Comments Off on Let’s Talk About the Matriarchy Instead
Whilst trying to ‘overthrow the patriarchy,’ are we actually giving it undeserved airtime? In a world that tends to recognise negativity over positivity, perhaps it’s time to shift our perspectives and look back to the pre-colonial era at some traditional egalitarian societies. Maybe then, we might be able to discover where it all went wrong.
Contemporary Indigenous artist Wendy Red Star uses her own image to creatively approach the sensitive subjects of race, gender and indigeneity. Her playful, bright photographic utopias gently present feminism; they are easy for viewers to digest, without compromising artistic intent. Red Star is a descendant of the Crow tribe, which is one of the eight remaining matriarchal clans in which heritage descends through the maternal line. Here, women determine the lineage and bloodlines, proving the power of women outside of post-colonial gender structures.
Within groups like the Crow, women are not seen as ‘uniquely privileged,’ as the matrilineal principle is based on co-operation and support. The key to success is the allocation of practical and behavioural roles within the clan, dispersed evenly amongst members. Men and women’s responsibilities were equally significant for the success of the tribe. Unfortunately, the latter part of the 19th century saw an attack on these traditional gender roles. The US and Canadian governments implemented schemes to abolish tradition and create a society resembling the familiar Eurocentric concept of a ‘nuclear family’ and ‘civilised’ society. Unfortunately, this shift continues today. However, through the work of artists and activists such as Wendy Red Star, the memory of the Crow’s egalitarian society and cultural heritage prevails.
Red Star’s double portrait series Apsáalooke Feminist features herself and Beatrice, her eight-year-old daughter, posed and gazing steadily at the viewer.
In these images, Red Star’s daughter represents the enduring ancestry of the Crow tribe and her descendance through the female bloodline. Every pose Red Star makes, her daughter copies, but with an added air of child-like playful disobedience; where Red Star’s hands are neatly clasped, Beatrice adopts a mischievous smile and slumped shoulders. Within these playful scenes of colour and familial comfort, female strength is celebrated. Beatrice and her mother direct unwavering outward gazes at the viewer, challenging and defying the colonial notion of Indigenous peoples as passive objects. In this way, Red Star dictates the importance of maternal teaching, lineage and female power.
Alongside their portrayal of feminine power and identity, these images satirise colonial misinterpretations. Firstly, the artist’s use of vibrant red and blue along with patterns on the clothing are eye-catching, creating a theatrical aesthetic of the stereotyped ‘American Indian.’ Those of you familiar with the work of Aboriginal artist Tracey Moffatt, can see a clear similarity with the use of a theatrical diorama or backdrop to display colonial assumptions and misunderstandings.
Furthermore, Red Star and her daughter are set against psychedelic wallpaper, which engulfs them in a hypnotic, dream-like atmosphere, as if they are apparitions instead of living people. This is, in fact, their living room at home. By setting the photo series in her own home, Red Star enforces the continuing resilience of Native Americans alongside the paramount importance of family and bloodlines.
Contrasting with the theatrical backdrop, Red Star and her daughter are dressed in traditional elk-tooth dresses, shawls and beaded bags, highlighting the importance of female identity within the Crow society. Dresses carry great significance for women and girls within many Native American tribes, as they represent their connection to ancestry, community and family. Within the Crow community, men’s roles constituted more dangerous operations such as hunting, warfare, weapons manufacture and political matters. The elk-teeth, therefore, tell the story of a traditional custom in which a man would collect teeth over years of hunting and then save them for his mother or sister to sew onto the dress of his prospective wife.
On the other hand, women would take charge of physical labour, including agriculture, building tipis and foraging for wild plants, alongside household and child-rearing responsibilities. At a glance, it could be argued that the gender ratio here remains unequal. However, these women held a unique political position due to their place in a matriarchal society. They were allowed to divorce, unlike contemporary American women at the time, and to keep the land and house, as they were in ownership of them. Additionally, women were revered for their healing powers and craftwork, and were enlisted to care for sacred objects: an esteemed responsibility. Interestingly, art was something both men and women were involved in, whether it be embroidery, carvings, music or storytelling.
