As a parting gift, in May we hosted a special webinar with Victor Steffenson as our guest. Victor shared his experience and knowledge regarding Aboriginal Fire Management in Australia, from his very own perspective as indigenous writer, filmmaker and musician. Victor shared with more than fifty users from different countries the ancestral knowledge that Australian Aborigines have about fire. Its advantages and the importance of recovering this wisdom.
Victor is an indigenous writer, filmmaker, musician and consultant who applies the values of traditional knowledge in a contemporary context, through workshops and artistic projects. After his presentation (Watch the video) users asked him some questions and we have collected here:
1.- Have you had any resistance from the aborigines in Australia (or people with that heritage) to share that knowledge, such as, for example, Public Agencies?
There is no resistance since it is a community mentoring network. Yes, it must be taken into account in respecting the cultural protocols of each group of clans and their aspirations. Knowledge in relation to caring for a territory and of others must be shared knowledge.
2.-How do you explain that aboriginal people, who were not that much and were applying ""small"" fires succeeded in managing the land while today we can't succeed in managing sufficient areas with larges prescribed burnings? small and managed to manage the territory, while today we cannot manage enough areas with large prescribed burns?
People also travelled around the country seasonally and covered more country than we do today. Most people today don’t walk all over the country. The burning windows were larger through out seasons that current fire managers are not aware of, and people burnt more freely without roadblocks of government legislations. We are changing these road blocks within our cultural burning programs today and people are walking the country more which has better health outcomes. Burning from air is done in remote places of hard access.
3.- Were women traditionally active in prescribed burning?
Women were active with fire too in many ways. It all depends differently among different tribes of course. I have seen women burning for hunting and gathering purposes Eco-systems that bare many bush foods and medicines including undergrounds yams were also burnt by women. There are also women sacred places that men can not go to, women today want to manage these places. We have a big movement here in Australia involving women with cultural fire. It is great to see and an important part of Aboriginal fire management. . Today, women want to manage these places. We have a great movement here in Australia involving women with cultural fire. It is fascinating to see and is an important part of Aboriginal fire management.
4.-You mention fires in places and countries that didnt used to burn before. I am based in NW Europe and there is so much we have to learn here about living with fire. What do you think we learn from Indigenous fire management here and how can we establish this mutual learning and collaboration??
With the drastic changes of landscapes through land clearing and taking all of our water sources from the land by corporate industries, there can be fires in places that did not have fire; or seen very little of fires in the past. Also with changing climates there are now fires in places where there is no living memory of such fires. This is where adaptation is crucial and Aboriginal people have adapted to changes for thousands of years. It is through indictors and There is a lot of work to do around this concept which I hope to embark on.I am confident that adaptation can be possible, as I have seen shared indicators work globally. It certainly is a must to try, rather than do nothing and allow the fires destroy the landscapes.
5.- Where is the best place to buy your book (ideally in Europe)?
The best place to buy the book Fire Country is on this site -
Printed hard copy book - https://www.bookdepository.com/Fire-Country-Victor-Steffensen/9781741177268
Ebook - Any retailer, but you can buy direct from Amazon or Booktopia.
I am hoping soon that my publishers will be making this available more easily in other countries. I recommend reading this to further find answers to your questions. The book is written in story form and not like a text book
6.-, G'day from Sydney. Any new independent program you can talk about success stories from our recent wildfires?
Yes they are there are Indigenous fire programs starting up in some places around the country. These are three year courses so that people can learn the knowledge and then become practitioners. They are only pilots at present and more support is needed to get them going strongly across the country. Larger scale burns are also being done and more agencies and communities are more supportive more than ever, but we still have a long way to go.
7.-Our landscape is so different to Australia and we are so disconnected from it, and so far away from Indigenous peoples. It would be fantastic to learn from Indigenous knowledge to learn to live with fire here
I agree that it would be great to get more exchange programs happening and more work done in adopting principals and indicators around Aboriginal knowledge of country. There are some exchanges happening, but I would like to see more work done on the fine detail of reading country and reviving old from landscapes through traditional knowledge systems This would be the ongoing work I am interested in pursuing in the near future. So far some great work is happening in Canada BC with two Aboriginal communities.
