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Our candid chat with the NSW Aboriginal Woman of the Year
By Jenny Ringland
If you haven’t heard of Gunai woman Kirli Saunders yet, it was only going to be a matter of time. She is the NSW Aboriginal Woman of the Year for 2020, is an award winning author of poetry, plays and picture books, and to hear her speak about her connection to culture and the earth is mesmerising.
She is a teacher, cultural consultant and artist and her debut picture book The Incredible Freedom Machines was shortlisted for the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards and CBCA notables. Her poetry collection, Kindred was shortlisted for the ABIA 2020 Book Awards and her verse novel, Bindi was the inaugural winner of the WA Premiers, Daisy Utemorrah Award.
We were lucky enough to chat with Kirli recently and were captivated from start to finish, we hope you enjoy it as much as we did.
A lot of my childhood was spent in the bush, we have a fire trail that runs behind my house and most of our weekends we would spend there after school. So I’ve been really lucky to always have that kind of consistent connection to Country and a real appreciation and deep joy for being out in nature. I think that’s definitely inspired me to write about conservation of country and caring for country as a writer, and as I’ve aged, to teach children and young people on Gundungurra Land to be armed about that conservation of the land and the importance of it.
I think we walk around so separate from the land. Western culture definitely sees us as separate from the earth. They (Western culture) talks about the earth as The Earth, instead of Mother Earth, our Mother. We wear shoes, we walk on concrete, we drive in cars. We’re not sitting outside as often as we could be, or connecting to the landscape or taking the time to slow down and pay attention to the birds or the seasons. We aren’t noticing the way things are constantly moving and shifting around us and that we are a part of it.
One way of drawing our attention back to the earth and our connection with the landscape is to really go and spend time in the ocean, go for a swim, go for a walk and get really mindful and really curious.
There’s this gorgeous Sanskrit phrase, sohum, which kind of equates to, “I am that too”. From a cultural perspective, if we think about the bird and think, ‘I am that too’, or the tree, ‘I am that too’ rather than thinking of ourselves separate from the earth, we start to really move in different ways. We become more sustainable in our actions, more caring for conservation, more interested in caring for the landscape as if we are part of her.
I think storytelling is one of my favorite methods of communicating. I think it takes so many forms, I love being a writer, a visual artist, I like playwriting and theater and performance. I love writing books, but sitting and yarning is probably my favorite form of storytelling. I think the joy of storytelling is making the personal universal, taking an idea that feels important and finding connection or intimacy over that idea with another human, the connection then allows for us to change as a collective.
Bindi is about the black cockatoo. Garrall is what we call her on Gundungurra Land, she’s a sacred bird – or a spirit bird integral in fire and rain stories. Her love for culture and the bush brings awareness to children through storytelling, that they have a role in caring for the land. So storytelling is just the method for connection, but it creates a great space for change.
This year’s NAIDOC theme is Always Was, and Always Will Be Aboriginal land”. I think there’s the notion firstly of the 65,000 year old connection that we have and the continuation of that culture and conservation and caring for Country. We view the country as not as being separate for us, it’s something that we are part of.
Then outside of that, there’s also this inherent responsibility that we have to take care of the earth, particularly in these times. We’ve only been a colonized nation for 250 years and so much damage has been caused during that time. So I think there’s awareness to be found by reconnecting to traditional methods for caring for the earth. Some of those are really simple things like only taking what you need and taking what is in season and living locally, like these are really sustainable methods that we can really hone in on.
~ © 2020 Kirli Saunders
I look to Father Sky
who doesn’t cling to a shape
or question his size
or the forms that adopt him
as the clouds pass by.
in his vastness
not unlike mine
and grounding in this kinship
that I can remain open
and be as he is
of sunsetting colour
for the stars
as the dark
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