Through examining the structure of pre-colonial societies such as the Crow, we can begin to understand the importance of unique historical roots and traditions. Wendy Red Star uses her artistic flair alongside familial connections to heritage to create a powerful, engaging piece of work that gently provokes thought and understanding. Crow society no longer works entirely as it used to. However, all is certainly not lost thanks to the endurance of memory and representation of history by visual artists such as Wendy Red Star.
On 14 June, 1950, the student journal of what was then the Canberra University College announced a name change. In the search for something “more inspiring” than the original name, Student Notes, the editors decided to pick a title from an Aboriginal language, “because it is far more significant to us, particularly in the Capital City of Australia, than any word of foreign origin.” They chose the word ‘Woroni’, which they stated meant ‘mouthpiece’. Today, 68 years later, Woroni’s Wikipedia page repeats this etymology, declaring that the name “derives from an Indigenous Australian word meaning ‘mouthpiece’.” Over the past 68 years, a key question has remained unanswered. There are estimated to have been 250 different language groups in Australia before European invasion, 120 of which are spoken today. If Woroni is genuinely derived from an Aboriginal language, which of these 250 languages does it come from?
Some past editions of Woroni have claimed that the publication’s name is derived from the Ngunnawal language spoken in the Canberra region. There is no evidence to support this claim, which appears to be based on guesswork. Woroni’s 1950 editorial team were following a long tradition of settler Australians appropriating Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander words to name a wide variety of things, from place names to literary journals such as Meanjin, as part of a broader search for an authentically Australian identity. A number of books were produced in the twentieth century to assist in this endeavour. One of the most popular was Sydney J Endacott’s Australian Aboriginal Native Words and Their Meaning, which went through ten editions between 1923 and 1973. Endacott praised “the use of musical native aboriginal (sic) names … with advantage to the furthering of the growth of a distinct national feeling.” He hoped to fulfil a “demand for a substantial and reliable list of pleasant-sounding words”. The Woroni editors most likely chose their publication’s new name from Endacott’s widely available compilation, where it is listed as meaning “mouth” – the extension of this to “mouthpiece” may be an example of the editors’ creative licence. Endacott gave no indication of the origin of the words he listed. Their cultural context was of no importance: what mattered was whether they could be used as a “pleasant-sounding” name. Uncovering the true origins of Woroni requires a little more digging.
Endacott claimed his book was the result of “much sifting of lists of words, and a good deal of research among old books and journals.” One of the sources he would have consulted was Edward M. Curr’s four volume work The Australian Race, published between 1886 and 1887. Curr was a major landowner in Victoria, who was intimately involved in the dispossession of Aboriginal peoples on the colonial frontier. As a member of the Victorian Board for the Protection of Aborigines, he advocated for the incarceration of Aboriginal Victorians who had survived the frontier wars, likening them to “children” and “lunatics”. Simultaneously, he dedicated a considerable amount of time to recording Aboriginal language and customs, believing he was preserving cultural relics of a people doomed to extinction. A major part of Curr’s work were wordlists of Aboriginal languages he had collected from three hundred correspondents across Australia. It is in one of these wordlists, contributed by a Thomas Macredie, that we find ‘Woroni’. Here it is defined as meaning “mouth”, and is said to come from the geographical area of Piangil, in northern Victoria. According to the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS), the language spoken in this area is that of the Wadi Wadi nation. Wadi Wadi country straddles the Murray River in northern Victoria. Despite the effects of the colonial invasion of their lands that began in 1846, the Wadi Wadi people have survived and continue to care for their ancestral country. Descriptions of their innovative land management techniques can be found in Bruce Pascoe’s influential book Dark Emu.
