Race, colonisation and ‘extinction’: Remembrance Day for Lost Species 2020

Last November, I was truly honoured to participate in a conversation with incredible colleagues Dr. Sadiah Qureshi, Suzanne Dhaliwhal and Persephone Pearl as part of the 2020 Remembrance Day for Lost Species Online Gathering. This talk kicked off a weekend of fascinating events examining the role of race, colonisation and oppression in what Western science calls ‘extinction’. Our conversation focused on contextualising, critiquing and reframing the term ‘extinction’ in terms of violence, and interrogating its use in white and Euro-centric discourses to invisibilize, justify and even promote colonial acts.

The theme of the RDLS Online Gathering reflects a commitment by RDLS organisers and ONCA to centre diverse, racialized and marginalised voices and the intersectional forms of oppression that drive ‘extinction’ and responses to it; and to continually critique whiteness within RDLS spaces in order to make them more safe, inclusive, welcoming and celebratory of diversity. It was wonderful to spend time with a group that is actively and reflexively working towards these goals, and I learned a great deal from the conversation.

One important thing I reflected on after the talk is the potentially negative impact of using terminology from one region when one is a guest in another region, especially as a white person engaging with issues of racialized oppression. Specifically, I regularly use the term “BIPOC” throughout the talk to refer to Black Indigenous People of Colour communities, a term frequently (although of course not universally) used in Turtle Island/North America. However, through conversations following this talk I learned about important #BAMEover movement in the UK, which contests the use of acronyms that, amongst other things, erase the diversity and specificity of peoples affected by racism, entrenching racial inequalities. The movement also points out that ‘BIPOC’ reflects specifically North American histories, presents and struggles, and should also not be used in a universalising way. I apologise for the uncritical use of this terminology, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to learn more about this struggle against structural oppression.

I hope you enjoy hearing from these amazing thinkers as much as I enjoyed talking with them!

Following the river of stars: Dukarr lakarama

Hello friends! I know I’ve been a little bit absent in the blogosphere lately. This is partially due to the global circumstances to which we’ve all been adjusting, but also because I’ve been working on some new projects, both research-based and artistic (more on that to follow). For the next few posts, I’d like to share some new pieces of work that have recently been published, and the stories behind them. Thanks, as always, for reading!


“The story of Guwak and Sky Country is an unknown story – it needs to be told to white Australians and people everywhere, so they can understand. There already are spirits up there, it’s a spiritual story … ”

– Rrawun Maymuru, “Dukarr lakarama”, 2020

Space colonisation is a hot topic of speculation – both intellectual and economic. For some living in world’s wealthiest countries, it is framed as little more than an indulgent hobby of the mega-rich and ego-maniacal. Indeed, Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest person, has publicly stated that he entered the new space race because he could not think of anything else large enough in scale and expense on which to spend his wealth. Despite regular news reports of tests of re-useable rockets and of new collaborations between private space companies and states, much of the global public considers space colonisation a science fiction scenario.

But in fact outer space is and has already been aggressively colonised, not only by Cold War strategists, satellites and space junk , but also by a much longer history of naming and claiming by Euro-Americans. This includes liberal humanists who, since the 1960s, have labelled the entirety of outer space the ‘province of all mankind’ (see the UN’s Outer Space Treaty).

The sense of entitlement to, quite literally, take space, but also to allocate, partition, weaponise or mine it is rooted in the idea that there are no Indigenous peoples in space who might make a prior claim. That is, outer space is seen as the ultimate terra nullius, or empty space, onto which colonisers can project their fantasies.

But this is patently untrue: as Rrawun’s words suggest, outer space is, has and will be complexly inhabited, named, governed, cared for and traversed by plural communities, human and otherwise. “Dukarr lakarama” shares insights from just one Yolŋu community who care for space, or Sky Country, and to whom it is home.

Co-writing in Bellingen, Australia (Clockwise from top right: Kate, Djawundil, Ritjilili, Djawundil, Audra, Sandie)

I was immensely privileged to take part in conversations about outer space, or Sky Country, with Ritjilili Ganambarr, Djawundil Maymuru, Banbapuy Ganambarr-Stubbs, Kate Lloyd, Sandie Suchet-Pearson and Sarah Wright, and, as the paper grew and developed, to learn from the insights of Rrawun Maymuru and Dr. Laklak Burrarwanga. These remarkable folks are caretakers of a homeland called Bawaka in northeast Arnhemland in what is currently called Australia. The women are all collaborators in the unique Bawaka Collective, a group of Yolŋu and ŋapaki (white) researchers and knowledge keepers who have been working together and building relations for over a decade (their most recent book, Songspirals, is out now).

Through our collaborations as part of the Creatures Collective (see here and here), we all realised that we shared a concern with space colonisation. Beyond hearing about space colonisation in the news, its material effects of are part of everyday life in Arnhemland, where there are plans to build a spaceport for use by international actors including NASA. The annexation of Indigenous lands to build installations for the military-scientific exploration of outer space is common throughout Australia and internationally. As exemplified by the struggle to protect Mauna Kea in Hawai’i, the creation of this infrastructure can be deeply damaging to ecologies, Indigenous legal and political orders, and relations between Indigenous communities and non-human kin on earth. At the same time, however, what these actors do in outer space can harm relations there, and on this planet.

Sarah (Wright) knew that I had been working for a few years on the problem of space colonisation from perspectives rooted in decolonial IR theory and global ethics. I wanted to understand why so many people – and not just uber-wealthy white men, but also a diverse group of futurists and even environmentalists – seemed ready to embrace such an explicitly colonial project, and one based on extreme forms of extraction. I had started to talk with BIPOC colleagues and collaborators about how their knowledge systems and legal/political orders shaped relations with outer space, and it was clear that the common argument that there are ‘no humans in space’ was a fiction designed to benefit colonisers. As the NewSpace sector – the private outer space industry, funded largely by tech entrepreneurs – gains ground, the possibilities for hyper-capitalist land-grabbing seemed to be increasing dramatically. Sarah asked if I would be interested in broadening the conversation, we decided to work on this problem as a group, melding insights from Yolŋu Rom (law) and decolonial space studies.

