Kwaymullina, Ambelin. Living on Stolen Land. Broome: Magabala Books, 2020. RRP $22.99, 64pp, ISBN: 9781925936247.
Soil, Branch, Saviour: Uprooting Colonial Culture
From its vivid cover, Ambelin Kwaymullina’s anti-colonial handbook, Living on Stolen Land, renders in bold brushstrokes the culture of oppression that plagues settler systems, culture and subjectivities. It addresses readers open to considering that colonialism need not be permanently with us, but is maintaining its power through the repetition of particular modes of thought and action.
There is nothing inevitable
about what is […]
because of the processes
which support it
all the ways
of caring for Country (24)
For this reader, Living on Stolen Land speaks to a preoccupation as personal as intellectual as political. How can I, someone born on Woiworrung country, into the seventh generation of white settler family live ethically on stolen Indigenous country?
Kwaymullina is an accomplished Palyku legal scholar, illustrator and award-winning fiction writer. In this latest work she adds what other readers have called a ‘manifesto’ to a bow that stretches across many and award-winning modes of creative-intellectual expression, from young adult fiction to theory-driven work on law and ecofeminism. So too does this latest work transcend colonial discipline boundaries, moving easily from history to philosophy to law to culture. This, from the section ‘Holism’;
There is [in Indigenous epistemology] a pattern
made up of many threads (21)
the first Settlers […]
were heavily influenced
by the reductionist idea
that the whole is never more
than the sum of its measurable parts (22)
As oppressive worldviews are held to question, so is time itself.
Life doesn’t move through time
Time moves through life (14)
We are led through sections that read as meditations, instructions, diagnoses, pathways, challenges, each careful phrase appearing to be the surface language of a deeper undercurrent of conversation; answers, perhaps, to questions raised repetitiously enough to warrant an explanation en masse. Throughout, the prose glistens with clarity, shining a torch onto dimensions of settler culture many may not have thought to take seriously as part of enduring individual and collective acts of colonisation. There are lines in this book to return to, to graffiti onto whitewashed walls; lines that allow us to view at arm’s length the pernicious ‘Long-con’ game of settler colonialism.
While the book’s elegant form—rooted in the powerful metaphor of the ecology of earth-tree-branch-leaf—is admirable, this is not a work that invites us to dwell for too long in aesthetics. Moves from metaphor to concrete act are swift and frequent. I often felt steered away from the rise of feelings (are we really like that?) toward philosophy, so that humility is not a shame feeling in my gut but rather a ‘guiding star’, a ‘method’, as Kwaymullina emphasises.
Humility is not a feeling
it is a standard
by which to assess your actions
A guiding star
means walking slowly (51)
I read this work as a manual, as a sovereign declaration of truth, and also as a space of possibility to dwell in; a space that opens a frame of relationality where the colonial power relation of knower/known is reconfigured, and settlers are positioned as subjects of Indigenous knowledge in ways that speak to Aileen Moreton-Robinson’s ground-breaking Talkin’ Up to White Woman (2000). It is, perhaps, this method of profoundly questioning one’s subjectivity that I find at once challenging and reassuring. Rather than ask what we can do for Indigenous people, settlers might ask how we can be—in a more just relation with Indigenous people, with country, with our historically and culturally rooted selves?
can be an act
of transformative power (54)
The section ‘Behaviours’ digs deeper into themes of subjectivity, listing types of settlers familiar enough to make this reader squirm. ‘Do-nothing people’, ‘Saviours’, ‘Discoverers’ and ‘Change-makers’.
have come to rescue Indigenous peoples
but they have no true interest
because if Indigenous people
were no longer excluded
there would be […]
no one to save (43)
Unravelling colonialism is here not only a matter of well-intentioned acts, but, perhaps, counter-intuitively, of a restraint that allows for Indigenous self-determination.
giving time and space
for Indigenous people to decide
what we want to share
on what terms we want to share it (57)
The stakes of Kwaymullina’s work are inarguably high. She adds literary strength to a premise that echoes growing political movements, registered in organised actions such as Change the Nation and Pay the Rent. While settler culture might appear as untouchable as a mining company backed by capital, or a government backed by discretionary laws, settler culture can, in fact, change. I was held in an image of an interconnected and tenuous form of growth borne out by a tree, a process of forming relations that enable settlers to grow into more than the sum of our violences.
The leaves and flowers
are all the ideas
that will come
out of respectful relationships…
which will endure
for as long as the tree endures (np)
Nadia Rhook is a non-Indigenous historian, educator, and poet, who lectures in History and Indigenous Studies on Whadjuk Noongar boodja. Her debut poetry collection is boots (UWA Publishing, 2020).