Click here to read an essay I wrote about the performance of liyan (feeling and intuition) on the Lurujarri Dreaming Trail. The essay is published in Issue 11 of the PAN: Philosophy Activism, Nature Journal.
Category Archives: Articles
Image source: The Guardian online. A painted ‘elf door’ in Selfoss, Iceland: the country’s rocky landscape is said to be home to many ‘hidden people’. Photograph: Bob Strong/Corbis
I came across an article today which caught my eye, it’s not everyday that you see mainstream media outlets publishing stories about elves, planning authorities and road builders. Far from being trivial, the article, In Iceland, ‘respect the elves – or else’ (by Oliver Wainwright, The Guardian online), sheds light on the ways in which some Icelandic people relate and listen to the land and entities that (might) dwell within. The claimed presence of elves, dwarfs and ghosts, which live in parallel communities to humans, is at the heart of several communities’ attempts to redirect developments which would otherwise affect the dwelling places of these entities. Wainwright writes,
The rock, known as Ófeigskirkja, has been at the centre of an eight-year battle to stop a road being built through this 8,000-year-old landscape, a spectacularly barren and evocative terrain a little to the north of Reykjavík, which some believe is a site of supernatural forces.
I am interested in what underlies these beliefs, or more subtly, a lack of denial of the presence of more-than-human land-dwelling entities. There is an interesting conversation to be had about the function that fairy tales and folklore serve in maintaining balanced relationships between people and the land. Many of us left behind the notion that the land is enchanted when we stopped reading fairy tales, if not before. Folklore stories must hold real currency and exert agency in Iceland if people continue to relate to the land in this way. Or, perhaps other stories that lead to a disenchanted view of the land never quite gained as much power as their predecessors… Stories have the power to hold together truths, just as they have the agency to disassemble them. I am not particularly tied to any story in this instance, I am more interested in which ones are BIGGER and hold people and place together in particular ways.
In relation to people’s relationship with the land, Terry Gunnell, a researcher from the University of Iceland suggests that,
It’s about respect for nature, which is something Icelanders know is very much alive … When your house can be destroyed by an earthquake, when you can can be blown over by the wind, when boiling water from your taps tells you there’s lava not far beneath your feet – then you don’t mess with nature.
And at what cost do people ignore these entities? Wainwright recounts,
In Kópavogur, south of the capital, a rock known as Elfhill has caused disruption since the 1930s, when attempts to build a road through it were abandoned after a series of accidents. Plans to level the hill re-emerged in the 1980s, but problems recurred and workers refused to go anywhere near it. Even TV crews said their cameras failed to record anything when pointed at the rock.
The approach now taken by some developers in Iceland is one of caution. In some way, the voices of the elves – who can literally be heard by some and interpreted through significant happenings by others – are being heard and the enchantment of the land is allowed to exist.
What to write about PM Tony Abbott’s recent comments regarding remote Indigenous Australians and his view that being connected with country and living on ancestral estates is a ‘lifestyle choice’? I will let the rest of this blog (the archive of stories about Indigenous and non-Indigenous people’s deep connections with country) speak for itself on such matters. I would prefer to highlight some of the perspectives from Indigenous peoples on this issue; why they affirm that they must be allowed and supported to maintain their ancestral connections with the land and the entities that they are custodians of.
Yuin elder, Uncle Max Dulumunmun Harrison, who is also the Director of Culture for Life, said this about Abbott’s recent comments:
By dismantling the Communities of remote Australia this Prime Minister is attempting to make the current generation of Elders the ‘Last Generation’. This is not about money and so called ‘lifestyle choices’, it’s about cultural genocide and destroying the linkages our communities need to maintain our connection to country and title over our ancestral lands. Abbott’s colonialist mentality and obsession with a foreign monarchy is widening the gap. Hold tight – it’s going to be an ugly ride until he is gone.
