A Fire On The Ancestors’ Road To Bamayak


Elizabeth Povinelli is the Franz Boas professor of anthropology at Columbia University, a corresponding member of the Australian Academy of Humanities and a member of the award-winning Karrabing Film Collective.

1. Goose Lice

Shod in nothing but flip-flops, as I ascended the final turn of the path that would take me to the peak of Sleeping Buffalo, in the unceded lands of the Tsuut’ina and the Stoney Nakoda Nations near Banff in Canada, I reflected that I am like a goose louse. For those who have never plucked a goose, if its lice should crawl onto your hands, they will ascend you as if you were a mountain, then race around and around your head, unable to bite into your flesh but unable to go any higher. One way to get them off is to stand your fingers on your head so they have a ladder up and then snap them between your fingernails or let them go. 

I am like that in the vicinity of hills and mountains. I cannot stop myself from ascending. But I cannot quite bite into what I am seeking. 

As I rounded the final bend on the trail, an enormous granite outcropping stretched to the sky on the adjacent peak. Its extrusion suddenly interrupted my thoughts of geese and lice. It pinned my focus. I could hear it not caring a wit about my mad scurrying. I could feel it looking ahead to a future relieved of my kind, a peace that would come when even the moss that clung to its heights had faded back to rock. I understood myself to be something it had thrust out from itself, something that would return to it sooner or later: rotted, desiccated and pulverized. I felt this even as its existence — its mode, reason and source of being — was impossible to make equivalent to mine. 

Some might quip that such is the nature of the sublime and suggest I brush up on my Kant. I am more inclined to point to the endless stories my grandparents told of my ancestral Alpine village, Carisolo, to explain what overwhelmed me. Carisolo is nestled under the shadow of the Italian Dolomites. The heights of these mountains emerged out of the meeting of the African and Eurasian tectonic plates — scales of time and forms of movement that are beyond our reckoning, motion that appears still, time as frozen. 

Dolomite, or dolostone, is a sedimentary rock composed mostly of the mineral dolomite, CaMg(CO3)2. Under pressure, it crystallizes. The creek that flows down from Cascate Nardis, a waterfall behind Carisolo, is filled with round dolomite marbles. I keep a bowl of them on my desk in my office at Columbia. Further back and above Cascate Nardis are the glaciers that, in the winters, blocked the movement of invading armies in what has long been a frontier zone of nations and empires. Traces of the vertical trenches from the First World War are still frozen at its heights.

My grandfather regaled us with stories of village cows bred to withstand high altitudes, of pastures that only opened when impenetrable snows receded. For him and his ancestors, the Alpine glaciers were not for humans; they were for themselves, and they had a power that determined the timing of human action. 

I came to understand that such spaces are a form of existence that must be respected by acknowledging its difference, but at the same time recognizing that it shapes the conditions of my own existence. It doesn’t matter that rock and ice are not biological forms, are not alive, do not belong to the realm of life, don’t dream or aspire in the ways that my grandfather dreamed and aspired. 

“For my ancestors, the Alpine glaciers were not for humans; they were for themselves, and they had a power that determined the timing of human action.”

Of course, this attitude hardly defined the actual world my grandfather lived in. By the time he was telling me stories, the Alps were spaces of extractive and consumer capitalism, of granite mines and ski resorts. While a small contribution to global capitalism, the treatment of the Alps as a space where the intentions and desires of humans could be actualized without regard to the intentions of stone, climate and the broader more-than-human world is part of a general attitude that operates on a division between Life and Nonlife. I call this division “geontopower”: geology, the study of rocks and time; ontology, the study of the nature of being; and power. Geontopower embodies the attitudes and practices of Western planetary existence that allow Nonlife to be destroyed and consumed without consequences. 

Because Nonlife as well as non-human Life are treated as mere objects of human action, forms of Life and Nonlife are retreating, or emerging from the past to greet us again. In 1991, tourists discovered the mummified remains of a man who lived about five thousand years ago, who we now call Ötzi, emerging from his grave in the now-unfrozen summits of peaks between Austria and Italy. Scientists think the Alps could warm 5 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century, melting the majority of the mountain glaciers that now lurk in their heights. Even now, pink algae grows on some of those glaciers, turning them darker and helping them melt faster.

If my attitude toward Nonlife came from this family backdrop, it was forged into something more conceptually refined across the decades that I have spent with the present-day Indigenous members of the Karrabing Film Collective, as well as their parents and their grandparents. Their traditional homeland stretches along the coast just southwest of Darwin, in Australia’s Northern Territory, and is characterized by the Daly River estuary, one of the largest in the territory, and vast wetland swamps that make travel to the coast impossible during the monsoonal wet season.

