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. I stopped, 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 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. 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 over simplifying 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.
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.
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 recognize 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 that will come after. Even though it feels foreign now, I know I am on the right path.
Attitudes are changing, governments and conservation groups are recognising the enduring value of Country. As the size and scale of blak managed lands and sea continues 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 3-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.
Teagan Goolmeer is a proud Arabana woman. She believes the answer to the conservation issues facing Australia lie in the Indigenous-led use of Traditional Knowledge. She is currently undertaking a PhD with the University of Melbourne investigating systemic changes to empower Indigenous land and sea managers in biodiversity management. Teagan has held roles across the public sector focusing on Indigenous engagement and policy redesign. She has a Bachelor of Education and a Bachelor of Applied Science from Southern Cross University and a Masters in Marine Science and Management from the National Marine Science Centre.