Understanding colonial vs Indigenous conceptions of ‘place’ (Article #8 in the ‘Sense of Place’ series)

Left: Google Maps identifies the house from ‘Kath and Kim’ as a cultural landmark. Searching Google Maps for Indigenous Cultural Landmarks yields almost nothing. Right: Efforts to protect sacred birthing trees, Djab Wurrung country, Victoria.

I write to you from the unceded lands of the Taungurung People of the Kulin Nation, in central Victoria. I offer my respects to the Traditional Owners of this land; their elders past, present, and emerging; and any First Nations person reading this article. In this article, I attempt to explain my understanding of the differences between Indigenous and non-Indigenous conceptions of place. This is my inherently first-person account as a non-Indigenous person. It is offered respectfully, in good faith, as my attempt to share my understanding of what I may have learned to date. I have built up this understanding over time, through reading, listening to, and discussing with First Nations peoples and others. This account is a snapshot in time. Despite my best efforts, it is inevitable that this account will include my own unconscious bias and will reflect my own socialisation as a white man living in a colonial society. For this, I apologise in advance to First Nations readers: I look forward to learning much more.

My family migrated to Australia from the UK in 1967. It was the year before a white geologist, Jim Bowler uncovered the 42,000-year-old cremated remains of an Aboriginal woman at Lake Mungo. Bowler’s research overturned the white myth that Indigenous peoples had wandered onto this continent just a few thousand years earlier. It took many more years to acknowledge the Barkandji/Paakantyi, Mutthi Mutthi and Ngiyampaa peoples as Traditional Custodians of what is now referred to as the Willandra Lakes Region World Heritage Area.

Mainstream Australian colonial society has yet to fully appreciate that Indigenous relationships to this continent (including lands since submerged since the end of the last ice age) always were, and always will be, deeper than any Frederick McCubbin painting of Australian ‘pioneering’ landscapes can ever evoke. Otherwise, why in 2021 would it still consider allowing the destruction of the Djab Wurrung’s sacred birthing trees to duplicate a section of the Western Highway near between Buangor and Ararat, whilst simultaneously seeking Heritage status for a section of Melbourne’s Eastern Freeway? How has Colonial Australian society been able to elevate ANZAC memorials to become sacred sites, whilst simultaneously ploughing, detonating, mining, dismantling and forgetting the myriad sites of cultural and spiritual significance to First Nations?

In European culture, Descartes said “I think, therefore I am”. If there were an Aboriginal equivalent, it would be: “I am located, therefore I am.” … Locality refers to peoples’ connection not just to country or nature generally, but to the region they come from, the particularity of their land, the ‘traditional estate’ of a clan or language group. Identity and character come from the land itself, the shape and the form of it; whether it is desert, rainforest, saltwater, freshwater, mountains, or plains, every part of the land has its own character. So the character of the land is the basis of the character of the people, not just in terms of our relationist ethos, but in the actual character of the people.

Mary Graham, Adjunct Associate Professor, University of Queensland, and a member of the Kombumerri Peoples[1]

One of our problems in the west is that the English language does not give us the words to describe what we see and feel when we are forced to leave, or when that place changes beyond our control. Unlike the English language, there’s a word in Spanish, destierra, which describes the psychological trauma of being uprooted, displaced, or dispossessed from a loved place. Many Australians have difficulty comprehending the destierra experienced by new arrivals, many of whom experience mental health issues arising from grief associated with forced and often hurried removal from homes, land, and culture, and with limited opportunity to return ‘home’. (The irony is not lost that the Spanish were ruthless colonisers themselves.) Little wonder that it helps Machiavellian politicians further to punish people seeking refuge and asylum from oppressive regimes or environmental trauma.

Our planning system still discounts the testimonies of residents who try to minimise the impact of opportunistic development on their favourite public spaces or buildings being demolished or redeveloped without their approval or informed. Developers are typically emotionally unattached to the places they seek to redevelop. They usually live elsewhere, and increasingly represent an anonymous global hedge fund. As Peter Read wrote in his seminal book, Returning to nothing: The meaning of lost places (1996), “Let us not underestimate the effect which the loss of dead and dying places has on our own self-identity, mental well-being and sense of belonging”[2].

