Phoebe McIlwraith on dancing with Country

By Phoebe McIlwraith | 03 Feb 23
Artwork courtesy of Groundswell

As the climate crisis intensifies, so too does the language we use about the impacts of harmful human behaviour on the environment. But as Bundjalung and Worimi Saltwater woman Phoebe McIlwraith points out, human beings have a positive role to play in place, and that instead of focusing on our capacity to harm, we should recognise our interconnectedness with earth’s ecosystems and value our capacity to care, as First Nations peoples have done since time immemorial.

Phoebe McIlwraith lives on Awabakal and Worimi Country

There’s a USB that permanently remains in the radio of nunyar mahmeh’s (my mother’s) little black car, it looks inconspicuous to unknowing eyes but it quietly holds a cultural treasure. 

All it takes is a push of a button and a recording of my Great-Great Grandmother Dorothy Webb (née Williams) rings throughout the car, an older voice that strains a bit over the sounds of passing trucks on a nearby highway in Casino. She’s being interviewed about Bundjalung language – specifically our dialect from the Middle Clarence River. 

She talks through a range of elements of jugun (Country) – jingleh-jingleh (willy wag-tail), bulum (tea tree) and guralgam (brolga crane). Nunyar gummi (my Granny) tells a story of why guralgam are very important animals, they’re known to gather in pairs to ngahri-lah (dance) in the sunrise and the movements of guralgam are reflected in the ngahri-lah of Bundjalung peoples. This is one story, of many in our culture, that is repeated to illustrate a key learning – if the guralgam dance and we dance, if the gagaru (kookaburra) laughs and we laugh, then how could we as human beings ever see ourselves as inherently separate. 

It is through observing jugun that we can appreciate the interconnectedness of all things. This isn’t a learning unique to Bundjalung people – Indigenous cultures all around the world have independently drawn conclusions about how people do not ‘have a connection with nature’ but that we are nature. 

Brolgas art work by Phoebe McIlwraith
Artwork courtesy of Groundswell

Recently, I was asked by nunyar mahmeh to accompany her to an event welcoming a delegation from Aotearoa to the Wollotuka Institute of Indigenous Education and Research in Newcastle. As speeches were shared between Aboriginal and Māori delegates, birds would swoop in to greet speakers and nearby gagaru would sing out in response to songs. After a few instances that appeared to pique the curiosity of our guests, Aboriginal delegates explained the significance of these events and how it connects to our cultural framework of relationship with Country. Instantly one of the Māori men replied with a proverb, 

“Ka tangi te Tītī! Ka tangi te Kākā! Ka tangi hoki ahau!

Tihei Mauriora!

The mutton bird cries! The parrot cries! I also cry!

Behold there is life!”.

This sentiment of alignment with non-human kin is not reflected in mainstream environmentalism, which tends to operate in a framework of the ‘anthropocene’; where human beings are seen as separate and superior to the non-human world. This directly ties into capitalist traditions of devaluing non-human animals, landscapes and waterscapes as mere ‘resources’ to justify destructive extractive behaviours and industries. Even in what appears superficially to be conservationist discourses, terms in environmental governance such as  ‘natural capital’ emphasise the maintenance of animals and landscapes, not in the interest of the greater good of our natural environment but due to their impact on these economic systems. 

This hyperfixation on human beings also manifests interestingly in broader conversations surrounding conservation. There has been a surge in reporting on the results of human driven environmental loss and it has resulted in a media narrative centred around how, essentially, ‘humans suck’. It frames human beings as inherently harmful to the environment and that human interaction taints the ‘pristine’ and ‘untouched’ natural world. This type of thinking leads to general public support for the creation of legal structures such as national parks, which facilitates legally confined human interaction in efforts of ‘preserving’ the landscape. 

But there’s a major flaw in this thinking, because the creation of national park structures consistently excludes Indigenous peoples from lands and waters that they have lived on and managed sustainably. It was an issue raised back in 2016 by Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, then United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, where she stated that, “the world’s most vulnerable people are paying the price for today’s conservation”.

The desire to maintain ‘pristine wilderness’ separate from humanity is an unhelpful fantasy that neglects a basic historical fact; landscapes have been beneficially impacted by people for thousands of years. The idea of a ‘wilderness’ free from human impact that popular conservationist narratives hark back to is essentially non-existent and fables of ‘untouched wilderness’, particularly for Indigenous peoples, erases the beautiful and complex relationships people have always had with place. 

Kookaburra artwork by Phoebe McIlwraith
Artwork courtesy of Groundswell

COP27 in Egypt opened with an urgent declaration from United Nations Secretary General António Guterres that, “we are on a highway to climate hell with our foot on the accelerator.” While this may communicate the heightened importance of these climate talks, what I hope does not eventuate from this type of climate messaging is a further wave of deeming humanity as entities ‘removed from nature’ and doomed to harm it. 

Indigenous peoples have no choice but to believe in the alternative. First Nations people across the Australian continent have lived sustainably as the world’s oldest continuous cultures since time immemorial and I refuse to believe that the lessons of my Old People mean nothing in a climate-threatened world. 

If we want to effectively Indigenise environmental spaces we must make a fundamental ideological shift; to not fixate on our capacity to harm but rather value and empower the inherent capacity we have to care. Not as separate or superior beings but as entities in kinship with and related to the non-human world. 

Ninganah (be quiet)! I call back to the lessons of all nunyar gummi (all my Grandmothers). 

I dance as the brolga crane does, I laugh as the kookaburra does, how could I ever begin to see myself as separate to that – the Country that loves me and that I love in return?

This article was originally published on Groundswell Journal.