Over more than four years and on three continents – as guests and visitors on Gumbayngirr, Dharug, Haudenosaunee, Anishinaabe, and Attawandaron/Neutral lands – we talked, wrote, revised, reflected and wrote again. In the Yolŋu tradition, we did much of this while sitting in the shade or under trees, weaving – a practice that binds together the weavers and concentrates the mind while linking us all to place through the silky strands of pandanus in our fingers. We also visited, held gatherings, swam in the river, built fires, yarned, laughed and learned. And we spent time with Sky Country, following what we learned is the ‘river of stars’ (aka the Milky Way) from our mirrored hemispheres.

We had several goals for this work of co-creation. First, as Rrawun’s words in the epigram reflect, we wanted to help make it known that outer space is not ‘uninhabited’ or ‘up for grabs’ by would-be colonisers and capitalists. Even if we have highlighted just one legal order that recognises the claims of Indigenous peoples to outer space and their inhabitation of that space, this is enough to undercuts the claim that outer space is a terra nullius, and that there are ‘no Indigenous people in space’.

As the article details, this is a common and rarely-examined claim. It plays into entrenched, racialized associations of outer space with imagery that consigns some BIPOC to the future and others to the past – notably, Indigenous peoples whom colonial narratives have violently elided with pre-history. And indeed, in mainstream Western narratives, space is linked to ‘the’ future, since these societies have only recently begun to travel there. In contrast, within Yolŋu cosmology, travelling through Sky Country has always been part of their relational and ceremonial life.

Of course, there are many BIPOC nations who plurally inhabit, govern and travel outer space. One of my favourite conversations during the co-creation of this work was with Djawundil and Banbapuy on this topic. I mentioned that several of the nations on whose land I have lived have important story and law in relation to outer space. I also made reference to the fraught recent history of Western nation-states scrambling to compete for dominance of outer space. How, I wondered, do the laws, rights and claims of different Indigenous communities interact? The women thought about it and answered that, if they found themselves in a conflict over Sky Country with another nation, they would start by finding a kin connection. For instance, perhaps someone who was kin with wolves on Turtle Island could connect with someone kin to dingos. Starting from this basis of mutual respect, recognition and shared kinship, they would negotiate and accommodate each other’s claims and traditions. My question started from Western colonial notions of ownership, in which claims to territory are unique and several. In contrast, many BIPOC communities understand space (on earth and beyond) in terms of plural occupation and use or usufruct, making possible complex forms of sharing other human and other-than-human communities. Plural Indigenous legal orders offer immense opportunities for this kind of diplomacy. The women’s answer also speaks to the plurality of BIPOC legal orders, worlds, and time-spaces, in contrast to the projection of a Euro-centric vision of territory by would-be colonisers.

Indeed, another hope we have for this article is that it will open up bigger discussions about plural BIPOC law in relation to outer space, including articulations – whether in or outside of the academic sphere – of other BIPOC law, ethics and practice in relation to space. One hope is that it might, in future, help to support the kind of diplomatic work mentioned by Banbapuy and Djawundil – not necessarily due to conflict, but perhaps also in the desire to unite against plans to colonise, mine and exploit space. By sharing aspects of Yolŋu Rom in relation to Sky Country, we affirm and support the claims of other BIPOC nations to outer space.

We also hope that this work honours and respects Rom, the Guwak song spiral and Guwak herself (the kohl bird – our guide through outer space) and, of course, her human carers. This is why we wanted to share the full words of the song spiral in Yolŋu Matha, and to let it structure our piece rather than forcing them into a Western scientific template. Even if you do not know this beautiful language, we hope that when you read it, you will be able to feel, hear and sense Sky Country, and think about what is at stake in disrupting it.

Thank you to all of the collaborators, including, of course, Country and Sky Country themselves.

“Dukarr lakarrama: Listening to Guwak, talking back to space colonisation” is available in Political Geography, Vol 81:


If you would like to read this article but do not have institutional access to scholarly journals or it appears behind a paywall, please feel free to reach out.

apsute’gan (gift)

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She recognizes me,

reads my grief

and reaches for her phone.

She shows me a black-and-white-photo of closed hands

On smoothened sheets

Fingers braided across furry sage.

Then she takes out a grey feather, greased and frayed.

I watch her pinch the filaments in her fist and pull downwards,

roughing them up,

like she’s backcombing badly damaged hair.

She hands the feather to me.

“I like to do this exercise with women

who have healing to do”, she says, “watch.”

Her fingers slide up and down the hollow spine

Aligning each blade until the feather

Reclaims its shape.

“See that?” she says, “You can do that any time, with anyone who needs it.

It shows us everything

can be made

whole again.”



We’lalin, Maura, Early Rising Woman – rest in power. Nmul’tes.

Congratulations, Dr. Judy Da Silva!

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Dr. Judith Da Silva accepts the degree of Doctor of Letters, Honoris Causa, from President Deborah MacLatchey and Chancellor Eileen Mercier of Wilfrid Laurier University. Also pictured, Jean Becker and Audra Mitchell.

A few weeks ago, I had the immense honour of giving the citation for a treasured teacher, mentor and inspiration, Judy Da Silva, as she accepted her honorary doctorate from Wilfrid Laurier University. Knowing Judy has been one of the great gifts I’ve received in my life, and her I know that her work – along with her spirit, determination, courage, humour and love – enriches the existence of a great many people, waters, animals, plants and lands. 

