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Becoming Indigenous: Future cities as a network of waterholes connected by Songlines

Becoming Indigenous: Future cities as a network of waterholes connected by Songlines
Photo: Samillemitchell

Imagine living in egalitarian village-scale communities that are circular, regenerative, distributed and systems-based. It’s a big vision, but urban planner Steven Liaros has made a strong case for how to get there: starting with our broken agriculture system, followed by a new economic model, and now finally, what we can learn from Indigenous connections to land.

The word “Indigenous” means “originating or occurring naturally in a particular place; a native”.

An Indigenous person is someone who is connected to their place, someone who understands and feels part of the natural environment around them.

The airconditioned comfort of urban life necessarily inhibits our ability to fully connect with our place. According to the ABS “more than 90 per cent of our population lives within 100km of the coast making us one of the world’s most urbanised coastal dwelling populations”.

As a descendant of Greek immigrants, I acknowledge an additional challenge to connection with this country. Many children of immigrants struggle with the question of whether they belong to the Australian continent or to an expatriate community from another continent.

This is not to question the relative value of multiculturalism compared to assimilation, as these concepts are currently debated.

Prior to European settlement this was a multicultural and multilingual continent. To become Indigenous is to assimilate with the land, rather than into the dominant culture, which has not, as yet, assimilated itself with this country.

As an example to justify this last statement, the early European settlers brought with them their European seasons, which do not align with the actual seasonal changes on this continent.

Australian Indigenous weather knowledge was far more nuanced, with different calendars in various parts of the continent, each determined by local conditions. In Nyoongar Country in the southwest there were six seasons. In Yirrganydji Country in the northeast, north of Cairns, there were two major seasons, Wet and Dry, divided into five minor seasons.

To become Indigenous it is necessary to observe and understand the land upon which we live locally – not just with respect to the changes in weather but also how other species respond to these changes.

To become Indigenous, it is also necessary to appreciate how Aboriginal communities navigated the land, particularly the vast, arid interior.

If you travel up from Adelaide to the northern coastline, you will learn how Indigenous people moved through the landscape from waterhole to waterhole.

Uluru was a spiritual centre because it was a permanent waterhole and so provided a wide array of foods as well as shade and shelter. It therefore became a place for teaching and learning and ceremony.

There is an abundance of evidence about the complex political and economic life of First Australians in the journals and diaries of the early European settlers. Bruce Pascoe synthesises much of this evidence in Dark Emu, Aboriginal Australia and the birth of agriculture.

He describes many agricultural practices, including how these were expressed in physical infrastructure:

Australia’s idea of history is based [on] the journals and diaries of explorers and colonists [which reveal] … a much more complicated Aboriginal economy than the primitive hunter-gatherer lifestyle we had been told … But as I read these early journals, I came across repeated references to people building dams and wells; planting, irrigating, and harvesting seed; preserving the surplus and storing it in houses, sheds, or secure vessels; and creating elaborate cemeteries and manipulating the landscape – none of which fitted the definition of a hunter-gatherer. Could it be that the accepted view of Indigenous Australians simply wandering from plant to plant, kangaroo to kangaroo, in hapless opportunism, was incorrect?

It is indeed a myth that a nomadic culture is necessarily “uncivilised” simply because it is not settled permanently in one place. The landscape was imagined as a network of waterholes connected by Songlines—also called Storylines or Dreaming Tracks.

The Songs referenced features in the landscape, thus acting as a system of navigation, guiding the singer through the land. This concept – of the landscape as a network of waterholes connected by Songlines – offers an ideal framework upon which to build a new narrative for human settlements.

We should borrow this model

Rather than creating ever more congested, polluted and unaffordable cities, while simultaneous depriving rural townships of resources and infrastructure, perhaps we could distribute human settlements more evenly across the landscape?

Each settlement would be a waterhole that supports a discrete community, which in turn, manages the land, ecosystems and infrastructure in their locality to ensure these remain in balance.

This is now more possible than ever before with the available technology of renewable energy systems. An energy microgrid can power a water microgrid, which could then irrigate a diverse regenerative agricultural food system.

Designing such systems around co-living and co-working spaces for a discrete community would allow them to manage the systems that provide their basic needs.

They would manage their shelter as well as harvesting, storing and distributing food, water and energy within their local catchment. This article provides more detail about the regenerative, circular and place-focused city of the future.

First Australians also had a comprehensive and effective governance system – one that was distributed rather than centralised.

The evidence of this is provided again in the journals and diaries of the first Europeans to arrive in Australia. Bill Gammage brings this together in The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia.

