For tens of thousands of years, Australia’s Indigenous people managed environments with fire, using fire sticks to light carefully timed burns in the right places. That traditional practice now gives its name to the organisation helping to revive it – The Firesticks Alliance.
Firesticks Alliance Indigenous Corporation helps build cultural learning pathways to fire and land management. It brings Indigenous and non- Indigenous people together to look after country and share experiences. Firesticks is now a highly regarded national organisation. Its co-founder Oliver Costello talks about the revival of Indigenous fire practice, the opportunities he believes it creates, the challenges facing fire practitioners, and the importance of using fire to heal country.
Indigenous fire practitioners talk about how fire can be good for country. It’s an idea that confounds European notions of safety and danger, but in the Australian landscape, Indigenous people have always seen fire as a tool, to be used carefully and in the right cultural context. We hear about the start of the revival of traditional fire practice, and meet delegates to the annual National Indigenous Fire Workshop.
We hear from Victor Steffensen, Noel Webster, Dean Freeman, Oliver Costello, Lewis Musgrave, Peta Standley.
The revival of traditional Indigenous fire practice began in the 1990s, on Cape York Peninsula in far north Queensland. The early European settlers had discouraged it, and despite efforts to stamp it out, the practice never completely went away.
On Cape York, the country was still pretty much as it was two centuries ago, unlike the increasingly urbanised areas of eastern and southern Australia. But Doctor George and Doctor Musgrave could see the country was sick, and needed the medicine of fire. They found a young man full of curiosity about his culture, and a researcher who would become their ally and their student. Their collaboration sparked a nationwide revival of Indigenous fire practice, and helped create national events and organisations promoting awareness and understanding of this ancient cultural practice.
We hear from Victor Steffensen, Dean Freeman, Lewis Musgrave, Oliver Costello and Peta Standley.
The traditional burning movement has many supporters and advocates all over Australia.
Talk to any of them and it won’t be long before you hear them mention “Victor”, The man who learned about fire from those two Cape York old fellas, the bloke who does the fire workshops.
Victor Steffensen is a central figure in the revival of Indigenous fire practice.
Victor tells us how he first became interested in cultural burning as a young man in far north Queensland, and the two Cape York elders who inspired him to take on what’s become his life’s work. This is an extended conversation with Victor Steffensen.
Contemporary Indigenous fire practice is based on ancient knowledge and culture. But contemporary science proves its effectiveness. Science and traditional knowledge are very different ways of knowing, and the two approaches are still learning to work together. Meet Dean Freeman, whose work puts him right at the intersection of traditional fire practice and contemporary fire and land management methods. Dean Freeman is a Wiradjuri man – he’s the Aboriginal Cultural Fire Officer with the A.C.T Parks and Conservation Service.
Two Kuku Thaypan elders are at the heart of the story of the national revival of Indigenous fire practice. Dr George and Dr Musgrave had long been determined to take care of their country as their culture required, using the right fire at the right time, as their ancestors had done for tens of thousands of years. They overcame legal and bureaucratic obstacles, and inspired a new generation to learn and understand how fire could be a medicine for the earth.
These two Cape York old fellas also inspired the now annual National Indigenous Fire Workshop – which started in 2008. When it was first held in southern Australia in 2018, a large contingent of Cape York people were there, including the grandson of Dr Musgrave, Lewis Musgrave. Lewis tells us about those two old men and the movement they inspired, and about how people “read” country to determine its health, and what medicine it needs.
Indigenous fire practice is based on the deep cultural understanding that the right fire at the right time maintains or restores environmental balance. It’s very old knowledge, increasingly supported by contemporary science. As the revival of cultural burning spreads, scientists and land managers are increasingly interested, even though science and traditional knowledge are very different ways of knowing. It’s crucial scientists and academics learn to work appropriately and respectfully with Indigenous people. This is a central part of the story of the revival of cultural burning that began on Cape York Peninsula in the 1990s. Two Kuku Thaypan elders were determined to take care of their country as their culture required. They found a young researcher who would become their student and their ally. Peta Standley talks about meeting Dr George and Dr Musgrave, her many years of research on fire practice, and why it’s so important for Australians to know this story.