Lauren Scott on protecting Central Desert culture

By Lauren Scott | 09 Jun 23

Editor’s Introduction: Lauren Scott’s piece grounds us in Mparntwe (‘Alice Springs’), their homeland as a Southern Arrernte person.

Lauren guides us through scenes of their Country and community to frame broader analysis of the climate crisis; hear the sounds of children playing in creek beds holding their Dreaming and Elders calling out in mother languages from street curbs. These insights reveal a deep affection for where Scott comes from and, importantly, what is at stake for First Nations people if we fail to challenge climate change. 

Aboriginal people of the central desert have faced unspeakable brutality since invasion, but not only do we endure, we continue to thrive. Mparntwe, or Alice Springs, has over time become a gathering place for people from countless nations – near and far. Far from the media representation of a desolate crime hub, when I am in the red centre, I see nothing but the beauty, love, and enduring strength of our people.  But we are deeply vulnerable in the face of climate change.

Blistering days are a historical norm in the central desert, this comes with the “territory”, quite literally. Nonetheless, climate modelling broadly predicts that on our current trajectory, we can realistically expect an over 1.5° increase in just the next few years .This spike will drastically reduce already limited rainfall through more rapid evaporation and transpiration cycles. 

My mother often speaks of the creek beds and springs she would muck about in as a girl with her two brothers and countless cousins. Snake skins strewn all over, stark dry until the rare torrential rainfall floods the Todd River. “If you see that river flow three times in your life, you will never leave Alice Springs”, alleges my Uncle. I fear that I may not see it flow once.  

The devastation climate change will lead to in the central desert is near unfathomable. Unchecked, the springs that my mother played in as a child will surely dry up, leaving little but a perpetually barren depression.

Country and culture

When understanding the connection between climate change and Indigenous rights, Country and culture must be regarded as entirely intertwined. In the context of the climate crisis, popular disregardment of the relationship that Indigenous people have to Country further disenfranchises us in a future threatening our way of life. It is fundamentally a human rights issue, where protecting Country, cultural continuity, and self-determination is tied with the fight for climate action. 

For Indigenous People throughout so-called ‘Australia’, sovereignty, spirituality and life is inextricably tied to the land. To regard our connection to Country as based on a western concept of ownership is a simplification that obscures its fundamental impact on our physical, psychological and cultural wellbeing. Country wholly sustains us. it gives us sustenance and resources, and further language, lore and Tjukurrpa. In turn, systemic dispossession under the guise of terra nullius precipitated the devastation of our ways akin to cultural genocide.

In the central desert, every hill, every gorge, every dip of the waterways reaching toward the skyline, holds over forty thousand years of Arrernte Tjukurrpa. The rich, red landscape of our desert Country imparts on us our history, language, and culture, and through it we pass on our knowledge to our children.

On Country

I was born and raised far from Country – an Arabana and Southern Arrernte child growing up on Boon-wurrung country, in the outer south-eastern suburbs of metropolitan Melbourne. When I visit family in Mparntwe, driving up for days through long stretches of the Stuart Highway, my spirit is settled in a way which many Indigenous people who live off Country understand intrinsically. 

Ancestral memory is a concept understood globally, in both a spiritual and epigenetic understanding. Country grounds a person in their genealogical history going back tens of thousands of years. For many Indigenous people, physically being on Country – whether in the saltwater, marshes, or the red desert – is integral to their physical, psychological, and spiritual health.

When the climate crisis is discussed by scientists, politicians or a well-informed civilian, predominant discourse is centred on the physicality of suffering. This spotlights the forthcoming devastation of artificial structures, compelled relocation of the body and the impact of rising temperatures on our physical health. To say these issues aren’t deserving of prioritisation would be a violent injustice, especially against Indigenous people who face pre-existing health concerns at a disproportionate rate.

Cultural devastation

If the current climate modelling bears out, many people of the central desert will have to migrate from their homeland. However, Indigenous people affected by intergenerational poverty may not have the resources to do this. Our old people are especially under threat, as well as our community living with chronic health conditions and lack of adequate healthcare. Increasing intensity of heatwaves, along with spikes in extreme climatic events such as droughts, bushfires, and floods, puts everyone at risk, but especially affects those without the resources or capacity to migrate.

Of course, many people would not wish to be displaced, even in extenuating circumstances. The desert is their home, their ancestral land. The spirits and stories of their ancestors reside in the land, and to be compelled to migrate through climate inaction is psychological violence. 

Furthermore, our languages are threatened in the face of climate change. When I walk through the town centre and hear grown-ups yarning on street curbs, I can’t help but feel that the greatest beauty of Mparntwe lies in language. 

On every street, in every park, men and women sit together and speak in words of Arrernte, Walpiri and countless other surrounding language groups. Although residents come from all over Australia, the town has become a “gathering point” of sorts, allowing our traditions and culture to flourish.

Many First Nations people have seen our languages brutally and systemically decimated since invasion. Beaten out, displaced, and methodologically replaced with a foreign tongue. If Indigenous people living in Mparntwe are forced to relocate as temperatures rise drastically, these languages may well become doomed to a similar fate. 

Lost as birth languages with the passing of our Elders. Held impersonally in textbooks, online resources, in haphazard words and phrases picked up from others, but not in casual conversation on curbsides. 

Climate change, if left unchecked and unchallenged, will give rise to a heartbreaking destruction of Indigenous language and culture. Desert mob are strong, in both body and spirit. We continue to endure genocide, judicial violence and police brutality, but rising temperates cast yet another dark shadow on the survival of our culture. 

Universally, climate change is a rapidly approaching existential threat, but in an already arid, scorching land, some of the most immediate effects will be seen by those in the “red centre”. Ecological destruction across the continent is undeniably a horrifying prospect to consider, but less considered is the devastation that climate change poses to Indigenous ways of life.

Yet despite everything, I am optimistic that we will endure as we have for millenia. I just hope, for my family who love their Country dearly, it can be where our ancestors lay.