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Neil Morris
via Instagram (@drmngnow)

I’m an Indigenous activist: to stop Australia’s fires, listen to our people

‘It’s time for Australia to adopt an approach that embraces the knowledge and traditions of people who have lived here sustainably for millennia’

Neil Morris is an Indigenous activist and musician from the Yorta Yorta people in south-east Australia. He is the founder of the Fire Relief Fund for First Nations Communities, which offers culturally sensitive support for Indigenous people affected by the bushfires.

As fires continue to strike the east coast of our sacred land, we’ve lost incredible amounts of flora and fauna, and the air is blanketed in an intense smoke that washes over the cities. The indigenous people remain some of those most significant affected by this ongoing disaster.

I come from the Yorta Yorta people, an Indigenous tribe based two hours north of the city currently known as Melbourne, a colonial land. I have a background working in indigenous land management practises and community development, centred around cultural activity and mobilising people’s attention towards the challenges facing First Nation people.

The Indigenous people affected by these fires live many hours away from the cities. These are their custodial lands, which they’ve inhabited for 80,000 years. Indigenous people have an incredibly powerful physical and spiritual connection to the land, which has perished at the hands of mistreatment and neglect. It’s likely that First Nations people will be left out of the recovery process entirely, leaving many of these communities – who haven’t moved since colonisation – to flee to cities like Melbourne and Sydney. The direction of their lives will change forever, and their mental, social, and spiritual health will inevitably decline.

“Indigenous people have an incredibly powerful physical and spiritual connection to the land, which has perished at the hands of mistreatment and neglect”

We don’t make up the wealthy landholders who can afford to insure their property, who will be able to rebuild their homes. Indigenous people make up some of the poorest communities in the country, with many families living below the poverty line. White supremacy is the overarching paradigm of this country, and this systematic oppression dates back to the genocides that went on in the initial phases of the colonial project, only the tools have changed. As First Nations people, we’ve been backed into a corner, forced to live western lives, constructed without our permission, and without any reparations made to level the playing field within society. All things considered, it’s unsurprising that Indigenous people have the highest rates of suicide in the world.

Fire is, and always has been, part of the balance between people and nature. Since colonisation began approximately 200 years ago, however, we’ve seen the land suffer because of western fire management, which is organised around the seasons. But the problem is this: the seasons of summer, autumn, winter, spring, and the wet and dry seasons of northern Australia no longer align with the calendar as they did ten-or-so years ago. It’s time for Australia to adopt an approach that embraces the knowledge and traditions of people who have lived here sustainably for millennia, to avoid the intense flames that have consumed nearly 18 million acres of land, causing thousands to evacuate their homes and killing millions of animals.

Aboriginal methods consist of ridding the land of flammable natural materials such as debris, scrub, and certain grasses, which allow for more intense flames that are harder to fight. Small-scale fires are then set to clear the land of extra debris to lessen large conflagrations that wipe out all in their path. These techniques, which have been tried and tested, and tried again, can be seen across Australia’s northern territories, which have emerged relatively unscathed compared to the south-east, where western methods are employed.

But the fires not only affect us but people from all backgrounds, and it’s perhaps the first time in post-colonial Australia that there’s been a united sense of urgency to act. Communities are devastated, and I don’t wish to take that away from anyone. As First Nations people, we come from a place of holistic care and respect for all living beings in spite of the severe colonialism that’s taken over the land.

Yet media outlets are not giving the full story, nor are they covering the diversity of experiences we’re facing amid these bushfires. I urge people to stay updated on Indigenous news sites like Indigenous X. Stay updated on the experience of indigenous people on social media. Beyond that, contribute to my fundraiser Fire Relief Fund For First Nations Communities, which offers culturally sensitive support to cover expenses for temporary relocation costs, other basic emergency relief, refurbishment of damaged property, and the replacement of vital items, such as damaged medical equipment, clothing, and toiletries.

Moving forward, we want the government to acknowledge our Indigenous sovereignty, and create structures to support us accordingly. It’s about giving us the framework to protect the land. We just hope that people can take a moment to pause, and consider that if colonisation didn’t exist here, that we could’ve had something more inclusive.

As told to Gunseli Yalcinkaya