Last November, a delegation of Aboriginal people from Australia visited Cheyenne River on a mission to create an international bridge between them and the Lakota people. Their goal was to create a dialogue for knowledge-sharing and language conservation.
The Aboriginal people of Australia share many similar historical traumas as the American Indian: colonization, loss of land, forced boarding schools, and the loss of their way of life.
Last year, the United Nations declared 2019 the International Year of Indigenous Languages, and as such, the Australian Consulate sent Aboriginal Cultural Attaché and State Park Ranger Natalie Davey and language conservationist Daryn McKenny to meet with Lakota leaders.
During their visit to Cheyenne River, Natalie and Daryn met with CRST Cultural Preservation Officer Dana Dupris and spent time at the Lakȟótiyapi Okáȟtaŋič’iya Wičhóičhaǧe (LOWI) immersion school.
Daryn is the creator of the Miromaa Aboriginal Language and Technology Centre in Newcastle, Australia and he has worked with tribal nations who represent over 150 language groups from North America (U.S. and Canada). His projects have included working with the Indigenous Language Institute in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
While visiting the United States, tragedy struck- devastating wildfires began in Australia. These fires continue to burn today and have incinerated over 46 million acres, have killed 24 people and an estimated 1 billion animals have perished in the megafires.
Last week, Daryn, who lives in the harbor city of Newcastle, took time to speak with the West River Eagle and shared his indigenous perspective of what the world is now calling a widespread devastation of an entire ecosystem.
In Australia, it is summer right now. Daryn said temperatures are normally in the high 90’s, however, the temperature reached 116 degrees, which is unheard of in the Newcastle region, especially since the city is located on the eastern coastline.
The rise in temperatures is not only due to the massive wildfires, it’s also due to climate change, said Daryn, as he explained that his country’s prime minister does not believe in climate change, much to the dismay of many Australians.
“Climate change has played a part in our fires and it is embarrassing us on the international stage. A lot of this stuff is drawn by political lines, but events are happening, like these fires that we can now formally link to climate change,” Daryn said.
A vital part of understanding the worldwide climate crisis is to listen to indigenous people who know their homelands and environment best.
“10 years ago, I was invited to big island Hawaii for a gathering. It was for a select group of indigenous people from various sciences and range of indigenous academics. There were cartographers, linguists, people from all over- Hawaii, New Zealand, Canada, the United States. These indigenous people were using technology to empower other indigenous people to work within their specialties. They used technology collectively to gather, analyze, document and share knowledge systems without their knowledge being broken down by western disciplines,” Daryn said.
By allowing indigenous people to do what they do best, and without the interference or impediment of having to conform data to western standards, the indigenous specialists were able to thrive in their work.
For example, there was a woman who had a unique approach to record changes in climate- instead of implementing western scientific modules, she worked with elders in various Alaskan villages.
“All monitoring was done by elders through their direct eyes and their knowledge and in their language. There were various things that she was able to present in her findings about global warming that were from an indigenous perspective. In the end, her conclusion was, ‘Listen to us because we know,’” Daryn said.
Then he shared another example of how western science fails to take into account indigenous knowledge- a group of government marine biologists and scientists were doing studies in the traditional lands of a certain Aboriginal tribe. The scientists’ work included studying green sea turtles, the distribution of male and female turtles, and their breeding behaviors.
“The western scientists were pulling turtles in, examining them, and releasing them back into the water. The indigenous people intervened and told the scientist that they could tell the sex of the turtles just by looking at the way that they swim- there was no need to pull them out of the water and distress them,” Daryn said.
Astounded and armed with this new knowledge, the group made adaptations to how they studied the creatures.
“Afterward, the scientists said they went into the survey thinking they would help fill the gap of traditional knowledge with western science, but learned that, in fact, traditional knowledge fills the gaps of western science,” said Daryn.
Australia is home to hundreds of tribal nations, with many different language groups, traditions, and environments. Some areas of the country have two seasons, while others have eight. The land is as diverse as the indigenous people, said Daryn.
In 1770, Captain James Cook landed in Australia, and with him came the devastating invasion and destruction of colonization, the effects of which are continuous today. Many Aboriginal people are trying to rebuild after enduring forced relocation, missions (similar to Indian boarding schools), loss of language and their traditional way of life.
Part of this reclamation is language conservation, which is Daryn’s life work.
“Western ideologies want to constantly separate culture and language. There is no culture without language, no language without culture,” he said.
Language is knowledge, knowledge that was almost extinguished by colonizers, but is being revitalized, recorded, and shared by people like Daryn.
“In many areas, traditional life revolves around traditional season calendars. How we know what season we’re in is by understanding the constellations. The milky way is important and will give us various indications about what’s happening. Our stars tell us what season we’re in, what is about to happen, and the patterns of the animals- their breeding and hibernating time. The moon is a star indicator. Just look at the moon to see when the time is best for fishing. A full moon means good fishing,” he said.
Knowledge such as this is absolutely vital but is oftentimes brushed aside by non-indigenous leaders and the government, resulting in the annihilation of life and the ecosystem.
The destruction caused by the wildfires may have been drastically reduced if the Aboriginal people were allowed to manage the land in their traditional ways, said Daryn.