An honorary PhD is not nearly enough to reflect the contributions made by Judy and the many other land defenders, Grandmothers, Grandfathers and Elders, young people, and warriors of all genders, ages and forms with whom she stands. Their knowledge can never be reduced to the degrees awarded by colonial institutions.  At the same time, these institutions have deep influence on mainstream settler colonial society, and so it is important that they recognise the immense contributions made by Indigenous leaders – not only in ways that fit within these systems and make them comfortable for settlers, but also in ways that challenge the status quo. One of the things I’ve learned from Judy is that knowledge of the land and waters and the fight to defend them cannot be separated. It is my deep hope that this degree reflects and honours that teaching. 

I wanted to share the text of the citation.  I’ve also included a transcription of Judy’s address (any errors of transcription are mine alone). If you don’t know Judy, I hope this text will provide the briefest of introductions to the work that she does, that it will encourage you to learn more,  to support her, her community and others fighting similar battles. 

 After speaking, Judy received a powerful standing ovation from the entire audience, which included a cohort of students graduating from the unique rigourous  Masters of Social Work Indigenous Field of Studies program, along with their families, friends and supporters. 

Congratulations, Dr. Da Silva, and, beyond this richly-deserved degree and the title it bears, I hope you will carry with you the sound of hundreds of people standing and raising their voices to honour you, your people, your Ancestors and the futures for which you’re fighting. 

With love and respect,

Learn more about Judy’s work, her community and how you can support at http://freegrassy.net


Citation for Judith Da Silva, Doctor of Letters, Honoris Causa
Wilfrid Laurier University Autumn Convocation 
25 October, 2019 

Boozhoo, aanin! She:kon! Kwe!  Hello!

Thank you all for being here to celebrate this special day, and congratulations to all of the graduands.

Ogimakwe – ‘leader’-  is the word that comes to mind when I think of Judy Da Silva, Anishinaabe Lynx Clan Grandmother from Asubpeeschoseewagong/Grassy Narrows First Nation.

Judy is an Elder, a knowledge keeper, a policy influencer, and a community leader.

She is also a land defender, routinely risking her life to protect her lands and waters, her people and their sovereignty.

She is a nurturer of younger and older generations, a fierce advocate for Indigenous women, girls and children, and a living challenge to colonial violence.

Judy has lived a life of leadership. In the 1980s, she worked to support urban Indigenous women and girls affected by sexual, domestic and race-based violence, helping to found the community-based Bear Clan patrol.

At the Rio Climate Summit in 1992, she was part of a group of visionary Indigenous leaders from around the world – and the only woman in her delegation – who inspired a new generation of action against ecological destruction.

At home in Grassy, Judy fought tirelessly to protect her ancestral land and rights, helping her Elders to resist the dumping of nuclear waste in her community in the 1980s.

Starting in 2007, Judy led the longest-running blockade in Canadian history at Slant Lake, stopping illegal logging that violated her people’s Treaty and Ancestral rights.

Carrying on this tradition, in  2015, Judy, along with the late Josephine Mandamin and other esteemed women Elders, organized a water ceremony next to live rail tracks to protect their waters against the transport of toxic chemicals. They did this under significant threat from police and the national corporations whose privilege they challenged.

Since the 1990s, Judy has shone an international spotlight on the widespread effects of mercury poisoning on her community, the result of industrial contamination of the river system and political inaction ongoing since 1963.

Collaborating with Elders, community members and international researchers, Judy has brought this fight to Queen’s Park; to Ottawa; to Minimata, Japan;  and to the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in Geneva.

Today, Judy coordinates large-scale clean-up efforts of Grassy’s river system and continues to advocate at multiple levels for a specialized treatment center for survivors of mercury poisoning.

She also organizes public events such as the biennial Grassy Narrows River runs in Toronto, which attract thousands of participants.

Judy is an accomplished scholar: the author or co-author of six publications, partner in several groundbreaking scientific and government reports on mercury poisoning, and subject of dozens of interviews and documentaries.

In honour of her achievements, Judy has received the 2013 Michael Sattler Peace Prize from the German Mennonite Peace Committee, the 2017 Human Rights Watch Extraordinary Activist Award and the Yellowhead Institute’s 2018 Art Manuel Award.

Always rooted in the love of her community, Judy has, for decades, organized gatherings to mentor emerging Indigenous leaders and their supporters, especially grassroots women, youth, Elders and families.

She does this with commitment and humility, creating atmospheres where everyonepresent feels valued, loved, supported,connected to their land and culture, and confident in their power.

Gchi’miigwech, Judy, for all that you do.

Madam Chancellor, I am instructed by the Senate of the University to request that you admit Judith Da Silva to the degree of Doctor of Letters, honoris causa.

Dr. Da Silva’s address: 

Boozhoo, I’m speechless! (audience laughs along with Judy)  Wow.

Judy Da Silva nidijinikaz. Pizhiw dodem. My name is Judy Da Silva and I’m Anishinaabe from the Lynx Clan.

Hello to the Dean and Chancellor, and congratulations to all the recipients.

I really feel honoured to have received this degree with you today, because I saw all of you standing in line, and I feel really proud of all the hard work you’ve done.

I’m greatly honoured and touched by your university for this honorary degree. I would like to say: I will carry this degree with great pride with the Anishinaabeg of my community in Grassy Narrows/Asubpeeschoseewagong.

My community is a small Indigenous village located about 2000 km from here in Northwestern Ontario with a population of 800 people on reserve.

Since before anyone can remember, our people lived on the English/Wabigoon River. We took care of the river, and the river took care of us.  It is our source of life, which the Creator put on us.

We were hit with horrific tragedies with the dumping of 10 tons of toxic mercury from a paper mill upstream in the 1960s.

