Being of a Place
“Native Americans conserving fisheries, stewarding the land,
are bringing to life again the stories of their people.”
On the sandy beach of what is today known as Moreton Bay on Australia’s eastern shore, a group of Aboriginal men of the Quandamooka people sit and talk among themselves. One man spies a shoal of sea mullet edging its way along the shore and signals its approach to the others. In unison they stand, gather their spears and dip nets, and begin a dance of survival that has taken place since time began.
Forming a human weir in the warm shallow water they slap the surface with their spears to call their partners to the dance. Almost immediately a small pod of dolphins approach and herd the sea mullet, or nandacall as the Quandamooka know them, into the trap. The men stir the sand with their feet to deter the fish from passing while the dolphins seal their retreat.
In the ensuing flurry of motion, men scoop nets full of sea mullet while the dolphins, fearless of their human partners, struggle to keep their prey entrapped. In an instant, the sea mullet disperse and regroup beyond the trap to continue on their way. Meanwhile, their less fortunate numbers are piled into baskets to feed the Aborigines of this place.
Calling to each dolphin by name, which they know by their individual marks, the men praise them for their hard work and serve them a fair share of the catch on the ends of spears. Young dolphin and Aborigines alike learned this dance from their parents since time immemorial, perhaps from as much as 40 millennia past. The last eyewitness accounts of this amazing partnership were recorded in the 1870s as the indigenous Quandamooka were dispossessed of their home lands and their culture. The people are still there and although they no longer fish with the dolphins, they know that they are of this place.
There is much to think about in this story: colonialism, culture, survival and the melding of a people to a place – and I do hope that you will think deeply about these things. But my purpose here is to demonstrate the difference between our modern understanding of the natural world and what the Quandamooka people understood of their world in times past.
Until recently, academic circles and natural resource management professionals counted indigenous natural history as anecdotal, as simply stories to be heard. However, as global environmental conversation has shifted from consumption to conservation, an effort to acquire and incorporate ancient traditional know-how into the modern body of knowledge and management techniques has emerged. Traditional environmental knowledge describes the special observations and deep adaptations that indigenous people have made in their historic home place. Whether a scientist, policy maker, or outdoors enthusiast, I think we all recognize something magical in the primal understanding of fish, birds and mammals, and their habitats that indigenous people have.
What we cannot do, however, is to use traditional knowledge to define us. The Quandamooka, as have all indigenous people, evolved in place. They are a part of its natural history. Their knowledge and life ways define them as a crucial element in nature. They and the dolphins catch fish together, and it has always been so.
The Native people in America have many similar stories. In the Pacific Northwest elders watch the flight paths and timing of birds returning from the sea to predict the time and location of a Pacific herring spawn. This has always been so.
A traditional whaling captain from the Native Village of Barrow, Alaska, is respectful of the spirit of the whale and knows that in taking its life, he is giving life to his people – and it has always been so.
The creation stories of the indigenous people of the Northeast and Great Lakes describe how the terrestrial world came to be on the back of a great turtle. Its long life and resilience provide a firm foundation for the world of the Chippewa, Ojibwa and Penobscot, the Huron, Mohawk, Seneca, and Cayuga. It is those same life-history qualities that scientists today cite regarding the turtle as an indicator species that helps them in determining the health of a place. For Native people, this too has always been so.
I was born in South Carolina, and I know well the pine-hardwood forests and black-water swamps that my grandfather loved. The “Low Country,” as we call it, means very much to me and perhaps one day I will die there. It is my story and I do not exist without it – but I am not its story. The history of an indigenous people is a synonymy with the natural history of their home place. It is the people’s stories, customs and ceremonies that make natural history fascinating and germane to the human experience.
Consider now the differences between being from a place – and being of a place as they relate to fisheries conservation. Being from this place, we restore and protect habitat, battle invasive plants and animals, regulate bag limits, establish conservation areas and so forth. We do this to correct mistakes and ensure that our natural world is a better and safer place in the future. I am glad for my children that we do these wonderful things and I gain great personal and professional satisfaction from helping in the ways that I do. A passion for nature helps to define who I am but I do not help to define nature.
Those that are of a place define nature. Native Americans conserving fisheries, stewarding the land, are bringing to life again the stories of their people. Being created of a place makes one part of that place. Taking care of that place is natural and it has always been so....... (Patrick Durham).