Comparative Wests: A Summer of Creating, Restoring, and Maintaining Country

The Comparative Wests Project at Yulpu in Martu Country, Western Desert, Australia, on the morning of August 18, 2012. Pictured are Stanford and Native American participants with Martu Traditional Owners from Parnngurr Aboriginal Community and Rangers from Kanyirninpa Jukurrpa. Photograph: Don Hankins.

While “country” and “nation” are sometimes used synonymously, a country has a sense of home and landscape that often distinguishes it from the more administrative phenomena that define a nation. Today, many countries persist in – sometimes in spite of – the nation states that engulf them. Emblematic among these are the Indigenous lands and societies of Western North America and Australia, where despite common assumptions of collapse, Indigenous countries fluoresce, often beneath the scope and authority of the nations that claim them.

Over the course of August, the Comparative Wests Project at the Bill Lane Center for the American West convened in Australia to initiate a comprehensive exploration of the social and ecological processes through which such countries in Western North America and Western Australia emerge, change, and persist. The project implemented a groundbreaking, multi-disciplinary program of exchange and research – assembling scholars, policy makers, artists, journalists, land managers, curators, Traditional Owners, and First Nations representatives from the American West, Canada, and Australia – to investigate the processes and implications of creating, using, transforming, restoring, and maintaining the “countries” that continue to define the Wests.

This summer’s initiative was conceived during the 2010-11 Sawyer Seminar Series and Trails of Fire Workshop hosted by the Bill Lane Center for the American West, in conjunction with Stanford’s Humanities Center, the Australian National University's Humanities Research Centre (ANU), and the University of Western Australia (UWA). With generous support from the Mellon Foundation, the Environmental Ventures Project at the Woods Institute, the National Science Foundation, and the ANU’s Humanities Research Centre and Research School of the Humanities and Arts, this summer we assembled an unprecedented exploration of “country,” beginning at the ANU in Canberra, continuing at UWA in Perth, and culminating with an extended visit to the Martu Native Title in the heart of Australia’s Western Desert. 

The ANU conference, titled “Creating Countries: Comparative Wests in Australia and America” (August 8-10), was organized by myself (a Senior Research Scientist at Stanford) and John Carty, an ethnographer and curator currently serving as Research Fellow at the ANU’s Research School of the Humanities and Arts. The symposia commenced with a series of discussions regarding the “deep time” and contemporary history of Indigenous occupation and land use in Australia and America. A powerhouse of American and Australian scholars lead off with an exploration of the physical, biological, and cultural dynamics shaping unique “anthropogenic ecologies” in both continents. This was followed by an intense analysis from Indigenous authors, artists, curators, and journalists regarding how these humanly constructed worlds, and the consequences of colonial invasion, are seen through a variety of social lenses, including historical fiction, national and local media, and national cultural institutions. The sessions were interspersed with visits to the Australian National Museum, the National Gallery of Australia, and walking tours of the Indigenous landscapes encompassed within the Australian capital. The conference finished with discussions lead by Indigenous representatives and land managers from both continents regarding the practical problems and opportunities that surround contemporary policies that impinge on the interaction and restoration of Indigenous countries. Overall, the ANU symposia provided exceptional insights into the ecological consequences of social disruptions, interactions, and continuities, along with new ways to conceive, represent, and maintain Australian and North American countries, with renewed attention to the enduring interactions written deeply into the relationships between people and their lands.

Following the ANU events, all of the American participants traveled to Perth for a series of sessions at the University of Western Australia (Aug 13), organized by Peter Veth (Professor of Archaeology) and myself. The conference title – “Rejuvenating Countries: A Comparative Approach to Cultured Landscapes and Land Management in Western Australia and Western North America” – captures well the spirit of the meetings. Rangers and Traditional Owners from the Martu Native Title and Karlamilyi National Park, representatives from Noongar country that encompasses Perth, researchers from the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization and UWA, land managers from the Department of Environment and Conservation and Kanyirninpa Jurkurrpa (the Martu Cultural Knowledge Project), all gathered with scholars from Stanford and Native Americans from California Tribes, universities and the US Forest Service, to discuss the dramatic changes occurring in the way that Indigenous landscapes and heritage resources are conceptualized and treated. The focus turned toward the margins of change in contemporary policy and resource use in Indigenous countries. Of special concern was the way that the vitality of these landscapes, and their integrated ecologies, depend upon specific practices of deep temporal and cultural relevance. Many of the presenters demonstrated the ways in which trophic collapse occurs when Indigenous occupation and practices – such as hunting and mosaic burning – are suppressed. But in many cases, the converse also holds: with re-occupation of homelands, a renewed sense of heritage, new forms of collaboration, and revitalization of cultural practices, the lands often rebound quickly, forming new countries that are now serving as socio-ecological sanctuaries in the face of increasingly unpredictable climatic and economic change. 

With this hopeful sense of new integration, the Native American and Stanford contingents (joined by Bill Lane Center Advisory Council member, Carrie Denning) were invited to travel with Martu Traditional Owners to their homelands. The Martu homelands – consisting of the massive Native Title and Karlamilyi National Park – are situated in the heart of the Western Desert, 1300 kilometers northeast of Perth. It is a long journey: after catching a plane from Perth to Newman (an iron-ore mining center in Western Australia), we traveled 370 kilometeres in four-wheel drive LandCruiser’s along the Talawana track to reach the remote camp at Yulpu, just south of Parnngurr Aboriginal Community. Everyone from Parnngurr Community welcomed us to their country, camping with us and members of Kanyirninpa Jurkurrpa for four nights beneath the brilliant southern stars. The Martu estates within the Native Title burst with life and red sand, renewed by regular mosaic burning conducted in the daily routines of Martu hunting and gathering. We spent our days with Martu, hunting, burning, weaving baskets, and traveling throughout their deeply held totemic lands. We left with new ideas about how to hold and create new countries, what Martu call ngurra.

These new ways of conceiving and treating country have already lead to an innovative research collaborative to investigate the relationship between Indigenous burning practices and biodiversity in California. The project is lead by myself, Rebecca Bliege Bird, and Lisa Curran at Stanford; Ron Goode, the North Fork Mono Tribal Chair; Jared Dahl Aldern, Prescott College and Visiting Scholar in the Bill Lane Center; Don Hankins, an Associate Professor at Cal State University, Chico; Brian Codding, an Assistant Professor at University of Utah; and Frank Lake, a Research Ecologist at the US Forest Service. With a new grant from National Science Foundation’s program in Coupled Human and Natural Systems, this year we will begin research in collaboration with North Fork Mono Tribe in the Sierra, Karuk and Yurok Tribes in the Klamath region, and land trusts in the Central Valley, exploring variability in mosaic burning strategies and cultural resource use practices.