Gammage describes how hundreds of different cultures and languages across the continent were bound together by a common worldview:

Estate [definition]: Although comprising many ways of maintaining land, and managers mostly unknown to each other, this vast area was governed by a single religious philosophy, called in English the Dreaming. The Dreaming and its practices made the continent a single estate

There was no wilderness. The Law – an ecological philosophy enforced by religious sanction – compelled people to care for all their country… an uncertain climate and nature’s restless cycles demanded myriad practices shaped and varied by local conditions. Management was active not passive, alert to season and circumstance, committed to a balance of life.

The chief ally was fire. [This was] a planned, precise, fine-grained local caring. …Means were local, ends were universal. Successfully managing such diverse material was an impressive achievement; making from it a single estate was a breathtaking leap of imagination.

This is an example of plurality and diversity bound together by a common narrative. Local communities were autonomous and also respectful of the autonomy of their neighbours.

There was no central government enforcing its views over the entire continent but a network of societies all choosing to be responsible for their part of the country and their local community.

Borders followed natural bioregional boundaries, so the law varied from one jurisdiction to another because the ecosystems in different bioregions functioned differently.

For Indigenous Australians, the land taught people the law. Law was based on understanding and managing the land to ensure an abundance of food.

It was not a set of agreed rules, negotiated through endless compromise and then imposed on the land. In order to learn from the land, it is necessary for each community to align works and activities with local natural systems.

Systems were locality-specific, but the objective was the same everywhere: to create abundance. Unlike our own objectives of endless extraction from nature and endless work for people to power endless economic growth, their objective was to create an abundance of food to minimise work and so to maximise play and ceremony.

This is perhaps the greatest challenge and obstacle to becoming Indigenous. To become a part of this country, we must change our social objectives and our worldview.

Irene Watson provides a detailed discussion of the Indigenous worldview in Raw Law: Aboriginal Peoples, Colonialism and International Law. Also referred to as relational philosophy, Watson compares and contrasts this with non-Indigenous philosophy.

This comparison is summarised in Table 1 in which I have included additional descriptions in brackets that express this contrast using other common terms that further illustrate the differences.

IndigenousNon-Indigenous
obligations to renew land (stewardship)land ownership
balance (moderation) and renewal (regeneration)progress, accumulation, control (excess and growth)
lateral thinking (holistic, systems thinking)linear thinking (logic, silos with externalities)
consensus (equality)hierarchical patriarchy (hierarchy)
reciprocity one-way exchange
justice, harmony (distributed power)adversarial punishment (centralised power)
relationships (dualities)binaries (dichotomies)
eternal time (cyclical time)linear or machine time

Perhaps the most powerful aspect of the Indigenous worldview is the acknowledgement that we navigate both the land and life with songs and stories.

The western world’s current narrative is destroying us

Our current prevailing story is that “Jobs and Growth” will bring prosperity to all. This is so embedded in our cultural worldview that it is almost impossible to question it.

Yet this narrative is destroying both the people it is intended to support and the ecosystems and climate upon which all depend.

There is a need for new narratives, new songs to guide us, in becoming Indigenous. These narratives include the transition from a linear to a circular economy – from an economy that is concerned only about growth to one that acknowledges the natural cycles of growth, decay, death and regeneration.

This can also be described as a transition from an extractive to a regenerative mindset. With an extractive mindset we are concerned only about taking profit, so the degradation of land and impoverishment of people are an unfortunate externality.

With a regenerative mindset we aim to give back more than we take, leaving the world a better place than we found it. We are also aware of the consequences of our actions so we seek moderation, harmony and balance.

To find this balance it is necessary to think holistically in systems rather than in silos.

Unaffordable housing, climate change, plastic pollution, inequality, droughts, floods, loneliness, stress, traffic congestion, food insecurity, no free time – these are all symptoms of a systemic problem. We solve all these problems together only by thinking in systems and creating a new system.

The stories we live by guide the work that we do and so shape the human settlements that we create.

The transition from hierarchical social structures to egalitarian ones will be reflected in the changing pattern of human settlements from highly centralised cities to distributed networks of settlements.

This change will also be reflected in a change in lifestyle. From being permanently settled in a home and anchored to a job, we would instead be free to find our own balance between the mobile or nomadic life and the settled life. We would also be free to find the place and people that can help us be our best and who value our particular contribution.

As we transition from linear to circular, from extractive to regenerative, from silos to systems and from centralised to distributed, perhaps we will rediscover the founding Story of Western societies whereby we hold certain truths to be self-evident: That we are all created equal, that we all have the right and the responsibility to sustain all life and that if we sustain life with minimal energy input, we will enjoy freedom from unnecessary work – liberty for the pursuit of happiness.

Steven Liaros is a town planner and director of PolisPlan. He is currently undertaking a PhD project to create a new model for regenerative land development based on a circular economy and as an organisational principle for building resilient and globally connected, local communities.


Spinifex is an opinion column open to all, so called because it’s at the “spiky” end of sustainability. If you would like to contribute, we require 700+ words. For a more detailed brief and style guide please email editorial@thefifthestate.com.au

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