For Karrabing, specific waterways, reefs, flora and fauna were forged by totemic beings — ancestral animal, plant, meteorological, mineral and other forms of existence — who remain present in the shape and dynamics of places, and have been kept there by untold generations of human ancestors who now inhabit, in a more defused sense, the same lands and waters. The Karrabing know which reefs and rock weirs that lace certain peninsulas are suffused with the presence of the past beings who originally made and maintained them. 

Karrabing recognize no division between Life and Nonlife. They know that potentiality, or the power to actualize oneself (such as the power of an acorn to become an oak), and intentionality, or the capability to give an account of action and behavior, is not unique to the realm of Life. For Karrabing, the difference between Life and the terrifying inertness of Nonlife was never about the nature of existence, but about a virulent form of governance that disembarked from colonial ships.

2. The Road To Bamayak

Two years ago, eight members of the Karrabing Film Collective, including myself, set off to bushwhack a road across a ridge to a section of their country called Bamayak. I had known the adults on our trip since 1984, when I first arrived at the small Indigenous community of Belyuen. Belyuen was established as Delissaville in the late 1930s, a part of the effort by the Northern Territory government to remove Indigenous people from coastal regions on the Cox Peninsula. Situated just across the bay from the city of Darwin, the peninsula coastlands were considered military and economic assets for the settler population. Over seven different language groups and more than a dozen clan groups were forcibly interned there. 

The establishment of Delissaville was part of a longer, broader strategy by settler Australians to annihilate and forcibly assimilate Indigenous people. Protests throughout the 1950s and 60s led to the first significant piece of land rights legislation in Australia — the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act of 1976. For its supporters, the act provided a means by which Indigenous people could reclaim their traditional lands. But for critics, it insinuated the West’s logic and language of existence into the politics behind the recognition of Indigenous rights. 

Land claim legislation divided Indigenous communities on the basis of conservative anthropological theories about past-looking (authentic) and present-day (corrupted) Indigenous culture, no matter how Indigenous people themselves understood the forces and beings that had carried them to that moment. For instance, Indigenous Delissaville elders asked the government not to separate the community into competing groups based on outdated understandings of their society. They argued that while Delissaville was composed of multiple clans with multiple lands, those lands had been formed by and were still supported by modes of interconnectivity — the paths totemic beings created as they moved, their sweat and language suffusing the land; the tides and winds that shape the coast; the kinship, marriage and ceremonial practices that created these routes. 

To no avail. The final legislation was based on separating “traditional Aboriginal owners” (a term of law) from historically displaced people (Indigenous people who had been forcibly removed from their lands during settler colonialism). The Belyuen community was transformed into a place where a small segment of people was given economic and social authority backed by government agencies. 

“For Karrabing, the difference between Life and the terrifying inertness of Nonlife was never about the nature of existence, but about a virulent form of governance that disembarked from colonial ships.”

As they looked across the bay, beyond which sat most of their lands, Karrabing wondered how they’d survive if they didn’t lease what they had to the mining industry, which grew almost 150% between 2000 and 2010 and now represents more than 10% of the Australian economy. It also contributes more carbon emissions than all 25 million Australians combined. That translates to the ever-higher tides, ever-less rains and ever-more unbearable heat across Karrabing lands.

Late one afternoon, drinking tea around a campfire, the discussion turned to how Karrabing could remake their lives in this state of abandonment. The conversation led to an idea about creating a film collective whose first project would be to make location-based videos that would provide the foundation for a green economy. The Karrabing Film Collective would go on to become an award-winning film and arts group, but on that day, we faced more fundamental existential questions than art. Who were the Karrabing as a group? Who were we? Like the entire Belyuen community, the Karrabing around the campfire that afternoon were the result of generations of intermarriages between coastal clan groups, of totemic actions and ceremonial practices, of waters and winds, flora and fauna. 

That more-than-human world, like they themselves, refused to recognize Western understandings of fences and fence lines. The violence they suffered at the hands of a state-backed policy of “recognition” made the dangers of proprietary relations to land ever clearer — as well as the consequences of not obeying such thinking. Should they just give up and give in to the idea of “separate-separate,” as we refer to “property” in the local creole? Should they treat the water and mineral resources of their lands as mere things — commodifiable without ethical or existential consequence? What kind of human being would they be taken for if they continued to refuse to see themselves as sovereign subjects who ruled their lands rather than belonged to and with them?

“The Indigenous difference had to feel different while being unable to challenge or ‘fracture the skeletal principle’ of the Australian legal system.”

