Since June last year, the Australian bushfire crisis has destroyed more than 100,000 square kilometers of terrain and left at least 33 people and an estimated 1.25 billion animals dead. A community complexly affected by the disaster is the Indigenous people, whose sense of connection and oneness with the land goes beyond non-Aboriginal understanding, and represents a spiritual loss akin to the death of both a family member and a part of themselves.
Indigenous Communities in Mourning over Loss of Country and Self
Pat Dudgeon a psychologist and Professor at the School of Indigenous Studies at the University of Western Australia who is from the Bardi people of the Kimberley, told The Sarajevo Times that given the deep cultural and spiritual affinity Aboriginal people experience with the land, flora and fauna, the destruction of so much Country from the bushfires has led to a collective loss.
“There is a sense of great grief and sorrow, even for those groups who are far away from the fires,” Professor Dudgeon said. For Aboriginal people, who possess a strong sense of interconnectedness with the land, considering it both their Motherand a part of themselves, “the widespread destruction is heartbreaking,” she added.
Indigenous Knowledges Professor Liz Cameron, a Dharug woman and leader in Aboriginal land and
Country awareness with a PhD in Aboriginal Studies (Health and Healing), further elaborated on the intricate connection and oneness Indigenous Australians feel with the land.
“Land is part of our being,” Professor Cameron told The Sarajevo Times. “Aboriginal cultural understandings of our connection of Country are perceived as an extension of self, rather than a western perspective that separates land, water and all living things.”
This kinship has meant that the damage to Country has created “deep psychological wounds” for the Indigenous community, Professor Cameron stated.
Dr Gabrielle Fletcher, a Gundungurra woman from the Blue Mountains of New South Wales who is Associate Professor of Indigenous Studies and Director of the Institute of Koorie Education at Deakin University in Melbourne, told The Sarajevo Times that in addition to grief and loss, the bushfires have caused Aboriginal people a sense of disconnection to Self.
“We grieve because we lose connection to who we are, and our place within Country”, Dr Fletcher said. “We grieve also because Country is wounded and bleeding.”
According to Dr Fletcher, the loss of Country caused by the bushfires, creates a disruption to Aboriginal people’s self-understanding.
“We learn about ourselves from outside in– it is everything around us that teaches us who we are,” she explained, adding that if Country is damaged, “our reality is altered or completely removed.”
Colonisation as a Contributing Factor
Professor Dudgeon believes the Aboriginal traditional practice of fire management known as cultural fire burning, which was largely stopped due to colonisation, could have prevented much of the damage to Country caused by the raging fires.
“Traditional ways of looking after Country have been ignored by white society,” said Professor Dudgeon. “In the old days before colonisation, people looked after Country by doing carefully managed burnings.”
“This would have averted much of the damage,” she said, adding that “the legacies of colonisation are still very much a part of our everyday life.”
Professor Cameron agreed, telling The Sarajevo Times that “prior to colonisation, fire burning practices were a part of maintaining healthy Country”, and are a “well acknowledged” method used in the prevention of large scale and uncontrollable wildfires.
Ability to Care for Country Linked to Indigenous Wellness
There is an extensive body of research highlighting a correlation between Aboriginal people being able to engage in activities that care for Country and notably better physical and psychosocial wellbeing, based on the ‘Healthy Country, Healthy People’ theory; with individual interaction with ancestral land encouraging increased physical activity, better diet, and improved self-esteem and personal autonomy for Indigenous people.
This significant link between ability to partake in Country care practices and health among Aboriginal people, helps to further highlight the impact of the bushfire disaster on Indigenous well-being.
According to Professor Cameron, Aboriginal people experience a sense of “personal and collective obligation” to ensure the health of the land is maintained, meaning that the subsequent destruction of Country is both a “form of negligence” and a “soul loss” for the Indigenous community.
“We have not ensured our ancestral laws are being fulfilled in our commitment to keep Country healthy,” Professor Cameron said.
Dr Fletcher added that this concept of reciprocity is of critical importance in Aboriginal culture, explaining that “we need to Care for Country (be custodians) so that Country can care for us”.
Bushfire Tragedy Has Created a ‘Great Opportunity’
Professor Dudgeon told The Sarajevo Times she believes there is a positive that presents itself from the bushfire disaster.
“I think this is a great opportunity for Australia to acknowledge Indigenous knowledge in land care and start to incorporate this into their general practice,” she said.
Dr Fletcher believes that the ongoing bushfire crisis “underscores an urgency to value and work respectfully and collaboratively with Indigenous Peoples and Indigenous Knowledge Systems.”
“For over 60,000 years our roles and responsibilities have been mediated of and through Country, and we have been Caring for Country always”, Dr Fletcher explained. “Our Knowledges have not been valued or ‘credentialed’ as valid or meaningful by Western knowledge traditions and systems, although this is slowly changing.”
“We are willing to share and work collaboratively in our communities with non-Indigenous people and groups,” Dr Fletcher told The Sarajevo Times, “but only if there are respectful relationships for collaboration with our communities, without an approach of a ‘right to know’…or ‘taking’ the knowledge.”
“We have been the Carers for Country since the Beginning, and I am concerned that without our respectful inclusion, this crisis may well be a terrifying rehearsal of times to come”, Dr Fletcher said.
Reported by Miya Yamanouchi