Australia’s catastrophic bushfires have has not only burnt over 10 million hectares of land, but they have also deepened the trauma Aboriginal people feel over the British colonisation of the country in 1788.
Yorta Yorta First Nations man Neil Morris said Indigenous Australians’ connection with the land is central to their spiritual and cultural identity, and seeing the fires destroy nature in front of their eyes is a reminder that that land was stolen from them 232 years ago.
“We are in a time where people are feeling lost in this country,” he told HuffPost Australia. “And it’s not everyone and it’s not the majority, but there are a lot of people who are feeling lost, and a large part of that is to do with the unjust ways that Australia was developed and has continued to be upheld.”
When the British colonised Australia, Indigenous people were victims of violence, forcibly removed from homes, separated from family and placed in missions and reserves. As a result, many were unable to continue cultural traditions and protect the land, a spiritual duty. The displacement continues to traumatise Aboriginal people, and today’s bushfires reinforce that.
“I don’t want to reduce anyone’s experience,” Morris said of Australians who have lost their homes or lives in the bushfires that began in September.
“What I do want to express is the fact that all Indigenous communities are living in trauma on a day-to-day basis at the hands of living in a colonialised society. Our people are already in a deep state of trauma. In many communities, we are in a state of recovery, and that’s a big process, obviously, with the severe disadvantage that our people have been at.”
Indigenous fire practitioner Oliver Costello agreed. He said seeing “all our plants and animals decimated” as a result of the bushfires has been beyond devastating.
“They’re our ancestors; they’re our kin,” he explained. “Our cultural knowledge systems mean we’re a part of the land. We’ve been burnt. Our skin is the skin of the earth. We’re in trauma.”
Many Indigenous communities have fled their homes and been evacuated to refuge centres this bushfire season, and Morris said the displacement of communities and burnt land means “you cannot carry out your obligations as First Nations peoples”.
“We are a very spiritual people, and that’s something that’s important to the conversation,” he said.
“When you consider the fact that our custodianship is a real key element... taking that from us is very painful.”
Aboriginal people losing their homes in the bushfires is also loss of land that belongs to its traditional custodians, he explained.
“When I found out that an Indigenous family had lost their home, which had been their home for multiple generations, for me that really hit home, because it wasn’t just someone who bought a house in a nice, pretty part of the world,” he said. “It’s custodians living on their country for a very long period of time, going back to however long people had been on that part of country.”
Morris has launched a fire relief fund supporting First Nations communities.
The money raised will be used to cover critical costs for Indigenous communities, including temporary relocation (hotel expenses, fuel, rent, medical needs), refurbishment of damaged property, resettling expenses, and replacement of vital items such as clothing and toiletries.