Forced removal from place and land has been catastrophic for many Indigenous peoples, such as Australian Aborigines, for whom the notions of one’s people and place are inseparably bonded[3]. “Belonging to the land is fundamental to the cultural life, history, spiritual wellbeing and identity of Indigenous people.”[4] Widespread depression, grief, sadness, stress, trauma, suicide, and self-harm have resulted from loss of land. As Yorta Yorta elder, cross-cultural consultant Karen Milward shared as keynote at the Planning Institute of Australia (Victoria) 2021 Kemsley Oration,

When we are removed from the land, we are literally removed from ourselves[5].

Wider white society’s failure to acknowledge this connection has not only compounded Indigenous people’s intergenerational trauma, but also, ironically, white people’s own dislocation from place. Peter Read suggested that the Anglo denial of sense of place and the lack of an English term comparable to destierra underlies the State’s resistance to appreciating the very real ‘social and spiritual decay and death’ experienced by Aboriginal peoples following removal from their own lands[6]; and their loss of a decisive say in how those lands are cared for (or ‘managed’, to use a reductionist western term).

According to Polish researcher, Maria Lewicka, human memories essentially are social memories. What we remember is often less a product of direct personal experiences and more of our embedding in social structures such as family, nation, ethnic group, subculture or clan.  She noted that unless we do our own detailed research, our understanding of the history of a place, and what we ‘remember’, is often influenced by the oral traditions, interpretation boards and symbols that are embedded in our local landscapes. Typically, these stories and symbols present the worldview of the coloniser, rather than the colonised: “The main function of this bias is appropriation of a place by providing evidence that one’s own group has always been its rightful owner”[7].

A few years ago, when Worimi researcher, Genevieve Grieves surveyed the commemorative monuments in Melbourne’s CBD, she identified that of more than 500 memorials, statues, and monuments, “only a dozen were not dead, white, men”. There were no memorials to commemorate frontier conflicts in the 19th century, nor were there any statues of Aboriginal heroes or resistance fighters. “Melbourne’s memorial landscape only represents colonial landscapes and heroes. Indigenous people are not present. Women aren’t represented.”[8]

Like almost every other human that’s ever lived, throughout my life I have had an opportunity to appreciate my own complex biographical relationship to place, space, and time. I recently discovered that the Kamilaroi nation of northern New South Wales and southern Queensland, regularly trekked inland for 1,500 km to perform ceremony[9]. They were guided by their consummate knowledge of astronomy, which was coded mnemonically into their song lines. It was even more of a surprise to discover that the Kamillaroi’s ancient highways became overlaid by bitumen to become modern highways traversed by vehicular traffic.

Likewise, the Canning Stock Route – fabled by white pioneer narratives – is also deeply intertwined with ancient song lines, Indigenous Countries, language groups, trading routes and watering holes. This is depicted in stunning art created by Traditional Owners.

Minyipuru (Seven Sisters)’ by the late Muni Rita Simpson, Rosie Williams and Dulcie Gibbs, appears to be a complete inversion of Canning’s map. While the stock route is present, as a red ribbon cutting through the artists’ Country, it is surrounded by the waters and Dreaming sites of the Minyipuru. Where Canning’s line representing the stock route was intricately detailed and the Country either side of it was blank, here the perspective is reversed. The women’s painting has the stock route as a negative red space through the centre of the painting, surrounded on all sides by the abundance of Country and the authority of another, much older story: one in which the incursions of 20th-century history, however radically disruptive they may have been to the material conditions of people’s lives, remain merely as scratches on the surface.[10]

Meanwhile, since 2009 one energy company, Buru Energy has cleared more than 14,000 kilometres of native Yawuru bushland in a straight line of Kimberley without needing a permit – the equivalent of the distance between Perth and London. These resource companies conduct the land clearing by using an exemption under WA’s environmental regulations, with Traditional Owners largely excluded from the decision-making process. Fracking companies have free rein to extract minerals from under Traditional lands supposedly covered by Native Title, with huge implications for the fragile ecology of the landscape and especially the water table below land. Says Yawuru traditional owner Micklo Corpus: “We were born to look after this country. We are connected to our land. Providing it’s the right environment we can survive but without our water, we won’t.”[11]