Indigenous educator Chris Sarra makes some very pertinent points in his recent article , Without connection to country, Australia is a shallow nation. That’s what Abbott doesn’t understand, (The Guardian), including:
If we cut or stifle this tremendously deep human connection to country we will be left with something so incredibly shallow.
The best way for all Australians to forge a deeper sense of belonging to our country is to enable such ancient human connections to be sustained. With that, all of us are better placed to respectfully embrace those descendants and the ancient rituals they offer us to be a part of something that has been occurring here for many thousands of years.
As Uncle Max suggests, there is a broader agenda underlying WA Premier Colin Barnett and PM Tony Abbott’s moves to centralise service provision for Indigenous peoples to larger town centers and cities. Getting traditional owners off their ancestral estates and into larger towns and centers (see ‘Outstation message: Closing remote communities with ‘finish Broome”) will have huge ramifications on people-country connections: how and whether these can be maintained, people’s health and wellbeing post-dispossession, the health of the country without its people living with it, social fracturing in communities that would receive dispossessed peoples, housing shortages, the list goes on.
In my view, inherent in Abbott’s comments is a blindness towards the ancestral connections maintained by Indigenous peoples on this continent, how those connections shape people’s realities and why they are so necessary for cultural survival.
The ABC Radio National Earshot Documentary ‘In their branches‘ tells us about people’s love of trees. These are true expressions of intimacy and joy. Here are some images of the trees I love, climb and dream of.
In deep summer I wrote about the relationship between stories and the land – Stories that endure – yet, what about words and their ability to connect us with place?
Sitting beneath the Woronora bridge by the river’s side, Uncle Max asked me if I knew any language names for country. I said some, mainly place and plant names and some animal names. He told me that I only needed to know a few, that I should say these names as I moved through country. Was he encouraging me to invoke the spirit of place through these words? A language that the land could understand?
In a recent article published in The Guardian, The word-hoard: Robert Macfarlane on rewilding our language of landscape, Macfarlane writes about the ways in which words shape our sense of place. He reflects upon his time on the Isle of Lewis (UK) where he came across Gaelic words and phrases that described with stunning beauty the landscape of the moorlands.
Other terms were striking for their visual poetry: rionnach maoim means “the shadows cast on the moorland by clouds moving across the sky on a bright and windy day”; èit refers to “the practice of placing quartz stones in streams so that they sparkle in moonlight and thereby attract salmon to them in the late summer and autumn”, and teine biorach is “the flame or will-o’-the-wisp that runs on top of heather when the moor burns during the summer”.
Each word and phrase is a well that once stepped into, takes us deep within the interior of the land. We see the land in new (and old) ways, we remember that there is profound beauty that we are connected to. We say the names that invoke and acknowledge this beauty and these connections. But how often do we utter these words that take us beneath the veneer of the land, deep into its heart?
Macfarlane shares his dismay at the erasure of our connection with the land which is precipitated through the erasure of powerful words from our memories and lexicon.
The same summer I was on Lewis, a new edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary was published. A sharp-eyed reader noticed that there had been a culling of words concerning nature. Under pressure, Oxford University Press revealed a list of the entries it no longer felt to be relevant to a modern-day childhood. The deletions included acorn, adder, ash, beech, bluebell, buttercup, catkin, conker, cowslip, cygnet, dandelion, fern, hazel, heather, heron, ivy, kingfisher, lark, mistletoe, nectar, newt, otter, pasture and willow. The words taking their places in the new edition included attachment, block-graph, blog, broadband, bullet-point, celebrity, chatroom, committee, cut-and-paste, MP3 player and voice-mail. As I had been entranced by the language preserved in the prose‑poem of the “Peat Glossary”, so I was dismayed by the language that had fallen (been pushed) from the dictionary. For blackberry, read Blackberry.