In 1989, I was sitting on a beach with Marjorie Bilbil and several older (now deceased) women as they testified to the land commissioner, lawyers and anthropologists about the agency of a stone totem, Old Man Rock, that defined a small section of mangrove on the Cox Peninsula. At one point, Marjorie turned and asked me if the commissioner believed that this stone totem could sense the presence of humans by their sweat and languages, could discern which of them should or shouldn’t be in its proximity and could respond accordingly — often with fury, sickening and killing humans, sending winds and waves out into the bay or entangling the jungles behind. I said, no, he doesn’t believe rocks can listen or smell; he is trying to assess whether you believe they can. 

Centuries ago, in the early colonial period, the belief that Nonlife was a part of the world of senses and intentions established Marjorie’s ancestors as “Stone Age people” in the eyes of Europeans. The colonial explorer William Dampier called the people he met near Karrabing lands in the late 17th century “the miserablest people in the world” because of their lack of “improvement.” Perhaps Dampier was anticipating the later philosophical development of humans’ supposedly unique ability to act on their capacities. For Dampier, this capacity made it necessary for human reason to dominate nature. Humans must be placed above all other aspects of the more-than-human world.

If understanding Nonlife as part of the world with which humans communicate once made Marjorie’s ancestors Stone Age people, the politics of liberal recognition relied on this same communicative attitude, but for different reasons and ends. The key to the evaluation of Indigenous worth to the multicultural nation, and to the general history of Western liberalism, was the ability of people like Marjorie to become the other — to create not merely an image in the settler mind, but an affective feeling, a kind of cultural difference that made no actual difference to the structures of settler rule. 

The Indigenous difference had to feel different while being unable to challenge or “fracture the skeletal principle” of the Australian legal system, as the High Court justices wrote in the 1992 Mabo decision that finally recognized native land rights. The claim that Old Man Rock had the ability to interpret and respond to human actions fit this demand perfectly. The assembled settlers who would adjudicate the claim could listen in wonder, perhaps even awe, as Indigenous women and men explained the powers of their lands. But they were not in awe of a form of existence that presented an equal truth or competing truth about existence. They could instead feel the uncanny nature of difference that made no difference, because these beliefs for them were not rationally true. In short, as I told Marjorie, and as she already knew, the settlers wanted to believe that Indigenous people thought strange things about the world, without disturbing any conditions of settler truths.

3. Sublime Stone

Settler characterizations of Indigenous Australians first as Stone Age people and then as uncanny humans were based on the transposition of the Western division between Nonlife and Life onto human worlds. The stone of Stone Age people should not be passed over lightly. It provided the imaginary of inertness, of Life’s profound other. This characterization was part of an intense struggle from the 15th century onward when Europeans first leaked and then hemorrhaged out of Europe to destroy the worlds of others. 

The arguments and justifications for the dispossession of First Nation lands pivoted on the presence or development of a shared human soul, of the status of the primitive mind, of the evolution of rational language and all other forms of existence Europeans thought distinguished themselves from animals. They elevated themselves above other forms of Life even as they radically broke Life from Nonlife. They then used these differences to rank other humans along the same hierarchies of sense and value. 

The Jamaican novelist Sylvia Wynter and the artist Denise Ferreira da Silva (among others) have shown how Black and Indigenous people were compared to subordinate forms of Life and Nonlife. In the case of the invasion of Australia, the British decided Stone Age people could be treated the same as they treated actual stones: as things that lacked any purpose other than to be actualized, destroyed or repurposed by humans. These geontological imaginaries helped legitimate and justify a pattern of colonial extraction across the globe — land dispossession (Indigenous, Native, First Nation, Pacific Islander), knowledge appropriation, mineral extraction (soil, crops, plantations) and labor-life consumption in slavery. They are the well-known conditions for the rise of capitalism and the emergence of the concept of liberal humanism. 

“The arguments and justifications for the dispossession of First Nation lands pivoted on the presence of a shared human soul, of the evolution of forms of existence Europeans thought distinguished themselves from animals.”

The profound disregard of the ethical and existential force of Nonlife as part of existence became a necessary feature of Immanuel Kant’s notion of the sublime. In “Critique of Judgement,” Kant discussed two forms of the sublime: the mathematic and dynamic. Both are triggered by a natural object of a certain magnitude and expanse. Crucial to this trigger is a presupposition that natural objects such as Sleeping Buffalo or the Alps above Carisolo lack the capacity to have their own interests and purposes. 

Life cannot trigger the sublime, Kant seems to suggest, because all life forms have some purpose, even if merely to grow and reproduce. Only Nonlife, like the Alps towering above my ancestral village, can exceed our capacities of reason to comprehend, to experience that which is beyond the senses. Kant might say that the mountains gave me a simultaneous sense of physical powerlessness, but also my independence and difference, proving the superiority of human reason and our rightful dominion over nature. Or, as Wynter and da Silva point out, provide certain humans — the Western diaspora — this understanding.

