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Teila Watson is a Birri Gubba and Kungalu, Murri woman and recent recipient of the Australia Council’s Dreaming Award at the 10th National Indigenous Arts Awards. She is a singer, poet and lyricist known as Ancestress, and a writer and actor. Her art practice is influenced by climate change, decolonisation, the impact of First Nations knowledges and practice on country and people, and the importance of Land Rights and First Nations sovereignty.
All over the planet, we are are facing the most urgent time in human history, the most dire situation of all: the effects of the destruction of our earth. Ice-caps are melting, the climate is changing, and species of animals and plants are being threatened and dying out. Yet many of “the powers that be” are still supporting, pushing and funding the destruction of our life-giving earth, through mining, various forms of agriculture and unsustainable energy creation and usage.
The future is bleak. However, some countries are doing it right, banning plastics and making major moves towards sustainability and green energy. And then there’s “Australia”. A place so entrenched in the blood of colonialism that it has been unable to even consider listening to what First Nations people have been saying about care for country, even when it comes to making decisions that will affect our environment.
“The oldest continuing culture on earth”: we hear and see this, time and again. Yet how often do people consider what it really means? Considering that when colonisation first occurred our country was so pristine that white “explorers” even said it looked like a rich man’s garden back in England (check out Bill Gammage’s, Greatest Estate on Earth).
We often hear these references to “the oldest continuing culture on earth” in a romantic way that embraces cultural practice but can distance us from any possible engagement with our knowledge systems, especially in regards to issues like global warming and climate change. Or for that matter, widespread health problems, education or social issues, and governance.
Indigenous knowledges have been greatly suppressed as a part of the colonial process in Australia. Our people lived completely sustainably, and in balance with each other and country, for over 60,000 years. We kept our country clean through practices like fire-stick farming, we monitored our species of animals and plants through our totem systems.
We respected other people, other countries, other laws, cultures and even other creation stories. Many of the problems that western colonialism has, we simply did not. What is often forgotten is that we still have access to our culture and even though many languages and cultural practices have been lost, much of our knowledges have been kept. Knowledges that through over 60,000 years of compiling and refining, have the greatest potential to sustain human life on this planet.
And yet, even while the planet continues to heat up, people still don’t connect the dots. Many people still completely undervalue Indigenous knowledges, in spite of people like award-winning scientist, broadcaster and environmentalist, Dr David Suzuki urging society and our institutions not to. On his last trip here, Suzuki said that “Australia could learn from its Indigenous peoples”. He went on to say: “We need to have a paradigm shift; to me the paradigm shift is that we have to see the world as Indigenous people see it.”
Of course this is something many of our people already know and have always known.
Still the urgency of global warming, and the destruction that capitalism and colonialism has caused our planet, continues to be ignored by Australian governments. This is a worldwide human issue impacting on our children’s right to a future.
Murri people lived a life of abundance and autonomy, while maintaining a proper relationship with lands and peoples.
My understanding of the Murri perspective of humanity means that country is taken care of, in order to sustain life. I believe this is connected to the fact that many different Indigenous groups across the continent and the world have creation stories that relate directly to land and/or waters which ensures that all land is held sacred in its production of life. This relationship between people and land lays the foundations for the relationship between people. We cannot treat land with disrespect without disrespecting ourselves and each other.
My father – the late Dr Ross Watson – taught me about how our ontology (what we perceive to be life) and epistemology’s (how we lived out that perception of life) foundations are respect for land, and thus life. So everything we created and even the things we didn’t create had a specific purpose and use that fit into our perception of life, and helped to carry out that perception of life. Anything that caused widespread destruction to our country or people was either never invented or was adapted and managed to ensure that our epistemology remained respectful to land and people, while many other things – like the wheel for example – was just never necessary.
It is my understanding that Murri people lived a life of abundance and autonomy, all the while maintaining a proper relationship with lands and peoples. This is not to propose an overly romanticised view of precolonial life. Of course we had conflict between people, and of course our people knew tough times, but the conflict and toughness was mitigated by our philosophy, logic, ontology and law.
When we say “White ‘Australia’ has a black future”, we are saying that Murri culture and law must be considered for there to be a viable future. Knowing our philosophy, logic, ontology and epistemology gives our young people the opportunity to find innovative ways to carry out culture and law with whatever we have, wherever we are, however we can.
This is not something new, but our culture has always been resiliently dynamic in its ability to thrive, even among the depression of colonialism and attempted genocide. We may not now know all of our languages, songs, dances and stories, but many of us have had our knowledges translated and interpreted to us, and through us, our whole lives.
Dr Lilla Watson talks about how Murri people are always facing forwards, looking to the future. She teaches me about how dynamic our culture is and why that’s so important.
White Australia is often moving towards the future while facing backwards, with a closed mind to anything beyond the limits of the colonial logic. It’s this logic that has allowed us to get so far into the destruction of our planet. Surely we cannot believe that this logic will save our future?
The only possible, sustainable and empowering future we could have would be one where the sovereignty of our people, our knowledges and of our lands and laws are respected, valued, heard and implemented throughout “modern Australian” life. The question is, will white “Australia” be mature and reasonable enough to approach this problem where it began: with colonialism?
At the end of the day, if “Australia” wants to survive and combat global warming, First Nations sovereignty and governance is the best chance it has. As my aunty Lilla says: “We need to make sure our future stretches as far ahead of us, as our past does behind us.”
This article was first published on 2 June in Guardian Australia as part of their collaboration with IndigenousX
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