I am reminded of George Orwell’s 1984 and the way in which words that reminded people of their humanity, humility, freedom and connections were systematically erased to create a new reality based on control and compliance. Languages that speak the land and people-place are crucial if we are to keep remembering who we are and what we are connected to, so that our imaginations can continue to roam and dream in country.
Today, finally some justice as Chief Justice Wayne Martin ruled that the EPA and W.A. Government’s approvals processes for the gas hub at James Prices Point were unlawful.
I hope the folk walking the Lurujarri Dreaming Trail at the moment are celebrating with Goolarabooloo and country at Wirrar/Barred Creek today. Blessings to this country and the people who held a high feeling of connection throughout the dark times.
Source: The Wilderness Society
But for more than the past three years some of Australia’s most respected Aboriginal heritage lawyers have worked pro bono on Roe’s behalf.
From their Sydney offices, the lawyers have been shocked at what they say has been the contempt with which the West Australian government and Woodside have run roughshod over the state’s heritage laws.
…And indigenous heritage has been sold short by the Kimberley Land Council, which may have had the best of intentions but has lacked an ethical spine.
The lawyers say their investigations reveal a trail of deceit in which records that prove the legitimacy of Roe’s heritage claims have been overlooked or ignored.
The Kimberley Land Council, they argue, has worked with Woodside and the state against the interests of some of its own clients (Roe and the Goolarabooloo people).
Woodside has been prepared to tell the state government to withdraw warnings that it may be acting in breach of the law that could put its directors in jail. And the government has been happy to comply with its wishes.
The lawyers have demanded Woodside be prosecuted for criminal acts of damage but their requests have fallen on deaf ears. An application for emergency protection has sat on the desk of federal Environment Minister Tony Burke for more than 12 months.
Since the company bulldozers first went in, under the protection of state police, a 12-month statute of limitations on prosecution for the initial alleged breaches of the Aboriginal Heritage Act has expired, without the State’s investigation of the alleged breaches reaching a conclusion.
James Price Point is not another Hindmarsh Island, where accounts of secret Aboriginal business surfaced late in the day to derail a proposed development.
Documents prove that heritage values at James Price Point were identified long before the gas hub was first mooted.
It is not about whether or not there should be an export gas hub in the Kimberley.
Or whether an indigenous man with a flawed past has been seduced by the limelight of a national environmental cause.
The fact is, Dampier law bosses have never given their consent for a gas hub at the James Price Point site being pushed by Barnett and Woodside.
The traditional custodians have suggested a less culturally sensitive site further to the north that would allow the gas project to go ahead, the $1.3 billion compensation package for local indigenous groups to continue and what is arguably the nation’s most defined songline – a path made by Dreamtime ancestors – to remain intact.
The area’s significance, and Roe’s authority to speak for it, have been confirmed by Scott Cane, one of Australia’s most respected anthropologists, who was commissioned to investigate by the West Australian Department of Indigenous Affairs this year.
According to Cane’s report, there is no doubt Roe has a detailed knowledge of the core narrative that defines the Northern Tradition.
“It was readily apparent in conservation with Joe that he knows the religious narrative intimately, has a comprehensive grasp of the song cycles associated with the narrative, and is in command of the relationship between that narrative and the landscape in which it is embedded,” he said.
“It was my understanding from Joe Roe that the reasons for maintaining the integrity of the tradition go beyond issues of health and wellbeing into the core law and customs that define regional Aboriginal society and so give rights to land in this part of the Kimberley.”
For Chalk and Fitzgerald lawyer Andrew Chalk, Cane’s findings amplify the injustice that has been done to what he describes as perhaps the nation’s most comprehensively mapped songline.
“I have been doing this (cultural heritage work) since before native title existed,” Chalk says. “I was involved in the drafting of the Native Title Act. But I have not seen instances where senior people within the state or within a representative body have been so willing to flout their own legal duties to get an outcome.