In order to produce the superiority of Western reason, rock (and the human other) must first be experienced as a specific kind of thing, something that cannot be murdered or killed because it is radically other to Life — the geological, the meteorological, everything that seems not to have a capacity to give birth, grow, reproduce and die from within its own evolving skin. What is outside of Life can have no judgment, no reason, no ethical measure — because judgment, reason and ethics have been built from within the division between Nonlife and Life, from within a geontological imaginary. This imaginary underlies capitalism, how the nonhuman world can be treated, what kind of concern extended to it, what sort of person you become if you refuse to participate.

4. Ancestral Jealousy

Our road-building work to Bamayak was part of Karrabing’s commitment to creating different modes of concern and attentiveness; more practically, it was a long-term goal of building what we call an “art residency for the ancestors.” The residency is for the totemic and human ancestors that continue to populate Karrabing lands, connecting the present to the past and providing the foundations on which their lives depend.

Karrabing know their human and totemic ancestors stretch along the coast: the reefs and rock formations, the water holes and water soaks, the large hills where the black water snake carved out deep ridges when it emerged from the sea and headed inland. In keeping these relationships and memories present and strong, Karrabing block the pigs, cattle, commercial fishermen and miners from illegally poaching and legally dispossessing their futures.

“The British decided that stone lacks any purpose other than to be actualized, destroyed or repurposed by humans, so Stone Age people could be treated the same.”

Rex Edmunds had picked a spot as the best place to start following the timber ridge based on trips he had made as a young man. He, Gavin Bianamu and I looked at a map, then at the sun; we felt the winds and pulled out my iPhone compass. All of these gave us a good enough way of staying on course. 

Making a road like we were — with one small chainsaw, a couple axes and two trucks — is slow and arduous. One learns, if they have not already, the different stubbornness of various tree and plant species — pandanus and cycad plants, ironwood and stringybark trees — and the various compositions of rock and stone. For the first mile or so of what we estimated would be 10 or 12, we stuck to our plan. We took turns walking and whacking, driving and dragging debris. 

At noon, we took a break and had lunch in a section of the scrub that a fire had opened. It was left bare and black; humidity and rains would sprout the grasses again. Ahead of us was a three-foot-tall wall of dry grass. After lunch, Rex decided to drive straight into it, discarding our well-made plan to go slow and steady, and light it on fire to make a path. 

To be sure, lighting fires is a traditional practice of Karrabing and other Indigenous groups. Many scientific studies have clarified how fire is used in fire management, in the evolution of seed forms and in the maintenance of the savannah. We are well-practiced in this kind of burning. But what was compelling us to abandon what we knew and instead drive and flick burning tinder into the grass? What did any of us think would happen as the fires built? 

As the sun set and the evening sky turned pink and purple, I pulled my truck alongside Rex’s. The hose to his second gas tank had busted, and he had a hole in his radiator. The fires were closing in on us from all sides. Cecilia Lewis asked me if I knew how to make a fire break, as much a real query as a comment on our certain demise. We did manage to make one, putting her and others with asthma problems inside my vehicle, which had a working air conditioner. Throughout the night, we dragged the disabled vehicle back to Nganthawudi, clearing fires and knocking over the dangerous cycads that were pointing directly into the underside of my still working vehicle. 

What did we blame for our misadventure? Or, what were the grounds on which we constructed and distributed blame? We were certainly critical of each of our specific actions — about using trucks as bulldozers and being too lazy to make a proper fire. But we also knew that judgment can be led astray.

“Those who have had their attention turned elsewhere are forcefully punished.”

In this case, the jealousy of the ancestors latched onto and accelerated the worst of our bad tendencies. Ancestral jealousy — all jealousy — acts in a similar way to how Georg Hegel saw geist (spirit, intellect) act: manifesting itself through human desire. But ancestors, like all aspects of existence, including human existence, are not primarily fueled by the coveting of things. They covet attention. 

Those who have had their attention turned elsewhere are forcefully punished. As in the Karrabing film, “Wutharr, Saltwater Dreams,” the ancestors watched us as we passed through lands we had never been in, that no human had been in for decades, and decided to punish us for never having come before. It did not matter that we were doing an arduous job no one had ever attempted. Nor that the Karrabing Film Collective, through its 10 years of existence, had almost miraculously reignited interest in these ancestral lands and blocked the worst capitalization of the region, finding a way of keeping mining from engulfing the land. Leave aside what seems just based on some idea of good intentions. Punishment was justified for past neglect. 

