The Intrinsic Connections Between Ecocide and Genocide
During the last 233 years the colonial project called “australia” has been existing as a continuous process of killing, dispossession, myth-making, othering, fear, hate, systemic disempowerment and profound trauma. Often people make the mistakes of either questioning the facts of history and the present, or just generally viewing it through the colonial gaze. Quite often when we hear about man-made climate change, we forget that in this continent it is more like “White-man-made Climate Change”. Because not only is that killing, dispossession, myth-making, othering, fear, hate, systemic disempowerment and profound trauma happening to Indigenous peoples, but it’s also been happening to our lands, indirectly and directly. It’s not just that “australia” exists this way, it’s the fact that this is the only way “australia” existing is possible, through the killing of Indigenous people and Lands.
By now you may have realised that when I say “australia” I am not referring to a place but a colonial state apparatus. Because we know that this is a continent that is made up of many countries with many forms of social, ecological and cultural governance systems, before and despite the invaders beginning the cycle of colonial abuse. Murri people have our own terms of reference, our own understanding of history, social and ecological science, medicine and indeed our own governance systems. Murri ways of being, doing and knowing have been informed by our meaning of humanness that connects and empowers us.
My name is Teila Moura Watson, I’m BirriGubba and Gangulu. My middle name, Moura is a place (a mining town no less) in Gangulu Country. I introduce myself in this moment to show that in a Murri understanding of humanness, we are our Country, our Country is us and so in identifying ourselves, we identify our Country and belonging. Because Indigenous people know that humanness is explicitly connected to the earth. It was only upon being invaded and having war waged on us by colonisers, that they forcefully redefined us within their colonial gaze, and in doing so, separated people from connections to Country and their obligations to the scientific creators of life: Air, Fire, Water and Land. My deadly aunty (through her close friendship with my family) and Kombumerri person and elder, Dr Mary Graham, talks about the meaning of humanness in connection to Land:
‘The two most important kinds of relationship in life are, firstly, those between land and people and, secondly, those amongst people themselves, the second being always contingent upon the first. The land, and how we treat it, is what determines our human-ness. Because land is sacred and must be looked after, the relation between people and land becomes the template for society and social relations. Therefore all meaning comes from land.’
For around 100,000 years my people have conducted social and ecological governance in ways that both sustain healthy relationships with Country and healthy relationships between people. Taking care of sacred resources means taking care of people, not just for now, but for our grandchildren and their grandchildren. Which also means in order to take care of the future we teach our children about sacredness, science, Country, humanness, cultural knowledge and practices for our people and Country and to do this in a way that allows them to also become empowered, self governing and more humanised in the process. For honouring our cultural relationship with creation through Law, requires that we become more and more human in each generation.
Dr Graham’s quote also tells us that a society which thrives from extracting life from the earth, must be taking life from the people within or subject to it. Within the practices of western colonialism that invaded our Lands, physical and cultural genocide are methods among the many used for the purpose of dispossession, and are tactics that rely heavily on dehumanisation. However, the process of dehumanisation is never a one-way street. In order to dehumanise another, one must also dehumanise themselves first, since dehumanisation requires depleting one’s capacity to witness the humanness of others. In the same way, the colonial gaze sees an absence of life in Country and this view allows people to justify the wilful destruction of life in Country.
Through the teachings that have been handed down from various Elders, it is my understanding that the meaning of humanness also includes personal sovereignty, autonomy and obligation. Of course these things are also governed by responsibility to Law and relationality. However, in the colonial form of governance, personal sovereignty, autonomy, Law and relationality are all undermined. From a Murri perspective, we could say that the colonial governance system is one that actively undermines the humanness of its subjects and those subjected to it. And so the process of becoming more human within coloniality is limited and obstructed by a lack of humanising practices.
Dehumanisation here in the great southlands now referred to as “australia”,began with stealing the power of definition, whereby colonial invaders used the premise of race by making us “Aborigines”. Munanjahli and South Sea Islander woman, Dr Chelsea Watego makes an important point about the means and measures by which racialisation exists and operates:
“Here race was turned into a foundational code cemented in place by scientists and philosophers, writers and literary critic’s, public intellectuals and artists, journalists and clergy, politicians and bureaucrats each of which became the day labourers or brick layers of Racial foundations. In our becoming Aborigines we have been known by them and for our relationship to them. Cementing a relationship of power over us, physically, morally, intellectually, politically and legislatively. We simply cannot talk about racism without talking about race and its origins as foundational to this society.”
Racism has indeed been a large part of the fabric of “australia” and it continues to filter down into every department, every industry and just about every operation that exists here. However, like dehumanisation, racialisation has affected the colonisers themselves, who in the same ways that Dr Watego points out have been taught for generations that not only do they have a supreme form of social governance, but that they are inherently more entitled to quality of life and that they are better at life than anyone else. Which Country shows us, is a lie.
