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  • Writer's pictureKado Muir

First Nations People and ecological change


In this episode Kado Muir offers his thoughts and observations on the multiplicity of factors bearing down on how Aboriginal and Torres strait Islander people's engage with ecological transformations outside of their control.

Australia's Aboriginal and Torres strait Islander people's are not strangers to climate change. Major climatic events in Australia's prehistory were backdrops to the occupation and emergence of the various Aboriginal and Torres strait Islander cultures. This interchange between humans and the climate is represented in the archaeological record of Australia, particularly in the form of rock art paintings tools and evidence of occupation. That record lays out a scientific narrative showing how people adapted to changes in ecological systems for instance the development of harvesting grass seeds and the production of flour through the use of mortar and pestle grinding stones commences at the end of the pleistocene era ice age and beginning of the Holocene era. The adaptation to new foods resulted in the uptake of different health and well-being and observance of spirituality and customs.

Today Aboriginal and Torres strait Islander people's are faced with ecological emergencies, the first is as the result of dispossession of land and it's subsequent transformation through farming, mining and other human impacts. These impacts has resulted in a reduction in ecological integrity which directly correlates back to a reduction in Aboriginal health and well-being. Aboriginal and Torres strait Islander people are responding to these impacts through actions to prevent large scale mining activities like the Carmichael Basin project in Queensland and in the Torres strait people are having serious discussions about rising sea levels. Climate change is not new to Australia's indigenous people's unfortunately they have little opportunity to engage with the solutions and how in the past people were able to adapt and survive today the future is bleak.

Transcript, PART 1

Christel Introduction

Good afternoon everybody and a very warm welcome to the webinar for WAPHA about climate change and health. My name is Christel Smit-Kroner and a very warm welcome to all of you who are watching the recording at a later point in time. Today we are covering the ecological impacts on indigenous people, communities and what it means for them to deal with climate change and what we can learn from their experience and knowledge and personally I’m extremely excited because I think whenever we talk about climate change and health I often feel like there's a piece missing and to me I think that missing link is that connection to the traditional insights on how to look after the land in a much more balanced way.

So I’m just beyond excited that we have a presenter who knows just a tremendous amount of knowledge about this and I’d like to introduce Kado to all of you he's, I mean he's an anthropologist and archaeologist but he's also a language protector a cultural heritage keeper, he's an educationist, he's the whole package and he's agreed to present to you today. I am coming to you from Albany which is in the great southern area which is actually the Noongar country of the Menang people and I would now like to acknowledge the local elders here but Kado is actually in a whole different country so he'll take it from there. Thank you so much for joining us today Kado and thank you in advance for being with us today.

Kado: Acknowledgement of Country

No worries thank you Christel so yeah we'll start with an acknowledgement of country and people in the various places that we are find ourselves in today. Albany in the Menang country is connected to my country, I’m here in Leonora we have a Dingo Dreaming story that travels down to and through the Albany area and so there's a cultural connection following these dreaming lines. I’m here in Leonora, I’m Ngalia man my country's further east from Leonora, but born and bred in Leonora. We're in the Wongutha country and well wongutha is the general name of the different tribes and language groups from this region and I’d like to acknowledge the elders past and present in each of our countries and also the future emerging leaders and elders of whom we do have many today.


Some of you may be familiar with this map and this map shows the many variety of language groups across Australia. So looked at the red lines, the red lines show ecological or environmental zones and then within that are the multiple languages that existed or and sometimes continue to exist across Australia. So with language come people and come country and so here is a map designed or drawn by David Horton who was at AIATSIS, the Australian institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, and he was able to reconstruct mostly from historic records where many of the languages across Australia occurred, what's particularly interesting about this for the presentation now is a lot of those languages also coincide with climatic and environmental zones which I’ll go to in another slide but to set the context we'll go back to this learning matrix.

Learning Matrix

This is a matrix designed to try and get some capacity to formulate in our minds how do we follow and understand the Aboriginal experience in Australia.


so a lot of the Aboriginal cultural experience is underwritten by the dreaming. In my language it's the Tjukurrpa. The dreaming is the events or the actions of creation, in a biblical sense that's genesis, but in a traditional aboriginal worldview we started with the era or the period and it's not a period set in time so it's everywhen it continues today but in this space is where all potential exists.

