The Indigenous Experience Of The Australian Bushfires: A Disregard For Cultural Burning, To The Burning Of Culture

The current Australian wildfires have destroyed an area of land belonging to the indigenous group known as the Yuin people. This occurs alongside the resurgence in criticism of the government’s disregard of ‘cultural burning,’ the indigenous practice of managing land through more controlled fires.

The Yuin people have an officially recognised Native Title Claim to their land on the south coast of New South Wales. In the recent bushfires, the Yuin coastal village of Mogo has been badly burned, destroying the houses of five Mogo Local Aboriginal Land Council members and the Council building itself. Indigenous food sources and spiritually important flora and fauna have been destroyed, alongside memories, sacred places and, to some extent, part of the Yuin identity. Lorena Allam, The Guardian’s indigenous affairs editor describes how the fires have engulfed “our memories, our sacred places, all the things which make us who we are.”

The Nuragunya aboriginal culture and education camp was also destroyed in the fires.  This camp, run by Noel Butler, had programs for the troubled indigenous youth and was an education centre for schools. Speaking to Australia’s National Public Radio, Butler explained how fire is key to indigenous cultures, and that cultural burning was and is supposed to be used to maintain a balance between plants. This burning style promotes slower “low” burns – different from the larger fires used by public officials today.  Cultural burning is known for its use of intimate local knowledge of the land, which includes the kinds of fires that work best with different vegetation, how long fires should burn, and how often. Proof of the effectiveness of cultural burning can be seen in the fact that two areas which were left largely untouched along the south coast were both sites where cultural burning had been implemented.

Danièle Hromek, writing for gal-dem magazine, explains how such cultural burning was a way for the Yuin people to strengthen their relationship with the land. Hromek, a Yuin woman, described the recent fires as part of continued colonisation by “colonisers [who] disregarded millennia of Knowledges.” Aboriginal identity has been, and continues to be, under attack since colonisation, and these fires have added another layer of trauma.

According to Australia’s ABC News, there are some calls for the Royal Commission to conduct an independent inquiry into the Government’s fire management. However, critics (including the United Firefighters Union of Australia) argue that such an inquiry would be pointless, as there has been on average one inquiry into fire management every two years for the past 80 years. However, the results have clearly been ineffective, and any recommendations produced in prior inquiries are reported to have been only half-heartedly followed.

The recent fires, however, have led to a rise in support and recognition for the group “Firesticks Alliance,” which aims to pull together indigenous and non-indigenous knowledge on fire management. Noel Webster, a Yuin member of the Firesticks Alliance, spoke to National Indigenous Times and called for more investment into indigenous knowledge, saying “We have fire practitioners across the country, have a listen, and let us have a go.”

Listening is the first thing which readers across the globe can do. As global citizens, such as the writer of this article being a white woman from Britain, there is little many can say or suggest which would not have already been said, and said better, by an indigenous person. Articles like these need to be written to raise awareness of these topics in hopes of reaching a wider audience, but when it comes to providing solutions or further commentary, the best thing the rest of the world can do right now, is listen.

Grace Bridgewater