“We can create frameworks for how we relate to each other. In my culture, we have very specific [ceremonial] practice about how we sustain the space between neighbours, between siblings, between oceans.”
Indigenous cultures have survived sea level rise, bushfire, colonisation and disease. They contain a rich reservoir of elder knowledge for rebuilding a post-pandemic world should people choose to prioritise community, say writers and artists.
Since 2016 the Refuge festival has each year brought together professionals from such seemingly disparate disciplines to deal imaginatively with crises: scenarios of flood, heatwave, and displacement of vulnerable communities.
In 2018 it prophetically imagined a pandemic event, asking what happens when the risk of contagion means you can’t bring people together.
During past Refuge meetings for Melbourne’s Arts House, Taumoepeau attended Monday training of Footscray’s State Emergency Service and participated in drills. This information helped her make live performance art “in service of communities, to make things understood, palatable or accessible”, she says.
“The problem is we’ve separated ourselves from nature,” Taumoepeau says. Deforestation, squandering of natural resources and the mistreatment of animals are common threads in environmental catastrophe and disease. “Particularly in Australia, the bushfires were a huge symbol for us to understand the vulnerability of the planet.”
Refuge will this month present a series of talks and performances via live video conferencing, placing a special emphasis on the wisdom of First Nations artists, as well as hearing from non-Indigenous artists, emergency workers, medical scientists and the Australian Red Cross.
Refuge host and facilitator Lee Shang Lun says the lessons of the First Nations speakers apply to a post-COVID-19 world. “Tackling these things larger than ourselves is going to require community organising, engagement, leadership and love,” he says.
Perth-based Noongar writer Cassie Lynch, who writes poetry in her Indigenous language – which she first learned as an adult – suggests learning some Indigenous language and heeding cultural memory might be a healthier new “normal” after the pandemic.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island communities are well positioned to talk about surviving an “end-of-the-world” disaster scenario, she says, having survived the dystopia of colonisation, a “system that does not care about individuals; it cares about manufacturing and its own power”.
Lynch has almost completed her PhD investigating colonial ideology and how Aboriginal cultural memory intersects with the geological “deep time” well before the existence of humans. She researched sea-level rise stories of the Noongar people, who have existed on the south-west of the continent for 48,000 years.
Noongar language is encoded with information about how to live a good life on country: “English can only describe places,” says Lynch, “it doesn’t carry memory and knowledge.”
In the 1820s, British colonisers wrote down Noongar oral tales passed down from ancestors about sea level rises, which levelled off about 7000 years earlier. Those rises took away some ceremonial and hunting country.
The colonisers “didn’t really believe us because Ice Age theory wasn’t accepted until the 1870s”, says Lynch. “But now with advent of human-made climate change, this information in the archives is surfacing. People are trying to make sense of a world with rising sea levels.”
There is a lesson about community, she says: “The Noongar community is built around survival. You don’t survive an Ice Age by leaving people behind. We survived the rising sea levels that came after it. Aboriginal communities around Australia learned how to live with [flammable] eucalypts in relation to fire, how to pre-empt it with cool burns and firestick farming …
“Care for your country, care for your community. That’s how you survive these disasters.”
Refuge talks will be broadcast at noon on Thursdays, May 21 and 28 and June 4 at artshouse.com.au.
Steve Dow is an arts writer for The Sydney Morning Herald.