What are the implications of this? The name of ANU’s student newspaper was not chosen as a result of consultation with Wadi Wadi people. It is highly unlikely that the editors at the time were even aware of the Wadi Wadi language. In the words of historian Samuel Furphy, the use of Aboriginal words for naming by settler Australians “has very rarely been the result of sensitive and meaningful cultural interchange.” Referring to the use of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander words as Australian place names, the Koori novelist and historian Tony Birch writes that “Houses, streets, suburbs and whole cities have Indigenous names. This is an exercise in cultural appropriation, which represents imperial possession and the quaintness of the ‘native’. For the colonisers to attach a ‘native’ name to a place does not represent or recognise an Indigenous history, and therefore possible Indigenous ownership.” Words are a vital part of Aboriginal culture, but many settler Australians have valued them only for their novelty. At a time when government policies aimed to erase Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages, the Woroni editors of 1950 chose their publication’s name without concern for its origins or cultural context.
Many questions arise when considering this history, including: Given Woroni’s stated commitment to standing with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, in what ways can it ensure that this careless appropriation is not perpetuated, and that the Wadi Wadi origins of its name are honoured? Given the intimate links between Aboriginal languages and country, what are the ethics of using a Wadi Wadi name for a publication produced on Ngunnawal and Ngambri lands? Would a collaboration with the Ngaiyuriija Ngunawal Language Group, which has been working to revitalise the Ngunawal language, produce a more appropriate name? There are no simple answers to these questions, but they should be carefully considered.
Note on Sources
This article would have been impossible without the assistance of Michael Walsh of AIATSIS and David Nash and Harold Koch of the ANU School of Literature, Language and Linguistics.
Macredie’s wordlist is on pages 448-451 of the third volume of Curr’s The Australian Race.
The quote from Samuel Furphy is from his article “Aboriginal place names and the settler Australian identity” in Melbourne Historical Journal 29 (2001): 71-78.
The quote from Tony Birch is from his article “‘Nothing has Changed’: The Making and Unmaking of Koori Culture”, in Meanjin 51(2) (1992), 229-246.
There are numerous spellings of Wadi Wadi: I have used that used by the Murray Lower Darling Rivers Indigenous Nations group.
Gamilaraay conversation script by Charlotte Ward and Keri James, as part of their work in Gamilaraay 2 (AUST2008) at ANU, a two-week intensive course held during the winter break. The script has directions for making a video. Part of the task was to include grammatical features of Gamilaraay, such as the inclusive/exclusive pronoun distinction and the ‘associated eating’ verb suffix.
C: Yaama baawaa. Gaba nginda?
C: Hello sister, are you good?
K: Yawu, gababan.gaan ngaya. Gaba nginda?
K: Yes, I’m really good. Are you good?
C: Gamilbala, yuulngin ngaya.
C: No, I’m hungry.
K: Ngarragaa. Yananga ngali dhaligu.
K: Poor thing. Let us go eat.
C: Yananga ngali Cafegu, ngiyarrma ngali dhali. Yaa, dhamaylanha (Girrinilgu yananhi…)
C: Let’s go to the café, there we will eat. Hey/oh, it’s raining! (goes to the window…)
K: Dhamaylandaay, gamilnga ngaya yanay.
K: If it’s raining, I will not go.
C: Yanangabala ngali kitchen.gu, ngamiligu ngali minyagaa balanhiidha ngarriylandaay.
C: Let’s go to the kitchen, to see what is in the fridge.
K: Gamil, yanangabala nginda balanhiigu, guwaalanga nganunda dhurraluwingindaay.
K: No, you go to the fridge and tell me when you return.
K: (Calls out…) Ngay yuul Gaadhaya!
K: Bring me food!
C: Ngaayaybaay, yinggilbala nginda.
C: OK, but you’re lazy.
(C leaves and goes to fridge and then returns with food for herself).
K: Dhalaa yuul ngay? Gamilaanda ngaama yuul gaanhi?
K: Where’s my food? Why didn’t you bring food?
C: Dhalaabay ngaya yuul. Galibala ngaya dhaay gaanhi, ngarugigu nginda.
