Nature In Culture II: The Power of Meeting

“As a young Indigenous scholar, moving in other peoples’ Indigenous spaces isn’t always acknowledged in many conferences… This experience of bringing my ancestors to this space to meet the ancestors of this land was immense, and in hindsight I can see why my responses were so emotional. Because these kinds of meetings matter, they have power.”

Tongariro Alpine Crossing, Tongariro National Park, Aotearoa. Image by Daniel Chen, via Unsplash.

Fakaalofa lahi atu kia mutolu oti,

Emotional. Intimate. Confronting. Inspiring. A few of many ways I could describe the recent SEI workshop: The Re-(E)mergence of Nature in Culture II, that I was privileged to attend in July. It was my first time to the land of Gadigal people in Eora nation. It was my first time to Australia. As an Indigenous person, I’m not sure I could have prepared for this meeting not just of meeting Aboriginal people but of their ancestry and lineage, their thinking and stories that engulfed and embraced me. Perhaps it wasn’t the intention of the workshop, but I couldn’t help feeling overwhelmed, for me there was more happening than presentations and Q&A sessions. The University of Sydney is imposing, but in a room where there were more than a few Indigenous people (from Australia and beyond) I felt the edges of the expansiveness of knowledge, history, culture and beauty from the people of this land with the edges of my own fledgling knowledge of Niuean culture.

I am Niuean with a mix of Palagi, Māori, and Tahitian. I was born and raised in Kirikiriroa, Waikato, Aotearoa. Until this trip I had avoided coming to Australia, I just assumed I wouldn’t like it and perhaps more that it wouldn’t like me. But my supervisor Alice convinced me out of the safety of my Niuean crab-shell and the Sydney Environment Institute were generous in their invitation for me to be a part of their workshop. So, my body felt an obligation even if my head was telling me that I didn’t belong. And that was it, that was the thing that made me experience here emotional but also powerful (for me, not sure about anyone else) and something I’ll always treasure. Because for me as a Niuean woman it mattered what the Indigenous people of this land thought of me and what they thought of me talking in this space, on their land.

All of the speakers at the event were amazing. An enduring memory for me, were the contributions made by Mary Graham, (Kombumerri, Wakka Wakka) and Anne Poelina (Nyikina Warrwa, Mardoowarra). I still can’t believe how lucky I’ve been in meeting and being able to learn and talk with these women. As Mary presented in the first session there was a moment where the image on slides behind her had this ethereal tree that stretched up into the night sky. From where I was sitting, Mary’s hair blurred into the trunk of this tree which stretched up into the heavens of a night sky. I can’t imagine a more apt visual representation of the rootedness and immenseness of Aboriginal culture that spans tens of thousands of years and is embodied in the bodies, stories and culture of Aboriginal people today. As Mary spoke of different and connected meanings of lore and law, place and place, time and time in response to the ecological crisis in Australia, it was impossible for me not to feel the power and gravity of her words and her connections to her land.

In a similar way, Anne Poelina’s powerful film, set to be released later this year, was incredibly profound for me. I’m not sure I had my eyes wider at any other point of the conference. The film is a work in progress and has this incredible imagery captured from particular parts of Aboriginal Heritage Listed Fitzroy River with narratives woven in from different tribes that know the stories of the area and this particular body of water. There were parts of the film where Anne is talking and there are shimmering particles filtered onto the image. To me it kind of felt like the ancestors that we can’t always see; an essence of the beauty and complexity of how Indigenous knowledge surrounds and guides us always. I’m incredibly thankful to have met Anne and I’m grateful for her kindness and generosity in reminding me that there is power in all human stories and as Indigenous people now is a really critical time in finding ways to tell those stories and to be heard.

While I wish I could talk about all the speakers, I mention a few whose presence was particularly meaningful to me. Jakelin Troy (Ngarigu) shared a moving story about her 15 year old daughter who made a snow-crow up in the mountains. At the time, her daughter was unaware that where she put the snow-crow was an incredibly Indigenous site for woman, a place of important generational knowledge. Jakelin introduced Mujahid of Pakistan who presented his work of tourism in his home city of Swat. He talked about the need of more conscious tourists who recognise not just of their impact in travelling to the beautiful and majestic city, but also recognise their responsibility to the people of these places and actually listen to what they are asking for. The work of Sophie Chao with the Marind people of West Papua was beautiful, not just in aesthetic from the images she showed, but in the use of careful and considered approaches to insights from Indigenous people who face severe oppression by Indonesia and other complicit countries that continue to employ destructive practices on West Papuan land and her people. Eddie Synot from Griffith University talked about weaving in the practice and principle of Woven Law, it resonated in many of the subsequent talks including Catherine Donnelly’s talk about weaving as connective art. As Eddie talked about personal experience teaching law students and the use of law in Australia I connected with how weaving binds and layers Indigenous peoples particularly in the space of this workshop.

The political and legal fights of Indigenous peoples in Australia were prominent throughout the two days and many of the conversations turned to the legal and political situations Indigenous peoples are facing in Australia. There’s an importance in being able to connect and have these conversations as Indigenous (and non-Indigenous) peoples because it furthers our personal knowledges in ways that can be productive in the work we do with and for our diverse, vibrant and dynamic communities.

The conversations made possible by having so many Indigenous people (and their ancestors) and other academics in one room created a different atmosphere to many of the academic gatherings I’ve attended. I was incredibly fortunate in my first trip to Australia to be here with two Indigenous women from Aotearoa, Alice Te Punga Somerville (Te Ātiawa, Taranaki) and Huhana Smith (Ngāti Tukorehe/Ngāti Raukawa) who presented some of their ongoing research that speaks to the importance of connections between Indigenous peoples and places, finding ways to see beyond the colonial gaze and instead using old and new ways of creating and sustaining our own stories.

I found it really interesting having my first experiences of Australia largely within academic walls. In my experience as a young Indigenous scholar moving in other peoples’ Indigenous spaces isn’t always acknowledged or required to come to terms with in many conferences or similar gatherings. There can be cultural nods, introductions or maybe even performances, but actually engaging every day in every session with Indigenous voices and really listening is an important experience and one that can’t be taken lightly.

This experience of bringing my ancestors to this space to meet the ancestors of this land was immense and in hindsight I can see why my responses were so emotional. Because these kinds of meetings matter and they have power. For sure there is privilege attached to what I’ve been able to take away with me from this SEI workshop, because it’s more than making new friends, it’s a commitment to share knowledge, it’s the sharing of strength that inspires and perhaps requires that I know my responsibility as someone who gets to be in these places and do the work that I do. I’m incredibly grateful for this opportunity and look forward to all the ways we move forward in our own spaces as well as together. For now, I leave knowing that I’ll return one day with a better ability to reciprocate the generosity that was shown to me at this meeting of people, at this meeting of our ancestors, in Eora nation.

Much love and till we meet again. Ofania atu, to feleveia.

Jessica Lili Pasisi is of Niue-Mutalau, Palagi descent. She was born in Aotearoa and raised in the Waikato. She is currently a Teaching Fellow and PhD candidate at the University of Waikato working in field of Pacific and Indigenous Studies. Jessica’s current research relates to the cultural practices, knowledge and lived experiences of Niuean people in relation to climate change.

The Re-(E)mergence of Nature in Culture II was a two day workshop held in July, as part of NAIDOC Week. Bringing together Indigenous scholars from Australia and around the world, the event explored the intersections of nature and culture in Indigenous cosmology, philosophy, culture and literature, as well as the consequences of loss of agency, culture and identity for Indigenous peoples, both as a result of historical and ongoing dispossession of territories and, more recently, climate change.