We are Country

Ensuring research is culturally safe isn’t as simple as acknowledging Country and the species within, we must recognise and empower Indigenous Knowledge systems

Teagan Goolmeer, University of Melbourne

Teagan Goolmeer

Published 18 August 2022

Country guides us every day if we listen. Sometimes, it’s loud and you can’t escape it, other times it’s quiet, and you’ll miss it if you’re not present.

The first time I set foot on the University of Melbourne Parkville campus, I felt overwhelmed and out of place. Within the academic world, I felt pushed outside of my comfort zone and I doubted my ability.

Installation view, Emu Sky at Old Quad, The University of Melbourne 23 Nov 2021– 21 Aug 2022. By Maddi Miller with Brooke Wandin, Kerry Clarke, Keicha Day, Leah Hunt. ‘Yilabara Ngara’. Picture: Christian Capurro

I stopped and slipped off my sandals, my bare feet grounded on Country. I looked up to see an elder’s name on an art installation.

Walking through Emu Sky, Dr Aunty Vicki Couzens’ name is illuminated. An Aunty who mightn’t remember me from a community culture exchange on Awabakal Country over fifteen years ago.

However, she is fondly remembered by me, and in seeing her name, a vivid memory of knowledge sharing is triggered. We are making a possum skin cloak. The pelt burns as I etch my totem, surrounded by family.

Captivated through my participation in this cultural practice, a fire within me is ignited to undertake research. A strong desire to protect and manage species, our way.

All these years later, with a jarjum (baby) on my hip, I am here to start.

A black cockatoo flies overhead ...‘i am on the right path’

As a blak researcher, I have a responsibility to uphold my cultural integrity. This is a responsibility I am always thinking deeply about.

When doubt creeps in and I need reassurance, Country is where I look.

Country is more than the dirt, it’s what makes us blakfullas whole – it’s the plants, the animals, the water, the wind, the smells and sounds, our cultural practices, our knowledge systems, our lore, our old people, and much, much more.

Installation view, Emu Sky at Old Quad, The University of Melbourne 23 Nov 2021 - 21 Aug 2022. By Dr Vicki Couzens, Leempeeyt Weeyn (Campfire), 2021. Picture: Christian Capurro

A common mantra amongst blakfullas is ‘Country does not belong to me; I belong to Country’. A recognition that without Country we do not exist.

Often in a western context, Country is described as the separate entities of Country, Culture and Kin – but really it is one living being. These separations often result in western science practices oversimplifying the relationship between Country, Culture and Kin and, ultimately, the poor integration of Indigenous Knowledge systems.

There are many levers to influence change and support Indigenous-led management of Country, including academia, which has a significant influence on the policy and program designs that dictate management of Country.

This is my opportunity to think deeply about how we can create systemic changes to empower blakfullas managing Country.

A whale breeches offshore…‘i am not alone’

I walk around leempeeyt weeyn (campfire), and although no embers burn, I warm my hands against the flames and cleanse myself in the smoke.

The red dirt reminds me of Yawuru Country, where I birthed my first son, and which will always hold a special place in my spirit. I read Dr Aunty Vicki Couzens’ artist statement:

Fire is central to our storytelling and intergenerational knowledge-sharing. We use smoke from fire to cleanse our bodies and spirits and as a central feature of many ceremonial practices.

Fire is central to our storytelling and intergenerational knowledge-sharing. Picture: Getty Images

I smile, a weight lifts, Dr Aunty Vicki Couzens is as generous with her knowledge now as she was fifteen years ago – an unstoppable force keeping our culture alive, her impact is immeasurable.

For our community, her knowledge-sharing empowered a movement of reclaiming and revitalizing of culture. While the process was community-led, it wasn’t without challenges.

Funded and managed by an entrenched western system of art practice, not cultural practice, I was naïve to think the institution would understand and uphold our cultural protocols. Many years later, I hold onto that learning and understand that it is up to me to make sure my research is culturally safe.

A kookaburra sits on the clothesline…‘i am listening’

Blakfullas place tremendous cultural value on many animals and plants, which are critical to maintaining Indigenous Knowledge and the management of their Country.

The very presence of a species preserves Indigenous Knowledge, as it triggers the knowledge holder to recall and share knowledge.

As species disappear from our landscapes and seascapes, fragments of our ancient Indigenous Knowledge built up over thousands of years also fade away and the legacy of what once was is lost forever.

Equally, western systems put in place to protect species can also restrict cultural practice.

Installation view, Emu Sky at Old Quad, The University of Melbourne 23 Nov 2021– 21 Aug 2022. By Madeline Critchley, Brooke Wandin, Zena Cumpston, Jaxsun Plumley, University of Melbourne Herbarium, ‘Emu Sky Language Posters’ 2021. Picture: Christian Capurro

For years, Indigenous groups have pushed for relevant environmental and land management laws to be amended to establish and promote the co-management of culturally significant species.

Ensuring culturally safe research of culturally significant species isn’t as simple as acknowledging Country and the species within. We must recognise and empower the role of cultural bosses who have the authority to assess species and must accept that for these species the spiritual and cultural value may be privileged information which customary lore precludes from being shared with researchers.

I know many challenges lay ahead, particularly as I place my cultural integrity before my professional integrity, and push against the institutional processes that have seen Indigenous knowledge exploited in the past.

A possum runs across the roof…‘i am home’

Standing in the Old Quad taking in the rest of the Emu Sky exhibition, on the lands of the Wurundjeri-Woiwurrung people, surrounded by the impressions of great blak minds, I think of those blak change-makers who have come before me, those that are on a journey with me and the many more will come after.

Even though it feels foreign now, I know I am on the right path.

Attitudes are changing, and governments and conservation groups are recognising the enduring value of Country. As the size and scale of blak managed lands and sea continue to grow so too does our impact on biodiversity conservation.

Blakfullas are a driving force for the recovery and protection of Country.

Our children are looking towards a future of real inclusion and respect, already my three-year-old son comes home from preschool singing; “care for Country, care for Country, Birpai land”.

If nothing else, I know Country is safe in our children’s hands. We are strong, we are resilient, we are creating change.

Country heals, protects and grounds us. We are Country.

Curated by Barkandji woman Zena Cumpston, Emu Sky explores Indigenous land management, knowledge, science, plant use, language and truth telling. With a strong focus on south-eastern Australia, more than 30 Aboriginal community members share their stories, knowledge, and art practice. Emu Sky runs until 21 Aug at Old Quad and more of the Blak Yarn series can be found here: https://emusky.culturalcommons.edu.au/blak-yarn/

Banner: Installation view, Emu Sky at Old Quad, The University of Melbourne 23 Nov 2021 -21 Aug 2022. By Dr Vicki Couzens, Leempeeyt Weeyn (Campfire), 2021. Picture: Christian Capurro

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