By Doug Bird, Stanford Woods Institute-affiliated senior research scientist

While "country" and "nation" are sometimes used synonymously, they are distinct. A country has a sense of home and landscape that often distinguishes it from the more administrative phenomena that define a nation. Today, many countries persist in - sometimes in spite of - the nation states that engulf them. Emblematic among these are the indigenous lands and societies of Western North America and Australia, where despite common assumptions of collapse, indigenous countries thrive, often beneath the scope and authority of the nations that claim them.

The Comparative Wests Project at the Bill Lane Center for the American West convened in Australia this August to explore of the social and ecological processes through which indigenous countries in Western North America and Western Australia emerge, change and persist. The project implemented a groundbreaking, multi-disciplinary program of exchange and research. It assembled scholars, policymakers, artists, journalists, land managers, curators, Traditional Owners - the Australian legal term for Aboriginal communities granted title to their homelands - and First Nations representatives from the American West and Canada to investigate the processes and implications of creating, using, transforming, restoring and maintaining the "countries" that continue to define the "Wests."

With generous support from the Stanford Woods Institute's Environmental Ventures Project, the Mellon Foundation, the National Science Foundation and the Australian National University's Humanities Research Centre and Research School of the Humanities and Arts, we assembled an unprecedented exploration of "country," beginning with a conference at the ANU in Canberra, continuing at the University of Western Australia (UWA) in Perth and culminating with an extended visit to the Martu Native Title lands in the heart of Australia's Western Desert region.

Together with John Carty, an ethnographer and curator serving as Research Fellow at the ANU's Research School of the Humanities and Arts, I organized the ANU conference, titled "Creating Countries: Comparative Wests in Australia and America" (Aug. 8-10). The symposia commenced with a series of discussions regarding the deep temporal relevance and contemporary history of indigenous occupation and land use. American and Australian scholars discussed the physical, biological and cultural dynamics shaping unique ecological interactions in which people have played a crucial role for many millennia on both continents. Then, indigenous authors, artists, curators and journalists analyzed how these humanly constructed worlds and the consequences of colonial invasion are seen through a variety of social lenses including historical fiction, media and cultural institutions.

The sessions were interspersed with visits to the Australian National Museum, the National Gallery of Australia and walking tours of indigenous landscapes within the Australian capital. The conference finished with discussions lead by indigenous representatives and land managers from both continents regarding the practical problems and opportunities that surround contemporary policies impinging on the interaction and restoration of indigenous countries.

The symposia provided insights into the ecological consequences of social disruptions, interactions and continuities, along with new ways to conceive, represent and maintain Australian and North American countries, with renewed attention to the enduring relationships between people and their lands.

Following the symposia, ANU Professor of Archaeology Peter Veth and I organized a series of sessions at the UWA in Perth for the American participants. The conference title - "Rejuvenating Countries: A Comparative Approach to Cultured Landscapes and Land Management in Western Australia and Western North America" - captures the spirit of the meetings. Rangers and Traditional Owners from the Martu Native Title and Karlamilyi National Park, representatives from Noongar country that encompasses Perth, researchers from the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization and UWA, land managers from the Department of Environment and Conservation and Kanyirninpa Jurkurrpa (the Martu Cultural Knowledge Project), all gathered with scholars from Stanford and Native Americans from California, universities and the US Forest Service, to discuss the dramatic changes occurring in the way that indigenous landscapes and heritage resources are conceptualized and treated.

The focus turned toward the margins of change in contemporary policy and resource use in indigenous countries. Of special concern was the way that the vitality of these landscapes, and their integrated ecologies, depend upon specific practices of profound temporal and cultural relevance. Many of the presenters demonstrated the ways in which trophic collapse occurs when indigenous occupation and practices - such as hunting and mosaic burning - are suppressed. But in many cases, the converse also holds: with reoccupation of homelands, a renewed sense of heritage, new forms of collaboration and revitalization of cultural practices, the lands often rebound quickly, forming new countries that serve as socio-ecological sanctuaries in the face of increasingly unpredictable climatic and economic change.

With this hopeful sense of new integration, the Native American and Stanford contingents (joined by Bill Lane Center Advisory Council member, Carrie Denning) were invited to travel with Martu Traditional Owners to their homelands. The Martu homelands - consisting of the massive Native Title and Karlamilyi National Park - are situated in the heart of the Western Desert, 1,300 kilometers northeast of Perth. After catching a plane from Perth to Newman, an iron-ore mining center in Western Australia, we traveled 370 kilometers in four-wheel drive vehicles to reach the remote camp at Yulpu just south of Parnngurr Aboriginal Community. Everyone from Parnngurr Community welcomed us to their country, camping with us and members of Kanyirninpa Jurkurrpa for four nights beneath the brilliant stars. The Martu estates within the Native Title burst with life and red sand, renewed by regular mosaic burning conducted in the daily routines of Martu hunting and gathering. We spent our days with Martu, hunting, burning, weaving baskets, and traveling throughout their totemic lands. We left with new ideas about how to hold and create new countries, what Martu call ngurra.

These new ways of conceiving and treating country have already lead to an innovative research collaborative to investigate the relationship between indigenous burning practices and biodiversity in California. I lead the project with Stanford Woods Institute Senior Fellow Lisa Curran and Stanford Associate Professor of Anthropology Rebecca Bliege Bird; Ron Goode, the North Fork Mono Tribal Chair; Don Hankins, an Associate Professor at Cal State University, Chico; Brian Codding, an Assistant Professor at the University of Utah; and Frank Lake, a Research Ecologist at the U.S. Forest Service. With a new grant from National Science Foundation's program in Coupled Human and Natural Systems, we will soon begin research in collaboration with the North Fork Mono Tribe in the Sierra, Karuk and Yurok Tribes in the Klamath region, and land trusts in the Central Valley, exploring variability in mosaic burning strategies and cultural resource use practices.


Participants in the Comparative Wests Project in Australia's Western Desert

Credit: Don Hankins