Opinion

Nature in Culture: Learning to Value Empirical but Intangible Truths

Reflecting on Niuean scholar Dr Jess Pasisi’s work in Episode 4 of Re-(E)mergence of Nature in Culture Multimedia Series, Genevieve Campbell questions the colonial positivist worldview and its reliance on tangible evidence, as opposed to more fluid conceptions of time, action and practice as ontologies.

The inner red bark of the Yankumwani plant is used for dyeing pandanus for baskets. Photo by Genevieve Campbell.

I’m honoured to have been invited to contribute to this series, but I feel the difficulty of responding in writing to what I hear as fundamentally a conversation about listening.

I listen to Dr Pasisi and Dr Winter with a combination of admiration and envy. I hear their cultural and moral authority to speak about Indigenous understandings, philosophies and ways of presenting knowledge that are how we all should and could be thinking but are still the domain of those few empowered to question the system. I agree absolutely with the ever timely, valid questioning of the frameworks and confinements of Academic institutions against which I’ve been chafing for the last few years as I shift between musician and researcher. I feel torn between a sense of colonial guilt and defensiveness of my heritage, for which I can’t (but do) apologise.

I think of where I place my cultural, emotional and philosophical identity and it occurs to me that it is largely through my ancestors. I have deep love for and ties of identity to the journeys, stories, recipes, crafts and seasonal gardens of my mother, grandmother and their mothers and grandmothers. They were kind, creative, knowing women. They are also those colonial powers. It’s a complex friction and right now they swirl in my head as Jess describes her discovery of her Niuean heritage.

I hear about the violent destruction of the Juukan Caves – in Reconciliation Week. I hear the mining company and the politicians say it was (technically) demolished legally. It’s in the middle of nowhere, the heritage has been preserved. Artefacts tagged and rock paintings photographed. Evidence of 46,000 years of habitation – the scientific proof – has been recorded. I hear conscious ignorance and apology after the fact rather than respect and understanding beforehand. I hear the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura traditional owners of that place shaking their heads in sad, frustrated, resilient resignation.

This goes beyond colonialist powers, land rights, the environment – beyond greed, money or politics. It is a fable for the state of a humanity that is increasingly unable and/or unwilling to value what it can’t see or doesn’t understand. I hear Jess say that the positivist model just doesn’t work in the context of Indigenous cultural conversations. It makes me wonder whether at the root of much of the divide – in the indigenous/non-indigenous conversation and more broadly in the save-the-planet vs pave-the-planet struggle – is the dominant reliance on physical, tangible, seeable evidence.

I hear a Prime Minister of ours only six years ago say that when the British arrived in 1788 there was “nothing but bush”. There was, in fact, a diverse richness of language, politicking, economics, artistic creativity, spirituality and society going on out there in the “nothing but bush”. Demonstrable geographical, genealogical, nutritional and medicinal knowledge. None of it evidenced by plazas or cathedrals or libraries though, so it was unseen, unaccountable and therefore “nothing”. It isn’t enough that culture and intellect were practised, taught, shared and lived through millennia. What counts is what I can see, what I can understand. That willful blindness with which colonial eyes saw the people already living here, and in first places around the world, has had destructive and, perversely, clearly seeable consequences.

Dominating colonial positivist models. I hear you Jess. The power of the written word and the tangible over the embodied, gestured, heard, known. The Tiwi women with whom I spend time refer to their songs as their history books. They are their almanac, their genealogy, weather chart, calendar, constitution, spirituality – actively known through intergenerational transmission and performative, heuristic learning.

Dr Genevieve Campbell with Regina Kantilla.

Though intangible, being sung, danced, gestured and told by Ancestors through metaphysical connections to Country, they are empirically learned truths and (I tentatively suggest) they are documentable through a respectful, open-minded and open-eared navigation of that positivist model I am loath to defend in this conversation but which I do think has a place here when we expand our understanding of evidence.

It’s an interesting process evaluating my role as a non-Indigenous Australian ‘researcher’ in the Indigenous Australian space. The action of research might be mine, but it isn’t my knowledge and I wouldn’t pretend so. The Tiwi are the people with the knowledge and what they tell me is the result of their research, over their lifetimes and through the many before them. They are the Elders, the singers, the poets, the ceremony leaders, the artists, the teachers and the emerging custodians. I’m merely the scribe – and the student.