“It is about the willingness to put aside lawful process within the Kimberley Land Council and the willingness of the KLC to put aside lawful process within the KLC and for the state to turn a blind eye to its own laws – which carry serious criminal penalties,” Chalk says.
It is a window into how heritage administration is managed in a mining boom in Western Australia, where no matter how significant an area is the government seems happy to look the other way. You will not find another dreaming track in Australia that has been so carefully mapped for such a long period and where in the face of an economic opportunity there is such a preparedness on the part of all the key agencies to ignore the evidence.
“The native title representative body and the state government’s heritage organisation actually want to put their heads in the sand and deny the existence and significance of it.”
According to Chalk, the foundation on which the injustice is built has been the willingness of the Kimberley Land Council to forget or ignore cultural heritage work it was involved in before the gas hub proposal ever existed.
Lengthy correspondence between the state Department of Indigenous Affairs and Woodside clearly shows how tough the company has decided to play.
After undertaking its own ground surveys last year and rediscovering heritage information that was accepted in court and by the Aboriginal Cultural Materials Committee more than 20 years ago, the department wrote to Woodside advising its development work at James Price Point may jeopardise a heritage site.
Woodside rejected the advice and successfully lobbied for it to be withdrawn. It declined to comment on correspondence with the government, in which it said the timing of the new heritage information was “vexatious”.
But, in a statement, a company spokesperson said: “Woodside is working closely with senior traditional owners to identify and carefully manage Aboriginal culture and heritage at the site of the proposed Browse LNG Precinct.
“We conduct our activities under the supervision of traditional owner monitors. Comprehensive ethnographic and archeological surveys conducted by traditional owners have been completed to identify the location and nature of Aboriginal heritage sites.”
A spokesperson for the West Australian Minister for Education, Energy and Indigenous Affairs, Peter Collier, confirmed the advice to Woodside had been withdrawn. “The department withdrew the letter and maps as the content was – upon review – unhelpful and did not properly advise Woodside of known registered sites,” the spokesman says.
The Heritage Act is meant to protect all sites, registered or not.
Chalk is highly critical of the way the KLC has handled the heritage issues at James Price Point.
Greens MLA Robin Chapple is prepared to be charitable and say the KLC lacks the “corporate knowledge” of work that has been done in the area over two decades.
But, according to Chalk, the land council has pushed the gas hub proposal “without reference to the critical Aboriginal heritage significance of the area”. A meeting of law bosses in 2005 supported the Roe position that the area was too sensitive to be developed. But the KLC pushed ahead.
“There is no issue the KLC has every right to push economic development and to propose a gas hub at this location,” Chalk says. “What they don’t have the right to do, though, is to mislead about the significance of the area, or bury records they hold, or to deny the legitimacy of positions they have pushed under affidavit in the past.”
Chalk’s complaints are about process. He says Woodside could have sought upfront approval for its works under the Aboriginal Heritage Act, but chose not to.
And he says the state has been prepared to participate in an abuse of process to strengthen Woodside’s hand. He accuses the company of acting outside the bounds of its heritage mission statement.
“Even if it is legal, should a company like Woodside be bulldozing a place like this?” Chalk asks.
Nonetheless, he has some sympathy for the KLC’s position.
“Two years ago, we would have given the same advice as the KLC that the prospects of stopping this project are so remote you are better off taking the compensation package and trying to manage the impacts because in all likelihood it is going to go ahead,” Chalk says. “But, equally, you have an ethical duty to present all of the evidence as to the significance of the area and not to hide the bits that don’t make your advice easier to give.”
Chalk says the difficulty for the KLC is that, no matter how logical its reasoning may be, Roe’s responsibilities under indigenous law do not allow for compromise.
“It is no different to saying to some Orthodox Jews, look, the Wailing Wall and East Jerusalem is not worth the grief.
“I am no fan of what is happening in Israel but – to people to whom that is such a sacred symbol – the arguments about economics and everything else don’t carry much weight. That is why this issue won’t go away.”