My words can never convey the struggles and pain my people have gone through and are still going through.

But in spite of this, we have always fought back to protect what is sacred to us: our river, our forests, our way of life, our families, our songs and our freedom to be Anishinaabeg on Anishinaabe land.

I’ve always said that our Elders are our professors. To me, their knowledge of riverways, land use, language, history, therapy, healing, are treasures of knowledge to our people and the world.

Our ways of knowing and our ways of being have not been valued by mainstream Canadian society. But I see that knowledge being used in medicines, forestry and so on.

I see that it’s beginning to change with this new generation of academic people – that’s you guys (smiles at graduands). I work with many consultants, doctors, professors, and they have come to our community with tobacco, and gifts, and quiet respect.

I feel this honourary degree symbolizes the growing respect for Anishinaabeg. It helps us to have hope for a human solution for my people.

It gives honour not only to myself but to the people of Grassy Narrows, and all the hard work we have done in many aspects, at all levels to bring attention to this issue and to fight for justice.

We will never stop raising our voices.

We will never stop defending our families, our way of life and our source of life.

We are all, now (smiles at graduands) educated people. Education brings good, humble power to this society.

I hope that you will use your education for good and to walk alongside the people of Grassy Narrows and others like us who are seeking dignity, freedom, health and justice.

Again, I thank you for this honour you have bestowed upon me. Miigwetch.





flying foxes, moving futures

As another record-hot Australian summer brings temperatures to the mid-40s (celsius), entire communities of flying foxes face urgent threats due to heat stress, along with their daily struggle against injury and disease brought by encroachment onto their territories. This post raises issues about the ethics of settler intervention into the lives of flying foxes (and other non-human communities), but it nonetheless respects the care, commitment and labour of the folks who work to support the survival of these creatures. If you feel an ethical calling to support the folks caring for stressed, injured and sick bats, I would strongly recommend donating to the Australian Bat Clinic.

I would also like this post to honour the work of the late Deborah Bird Rose, who passed away at the end of 2018. Although I never knew her in person, she was a source of support and nurturance to several people who are dear to me, and her work with flying foxes, dingoes and other beings persecuted by the settler state continues to feed my thinking. 

screenshot 2019-01-29 at 11.31.52

Flying foxes by Dinesh Valke

She wasn’t supposed to survive. She had quarantined herself, banished her own body from the protective webbing of her kin. When we met her, she was hanging limp from a low limb, close enough to the ground to be snapped up by dogs, following her Law even in this place shot through by the rules and regs of a land-hungry state. Her kin, above, swung and jagged from branch to branch, some creeping along branches to cat-fight each other with tiny, curled claws, others cling-wrapped into themselves, sleeping, in bunches, like overripe raindrops. She took herself away from them, quietly, to die.

It was clear from the web flesh of her wing, torn cleanly, bloodlessly, from its supporting bone and wrinkling softly against her russet belly fur like a popped balloon. The torn skin telegraphed the wall of barbed wire hugging the side of a brick-walled, municipal building, right behind the roosting tree. Mothers had been snagged here, along with the babies they nursed, clamped on their furred chests, as they flew down the river and back each night to hunt insects. Some starved to death still dangling from the rust-crusted fangs of metal. Signs on the wire warned urban settlers, students and tourists to Stay Off. Dried-out dangling bat-bodies, shriveling up like palm dates, warned everyone else.

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Little red flying foxes (mother and pup) by Duncan McAskill

This fence is part of that heads-on-spikes, bodies-on-wire type of ‘justice’, a slow-motion massacre over hundreds of years, changing shape regularly to fly under the radar. Sometimes it was sponsored and executed by the state, other times it was vigilante justice carried out  by people who called them ‘beautiful’, but were so offended by their smell and chatter that they demanded their removal.


If you’ve never met a flying fox community, have a watch and listen to this beautiful footage by Estraven Lupino-Smith, which will give you a sense of what it’s like to be in their company. ___________________________________________________________

Irony-immune settlers and their sciences call them ‘colonies’, poking at inherited fears of swarm, invasion, overwhelm and disease. News reports fanned out the face of a teenage boy who had died from handling an injured bat. This is the cost of compassion towards vermin, they smirked. Bats are favourite scapegoats for visions of zoonotic doom – vampirism, rabies, devastating outbreaks of Ebola. Here and now it was lyssavirus, spread by the flow of bat saliva into human wounds. Aggression, frenzies of fear, seizures, terror of fresh air and water – just a few of the symptoms to watch for,  if you can distinguish them from the moral panics that regularly judder through white settler culture.  Or the Hendra virus, that tricky sickness that can cause anything from mild flu-like symptoms to fatal neurological collapse. It’s been acknowledged by Western science for a good while now that these diseases are extremely rare – not to mention that the vast majority of their victims are bats. The most recent studies show that only 5.4% of flying foxes and blossom bats – just 7 out of 187 tested– showed since of Australian Bat Lyssa Virus, which led to the deaths of 3 people in the last 34 years. Put in perspective, zoonotic disease transferred by bats is a comparatively miniscule risk in a country where, in 2016-17 alone, falling out of bed killed 523 Australians. But for most of vigilantes, the problem isn’t disease: it’s sound and smell, the disruption of visions of perfect subtropical gardens and fruit undented by other species’ teeth.