The narrative that we have is where there were these dreaming/dreamtime beings or these dreaming beings ancestors and these ancestors held the spiritual essences of creation they lived. they went about their daily life, they could transform between animal and human form and everywhere they went they left evidence of their activities so if you're following this table you're starting to see the ancestral beings how they created the land and these beings went about and undertook their daily activities. Where they travelled they left a spiritual essence which in my language we call pimarr which is like the forces or energy of creation that pimarr resides in that ground and in the introduction I acknowledged that Albany and Menang country is connected to my country here in Leonora through the Tjukurrpa and that's essentially where the dreaming beings travel and maintain those connections, so that unites different Aboriginal peoples in different countries through the spiritual energy as well as through songs and dance and country.

Tjukurrpa Laws

So these beings went about their daily life and they brought these laws. Prior to the dreaming there were no laws there were no physical laws, there were no moral or social laws and so these dreaming ancestral beings by characters created both the land, they are the ancestors of all living things human and animal and they also brought about the laws, introduced laws for benefit of all and it's those laws that we continue to follow today. Now these laws are not regulatory laws they're more in the moral codes of behaviour and it's actually the system of laws which regulated society and held it. It was the fabric that united the society and held society together and if you're looking at a timeline these are, the you know I won't use the term time immemorial because it has a legal legal sense to it, um but it's the it's the everywhen.

So about beings the source now how as the Tjukurrpa transitioned into the traditional cultural period you know pre-contact those are the tables in this in this matrix here where the Aboriginal people maintained a hunter gatherer way of life, continue to live engaged more in spiritual and cultural evolution as opposed to engaging in the technological evolution that we find through, you know the western reason and this is the way of life that we are in today.

So the way of life of Aboriginal people pre-contact is one where we lived on the land the land provided all the resources that we required and a lot of our culture emerged from that from that land and so we'll go back to that slide here of the various different cultures Throughout Australia we have multiple languages but also multiple cultures of Aboriginal people a lot of these cultures are united in a fundamental way with adherence to the law the lessons from the dreaming beings but the way that culture then settled into the landscape was determined largely by the environment and this is the you know the bio regions. We had a technical issue here where Tasmania unfortunately got cut out of this particular map in the timeline that we had to try and recreate it but it just gives you that illustrates the idea.

Across Australia we've got these different ecological regions and I think the story the importance of the story for today is first nations people in ecological change is that …we have seen climatic change on multiple occasions in the past so I’ll just go to the next slide to get you as the audience to identify some of your key learning outcomes from today and then I’ll continue with the presentation. If you use that little diagram on the left here as being one of the things you'd like to get out of your learning from today

Dreaming to Science

This is the story, so you have the dream time that created everything; in the post-contact period we've got archaeologists and scientists who are studying, what is Aboriginal culture what is Aboriginal society, what is the pre-history and what they're finding is they're marrying up our oral history with science and in our oral history, which is science to us we have stories of great ecological change.

Ice Age Archaeology

Archaeologists are now finding that Australia and New Guinea for instance were connected, so out on the what's now the Arafura sea and the Torres Strait islands were once part of our land. Other archaeologists are finding off the coast of Western Australia for instance there are archaeological sites that are submerged and this is basically evidence of rising sea levels and how from the up until the end of the Pleistocene period ,geological terms, Pleistocene period we had that great ice age. Prior to the ice age is when we had the megafauna and the environment in Australia was quite lush, wet lush etc. We went into the ice age and from the ice age emerged, well basically, what happened in the ice age is it was bitterly cold, very dry and very windy. So, the land that I come from was essentially geologically created in large part by the winds that were blowing across the Australian continent during the ice age period. A lot of the Aboriginal people went into secure ecological zones refuge areas and so there are archaeological sites in South Australia, in the Pilbara even in the Nullarbor where you find Aboriginal people were living sheltered from the effects of the ice age. This is still evidence in the archaeological record today, so you go back to places like, the Burrup peninsula and you'll find that there are engravings rock art and the stories that are told of different resources that were available pre-ice age.

After the ice age the lands started to regrow and this is where the seed collecting culture really emerged. Right across Australia you'll find lots of grinding stones, the mortar and pestle grinding stones which contributed to the diets of Aboriginal people.

Pre-contact Health

Now we're just getting into the health side of it, where the cultures emerged around these environmental conditions and so pre-contact health of Aboriginal people was substantially more advanced than today but also with their contemporaries so a lot of Europeans were coming out here they were basically in poorer states of health than Aboriginal people were. In large part for two key reasons, one is the physical exercise. The act of walking, the act of engaging in physical activity meant that people were, their bodies had evolved or you know developed to an extent where they were able to live on a minimal level of energy intake but thrive. Two, Aboriginal culture is one around the spirituality of the land, the access to the resources and the activities of the people so the people were basically engaged in cultural ceremonial activities and Tasmania there's in the written records very strong sort of cultural ceremonial traditions that were engaged in there.

