Protocols for Listening

Jason De Santolo

Unceded Airwaves: Listening with compassion

The committed act of listening is a key to storying experiences that honour, support, and care for those who suffer now and into the future. Pandemic as a teacher has forced the entire world to shut down and listen to the health crisis. Indigenous community responses to the pandemic have been swift and assertive in Australia and around the world.[1] The relational care model is self-determining and reflects kinship and protocols that have been around for thousands of years.

Despite the success of these self-determining community-controlled health responses, the state is still acting with disproportionate force.[2] In small remote Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory (NT) we see military presence and targeted enforcement of isolation and border laws. For now, the contraction rate is low in Australia, unlike in other Indigenous and Black communities around the world that are standing strong despite devastating death rates and ongoing impacts. President of the Australian Indigenous Doctors’ Association[3] Dr Kris Rallah-Baker sums it up in his paper ‘We live in dangerous times, not unprecedented’: ‘Where the pox had failed, the musket, hate and rifle looked to finish the job.’[4] This is a reminder that in Australia we survived genocide; we all live in unceded lands and now communicate through unceded airwaves. Moments like COVID-19 reveal what we all knew intuitively—colonisation of this continent has stripped us of our innate ability for self-love. How do we track the surge and resurge of growth and healing through and beyond the pandemic? One of the rebel leaders of our tribe, Elder Nancy McDinny, offered me this in conversation about notions of happiness: Compassion is a happening, when I sit peacefully on country—marrkar murrwar, I am happy inside my tummy.’[5] This short reflection is offered up as part of a decolonising protocol that calls for compassionate listening to guide collective action in times of crisis.

The night before, children slept sound, our relations rested, Mother Earth stilled, senses attuned to the stars, now dreams of resurgence bind unceded airwaves, Marnkurki yarji / hear us!

Living in the city, my little family has grown even more grateful to be sustained and held by Gadigal and Wangal lands. The experience has allowed us to reimagine ways to connect wellbeing and fun with ancestral wellbeing practices, including song, dance, and martial arts in our local parks. Indigenous cultural resurgences around the world are guiding social movements and sparking radical legal imaginations for the drastic overhaul of this system and outdated extractive laws that seek to govern us, exploit our labour, and destroy the planet. Anishinaabe legal scholar John Borrows considers ethics of western domination and dishonoured treaties, posing the question in ‘Law’s Indigenous Ethics’ (2019): ‘How is love relevant in regulation and dispute resolution—particularly when considering treaties?’ Gadrian Hoosan is vigilant that tribes hold song traditions as liberational canons of law/lore that will guide and re-balance life forces—as we are still living with Two Laws:[6]

It’s time for people in the cities to listen to nature again, that’s all I can say. And that means listening to Indigenous peoples again and respecting our collective rights to true self determination and climate justice, Songlines Before Treaty!

Text of speech by Aunty Rhonda Dixon Grovenor and Nadeena Dixon

‘Songlines before Treaty’ speech at Climate Strike—20 September 2019, Sydney city, Welcome by Aunty Rhonda Dixon Grovenor and Nadeena Dixon. Concept and design: Kristelle De Freitas & Thomas Ricciardiello.

For this resurgence to forge action we must continue addressing alarming rates of hearing loss for Indigenous youth in Australia. Joel Sherwood Spring’s work (Hearing, Loss) exposed and now declares longer-term visions towards a protocol of listening within and through Country in social and environmental crisis.[7]

In a recently leaked report in Australia our National Covid-19 Coordination Commission (NCCC) recommends that the Government ‘create the market ... for gas and build fuel infrastructure’.[7] Business as usual right? So why focus on mechanisms and voices to this flawed parliamentary system? Mega projects blossom and extractive industries transition into another exploitative neoliberal market. Now more than ever we must confront the politics that forge pandemics on unceded lands and we must ensure that future generations stay courageous and compassionate in rebuilding, renewing our own self-determining communities of care.

Marnkurki yarji.

  1. ^ Boe Spearim, Let’s Talk: The COVID-19 response from the Pilbara to Niagra, the US and beyond, Brisbane Indigenous Media Association (98.9FM), 2020.
  2. ^ Amy McQuire, 7am: How Indigenous communities got in front of the pandemic, Schwartz Media, 2020.
  3. ^ See the Australian Indigenous Doctors Association’s Twitter account.
  4. ^ Dr Kris Rallah-Baker, We live in dangerous times, not unprecented ones, Indigenous X, 28 April 2020.
  5. ^ Jason De Santolo, ‘A Reflection on Compassion’, in Global Diversity Management: A Fusion of Ideas, Stories, and Practice, eds. Özbilgin, M., Bartels-Ellis F., Gibbs, P. (London: Springer, 2019).
  6. ^ Living with Two Laws, Stories from Sandridge, (Studio GiSUN; NITV, 2014).
  7. ^ Joel Sherwood Spring, Hearing, Loss, Eavesdropping, Liquid Architecture, 2019.
  8. ^ Adam Morton, Leaked Covid-19 commission report calls for Australian taxpayers to underwrite gas industry expansion, Guardian Australia, 21 May 2020.

Jason De Santolo (Garrwa and Barunggam) is a researcher & creative producer based in the School of Design, University of Technology Sydney, Australia. He has worked with his own communities as an activist and advocate using film and performance, protest and education to bring attention to injustices and design solutions using Indigenous knowledge.