We knew this roost community:  they flew over our apartment building at dusk everyday, which crouched under their flightpath to the river banks. Big groups of them would mimic the river, taunting its shape, flowing in currents down its long yawn into the Queensland coast. We’d run for cover when they feasted on the hard white fruits of the tree outside our building’s entrance entrance, dropping pits and half-chewed fruits, or when they tangled with the possums for the ripest mangos. This is part of the joy of living with them, of going out into the night and knowing that you are not alone, sensing the density of eyes, the wing lashes thickening the dark.

screenshot 2019-01-29 at 11.35.43

Untitled by Oriijoy

We asked around and found out that the community had moved to their current location, a scraggle of eucalyptuses in a public park a couple of years before. They’d been evicted – in technical terms, ‘dispersed’- many times, in response to changes in city and state policies. As the climate changes, some bat communities have become refugees, organizing evacuations tofeed themselves or stay cool in the leaded heat of 47 degrees Celsius summers. A few years later, just south of here, I would watch a group of them scoop down from the treetops to dip their bellies into the Bellingen River to stay cool enough to breathe and fly. South, in Sydney, their relatives fell from the sky, baked alive by the heat from unrelieved pavement.  It was so hot that January day that we all had to sit submerged in the river – humans, dogs, snakes and goannas – just to keep our blood from over-heating. It was so hot that the federal Minister of the Environment was forced to resign. A few months before I wrote this, it was so hot that 1/3 of the remaining community of spectacled flying foxes was annihilatedin a single, two-day heatwave.  And just as I’m writing this, it’s so hot that over 2000 grey-headed flying foxes– whole family trees and communities – died of heat stress at the southernmost, and usually coolest, tip of their range.

Throughout all of these changes in laws–  Settler law, climate law, earth law, Western science laws – the bat communities hold their own, permanent Law tight to their furred chests like their precious pups, living and dying for it, as this little bat was doing. They carry it with them as they drop seeds across their huge range, literally shitting out urgent, yearned-for futures, splattering the gardens, paths and cars of belligerent settlers. As they move, rest and feed, they tickle heat-sore plants into life with precious pollens clinging to velvet chests and bellies, shifting entire eucalypt forestsas they migrate, re-creating Country wherever it’s needed. But they are moved, too, into cities where they are persecuted, banished and decimated. Still, they follow their Law, with each wing slice eroding the settler state’s.

This was what the little bat was doing when we met her – holding on to her Law even if it meant letting go her own life. We were torn. We understood that she had taken herself away from her community for a reason. Maybe she was sick and she didn’t want to infect her family, or impose a burden on them. But the cause of her injury was so clear: this was part of the violences that made our presence here easy, and hers a daily struggle.

We called the local vet, who had, just a few weeks ago, helped us to treat an electrocuted ringtail and the baby in her pouch. The vet directed us towards a group of volunteers who arrived within the hour, prepped with gloves, soft towels and a spacious box. The surgery to fix the wing was quite straightforward, they said, and she could soon be released back to the roost with minimal handling. They called her Delia, to distinguish her from the other bats in their care.

We never knowingly saw Delia again, although the volunteers phoned a few weeks later to let us know that she had been released back. But we wanted to learn more about the people who healed bats, so we drove down to a remarkable bat clinic and rehab centretucked into the lap of the hills just inland from Gold Coast. It’s not normally open to the public, only on annual education days – unlike the many ‘koala sanctuaries’ around the country that are anything but safe or quiet. When we arrived at the bungalow, we were immediately warned not to open a cloth bag that sat on a bench on the verandah. ‘What’s in it?’ I asked. ‘Really poisonous snake. We’ll take him and let him out later once we’ve had a look  to make sure he’s all right’. At the back of the veranda was a metal cage where a large Sulphur-crested cockatoo sat on one foot. ‘Helloooo,” he said, in a perfectly sinister southern English accent. We would find out shortly that this was his way of luring people over to the cage so that he could chomp whatever folds of flesh or fabric passed close enough to the bars. I asked if he was someone’s former companion animal, but our host told us that he was a wild cockatoo whom they’d found, disoriented, in the nearby mountains. He was suffering from a neurological condition that was affecting many of the birds in the region. ‘We don’t know where he got that accent. Probably picked it up from a tourist’. And the instinctively precise biting? “probably the same”. Just as we were passing to the house’s entrance, alongside a pen of bandaged and healing roos who had been struck by cars, I felt claws on my foot. It was difficult at first to tell what kind of creature had climbed onto me. Definitely a bird, but an almost totally featherless one. “That’s Remy,” I was told. Unable to fly, he walked around on foot or hitched rides on shoes, following our host, the volunteers and vets on their rounds. He was another cockatoo, a juvenile, but still only fraction of the average size without the aura of white feathers. He climbed onto my shoe and rode around with me throughout our visit, hopping off occasionally to show me his moon-walking technique.

We entered the bungalow, where there were bats hanging from every possible grip. Thousands of them. We were led to a back room where laundry lines were strung with wing-wrapped bats, orderly and calm despite their immense numbers, some screeching quietly to each other, or to themselves. We watched as our host gently returned one to his place on the clothesline, as he crawled over towards one of his bunkmates. “That one’s a trouble-maker”, she said with affection, “He’s always trying to pick fights with his mate there.” She knew each one of them individually, by personality. And sure enough, a few moments later we would hear the nail-on-metal screech and flap of fighting bats, and she would have to separate them again. These were the bats that were starting to recover, not quite ready to go out to the outdoors roost where 750 others were recuperating, preparing for their return flights home. Next, we were shown into a small, dark room filled with incubators. Rows of baby bats, each neatly swaddled in warm, care-worn cotton washcloths, slept in rows inside them. Our host came back holding a tiny package in her hand, a close-eyed, pink-nosed, golden-fuzzed pup no bigger than my pinky finger. This little one had come down from the far north of the state, she explained to us. This sanctuary was one of a network of bat carers up and down the Queensland coast who do emergency work, sometimes driving twelve hours to pick up heat-stroked, injured or sick bats, to get them to the person with the right skills to care for them.  “I’m not sure if this little one’ll make it,” she said tenderly,” But we hope so.” It almost hurt to see the degree of love she infused into that tiny body, how she calibrated her fingers perfectly to direct a feeding syringe into the wrinkle-clamped lips.