C: I ate all the food. I have brought water for you to drink.
K: Wamba nginda!
K: You’re crazy/an idiot.
(we hit each other – then stop).
C: Bumalaylanhi ngali.
C: We were hitting each other.
K: Yawu. (look at camera) bumalaylanhi ngalinya.
K: We were hitting each other. (This section has inclusive and exclusive pronouns)
C: Madja Keri.
C: Sorry Keri.
K: Madja Charlotte.
K: Sorry Charlotte.
C: Madja ngaliyuu ginyi
C: Both of us are sorry.
K: Yanay ngaya Kitchen.gu.
K: I will go to the kitchen.
(Goes to kitchen and then comes back).
K: Yuul ngalingu nginu nhama.
K: Food for me and you.
C: Giirr ngali nginda yuul dhali.
C: Me and you will eat some food.
(they eat the food and then vomit –off camera!).
K: Dhaldaay ngali dhinggaa, wiibidhanhi ngali.
K: We ate the meat and then we got sick (because of the meat).
C: Gamilbala, ngadhan.gaa milgin ngarungindaay, wiibidhanhi ngali.
C: No, we drank the milk and got sick, I think.
K: Galibala ngarunga! Barraay, gali ngay wuudhaya.
K: Drink water! Quick, give me water.
(We drink water).
C: Giirrnga ngaya gaba gidhanhi.
C: I feel better now.
K: Burumagubula ngaya gali wuudhay .
K: I will give the dog water as well.
C: Dhalaa buruma?
C: Where is the dog?
K: Dhalaawaayaa. Gamil ngaya ngamiy.
K: I don’t know where the dog is. I have not seen it.
C: Ngaarrimanha, nguuguubaldanha nguru minyagaa.
C: She is chewing something over there!
K: Gabanha, wana ngali yanay ngamiligu!
K: Oh no, let’s go and see!
C: Nguwama nguru biiba nguuguubaldanha. Wanagidjay. Kipper, Buruma gagil, garriya biiba nguuguubaldaya – wanaa!
C: She’s there and she’s chewing the paper! Bad dog Kipper, stop chewing the paper – you mustn’t do it!
K: Kipper, barraay dhaay ‘nanga. Wana ngiyaniyuu yurrulgu yanawaabali. Yiyalngabala baluwaa dhamaylanha.
K: Come here quickly Kipper. Let’s all go to the bush. It is only showering now.
C: Gadhabal! Gamilaa? Wana ngiyani yarraaman ngamilday.
C: Wonderful! Why not? Let’s visit the horse.
(Cut to horse, dog and paddock)
K: Gamiluunha ngaya ngamildanha.
K: I can’t see her yet.
C: Gamiluunga baadidhi wurunga. Ngayawaanda wurugi.
C: Don’t go into the paddock yet. I will go in first.
K: Ngaayay. Ngaarrimanhabala ngaya ngamildanha. Dhirrabuu nhama yarraaman ngamiyaanha.
K: OK. I see her now over there! That horse looks totally flash.
C: Badidha ganmaymayaanhi Poppy, yarraaman ngay, burumagunha ngay gaawaandaay.
C: A few days ago, when my dog chased it, my horse Poppy got caught in the fence.
K: Yilaadhu gaba Poppy?
K: Is Poppy OK now?
C: Yawu, gaba ngaama.
C: Yes, she’s good.
K: Gaan.giilinyi ngaya yuul Poppygu.
K: I brought food for Poppy.
C: Yawu, gaba. Wuuna ngurungu yuul.
C: Yes, good. Give her the food.
(Gives Poppy carrots).
C: Giirr maaru!
C: Good job!
C: Yilaa gundhigu ngiyaniyuu yanawaabali, ngadhan.gaa dhamangaylandaay.
C: We will all go home soon, because I think it will rain again this afternoon.
K: Gaba, yananga ngali!
K: Good, let’s go!