8.- Hello, Felipe Alarcon here (Ñuñoa, Santiago de Chile) congratulations and thanks for the interesting information. Here in Latin America we have a huge debt between indigenous and local governments, what is the starting point (in your experience) to create change? Being close to indigenous culture or making indigenous people part of non-indigenous plans in the areas where they have a presence?
The main starting point for Indigenous people to have an influence on modern government structures is to involve the land as much as possible. All of our work is done on country including meetings. Demonstrating the burns alongside this is also crucial for them to understand. Happy to help further on our processes, also is good to share success stories from other places. Stay away from the office meeting rooms, they get you no where, get them on the land so that they understand first hand. If not video case studies are also an important resource we use that is very effective. Aboriginal people are practical in their teachings, be practical as much as possible. All of our work is done on country including meetings. Demonstrating the burns alongside this is also crucial for them to understand Staying away from the office meeting rooms, they won't take you anywhere, take them down to earth to understand first hand. If not, video case studies are also an important resource we use that is very effective. Aborigins are practical in their teachings, so be as practical as possible.
9.- During the last catastrophic 2019 wildfires, have you observed any little indicators of success where aboriginal communities re-connected with Country for landscape management?
There has been a massive movement in Australia towards Aboriginal fire management before the catastrophic fires in the summer of 2019. There is even more now since the fires, but now with the broader communities and agencies nationally and inter-nationally.
10. - How to recover connections to landscape and reintroducing fire culture where aboriginal people where killed and dispossed and aboriginal communities don't exist any longer in Country?
This is where the work of reviving cultural knowledge of landscapes comes through the principles of shared knowledge of the country's reading and cultural values. This work is very exciting and not much has been done in this space since not many people are trained to do it. This is best done by people who have a lot of traditional knowledge that is not common in current Western teachings. Sharing knowledge between Aboriginal peoples is the best way. There are incredible possibilities around this work and there are already good examples of success. Without a doubt, it is possible to bring knowledge closer, again.
11.- Do the native communities have problems with some parts of the society with a very conservative vision of the environment we may find in Europe? In other words, does society put the blame on natives for “destroying” the nature?
No, No, here in Australia it is clear that colonisation and western aspirations has destroyed nature more than any other indigenous culture. It will be the same for most other countries. Aboriginal people did shape the land though, but it was shaped living with mother nature as close as possible - that is how people could live sustainably for thousands of years. It will be the same for most other countries. However, Aborigines shaped the earth, but it was formed by living with Mother Nature as closely as possible, this is how people could live sustainably for thousands of years.
12.- When there is an aloctone, invasive species in an ecosystem, new for the indigenous people, how do you exactly arrive to the knowledge to know when is the correct moment and what is the correct intensity of fire requiered to eliminate the aloctone species preserving the native one at the same time.
This is a very complex question as there are many versions of sick landscapes and ways to heal country through indigenous knowledge. We have been very successful in healing landscapes and taking out invasive natives and weeds within ecosystems that don’t favour these plants. The secret is knowing the right fire for the right country and adjusting the burns according to the trees and soils that live there. The fire timing and style usually changes when unbalanced like this until it is healthy again. The secret is knowing the correct fire for the correct territory and adjusting burns according to the trees and soils that live there. The timing and style of fire usually change when it is unbalanced in this way until it is healthy again.
13.- You’ve mentioned several times that indigeneous knowledge is about reading the landscape, holistically. Like a doctor, reading unbalances, signs of sickness or mismanagement and trying to heal, look after and care for this landscape. I’m very much interested in your idea cultural idea of care. If you can expand it a bit more, what is exactly to care for/about the landscape? Is it different from the idea of care that more “western” or “disconnected” mindsets have? Is care a shared value between ancestral and more modern mindsets
Aboriginal fire management and other cultural practices are in tune with landscapes. Their lores are based on natural lore, which comes from the land it self which is why people are a part of the land. Caring for the land is also spiritual. There are far more values to managing country with fire than western management. Its about making country healthy ecologically and that connects holistically to cultural values that gives a greater connection to the landscapes through culture. This connection is expressed in many ways through practice, dance, stories and song. Being disconnected to the land and identity has proven to contribute to the destruction and neglect of landscapes, this also reflects a disconnection of people from people, which also contributes to social disorders.