The problems we face here today with global warming and climate change are intricately, yet clearly created and sustained by colonialism, specifically through the mechanism of race, race based killing, capitalism and state capitalism through the killing of our people and the stealing of our Lands. The point must also be made that the environmental issues we face today are not just because of genocide, but the cultural and educational impacts of our peoples knowledges being systemically attacked throughout the entire continuity of the colonial process.
The irony of it all is that the same Lands the colonisers killed so many of our old people for will eventually kill the entire colony if they don’t start returning Lands and also giving back governance powers and resources. But it’s not just because they abuse Country, it’s also because in 1788 our people were likely the most sophisticated and holistic ecological scientists that probably ever lived or have been able to develop in ways that support the continuation of creation and development of humanness for such a long time without interruption. Furthermore, the knowledge that has survived, which resides with us only for the power of our culture and strengths of our people, is still being ignored and undermined. Gamilaraay and Kooma woman, Ruby Wharton explains that the fight for our lives is still also the fight for our Countries as well:
“Colonialism is an ongoing project, genocide and ethnic cleansing were two methods used by colonisers to take our lands. By depriving First Nations people of a future on Country they were able to destroy us by attempting to erase our identities. Now in 2021 we still face the same fight; the Gamilaraay Next Generation are just one group campaigning to stop Santos Narrabri Gas Project, to ensure that we have a future on Country and know the Gamilaraay nation.”
The targets that have been set by the government to tackle the climate crisis are possibly more mediocre and lazy than some might call the prime minister himself. Not only disregarding the need for change in approach to continue humanities’ existence, but turning away from the catastrophic effects of not doing good enough, the same way that the prime minister turned away from bushfire victims in the summer of 2019 and 2020.
However, a sustainable and positive future on this continent will not be possible under the colonial system of governance at all, because this form of governance was never built to sustain human life, but rather to subdue, disempower and manipulate it to serve the interests of the few in power. And if it all burns down, they’re the first ones out, taking holidays and contributing to the colonial impacts on other Indigenous Lands. Yet, white supremacy tells us that democracy is the best form of governance we can have.
The colonial fairy tales of white benevolence and Black malevolence have been so effective in this continent that generations of the colonial race continue to believe that they and their knowledge systems have the ability to continue human life, while watching it being destroyed before their eyes. It would seem there has never been a greater gas-lighter, abuser or narcissist than the one they call “australia”.
Like any infection, the symptoms may be treated but the cause of the infection must be addressed if the symptoms are ever going to stop. We cannot expect a society that lives only off the killing of Indigenous peoples and lands to have the answers to sustainability, not socially and not ecologically. Rather, the great white lie of white supremacy must be recognised for the evil it is, in telling white people and everyone else that their way of being is the best, while the same white supremacy kills everything it touches and dooms the future of the very people it favours.
So, the point needs to be made, that simply having Indigenous knowledges used by the colonial state, is not a solution. Any solution to the crisis that has been caused by colonialism must be founded in sovereignty, in Law and relationality. This begins with Land back and major shifts in the way this continent is governed and who does the governing. My deadly aunty, BirriGubba and Gangulu elder, Dr Lilla Watson makes an important point about the possibilities of the future:
“It seems to me, that white australians have to take on the same obligations and responsibilities that Aboriginal people have of caring for and looking after land. That further should induce the obligation of learning about the knowledge systems that come directly from this country and have governed these lands for millennia. There is an opportunity for them to become a part of relationality in Aboriginal terms of reference, including taking part in some ways in a lateral governance system based on consensus decision making, which draws people together, as opposed to a voting system which creates division and enemies. Reparations and rightful restorations of governance over lands as well as truth telling process’ are central to the relationship between white australian and Aboriginal people to begin this process.”
It has been made clear by many Aboriginal people, that in order to build a strong foundation for positive change in this continent, we must have truth telling processes, we must have reparations and the power to make governing decisions must be redistributed to allow the restoration, as aunty Lilla says, of our governing systems. Furthermore, it is most important to note that simply using our knowledges and practices while continuing this colonial way of governing is to continue cultural genocide, which in turn would both cause and enable more death, more disempowerment, colonial abuse and trauma. We have been stolen from enough, yet it is not just a matter of Blackfullas wanting justice, but it is a matter of everyone in this continent wanting a good future with healthy Country, not just for our Murri kids, but for all kids, and their kids, and their kids. Which brings me to one of my favourite of aunty Lilla’s quotes:
“We must ensure the future stretches as far ahead of us, as our past does, behind us.”
The picture series created for this piece shows portraits of each of the women quoted with images of their respective countries embedded into the frames of their bodies. These artworks display the inherent and vital connection between Aboriginal people and our homelands. This connection informs our ways of knowing and being and creates a solid foundation for identity and culture; it locates us with Country, for thousands of years behind us and thousands of years ahead of us, then, now, and forever.