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Large flying foxes #2 by Ryan Poplin

Walking through that house strung and beaded with recovering bats, I couldn’t stop thinking about the sculpture ‘Fruit Bats’ by Yorta Yorta artist Lin Onus. His fiberglass flying foxes, each one unique, shaped and painted with the cross-hatching whose use he was gifted by his Murrungun-Djinang mentors, hang just as neatly from the geometric filaments of a Hills Hoist Clothes line. Below them, circular painted droppings cement their presence, spread their futures, flipping the bird at white suburban cleanliness. Those bats are there for a reason: they are staking their space in the everyday sprawl of suburban settler colonialism. They are shitting all over it, gorgeously, with purpose, with intent, with meaning and with right. They are refusing to be moved along. They are hanging tight, permanently present. In a stroke of ironic genius, Onus’ bats have found themselves centered in the permanent collection of one of the poshest art galleries in the country. For sure, it’s an example of the dominant culture letting itself to be seen to support Aboriginal art. But at the end of the day, the bats, and their droppings, are there on the polished concrete floor and elite lighting, at the center of things. They’re not going anywhere.

Like the bats in Onus’ sculpture, those creatures in the sanctuary hang from clotheslines and wires carefully designed to offer them ease, time, a chance to strengthen – the mirror image of the fanged fences and furnace climates designed to harm erase them, to maximize their fear and anxiety. I am humbled by this effort, by the simple, concrete crucialness of this work of patching up bats and sending them back out into their world-making work. This is harm reduction, for sure, since simply surviving under the violence of settler colonialism is trauma in itself for these bats and their kin. It can be a radical act: to heal and free and strategize for their futures, against the structures that secure our own (since we and our hosts at the sanctuary are all settlers of one kind or another), breaking our own laws in our best attempts to honour theirs (see the work of John Borrows on this subject). But we, as would-be settler healers, are also breaking their Law, imposing our norms about survival and comfort, our queasiness about death and suffering, our destroyer’s guilt. This is especially true for me, an interloper who doesn’t really know this Country, and haven’t been invited by it, the bats and their people. That’s the dilemma that wrestles with me: do I open myself to be confronted by the harm I am part of and step back to let the creatures deal with it in their own ways, knowing that more intervention makes things worse? That I have to live without the comfort of feeling that I’ve helped, the catharsis of caring? Or does taking responsibility mean doing what I have to in order to refuse that harm, to release one more life back out into their struggle, without demanding anything for myself? At the end of the day, the ethical imperative for me and my kin may be as simple as ‘get out of the fucking way’.

I don’t think I will ever find a resolution for this, at least for myself. But I am holding on hard to that image of the bats on the Hills Hoist, and that flying-fox-filled bungalow, and the rivers of diseased but resurgent bats that haunt swamped cities in Alexis Wright’s works of re-worlding. These are images of times to come when the bats reclaim this place, even if they have to move forests and futures – and shit all over settler society – to get it back.

Caring for Kin: Confronting Global Disruptive Change, 22-23 August, 2018 — groundwork

The following blog is by Audra Mitchell, Kate Lloyd, Sandie Suchet-Pearson and Sarah Wright. All photos are by Stan Williams. In August 2018, we were honoured to organize a gathering of Indigenous women/ Two-Spirit (2S) people, knowledge-keepers, scholars, land and water protectors from across Turtle Island/North America and Australia, and four of their non-Indigenous academic […]

via Caring for Kin: Confronting Global Disruptive Change, 22-23 August, 2018 — groundwork

move fast

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Sleep by Audra Mitchell, 2013.

Your eyes are fresh with death, tongue and fur still wet with breath that’s just left them.

Your softness is a gut-punch, the swell of your belly, haunches and ears like foothills from a distance.

Blood brightens on the road shoulder, clarified by the cold. I can’t see where it’s coming from.

You look perfect to me.

You were probably born earlier this year, or maybe last,
fat with berries and the dream of sleep.

I know that you are missed, or you will be,
when the rest of them wake up.

I was just talking about the violence of highways, their deceptive breadth,
their dominance thinned by distance, passing themselves off
as natural fractures,
as fault lines,
oil and stone.
But severing paths, migrations, generations,
the concentrated care of drawing out lives
from parallels into tangled lines.

Next to me, in the passenger seat, she was like, no shit Sherlock. But also like, poor settlers – slow learners.

She doesn’t say any of this. She exhales gifts
of painful patience.

I pick up your paw, tracing the curve of a claw with my pointer, pressing the tip into my palm. I’m surprised at its weight, the soft tension of the pads, plush like blistered lips.

Who could leave you like this?

We can’t.

Everyone passing will think that we’ve killed you.

We wish we knew what to do – the proper words, the right ceremony. Or someone nearby who could make good use.

We have to do something.

We dial the ministry for parks, but they’re closed. Then the non-emergency police line in Steinbach. The flat-vowelled voice is confused. I’m glad we don’t get through.

I know what they do with the bodies.

‘Fuck off’

I shout at the blonde family in the red SUV stopped across the highway, gawking, taking selfies, making faces at us, sneering over your stillness.
They do fuck off, but only when they’ve taken everything
they want.

A hunter in a pickup truck, chill-chapped skin and camouflage, pulls over to ask if we hit you. That makes sense to him – two women driving down the highway,
only one of them white.

We tell him no.

He says he wishes he had his trailer with him, as if you were
his to take.
He leaves us with an ironic ‘good luck’.

A crow passes and she asks him to bring some help.

She sings a bear song that she knows, her liquid voice
roughed-up by the windchill and crackled with tears.
I listen,
but not kin.

We stroke you, gold-leaf your fur and nose and feet, dapple them with tobacco.