14.- How do you welcome and integrate non aboriginal people
This is done by firstly giving Aboriginal people the opportunity to lead processes to be able to demonstrate different ways of doing things. This again is done by practical demonstrations and also has to be done on country. We hold public workshops for the whole community and that helps non-indigenous people to understand. It is also crucial that non-indigenous people are included and have a role to play. But over all, we continually tell our Australian public that reviving Aboriginal knowledge is for the benefit of everyone. Yes there are times when we do sensitive workshops for Aboriginal people only, but most of the time we work in a shared knowledge space.
15.- How can a community engage with you to get a workshop happening? In the case of the Blue Mountains, is it possible to have a workshop before the next fire season?",
I get so many requests to have workshops in places and most of the time they end up happening. The best way is to contact Firestickswhich is a community support organisation that do take requests . Another way is to contact your local Aboriginal community as they will also have aspirations towards managing their country with fire.
16.-In Ireland here, and we have some fire in our old traditions going back. These are largely lost now. I am struck by the huge influence of art and culture in your approach to fire. How can European practitioners best identify the balance points between the 'art of fire practice' (what we know and feel) and technology (what we measure and respond to) in fire management in our systems?
Hearing that you have old traditions of fire in your culture is music to my ears. It is possible to revive those practices with some good work. How amazing would that be to revive practices through sharing knowledge based on your landscapes based on your old knowledge and stories in Ireland. I believe this is possible with most countries around the world as our ancestors were all connected at some time before long ago. Hopefully we will get that chance one day.
17.- It would be fantastic if the practitioners would want to come over!,
The world needs to invest in this if they are serious about making changes to deal with the challenges of the future. Fantastic it would be indeed.
18.- I have been thinking for a while, that the emotional bonding is key when we want to fully understand and transform a particular territory. Listening to you, Victor, kind of reinforced this idea, as you spoke about your country and landscapes with a very deep love and affection. Would you share this? Do you think is realistic for us (and I'm thinking of young reseachers in Europe, for example, with very high levels of mobility), to actually try and make an impact? More and more I think we need to relate to the territory at the emotional level in order to do research that is actually going to take us beyong pure technical knowledge. And even more so if we are tryig to make a difference within the social dimension and/or social fabric.
Thanks for that, I believe it is crucial for all people to have the experience to learn and be aware of Aboriginal knowledge systems and how they benefit us today. We all have cultural memory. Yes technology is a great intelligence and we will keep using it, but what is missing is the intelligence of connecting and living sustainably with the land, that is an intelligence that has sustained people on this earth for thousands of years.Put them together and we will have clean technology and a cultural connection to looking after our planet. Whats the point of have all the fancy technology in the world and the land is destroyed. It will be a clear sign that we didn’t listen to thousands of years of intelligence that is found in older Aboriginal knowledge systems.
19- Thank you so much for such a wise and inspiring answer. I have very much appreciated the mention to 'culture memory'. Congratulations for your valuable work, Victor. I would really like to meet you sometime!
Cultural memory is a term I use based on the effects of colonisation upon most races and cultures. We all have cultural memory, it varies how deep down inside and forgotten it is within people. Reviving that is also a crucial part of understanding connection to landscapes and respecting and relating top other cultures. I can’t express how important this is and why we need to activate this space. More of this in Fire Country.
20.- In landscapes that are so radically altered already by climate change, how can indigenous and aboriginal knowledge help heal these places which have such an uncertain future (in terms of shifting temperature, vegetation, rainfall, soil composition, etcetera), if these lands can’t be “restored” necessarily to what they were before? Thank you so much.
We are in the era of healing and we will be for a few generations to come. There are already great successes in healing landscapes with indigenous knowledge. There is also so much to say on this topic without writing so much. So I will say this - Don’t listen to the negativity and the opinions that discredit any hope to deal with the challenges ahead. There is so much we can do and working together is the only way it can be done. Positivity is one of the essential ingredients of life. I am not saying that it is going to be easy, but I know for sure that the small wins and indicators show us we are on the right track. It all begins with making action happen no matter how large or small. We owe it to our future generations to make sure we overcome and thrive.