field visits,  museum

Belonging to country

What does it mean to belong? When something belongs to someone, it means that person has ownership or title to it. When something belongs to a place, it means that it is accepted there, often making its home there. But I’ve come to think belonging is much more than that after two weeks down under.

Bark Canoe display, Australian Museum. Photo by D Jørgensen.
Bark Canoe display, Australian Museum. Photo by D Jørgensen.

On this trip, I was able to visit two museums with significant exhibits of Aboriginal Australians—the Australian Museum in Sydney and the National Museum in Canberra-—as well as a smaller exhibit at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery. They all had well done and provocative presentations. I also started reading Every hill got a story, which presents translations of interviews with the people of Central Australia. Over and over again I saw stories of belonging, of people who belong to land. It is a fierce and deep sentiment among the Aborigines.

I say ‘belong to the land’ intentionally for two reasons. First, there is the history of settler colonialism that often forced the relocation of Aboriginal people. They have struggled long and hard to gain recognition as rightful residents of the land, which was finally recognised in 1977 with the Aboriginal Land Rights Act. Second, there is Aboriginal understanding of belonging. I came to realise that before a Western system of ownership was put in place, the Aboriginal people would not have claimed to be dispossessed of the land by whites, because they would never have claimed to own it. Instead, they belong to the land. It is so much more than ownership. They are the stewards of it; they are the ones who have been given the task to care for it since time immemorial.

The first section of the book Every hill got a story is called “We know every rock in the country – belonging to country”. Country is used without an article—it is not “the country” or “a country”, but just country. In the National Museum’s First Australians exhibit, country is defined as

the land, water, sky, plants, animals, sites and ancestors of a particular place. Created by Dreaming ancestors, it is looked after by their human descendants. People have rights and responsibility in their country, which provides both a spiritual identity and an economic based for survival. Country is sacred. Country is life.

Spearpoint made of green bottle glass., Bunaba people of Western Australia, collected in late 1800s. In Encounters exhibit at National Museum. Photo by D Jørgensen.
Spearpoint made of green bottle glass., Bunaba people of Western Australia, collected in late 1800s. In Encounters exhibit at National Museum. Photo by D Jørgensen.

Country is more than land and it is more than something that can be owned.

As I read through the stories, what I sensed is a people who walk the land, who know the places through stories, and who believe their duty is to care for their country and the stories that make it. The Aboriginal stories and country are intertwined in a way that is so much more than standard narratives of place. Country cannot exist without stories. Yet these are not unchanging stories. If you carefully read them, you see that the people have incorporated introduced animals like rabbits, horses, and camels into their lives and adopted technologies like glass in place of stone.

I had the privilege of visiting the studio of artist Mandy Martin, who with her husband Guy Fitzhardinge, are working with Aboriginal people. Mandy showed us some to the art that the Aboriginal community has been producing in order to tell their environmental stories. Some of the stories had the new things as threatening; others showed them as part of everyday life. All of them invoked a real sense of a relationship with the nonhuman and a sense belonging to country.

Thinking now about the nonhuman objects of my research project, if we say that an animal species belongs somewhere, what are we really saying? Or what about the converse, when we say an animal doesn’t belong?

Perhaps we should conceptualise belonging as to be one with. That’s how it is with the first people of Australia—they are one with. When the beaver reintroduction is proposed, it is because the beaver is understood to be one with the land in Sweden. When muskoxen are excluded from protection and listed as an alien species in Norway it is because they are not one with country. In these examples the quality of integration is so much deeper than a physical presence or even a history. Their belonging, however, is not left up to the animals—the humans are deciding it for them. Therefore how we make those decisions of whether or not an animal is one with country matters. We need to begin critically examining how decisions about nonhuman belonging are based upon certain ideas of the past, ideas about Western science, desires for human benefit, and emotions. Embracing our own role as custodians of country, as a people who belong, makes us responsible to tell the stories of country.


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