Photo credit: Peter Aengst, 2001, The Wilderness Society, Shows the potential surface impact of vertically drilled wells, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jonah_Gasfield,_Wyoming.jpg

Some good news

In a rare, good news outcome, earlier this year the federal environment minister, Sussan Ley, overruled the Bathurst Regional Council, which sought to build a go-kart track on top of Mt Panorama’s sacred Indigenous site. The Council sought to build the track despite overwhelming evidence of its status as women’s sacred site for Wiradyuri Traditional Owners. The plans were temporarily halted in March 2021, three days before construction was to begin at the motor racing site in regional New South Wales.

As the Guardian’s Paul Daley declared in March 2021, “The imposition of the track on a sacred women’s site would [have been] in contempt of local Indigenous sensibility, culture and millennia of Aboriginal history”:

Given the global outrage and corporate shame stemming from the destruction of precious Indigenous heritage at Juukan Gorge, you’d think any organisation poised to damage sacred Aboriginal property might be experiencing a little cautionary soul-searching.

The local Council was not respectful of Traditional Owners, and the decision finally was dependent on one white politician’s decision. Nevertheless, this decision needs to be celebrated as a small win for the recognition of ‘sense of place’ (belonging, identity, custodianship, cosmology) that Indigenous peoples have sung into all corners of this continent (including 30% of the land mass that flooded as the last ice age ended) for at least 60,000 years. Displaying remarkable magnanimity under the circumstances, Wiradyuri elder Yanhadarrambal Jade, said:

“We encourage and embrace car racing at Mount Panorama/Wahluu. When they go camping, sit around their fires, yarn up or catch up and look at the stars, they’re doing exactly what our people have done for tens of thousands of years in some of those areas.”


[1] Graham, M. (XXXX). A Relationist Ethos: Aboriginal law and ethics. In M. Maloney, J. Grieves, B. Adams & E. Brindal (Eds.), Inspiring earth ethics: Linking values and action. Australian Earth Laws Alliance Earth Ethics Australia 1., pp. 1-6. Available: https://www.earthlaws.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/EarthEthicsAustralia_Vol1Oct19.pdf. Quoted p. 4.

[2] Read, P. (1996). Returning to nothing: The meaning of lost places. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. Cited p. xii.

[3] Barwick, D. (1991). The Aborigines of Victoria. In I. Keen (Ed.). Being Black: Aboriginal cultures in ‘settled’ Australia (pp. 27-32). Canberra, Australia: Aboriginal Studies Press.

[4] VicHealth (1999a). Mental health promotion plan foundation document: 1999-2002. Carlton, Australia: Author. Cited p. 39.

[5] https://www.planning.org.au/events/event/2021-kemsley-oration-breakfast

[6] Read, P. (1996). Returning to nothing: The meaning of lost places. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. Cited p. 197.

[7] Lewicka, M. (2008). Place attachment, place identity, and place memory: Restoring the forgotten city past.

Journal of Environmental Psychology, 28 (3), pp 209-231. Available: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jenvp.2008.02.001. Cited p. 213.

[8] Historic statues: Where Indigenous people and women go missing By Miki Perkins and Social Affairs. September 2, 2017. https://www.theage.com.au/national/victoria/historic-statues-where-women-and-indigenous-people-go-missing-20170831-gy8ev2.html

[9] https://theconversation.com/how-ancient-aboriginal-star-maps-have-shaped-australias-highway-network-55952

[10] National Museum of Australia. Walyja: family, art and history. Drawing a line in the sand: The Canning Stock Route and contemporary art (part two) https://www.nma.gov.au/exhibitions/yiwarra-kuju-canning-stock-route/essays/drawing-line-sand/walyja. Accessed 4th June 2021.

[11] https://www.theage.com.au/national/the-distance-from-perth-to-london-how-a-gas-company-cleared-the-kimberley-20210428-p57n7p.html



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