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What I most love about working at the Australian Museum are the opportunities to inspire change for Country and First Nations people. Even the most subtle uses of language have the potential to bring new understandings to the ways that people think about environment and culture. Our First Nations team at the Museum are continuously working towards changes that dismantle old, harmful ways of thinking and doing. We bring our cultural responsibilities into the Museum to grow change that nourishes, values, and respects all lives and experiences so that no one is forgotten.

In my work, I try to bring museum visitors into my cultural relationships with living, breathing, creative Country – the dynamic world who shapes all things, all happenings, and all lives. Notice how I use ‘who’ instead of ‘that’ when referring to Country? This is one of my favourite and most powerful tools!

A long history of Western separation between what is ‘human’ and what is ‘nature’ has left us with a sickness in our relationships with Country. All life depends on Country, so a sickness in those relationships is a sickness that reaches into our health and wellbeing too. This sickness makes us see animals and ecosystems as things instead of beings connected together in life-giving, life-creating, life-supporting patterns. We think this way without even noticing – ask yourself how many times you have referred to an animal as ‘it’, or in the context of the Museum, how often we haphazardly use words like ‘specimens’, ‘collections’, and ‘objects’ when talking about animal bodies.

As a Walbanja Yuin woman, the idea of Country without personhood, aliveness and identity does not make sense. The animal bodies in the Museum are my Ancestors, family, teachers and friends.

At minimum, it is important to me that they are given that acknowledgement along with the due respect their lives deserve through the language we use. At a further push, language extends to how we treat animals and their bodies in museum spaces, calling us to continually grow into new, better practices that reflect respectful relationships with our shared Planet, particularly in the current contexts of enormous ecological devastation and biodiversity loss.

The first – and most challenging – step towards this is recognising Country not as an ‘it’, but as a ‘they’ and as an ‘us’. So often, we are asked “what is Country?”, but for First Nations people the real question has always been “who is Country?”

Weaving Waves
Weaving Waves – as each wave ebbs and flows like a stitch, the Ocean weaves together new patterns of Shells and other marine beings along the Beaches. Image: Sara Judge
© Sara Judge

Country – all plants, animals, ecosystems and humans – is alive with collective agency. First Nations people recognise that nothing happens in isolation from everything else, and everything that happens comes from Country first. Through forces like weather, geology, hydrology and animal movements, Country can make or break a conversation, a recording, an excavation, the preservation of a fossil, or whether or not we will have electrical power during a thunderstorm. Our food, fibres, phones, cars, computers, buildings and energy supply all come from Country.

Everything and everyone is Country, woven together in collective agency that makes life happen.

In Aotearoa 2017, Whanganui River became the first waterway in the world to be legally recognised as a person. The First Nations Whanganui Iwi successfully argued that the interests of ecosystems need to be recognised not only for their human value, but simply because they exist. Whanganui legislation recognises Country as living beings with a stake in their own existences, who are in constant relationships with each other, and who experience and are impacted by trauma. Whanganui River is a First Nations achievement who has set a precedent being followed all over the Planet.

Everything and everyone is Country, woven together in collective agency that makes life happen.

While our First Nations roles at the Australian Museum might not have scope to make such monumental changes, subtle ways of acknowledging agency provide important ways of changing how people think about Country and First Nations cultures. Capitalising English* names of animals speaks strong messages about who they are, instead of what they are.

Capitalised ‘Emu’ makes her kin to capitalised ‘Sara’ – both living beings with needs, roles, and a desire to keep living. Capitalising animal names and giving them pronouns makes them more than just ‘specimens’ collected in jars and pinned to walls, acknowledging them as living beings with stories, Ancestors, and important ecosystem roles that support us all. It recognises them as teachers, Ancestors and law/lore keepers of First Nations people. It prompts questions about animal representation and attitudes towards Country.

Walk With Wallaby
Walk With Wallaby – getting to know who Country is by taking off human shoes to walk in the footsteps of another living being. Image: Sara Judge
© Sara Judge

Similarly, First Nations staff also capitalise cultural agency. We recognise the aliveness of our Ancestors, the autonomy of our Elders, and that there is not a single ‘object’ in the Australian Museum collections without a name, family, stories and connections to Law/Lore and Country.

Inspired by the Kanalaritja exhibition of Tasmanian First Nations Shell stringing, our First Nations curators now label cultural objects without named makers as ‘Made by Ancestor’. This powerful statement acknowledges that both maker and object are part of continuous stories still being lived and told today. It actively resists painful histories of cultural theft and the denial of rights for First Nations people and the complex worlds we belong to and care for.

For me, no Coolamon or Dilly Bag goes uncapitalised, because they embody my Ancestors – women, Trees, Water, Stone Axe and all the lives who shaped them into who they currently are. Just like I have been shaped into who I am.

Subtle changes in the ways that we acknowledge lives of all kinds can grow our collective responses and relationships with both Country and First Nations cultures. Relationships, connections and kinship are potent ingredients in motivating people to care and uphold social and environmental justice – First Nations law/lore systems systems have always known this.

*It is important to note that when I speak of capitalising, I am referring mainly to English words, and not so much when using First Nations languages. For me, this is because the idea of pronouns and capitalised names to tell the difference between person and non-person is a Western idea that does not reflect my cultural understanding of everything and everyone being alive with story and personhood. For me, when using my language, there is no need to use pronouns or capitalised names, the understanding is inherent and all life is equal.

Sara Kianga Judge is a Neurodiverse Walbunja-Yuin woman born and grown up on Burramattagal Country. She is an environmental scientist, geographer, and artist passionate about accessible science communication and helping people to grow meaningful relationships with Country.

As First Nations Content Producer, Sara is currently working on Burra – a many-ways learning place celebrating First Nations, Pacific and Western knowledges.