Two women and a man pull over in a pickup. They look for a while, put down their own medicine, speak some words in language.

We stand, together,
with you.

The man lifts your hind legs and pulls you, light, like sliding ice, into the stiffened grass and hunched shrubs.

‘Where are you headed?’ one of the women asks. ‘Grassy’. ‘The reserve?’ ‘Yeah’.

The woman nods slowly, hugs her,
receives her grief,
hugs me too.

“You should have taken one of the paws and kept it. That keeps the strength of the bear with you. Honours its spirit,” we are told when we get there and tell everyone about you, ask if they know your family.

I know I couldn’t do it. I don’t have the guts, the blood, the stomach, the right, the rage, the pain,
the visceral empathy
to do what needs to be done.

I’ll bet she does.

I talk about all the animals I’ve seen on the roads, that I will keep seeing
as long as I keep driving.

‘Keep tobacco in your car. Always have some ready”, Bizhiw says,

‘What if I can’t stop and pull over?”

“Put it out the window. It’ll get to them.
spirits move fast”.

For Ni Nok Cuma Gook and Gishiime Makwa. 


Screen Shot 2018-08-31 at 11.38.04You have a reputation — a clique of stories chatters you back into being. The most popular one says that you were found in a clay ball on Menominee lands, dug up after 850 years by a group of students from my parents’ hometown, who brought you back to life in their university garden. A Diné writer tells us that the Miami people held you through centuries, sheltering you with their bodies, ceremonies, stories and silences as violence scraped their lands like  glaciers or receding seas. Others say that Miami women cultivated you all along, for 2000 years, tucked safely into the folds of your presumed extinction. Then, when you were ready to resurge, they shared you, made other peoples your pollinators. You were not taken, discovered, or removed without your will. You were shared and shared yourself freely, circulating with intent.

I prefer, and desire, these latter stories. But some of the Grandmothers and Aunties like the first one. This is one of the bumps that jar our conversations, that make our meanings slide just shy of each other. I need to be kinder, they keep telling me, to my own people, to myself. I need to let myself be claimed by our violence, our intentions, our estrangement. Even if these are the conditions of our kinship.

I have become an uncertain surrogate of your seeds. J. gave them to me. She wanted me to grow you and share your seeds and fruits with people who will resurge with you, absorbing your pungent energy as they sit on blockades, walk shorelines or care for the land beneath the streets. You are an unexpected part of the medicine I went to gather and learn how to make for an Aunty moving through her final seasons. She was supposed to come up north with us – the trip was a parting gift to her. Instead, in her absence, J. showed me how to make pain medicine for her from the inner bark of a certain willow, a teaching recently returned to her. Other women donated their fragrant peelings to bring back to our Aunty, even though they have their own pains to nurse. I had hoped she could grow some of your seeds  in the spring, amongst the tobacco plants, grass, and figurines in her urban hill garden. I wanted her little gray cat, the one she took for midnight walks around the block, to roll around your roots, to sniff and bat at your vines and flowers. I wanted her to see you grow, to be a part of your return, for you to be a part of hers.  Now,  I’m asking you to grow in my unfamiliar hands.

My torn thumb throbs as I chip away at the roots of the grass to widen your bed, but I want to make this space for you. I get used to the taste and scents of the soil bruising my cuticles, my callouses, the pads of my feet, the blood blisters on my fingertips. I learn how to move my fingers with just the right pressure to tense one of your ringlets around a pole. I wonder how long I will be in this place, whether I can care and commit with the abandon I want. I am embarrassed by my transience, and by my still- presence. I shift heavy cans of water, knowing that I am disrupting my healing, and that I need to feel the pulse of falling water as much as you do. But you don’t really need me; you will reclaim this land on your own. You have everything you need: every gender and gene, uncurling in the length and lean of your tendrils, in the pursing and breath of your blossoms.

I feel guilty to be living with you, to have the pleasure of this time and space, this growth. But A. tells me to be careful about assumptions, that his kin can’t be expected to do all the work. I have to learn and help and sweat and dig and deal with setbacks, too, if I want these changes to happen, and these beings to return. Two of your seedlings are growing in his new garden. You release yourself there, with the ancient corns and tobaccos and sunflowers etched into the slope of the hill. A. tells me that you can still bear fruit, even though July is ending, even though my gift was late.

It alarms me, sometimes, the ache of you breaking the ground, your tendrils crying towards the next branch or leaf, even if it is part of your own body. Sometimes you pin down twigs, stones and grasses, gather up the ground around you, or wrestle the beans sliding up the dowlings. Exactly the kinds of spats you’d expect between sisters. Or lovers.  You are always pulling your kin close to you, holding them tight, binding them to yourself and to each other. I have to let myself be held, too, in ways that don’t come easily to me. I learn to peel back your folded blooms and spread your pollen with my own finger tips, standing in for the missing bees, for the disappeared.

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I wish I could see you move. You are living much faster and slower than I am, vining and dying in a less than a year, and growing so slowly that I can’t see your motions and gestures. I can only sense their echoes in the curves of your spines, or the twisting of your bodies as you interpret the light. You are hundreds of seasons younger than me, and thousands of years older. We share space and moments, our bodies touch, but I can’t fall into time with you.

Sometimes a part of you dies, and I have to accept that, open your roots to the air, offer that piece of twisted flesh or early fruit to the earth, make space, so that the rest of you can thrive.