Gamilaraay will be taught (AUST1001, INDG2003) as an intensive in Sydney, January 14-21, 2019, as part of the Australian Indigenous Languages Institute.
Comments Off on ‘Their spirits are still here’: language revival in a linguistic graveyard
Every Sunday of her childhood, in the northern New South Wales town of Moree, Noelie went to the graveyard. It was her grandmother who insisted on the weekly ritual, adamant that the young girl see the names and resting places of their departed relatives.
In the 1960s, Moree enshrined into law what much of Australia took for granted—the exclusion of Aboriginal people from public places such as swimming pools, cinemas, council buildings and coffee shops. Segregation of this kind was enforced throughout life and, finally, in death. Today 220 people are buried in the Aboriginal section of the Moree Cemetery. Over half of them are children. Many others are ex-servicemen, who lost their lives alongside white brothers-in-arms in two World Wars.
When Noelie returned to the cemetery in 1983, the relatives she’d visited weekly with her grandmother were lost—their names sunk beneath grass, weathered off, washed away by decades of neglect.
“It was a total panic,” she says of that visit. “I couldn’t find anyone.” Noeline Briggs-Smith, or Aunty Noelie, as she is better known, has spent the past 30 years tirelessly conducting the graves’ restoration.
At the entrance to the cemetery, there is a sign in the language of the local Gamilaraay (Kamilaroi) nation. It reads, Ngindi baabili tubbiabri — They sleep in a place of quiet. The words are not meaningless to me.
At ANU, our class has been studying the language for the past semester. Signing up it came as no surprise to me that an Aboriginal language should be on offer. How else can Aboriginal languages be preserved? I thought. How else can we come to understand the brevity of English dominance on the continent?
At least 250 languages were spoken in Australia at the time of colonization. Today, roughly 13 of those are still spoken by children. Gamilaraay is not one of even these few. It has no fluent speakers. It is listed by various sources as ‘endangered’ or ‘extinct’. In the towns and villages inside Gamilaraay land, including Moree, Tamworth, Gunnedah and Walgett, it has survived — in various forms and fragments — both the massacres of Aboriginal people by white settlers and the language purge that occurred on Aboriginal missions. It is treasured by elders and teachers, shared earnestly —sometimes desperately — with a new generation of children, and all those willing to listen.
Extensive academic revival efforts in recent decades have amplified the work undertaken by Gamilaraay people to maintain a hold on their linguistic heritage. Today, there are teaching resources. There is a dictionary. It is a subject at ANU. Its lineage has been lost, and found again.
One of the central people behind this revival effort is our guide in Gamilaraay country, ANU’s Dr John Giacon. Moving to Walgett in 1994, he worked closely with Uncle Ted Fields, Aunty Fay Green and many other Yuwaalaraay and Gamilaraay people to compile the 2000+ word dictionary that now exists. The Gamilaraay and Yuwaalaraay communities have supported John to teach language at Walgett TAFE, Tamworth TAFE, in language programs on country, and now at ANU.
Our class is lucky enough to take part in a trip crossing the diverse homeland of the language. Far from my native strip of rainy coastland, the land here is red, parched, and ruled by dhinawan —emus. Elsewhere it is soft, grey, and cracked like the crust of a huge clay cake. Galvanized burr turns to dust underfoot.
On the long journey through the country, I pester John endlessly about the names of plants and animals in ‘language’: gidjiirraraay, yarraan, murru manamanaa—apostle bird, river red gum, dragonfly. As he reels them off I tap them into my phone, somehow afraid they’ll be lost to the wind. It’s hard not to approach the language and its revival with a sense of urgency and wonder. In Emma Jones’s poem ‘Zoos for the Dead’, her line about the last native speaker of a Western Australian language (incredibly, and tragically, a talking parrot) is understatedly apt:
“His language is important.”
