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!

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“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:

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0962629818304086

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.


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