None of us planned to return to finish the job when we finally made it back to Belyuen — until, that is, we discovered that we were only half a mile from the coast when the ancestors blocked us. So we returned the next weekend to finish the road. I brought a bottle of Kettle One vodka to pour into the sand as an extra defense. We didn’t really need it. Having taken their punishment and returned, the ancestors opened the country. We hit the coast with a kind of shock and joy.

5. Belief And Truth

It is hardly controversial to observe that Western philosophical and political traditions have long been obsessed with the question of human exceptionalism, endlessly returning to a set of questions built upon qualities that are supposedly unique to humans as what should define the hierarchy of existence. Over the centuries, Western philosophers have argued that to have an intention is to be capable of giving an account or to have an account of why, for what and toward what one’s actions are oriented. For them, that capacity is uniquely human — one that nonhuman animals and plants, let alone geological and meteorological formations, are incapable of. 

From this philosophical perspective, geological, meteorological and ecological regions are the environments in which the unfolding of human life takes place. It is for this reason that humans are the agents of history, are in nature and yet separated and distinct from all other natural beings. Sleeping Buffalo in Banff cannot care a wit about me ascending it because it lacks the capacity of intention.

But if we switch from the question of intention to the question of interpretation, we find Nonlife and non-humans sharing a capacity with humans. Smoke has a biochemical signature that can be interpreted by leaves, animals and wind, each of which will change course as a result. These biochemical interpretations will be interpreted in turn by soils and river beds and rocks and glaciers. What humans have done to the planet is being interpreted by the planet all the time: algae bloom, glaciers melt, Ötzi emerges, land sinks, species vanish. 

Nonlife, human and non-human life do not interpret in the same way. And it would be wrong-headed, and dangerous, to project onto or rank the multiplicity of modes of interpretation. To attribute language and speech capacities to all forms of existence is not to include the more-than-human world, but to demand it abide by human reason. If we must be careful not to homogenize all modes of existence to one mode of interpretation, we must also be careful not to fetishize the solidarity of objects and subjects across these chains of signs, that something is interpreting something. All are merely here-ish and there-ish, as the conditions of each are elsewhere — the effects of the increasingly acidic sea off the coast of Karrabing lands, for example, are felt locally, but the conditions of these changes are distributed globally. 

“For Karrabing, the more-than-human world is not an inert indifferent region that lacks purpose or interpretability.”

Six months or so after we had completed the road, Karrabing came and camped on the coast of Bamayak with their kids and grandkids. They could see up close the reef and coastal contours of their totemic relatives, could talk in their vicinity. The conversation led to a revelation that nearly all the totems in the region were where they were because of an ancestral jealousy — a porpoise jealous of a wallaby baby, an owl of a pigeon song, a young girl of young me, a sea serpent of never being invited to a party. 

Half goofing around, we did an “interview” with my granddaughter and Karrabing colleague, Natasha Bigfoot Lewis, in which I pretended to be an ignorant professor trying to understand the difference between Western theories of subjectivity, history and desire, and Karrabing theories of jealousy and attentiveness. Natasha discussed the massive force of jealousy in the formation of topology, in the deformation of social bonds, in the actions of ancestral spirits. Toward the end of our conversation, I asked what could be done to stop these disruptions. I was paraphrasing questions Karrabing are often asked after a screening of their films. Was there some way of stopping jealousy? 

For Karrabing, the question is absurd; the more-than-human world is not an inert indifferent region that lacks purpose or interpretability. We are not moving through a space of sublime indifference to human reason. As Natasha said, it can’t be stopped. How would you? It is everywhere: in humans, lands, totems, animals, ancestors. The only thing you can do is commit to the arduous task of attention. 

Thus, the Karrabing Film Collective became committed to having one’s “roan-roan” (own) place, language and kin — and to the interconnective circuits of totemic, ecological and social forms of existence. Roan-roan and connected. This roan-roan and connected world is not limited to the realm of humans, nor to the realm of Life. It is between the human and more-than-human worlds. Animals also have their roan-roan; they are connected to rivers, to mangroves, to reefs, to waterways and to winds. 

Some say these are spiritual beliefs; Karrabing say that they are true. Truth is not so much about right or wrong according to the Enlightenment ratio of reason, but about the different kinds of existence produced by relations to the more-than-human world. Acting on attention to the direction the sands flow, the temperature of the sea or the movement of ice in the mountains produces a world as certainly as being inattentive to those needs produces another. Just because the West has cast Nonlife from its concern does not mean rock, air, fire and waste will not interpret each other in a way that poisons potable water and arable land.