I am re-presenting sung knowledge and by writing songs down I’m transcribing unique moments in time into finite symbols and words. I’m acutely aware that this removes them from their enacted place and potentially alters their essence as lived, performed, embodied actions. My Tiwi colleagues want their song words and melodies documented though, for preservation and acknowledgement, so we try to find sensitive ways of enabling oral and embodied transmission of that knowledge while recording finite examples of it.

“Into the growing layers of ochred grasses seep their words, their time, their enacting of knowledge and skill, just as the Great Halls of learning are said to be steeped with the traditions of intellect. The women don’t have Great Halls, but their traditions are no less rich and clever.”

Jess names the hiapo (bark cloth) as a framework for her methodology. A tangible, yet non-written evidential fact of Nieuan culture and knowledge practice. It is the time spent in its creation, the voices and stories spoken around it and the hands that made it that are the evidence. The doing, the enactment of something is evidence, rather than the thing itself. This notion of tangible proof again. I’m reminded of Tiwi women weaving pandanus into intricate baskets as they sit and sing and teach. Into the growing layers of ochred grasses seep their words, their time, their enacting of knowledge and skill, just as the Great Halls of learning are said to be steeped with the traditions of intellect. The women don’t have Great Halls, but their traditions are no less rich and clever.

Jess speaks of her experience listening to and learning from Niuean women and notes the time they share together as core to her methodology. The flexibility of time spent listening, existing. The openness to metaphysical aspects of intuition and cultural practice (which also encompass the physical, spiritual, environmental and intuitive) and the depth of inherited confidence and grounding. I hear my Tiwi colleagues here too. They don’t profess to speak for others, don’t feel the need to explain what is already known. This does not mean, though, that they don’t have theories, opinions and deep experiential knowledge of the land, the sea and the seasons around them and through a decade of listening with them I have re-learned some of my ways of approaching notions of inherited knowledge, practised skill, cleverness, ownership and responsibility.

Listening to Jess I hear the Nieuan women seeing the oceans moving and changing around them as they always have, not unconcerned about climate change, the loss of language or cultural identity amongst their youth but knowing there are more fundamental conversations to be had about what loss and change might mean. I also hear my Tiwi colleagues singing of the paths and the creeks that have been walked and fished forever and trying to explain that in words that don’t suffice. I hear the Nieuan and the Tiwi women knowing that the knowledge they hold is best passed on and most successfully documented through their voices, their songs, their language, their art and with their understandings.

Working out how to do that within the framework of an imposed colonial socio-political environment is our task and challenge as researchers and theirs as knowledge holders. Whatever our systems are, they are all rich and complex and we are so very fortunate to be in a place of being able to appreciate them. The core of our method as researchers – and as people – has to be to listen and, I think, not just to listen, but to hear. That’s what I’ve learned.


The Re-(E)mergence of Nature in Culture Multimedia Series, convened by Dr Christine Winter and Michelle St Anne, originated from a two-day symposium, the second of its kind. It’s an opportunity for Indigenous scholars and people working with Indigenous scholars and Indigenous peoples to come together, discuss the ways in which culture and nature are entwined in the philosophies, lives and strengths of indigenous peoples. Importantly, we reflect on the leadership these perspectives offer as the world faces multiple challenges such as climate change, pollution and associated biocultural destruction.


Episode 4: Casting Climate in a ‘Niue’ Light
Dr Jessica Pasisi, of Niuean descent, critiques the current colonial representations of climate change in the Pacific and demonstrates how they obscure Pacific voices and fail to recognise the importance of Indigenous knowledge in the fight against the changing climate. Of particular interest in her research has been the experiences and perceptions of climate change of Niuean women.


Genevieve Campbell is a 2019 University Fellow at the Sydney Environment Institute and Sydney Conservatorium of Music. Since 1988, Genevieve has played horn in many of the major Music Theatre shows in town plus everything from Musica Viva to Australian Idol, Opera Australia to the Wangarratta Jazz Festival and toured with Anthony Warlow, Barbra Streisand, Michael Crawford and (her favourite) Shirley Bassey. Ngarukuruwala and her close involvement in the discovery and repatriation to the Tiwi islands of archived song recordings led her to complete a PhD, working with elders to document and preserve Tiwi song language and melody. She is the Research Lead on the Tiwi Song Culture and Loss project.


For an interview with the author, contact Genevieve Campbell on genevieve.campbell@sydney.edu.au.

For media enquiries, contact Vivienne Reiner, University of Sydney Media and Public Relations Adviser, +61 2 9351 2390 or vivienne.reiner@sydney.edu.au.