What that basically translates to is a high protein diet out here in the desert, where I come from we have grass seeds and acacia seeds. A lot of the mulga trees, these seeds contributed probably to our diet, the acacia seeds are very powerful for protein intake and what we're finding today.

Post Contact diets

In the post contract period, so I’ll just move across to that now. So Europeans came and they basically set about the project of dispossessing marginalizing and taking Aboriginal people away from that culture and that connection to country. In the exercise that is the European model and which is you know predominant in many parts of the world so I suppose the theme of my talk is about the diet what we eat and unfortunately a lot of the contradictions between a traditional hunter-gatherers diet and a sedentary farming based diet and now we're in an industrial age diet of industrial level production of foods. There's the lack of exercise, the reduction in the nutrient value of the foods and then the social and emotional impacts that came from colonization.

Which basically you know the map of the language groups for instance there were estimated to be 200 different languages spoken in Australia prior to colonization or settlement and today only 20 of those languages remain as living languages. That's a decline in languages that were spoken and you'd correlate that to languages that are spoken, are actually spoken by people , and therefore there's a decline in people, so basically through massacres, through introduction of diseases and then lack of access to resources and then suppression of the cultural and spiritual life led to you know physical genocide and then a cultural genocide that continues today.

Now how that translates to where we are today is that there are massive changes that are going on in the world, in the climate and there are lessons that can be drawn from the Aboriginal experience. We have gone through climate change on multiple occasions in the past and where we were connected to land and practicing and engaging in our cultural activities we survived and we flourished.

The disruption that has occurred is as a result of the imposition of another economic model and another world view . The economic model is around exploitation and extraction of resources, whether it's mineral resources, water and people. That sort of exploitation and extraction then leads to an imbalance in nature and imbalance in in the world and we're witnessing that today with climate change in that this imbalance is showing up in that the economic activities that are driving industrialized cultures, so it's not just western culture, it's industrialized Cultures, the economic activities that are driving it do not account for the full scope of what's being used. So it's basically an unsustainable exercise in extraction and exploitation of resources with an accumulation of wealth and resources within corporate hierarchies.

Indigenous peoples across the world, so first nations peoples in Australia, but also in other parts of the world are all basically responding to these impacts within a context of being marginalized, dispossessed, economically excluded and actively suppressed. In terms of spiritual, cultural, educational and all those other indicators.

Key Calls

1. I suppose the key call here you know these are some of the facts that are just thrown on the table, the key call here is for people who are in a position to respond, to be able to support people to reconnect, first nations people to reconnect with culture, reconnect with country.

2. To review our levels of consumption and consumption from both in terms of sustenance the foods that we eat consumption in terms of the use of resources and also consumption in terms of what it is that we fill our minds and our hearts with so you know practicing in a sense a conscious form of living and engagement with each other.

Key Learning Outcomes to Action

So, I’m hoping that some of you have taken the time to identify some of your key learning outcomes you know, what words can help you get back to an action state of mind? What pain will you feel if you don't take action? So these are listing some of the actions that you could do to put these breakthroughs or insights into motion and possibly even connect with people that can help you do it. So if you've hopefully have captured that we'll go across to the next slide.

Action Commitments

There is a challenge for your action commitments, so what are you going to accomplish in the next 15 minutes, within the next hour, within the next 24 hours, within the next seven days, 14 days, 30 days and within the next year. So that's a challenge for all of you who are listening, who are participating and others who may watch later.

There is this issue of first nations People having been marginalized and dispossessed and disenfranchised so we're not actually active at or within political decision-making structures. How can we make a difference in our own way in our own space that will ameliorate some of the effects of this ecological change but also be fully aware that ecological change does happen and therefore look at the lessons that have been learned from previous generations and previous cultures which in particular a lot of the first nations and indigenous cultures around the world. Look at how they responded to those changes in the past, but also how first nations people and you know other Indigenous people around the world can respond to ecological change today. So that's the challenge for you.


If you want to find out more about me or contact me probably the best place to go is to my podcast and that will you know you can learn a bit more get some more insights from my podcasts, but also there's a contact form there that you can keep in touch.

So that's about it and I’ll hand back to Christel.

Thank you. Ngula Nyaku!


Come back next episode, for Part two of my presentation, where answer the questions of participants and post link to the full video of the presentation..

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