There is no doubt that Aboriginal languages are important. The 2012 parliamentary inquiry into language in Indigenous communities noted the devastation that communities experience when a language is lost. The language of a place is intertwined with its features. In the words of the Arrernte elder Amelia Turner, “Words are given to us by the land… the land needs words.” Further abroad, a preliminary investigation by Hallett, Chandler and Lalonde suggests that knowledge of the language of one’s ancestors among Aboriginal youth may be linked to a reduction in suicide. At the 180th anniversary of the Myall Creek Massacre, a descendent of the survivors, Keith Munro, having completed his introduction in Gamilaraay solemnly told the crowd: “It was important for me to be able to say that in language… in lingo.” Maintaining this connection to past is vital, and healing.
Arriving first in Walgett, we meet with Aunty Virginia, of the Dharriwaa Elders Group, who calls my curly hair dhirrabuu —‘flash’. She says she’s not worried about the language dying out. The problem, as she sees it, is that where young people do speak the language, they aren’t speaking it right.
“No one here has been taught to teach properly. I know — this feeling in my heart — it’s not being done properly,” she explains. “We need a linguist.”
Near the Queensland border, we pass Angledool, where Aboriginal activist Uncle Ted Fields grew up as a young child. At the age of six, he and the rest of his Yuwaalaraay community were forcibly removed, loaded into trucks and taken to Brewarrina Mission.
“That was pretty much the end of language,” John says of the Aboriginal missions. Families would be taken from communities where everyone could be understood, to a mission where their language was just one of a dozen. Aboriginal kids were taught that their language was ‘primitive’. Parents stopped speaking to children in their native tongue for fear the children would be punished, or worse, taken from them.
Outside Collarenebri we visit another, very different, Aboriginal cemetery. Rows and rows of graves have been adorned with cracked glass chips, a tradition kept up since before World War I. In a moment of country town serendipity, the cemetery’s keeper turns up just as we are leaving. When we tell him we are students and teachers of Gamilaraay, he turns his head down.
“Ah, good luck with all that stuff,” he chuckles. “I could never get my tongue around it.” We hear those words repeated almost verbatim several times throughout our journey—from Gamilaraay people who seem ashamed, perhaps, that they are not familiar with the language, or more so that a group of non-Aboriginal people is.
In classrooms around Gamilaraay country, a similar issue has emerged. Enthusiastic staff take the lead in teaching the local language with posters, picture books, games, songs and dances. The language programs signal a new era of revival and hope. But, as the teachers tell us, there is a problem. The non-Aboriginal kids almost always exceed the Aboriginal kids academically. In the classroom environment, where Aboriginal children are already statistically at a disadvantage, such an outcome is likely to cause dejection, a sense of cultural detachment, and humiliation.
Learning Gamilaraay isn’t like learning many of the languages that English-speakers are drawn to. In English, as in most European languages, only pronouns display case variation—the difference between ‘he’ and ‘him’. In Gamilaraay, nouns and adjectives do too, and can take on many more forms than just those two. Its word order is nearly the reverse of English. It has no prepositions. Then there are the infamous trilled rr and initial ng sounds, which stump most English-natives alike.
As we travel, the consequences of these barriers become apparent—to one of our group members more than the others. Wherever we encounter written Gamilaraay, John can be heard mumbling something about word order, verb tense, or suffixes. His objections to the grammar are so frequent that it turns into a running joke.
“Just let them do their language the way they want!” the others cry in protest.
I understand his frustration. Knowing the specifics of the language is his job. He and others have spent decades studying all the texts and tape recordings available in an attempt to be able to say, as definitively as possible, “This is the way Gamilaraay was spoken.” While mistakes in English usage are a drop in the ocean, with a language as scarcely spoken as Gamilaraay any variations in usage could cause sweeping changes across its comparatively microscopic community of speakers. This recalls the fears of those like Aunty Virginia who worry that the original language will be lost, subservient to a newer form that increasingly mimics English.
On the other hand, strict adherence to the grammar may alienate students of the language where they are needed most. Where is the sense in holding fast to rules that may be flexible among the very people who keep the language alive beyond textbooks? How does this help those who have tried, and failed, to learn the language of their ancestors, stumped by its apparent complexity?