I was nervous when I planted your seeds, just three at first, staring each morning at the short row of pots and watching you push, stubbornly stooped, through the surface of the soil. I was too late in the planting season, partly because I did not know how to think time in reverse, to let you feel the seasons fully, and partly because I was afraid of failing you. At first I covered you with netting, hoping to discourage but not hurt the racoons and rats, the big skunk that slopes out from behind the rotting shed and devours the peanuts we leave at the base of the big sugar maple. It was only weeks before your tallest leaves grasped at the mesh, pulling it down around you, penetrating it with your vines. Reminding me that you are there to share yourself, that this is your choice and right. I learn to think of your growth in this way, as a deliberate gift for other plants and animals, for the pollinators, for the soil and air. Even then, I come back after five days away to find gnaw-marks in your largest fruit – squirrels who have mistaken you for green nuts – and I feel punished, as though my own skin were punctured. D. came over with a bottle of capsaicin water to drizzle around your fruits and the soil beneath them, to warn off nibblers, to give you a chance to see your descendents. She knows how much they are needed.

I didn’t bother to deter the crows – I know I’m no match for them. They snipped the heads from all of the corn sprouts earlier in the spring, leaving you to grow around the roots of your missing sisters. They were suspicious when I set up the garden in this spot near the maple, croaking and hopping on the limbs above you. But they seem to have made their peace with our presence, or at least with yours.  H. reminded me to offer them shiny gifts, and I did, leaving them pieces of glittering copper, a few strawberries and fallen blossoms, beans and roots. I put them a little distance from your bed, acting casual, not wanting to deprive them of the pleasure of theft, of taking what’s theirs.

H. has grown you now for a few years, for feasts and gatherings, so she’s figuring out how to help you get along with others. She helped me to separate your seeds from the slime of your cooked flesh, which we had eaten in heavy darkness at the gathering up north, zipped into winter sleeping bags and gloves but still numb with cold. It was October then, and I had months to think about your future. I took you back down south to the city, where I lived then, surrounded by spit-and-salt stained concrete, aggression, and open-wounded earth. We could survive there, we could exhale after years of clenched breath, but we couldn’t grow. In the belly of that autumn, I dried you tentatively, following the instructions, turning each seed several times, careful not to disturb the onion-skin slip that covered your sleeping seedbodies. In the spring, I offered your seeds as gifts to people who would know better than I did, who knew how to help livings live and let beings be. I kept a handful to grow, so that I could keep spreading your seeds, uncertain of the soil you would find for us. Screen Shot 2018-08-31 at 11.38.31

Since I’ve lived with you, I’ve begun to pay attention to insects, wondering which ones you nourish, which ones will carry your future generations, dirtying the fur of their legs, and which will hollow your body, nesting, possessing it for their own offspring. I wonder which ones you will allow to feed on you, which ones you invite and shelter, which ones you help to die. I learn which ones you need me to destroy, and I learn to kill. I barely noticed insects before but now when I sit outside in the evening I am immersed in their intimacies.

I have started speaking with you, knowing that you are fluent in vibrations, even if not in my colonial tongue. I am beginning to speak again without stuttering or scattering my words. But now I can feel my brain shifting and clunking; my thoughts are heavier, less playful. When the weather changes, when the clouds plume and darken, I am dizzy, sometimes too nauseous to read or write, so I crouch down next to you instead. As your biggest leaves drape themselves into the 43 degree heat and stiffen again into the dew, I am trying to learn to move with the weather, too. I feel anxious for you, overprotective, during the storms, even though I know you love the rain. L. is worried when I run into the thunder with my metal-headed shovel to dig a trench beside your bed, so that the runoff coming down the hill won’t overwhelm you. I do it anyway, and so does he.

L. says that this is a love story, and I think he’s right. Sometimes I love you too roughly, cleaning crumbs of soil from your leaves and peeling back leaves in search of future fruit. One day in early August, I snap off one of your buds while trying to clean the dirt from her furred curves. But you are not broken by me or my struggling love. You continue reaching, grasping, creeping, blossoming, offering yourself into futures that I can’t feel, that you will enter without me. You are taking your time, your space, your land, your lives. Preparing the ground.

* I live on the Ancestral lands of the Neutral/Attawandaron, a confederacy of Iroquois peoples who are no longer with us, largely due to the effects of diseases brought by French and other European fur traders in the Great Lakes region. These are also the treaty lands of the Six Nations of the Grand River and the Mississaugas of the New Credit. In Onkwehonwe/Haudenosaunee gardening practices, Corn, Beans and Squash are known as the Three Sisters because they help each other to grow. The corn provides stalks up which the beans can grow; the beans fix nitrogen to feed the corn and squash; and the squash leaves and vines offer shade and retain moisture, which helps the corn and beans to flourish. The peoples of the lands around the Great Lakes have depended on this type of gardening – this sisterhood – for thousands of years.

All photos of Gete Okosomin by Audra Mitchell, 2017-18. Please do not reproduce without contacting me first.


water is not a weapon

water is not a weapon

water is not a weapon, 2018 by Audra Mitchell 




About six months ago, I was in an accident which resulted in a brain injury and torn ligament in my hand. These injuries stopped me from participating in my regular writing practice, including my monthly posts on this blog. During this time, I’ve been focusing on  artistic practices as a way to maintain my connection to the people, places, beings and thoughts I care about, when I can’t join them physically. One of the ways I’ve been doing this is through weaving, a meditative practice that has helped me to keep my brain active and to re-train my hands, eyes and thoughts to align.

This is the main piece I’ve been working on over the last few months. It’s called “water is not a weapon” and it is dedicated to the water protectors fighting to protect the Salish Sea, to stop the Kinder Morgan/Justin Trudeau TransMountain Pipeline, and to all of the water protectors and water walkers, in gratitude of their labour and the risks they take to protect the beings on which we all depend.



Survivance, resurgence and refusal against extinction

I was honoured to share the stage with Elder and educator Sherry Copenace (Anishinaabekwe, Onigaming, Treaty 3), Kyle Powys Whyte and Julie Libarkin in this talk at MSU. Miigwech to all for their generosity.

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