The Re-[E]mergence of Nature in Culture

Around the world indigenous peoples are particularly vulnerable to the assault of environmental destruction and degradation.

In February, the Sydney Environment Institute is hosting a one-day workshop informed by indigenous knowledges and ways of being. The re-[e]mergence of nature in culture will be explored through lenses of literature, philosophy, law, politics and activism, art and architecture. Presenters include indigenous and non-indigenous scholars from Aotearoa New Zealand, Australia and the USA. For the agenda and registration details see here.

The idea of culture separates that-which-is-human from that which is not. It’s an idea that suggests that-which-is-human exists independently from nature—that-which-is-not-human.  It is an idea, too, which has persuaded many people that that-which-is-cultural is superior to that-which-is-natural. And with this superiority comes a license to debase, abuse, destroy, eradicate and irrevocably alter with impunity. Despite extensive empirical (and anecdotal) evidence that human/cultural impact on the non-human/natural in turn negatively impacts human, capitalist (il)logic and political (mis)focus continue to drive forward the machines of global destruction. Around the world indigenous peoples are particularly vulnerable to the assault of environmental destruction and degradation. Drawing from the complexes of their cosmologies to which separation of natural and cultural is the antithesis, there are major resurgence movements of indigenous cultural practice and environmental stewardship globally.

Here in Australia the Wangan and Jagalingou traditional owners of the Galilee Basin are at the forefront of legal resistance to Indian billionaire’s Gautam Adani’s colossal coal mine proposal, which will destroy their culture and heritage, country (and waterways), threaten the Great Barrier Reef, and take the globe beyond its climate change tipping points. In Aotearoa New Zealand Te Whanau a Apanui also harnessed the legal system to press their traditional territorial rights and responsibilities over the sea and foreshore, and sea-life and responsibilities of kaitiakitanga/guardianship. They took the Minister of Energy to the country’s High Court over granting an offshore petroleum mining permit to Brazil’s Petrobras. Recently, in the United States, attention has been transfixed by acts of resistance at Standing Rock as Sioux peoples and supporters oppose the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline across Sioux land. And in South American from the Andes to the deep Amazon indigenous resistance is at the forefront of environmental protection and protest action.

Recurrent themes emerge at each site of resistance. Local tackles multi-national, commodification versus spiritual connection, capitalism confronts sustainability, presentism is opposed by continuity of ancestral and commitment to future generations. That nature and culture are merged and their futures eternally emergent in spirals of connections drives action. These recurrent themes emerge too in the papers of this workshop. While contemporary society confronts the intrusion of wild and separated nature on and in cultural constructions, the cultures of the original peoples of the settler states offer centuries, indeed millennia of knowledge of their places to contemporary problems.

Drawing from many indigenous cultures, this workshop engages indigenous experiences, lifeways and knowledges to understand current engagements with natural realms and phenomena. Dr Vicki Greives, Dr Huhanna Smith and Catherine Donnelly examine entanglement of human, non-human and the built environment examining the contribution of indigenous knowledge to cities, architecture, landholding restoration. Rights and personhood for nature are emergent legal tools. Professor Joni Adamson and Christine Winter examine how aspects of these concepts and tools configure intergenerational justice while Dr Michelle Maloney overviews Earth Jurisprudence and integration of notions of sacred within legal and governance structures.

Dr Anne Poelina considers the principles encoded in the First Laws that govern the Mardoowarra (Fitzroy River) the principles that recognise the need for trade and co-management for co-existence between human and non-human beings. Professor Kyle Whyte and Professor Glenn Albrecht take the Anthropocene as a motif of human dominion over non-human pushing people into a dystopian present-future and separately explore approaches to future. From the literature of indigenous writers, Dr Alice Te Punga Sommervile examines the practice of gardening as a frame for food sovereignty, decolonization, sustainability, and ancestral, divine and enplaced connections. Dr Peter Minter examines the power of the tree as a metaphor for the whole, including its place in de/coloniality, economy, and ecology and its entangled connection with transnational and trans-indigenous networks of poiesis.

Resistance to domination is essential for the survival of indigenous peoples. Resistance is essential for the survival of life-on-earth. Forging a future from within deeply rooted, nature/land-based cultures, indigenous peoples are illuminating pathways out of the quagmires of environmental vandalism, and leading the re[e]mergence of nature in culture.


Christine Winter, a Ph.D. student at the University of Sydney and SEI, is originally from Aotearoa and is of Anglo-Celtic-Ngati Kahungunu heritage. Her research is examining the conceptualization of intergenerational indigenous environmental justice.


‘Country’, 2012 Artist: Warwick Keen (assisted by Noel Wellington) | Hand carved wooden sculptural installation of 24 trees. Courtesy Mosman Art gallery