The language of bushfires

Words: Pepe Bingham-Hall

Over four million acres have burned in California this bushfire season, and during the Black Summer (2019-20), over forty-two million acres burned across Australia.

California and Australia share more than just record-breaking bushfire seasons, too: they both have legacies of settler-colonial violence towards First Nation communities and a continued disregard for tried and tested cultural methods of bushfire management and land care. In this piece, I’ll be exploring the situation in Australia – but the same arguments can be applied to other nations with settler-colonial histories where Indigenous knowledge of the land has been ignored. 

As I’m writing this, a fire is burning, uncontrolled, through Cooktown in the Cape York Peninsula of Far North Queensland. Cooktown is in Guugu Yimithirr Country, and is the site where, 250 years ago, Captain Cook landed his ship the ‘Endeavour’. The river he sailed through to reach the shoreline was once called Wahalumbaal Birri. It’s now called the Endeavour River after Cook’s ship. 

Cook’s arrival marked the beginning of a long campaign of frontier violence fought all over Australia, but it was in this region that some of the most horrific crimes were committed. In 1873, Cooktown was established as the major port for the Palmer River gold rush, and the subsequent massacre campaigns and vigilante killings – never mind the introduction of disease from the new arrivals – meant the Guugu Yimithirr population, having been above one thousand, had fallen to just one hundred by the start of the 20th century

All across Australia, from Queensland to New South Wales, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages were decimated as the communities they belonged to suffered. Indigenous culture and knowledge were embedded in Indigenous language, and as a result were actively distrusted by the settlers. It’s this distrust which has spelt disaster for land and bushfire management in Australia.

English was the ‘language of instruction’ initially enforced by Christian missionaries. The Christian agenda of ‘salvation’ usually went hand-in-hand with the colonial ambitions of ‘civilisation’, and outlawing First Nation languages quickly proved an efficient way of stamping out resistance. English, as the ‘language of instruction’, seeped through all aspects of society from education to bureaucracy, creating a hierarchy of languages that reflected the hierarchy of cultures. (This ‘language of instruction’ was also a tool of the White Australia Policy, which was in effect in Australia until 1973.)

At the time of European invasion in 1788, there were over 800 languages and dialects spoken across the country. By 2019, only thirteen First Nation languages were considered ‘sustainable’, meaning the language is spoken by children.

Language is an important mediator within a culture. It allows people to talk about the natural world around them, form relationships with others and with themselves, and communicate wider philosophical and spiritual ideas. Without language, thoughts and ideas remain shapeless, if not incommunicable, especially in regard to the histories, narratives and traditions of a suppressed community. When a language is no longer used or understood, so much of the knowledge it communicated also disappears.

When a language is no longer used or understood, so much of the knowledge it communicated also disappears.

First Nations people have custodial obligations to their land which ensures its long-term health – whether it be protecting certain wildlife or cultivating the bush. This is known as ‘caring for country’, and the ancestral knowledge of these practices are passed from generation to generation through songlines. The loss of songlines has inhibited this ability to care for the country – evidenced by increasingly treacherous bushfire seasons of the past one hundred years, prioritising rapid development on the land above its sustainable management. In the face of a warming climate, an understanding of traditional approaches may well prove decisive if the world is to remain habitable.

Fire itself has figured in the Australian psyche for centuries. For about 65,000 years or so (estimates vary), First Nation communities had harnessed fire to control crops, flora and fauna, and they refrained from placing undue stress on the land in order to avoid mass conflagration. A system of periodic, small-scale burning – with methods such as fire-stick, patchwork and mosaic – were key to this management. There is no blanket approach to cultural burning: the most appropriate burning method is chosen based on local biodiversity and vegetation. In the instances where communities have retained First Languages literacy and thus the intricate knowledge of caring for the country, the benefits of practicing culturally-informed burning have been undeniable: shielding homes, people and biodiversity from the devastating impacts of large-scale fires. 

UNESCO predicts that by the end of this century, we will have lost a further 3000 languages. This circumstance parallels the decline in biodiversity, outstripped by mass monoculture farming and its correlating increase in greenhouse gas emissions and the severity and frequency of bushfires. Connection to land through First Languages literacy has been shown, time and time again, to improve well-being. It usually follows that the more one sees the health of the land as integral to their own, the more one is invested in trying to protect it. If we are serious about maintaining the health of the country, there must be a long-term commitment to promoting cultural knowledge. Increasing literacy is vital to this and must be understood as a credible and worthwhile pursuit. 

The New South Wales Bushfire Report, released in July, said that it ‘wished to make recommendations’ rather than ‘attribute blame’. But alongside climate change denial and its aligned policies, blame really must be attributed to the culture of racism and the disregard of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures piloted by the officials of the settler colony and expanded upon by successive Australian governments. People in vast swathes of the country are gearing up for another seismic bushfire season, and a government which willingly refuses to meaningfully employ cultural burning practices to combat this threat is a government which sets its own house on fire.

learn more

  • BOOK: The White Possessive: Property, Power and Indigenous Sovereignty – Aileen Moreton-Robinson
  • BOOK: Dark Emu – Bruce Pascoe
  • SITE: Indigenous Literacy Foundation

Pepe Bingham-Hall is a writer and researcher currently working in Sydney, Australia. She has been a researcher on Native Title in the Cape York Peninsula and on First Languages literacy across Australia. Follow her on Twitter.