace of their inhabitancy though they are adept trackers and can see things others can’t. The European’s bring a different way of being and a different relationship to the land, its climate and tendencies, they seek to tame it and turn it into something that resembles that which they are familiar with, thus they impose their will and their ways.

“we learned your words and songs and stories, and never knew you didn’t want to hear ours…”

Killer Whales by Badlydrawnstickman at

As the settlement grows, more people visit, interactions with itinerant whalers herald the beginning of their semi-dependency on the horizon people, who use their labour and reward them by trading food and goods, this becomes a turning point, because the whaling era comes to an end and the indigenous people are then without resources, they begin to resent that these people take their land as if they own it, use their animal brothers and then punish them for wanting to take a sheep or something else in return.

Tolerance degenerates into mistrust, laws are imposed and the European colonials assert their perceived superiority, enforcing these new rules by making an example of Bobby and others, throwing them in jail. They ensure his silence for anything he may have seen which would imply law breaking by the colonialists.

The old man snorted his contempt for Bobby’s song: those foreign words, that horizon people’s bleached and salty tongue and prickles of strange melodies. There are too many whales ashore, he said and too many people from all around, and do not greet us when they arrive or say goodbye when they leave. We are pressed by strangers from the sea now, and from inland too.”

It is a book that meanders, on plot and when it attempts to delve into a character, which it never really succeeds in doing, though Bobby is the common thread throughout. Some characters are memorable while others churn in a sea of names making the briefest of appearances. The story slows down and drifts aimlessly midway, seeming almost to lose its way, a reflection of what was happening to the population, lost in confusion.

Image courtesy of Nambassa Trust & Peter Terry

While not everyone may have the patience for this literary walk-about, Scott’s book touches something deep within, it is a window into the Aborigine people’s incredible relationship with the natural environment, how song and dance communicate knowledge and wisdom down the generations, something that if we ever knew it, has long been lost in our own western cultures, which have become less rooted in our landscape and surroundings as we seek to infuse each location we inhabit with known familiarity.

“he came alive in the Dead Man Dance and gathered together all the different selves. …It was like Bobby was them, was showing their very selves, inside their heads and singing their very sound and voices:…”

In my own virtual meanderings, I came across Cultural Survival and learned that it was only in 2007 that the United National General Assembly adopted the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples which includes:

the right to live on and use their traditional territories; the right to self-determination; the right to free, prior, and informed consent before any outside project is undertaken on their land; the right to keep their languages, cultural practices, and sacred places; the right to full government services, and, perhaps most significant, the right to be recognized and treated as peoples.

It is sad it has taken this long for the hard work of many for this to become a Human Right, and there is much to do to continue to maintain it. I hope this book, quite apart from being an entertaining read, will help to increase awareness of the rights and cultural heritage of the many indigenous populations worldwide.

I am reminded in closing of the wonderful music of Yothu Yindi, an appropriate complement to the unique voices channelled by Kim Scott in this book ‘That Deadman Dance’ and winner of the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize for the South East Asia and Pacific region. Do click through and listen to the powerful and beautiful ‘Tribal Voice’

Note: This book was an Advanced Reader Copy (ARC), provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

10 thoughts on “That Deadman Dance

  1. I’d like to read this, even if it meaders – it’s an area of literature that appeals to me, especially when it takes into consideration all the complicated realities of the culture clashes that occurred historically. Thanks for putting this book on my radar.


    • It’s one of those books that stays in your consciousness, I’m still discussing it and the subjects it provokes with people around me. I think it is a wonderful book in that respect.


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