An aspect of caring for the land involves “cool burning” which is the practice of using fire to burn the ground with low flames at low temperatures. There is careful attention and care to not burning the canopy of wooded areas, because to the Aboriginal, the canopy is sacred and carries life for plants and animals.
Cool burning flames are described as behaving like water, trickling through the country.
This type of fire management is precise, labor-intensive, and requires implementing traditional knowledge. So connected with the land are the Aboriginal that they identify the appropriate times to burn- they plan fires around the breeding and nursing cycles of animals, they know which plants are invasive species, and are able to burn vegetation without harming their seeds and roots.
Another vital component is the knowledge of medicinal plants, where they grow, and the stages of their growth cycle.
Traditionally, these burns were conducted throughout the year and resulted in not only the reduction of fire hazards, they helped with healthy regrowth of plants and trees.
The government has a different approach altogether- they use a tactic called hazard reduction (often called controlled burns in the U.S.). This type of burning normally occurs during the dry season and involves aggressive burning with use of high-temperature flames that destroy most of the vegetation and includes the chopping down of trees.
It is inconsistent and does not take into account plant and animal cycles, said Daryn before adding that some of the wildfires began after hazard reduction flames got out of control during hot windy days.
“Most of the indigenous people will do cool burning in the middle of the night, when winds are calm and temperatures are cooler. The winds and temperature rise in the of the sun. Fire is our tool. Everything we do is the total opposite of what they do,” he said.
Daryn said that not all tribal nations are the same and the amount of direct input they have in land management is often dictated by the government. In the north, tribal nations manage the land in conjunction with authorities and they are able to care for their lands in their traditional ways. The result is huge reductions of property loss and life.
“When indigenous people are allowed to manage their own lands, there are less fires,” said Daryn.
Although summer rains have given some relief, the fires still continue throughout Australia; however, Daryn’s area has largely remained unaffected by flames. It has, however, led to a devastatingly dry forest floor, which puts the area at risk for fire.
Estimates on the fire damage is astounding: 1 billion animals are believed to have perished in the fires, including 50,000 koalas, thousands of kangaroos and wallabies.
With so much suffering, Daryn sprang into action and began buying dog water fountains which he placed throughout the forested area near his home. Every two days he goes out and refills the fountains, and has even set up motion sensor cameras to capture the wildlife in the area.
Much to his surprise, there have been diverse animals coming through to quench their thirst. The cameras captured up wildlife that no one had recorded in these areas before- porcupine-like creatures, possums, kangaroos, lizards, and native birds.
“I was even able to capture footage of the lyrebird, which is now considered to be an endangered species because of the fires. It’s been unreal,” Daryn said.
Even more astonishing is that Darryn has found a koala in the forest near him, which is significant because there have been no documented sightings of koalas in the area for over 30 years.
“We have to drive for over an hour, up to 60 miles to find the nearest koala population. I grew up in the bush and never saw a koala, so this is quite an amazing discovery,” Daryn said.
He immediately made a call to the local university that is heavily involved with koala populations. The experts there could not believe the news.
Daryn’s aboriginal center is now documenting the koala sightings and other wildlife in the area.
I’m going out every second day and checking on the koala. Koalas have home territories and might have a dozen trees in a square mile and that is their patch. They have home trees and home land. If I can sight other members of this koala colony, then I can take that evidence and get proper protections and support for the area,” he said.
This aboriginal-led conservation biostudy is being conducted with respect to the animals, said Daryn.
“It has taken a tragedy of the wildfires for the world to realize that the wildlife has existed in this extent. Maybe we need to start working with and talking with the indigenous people,” he said.
Daryn took a moment and shared his thoughts and hopes that everyone who read this will take time to think about the importance of indigenous languages, climate change, and being a good relative to the life which surrounds us:
“Our people have been impacted directly, their communities, their towns, their places have been devastated. What is happening to our country at the moment is hitting home even more the importance of our languages. Our languages don’t just have social meaning and value- it is far, far greater.
Our language are environmental languages. Through our languages, we access our knowledge as the oldest people and the oldest living culture. The languages allow the access to continue caring for our country, our plants, our animals. This is absolutely crucial that our languages have a purpose because they are our peoples’ gateway to management of our land.
Our knowledge does not exist in English. Our true deep knowledge and deep understanding do not even get close to western perceptions- it only is just a tip of the surface. Our languages must continue to live because our country is hurting big time.
Our languages are strong, our season calendars, our astrology, our weather, our environment and what is on our landscape, in our seas, on our waterways, where our people are caring for our land is all through our language systems.
As soon as we translate something into English, it is filtered, water-downed knowledge. You cannot, in any way, undervalue our languages and the true power of our languages.
Our people have gone through the ice age, the hot age, back to ice age, and now we live in the hot age. We’ve done that, we’ve been there. But now what we’re having to put up with is population and human-derived changes in our climate.
Our languages are “environment languages” and everything is tied together. Of course, this is climate change. Of course, you can’t deny it. It’s sad, it’s scary, but by using indigenous languages, indigenous knowledge, and by working with indigenous people, we can make a better future for our grandchildren, for Mother Earth, and all the wildlife.
Now will you start listening to us?”