An example of this struggle lies in the words for ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’—‘yaama’ and ‘yaluu’. They are perhaps the most widely known words in the language. In streets and shops throughout Gamilaraay country they roll off the tongue, a strong example of how language can spread naturally, organically — and they are neologisms. Traditional Gamilaraay did not have words for ‘hello’ or ‘goodbye’. But it is hard for English-speakers to comprehend a language without these crucial interjections of social ritual, and so they have emerged. One could argue that if the language is to flourish as a practicable alternative to English, then it must be accessible to English-speakers.
At our final stop, over a quiet hotel dinner in Coonabarabran, Gamilaraay teacher Aunty Suellyn Tighe doesn’t take kindly to neologisms like ‘yaluu’, which originally just meant ‘again’. But she acknowledges that the situation is fraught.
“Who makes words up?” she says. “Who gets veto?” In New Zealand, there is a Māori Language Commission to help direct how their language adapts to changing times. But in Australia, she says, “Even the name of the language is a big controversy.”
No one we meet, however, doubts that teaching Gamilaraay in schools is a step in the right direction. And Suellyn’s approach of teaching kids phrases for everyday life is friendly, accessible, and optimistic. She provides kids with phrases that they are bound use in everyday life.
“Every kid, at some point in their life, has asked ‘Are we there yet?’ So I teach them that.” Meanwhile, she teaches grammar by drawing direct comparisons to English. “I’ll just say, this suffix is like ‘-ed’ in English, this is your ‘-ed’.”
As we exit into the freezing country air, a patron of the bar perks up at the sight of the teacher.
“Aunty Sue!” he calls. “That’s Aunty Sue! She taught me language!”
As young Noelie walked to the graveyard all those years ago, she would complain to her grandmother, “Why we gotta go down to the graveyard all the time?”
“Because they’re gone,” her grandmother would reply. “But their spirits are still here.”
“Now I understand what she meant,” Noelie says.
Fire. It’s scary. It’s destructive and can even claim lives. In 2003, the Canberra bushfires destroyed over 164,000 hectares of bushland in the ACT, killing 19 people. For many, it is easy to view fire as a purely destructive force, but in Australia, it is crucial for the environment.
For Indigenous communities, fire has always been a part of cultural practice. Cultural burning, however, is a relatively new term in land management. It refers to the many ways Indigenous groups are connected with fire. Each community can experience this connection differently. Often though, fire is used to manage the landscape.
Fire has many practical uses in Indigenous culture. Areas were burned so travel through thick vegetation was easier. Indigenous hunters also used fire to muster game to open areas. Fire also holds significant spiritual value for Indigenous people. Ceremonies and rites of passage rely heavily on fire and smoke.
All Indigenous uses of fire are underpinned by the core concept of ‘caring for country’. ‘Caring for country’ is the interconnected relationships between all elements and beings. It has always been highly valued by Indigenous groups. The benefits of fire for contemporary land management are only now being realised.
In the Northern Territory national parks are co-managed with Indigenous groups. Cultural burns are often conducted at the end of the wet season to reduce the fuel load for the dry. Both the government and the Indigenous communities involved benefit. The government is able to drastically reduce the fire danger for the upcoming season. Meanwhile, Indigenous people can continue caring for country.
ACT National Parks has also begun to undertake cultural burns. Local Indigenous groups are using a burning technique called patch mosaic burning. This technique involves burning different, small patches of land. As a result, a mosaic pattern is created throughout the landscape. The environment, therefore, becomes more heterogeneous which encourages greater biodiversity.
Across Australia, cultural burning is on the rise. This is because it is such an effective management tool. Indigenous people have inhabited Australia for over 60,000 years. As such, their knowledge of Australia’s environment is an invaluable resource.
We must start to move away from seeing cultural burning as a token management technique. Instead, cultural burning should be at the forefront of Australian bushfire management. Fire is not the enemy. It is essential to the environment.