Essay

Blinding whiteness

Science and colonialism in the world’s deepest south

I’M STANDING ON the coastline looking seaward, feet planted deeply in the gold-­coated crystal sands that were once part of ancient mountains far to the south. The rock carries its story of a long tidal journey north, testament to the power of deep time. Earth is carried from freshwater to saltwater and to freshwater again. This is a story known well to Australia’s eastern beaches.

I’m at beautiful K’gari, on sacred Badtjala djaa.

Moving backwards, I hear the moon push sands up against the beach, again and again, building. I see casuarina and grasses strip golden nutrients from that white stone, the forests form and wane and grow, destroy, replace, recycle and nurture Country across the millennia.

As the faraway mountains form these quartz shorelines before my eyes, I think: a place exists because of its relationship with other places. The great history of the physical world – of wind, rock and water, of gravity, energy, force and time – connects all places, here and there, in the past, now and into the future, everywhen.

My eyes raise beyond ocean’s shores, and I see familiar patterns that betray her fluidity. Kin breach in the distance, moving northward to warmer waters. The saltwater blow, dorsal fin and flukes identify the pod. They have been called many names. It was on Quandamooka jagun I first connected with whales – yalingbila in Jandai. I choose to write this name, which yalingbila have heard on the winds long ago and still hear today.

What drives yalingbila up and down the coast every year? I imagine this question has been pondered by coastal mob, watching from the shores. I wonder what their first hypotheses were. To breed? To eat? To hide from something? To escape the colder currents? Maybe yalingbila maintain their own songlines through ocean. The answers may already be known.

Yalingbila are kin and, to many, they are Ancestors, they are totems. The connections yalingbila form on their journeys in turn connect our own families through our relationships with kin. I imagine yalingbila migrating up and down the eastern coast, linking and connecting Countries, by weaving these relational threads. How long have yalingbila maintained these connections? How many other non-­human kin migrating through the physical environment share this same ability to connect Nations through Indigenous spirituality? In salt and freshwater, in the earth, trees and sky. There must be many.

Along the migratory path of yalingbila lie the pearl-­white beaches of my Ancestral home: tebrakunna trawlwoolway milaythina-­ta. I have to wonder: do my cousins connect with the same yalingbila? Perhaps they have known a close relative. Did my grandparents have connections with the grandparents of these yalingbila? British sailors famously saw fire on larapuna Country when navigating coastal lutruwita/trowunna – pakana patrula. They were not the first to see the flame from milaythina muka – saltwater kin have watched us use fire to care for Country, have ceremony, talk, cook and keep warm for millennia. Did yalingbila look for pakana smoke on their journeys past this sacred saltwater Country? I wonder if they sensed when the fires slowed. I wonder if they have sensed them start up again.

I know that yalingbila kin and Indigenous peoples are connected through these ways – through genealogy, through spirituality, through continuity, through Law/Lore, through saltwater and oxygen, through time and space, through stories, memories and relationships, through the interconnected nature of all these things. I realise now that the palawa kani I left on the wind at tebrakunna speak to yalingbila and their Ancestors. I am bound to them and to all kin that are a part of my Ancestral homelands. This must be a fundamental part of how I position myself as trawlwoolway pakana.

Kaluyna-­ti (in austral summer), these yalingbila move pole-­ward. They are foraging by straining enormous amounts of water through their sieve-­like baleen hair – bristles of skin that filter tiny crustaceans and small fish. Their journey brings them, every year, to Antarctica – a place not too many Blackfullas have seen.

At first, Antarctica can seem like a place of limited relevance to mob in so-­called Australia. Famously touted as the only continent without Indigenous peoples, it captures the global imagination as a homogenous wilderness, a place separated from the humanities, a place without Law or jurisdiction. Today, it is seen as a bastion for Western science and world peace and one of the last great ‘wildernesses’. Yet stories of animal migration to Antarctica, such as yalingbila, are reminders of global Indigenous connections to the frozen continent. As our kin traverse Antarctic waters, they too connect with the myriad creatures carving a living out of the ice.

Sub-­zero waters, held fluid by salt, harbour life forms critical to the wellbeing of yalingbila and other migratory kin connected to us. Krill form the basis of complex and diverse food webs linking many animals. Our Antarctic kin share their environment with competitors, which host their own complex ecologies. Icefish with thin, clear blood, infused with antifreeze, share the waters with yalingbila. Penguins and seals share ocean too. Ice kilometres thick pushes bedrock and compresses lakes. There is an intrinsic, immeasurable beauty here. The entire continent of Antarctica is a desert, where water availability is scarce. Martu artists Lena Long and Roxanne Anderson imagined this connection with their own desert Country, embedded into the Wiluna paddle, created at the World Indigenous Network Conference in 2013 and presented to the master of the Aurora Australis icebreaker the following year. Ultimately, these deep ecologies of being connect us to Antarctica in ways that do not seem immediately obvious to the settler-­colonial worldview.

First Nations connections to Antarctica are underpinned by our relationships with Country. Caring for Country as a cultural practice and obligation is intrinsically tied to the preservation and conservation of the environment, culture and health, as these are interconnected. For me, the responsibility calls for an appreciation of all factors contributing to the health of the environment, including Antarctica. The lifeblood of the entire planet is underpinned by Antarctica. Ocean moves heat around the world on the salt currents Antarctica generates, dictating how much carbon dioxide waters can take from the air, driving global climate and weather patterns. Sea ice regulates ocean height, and its whiteness reflects the stretched sunlight back into space, where it may touch the corners of the universe. In the whole Southern Hemisphere, climate and weather is driven by the Antarctic oscillation. Much of the biogeography of so-­called Australia is explained by this climate driver, particularly in the south. In this way, we have relational responsibilities to places outside of our sovereign Countries. Country is linked with the health and moods of Antarctica. As custodians of Country, we should pay attention to the health of Antarctica in terms of regulating local weather and climate patterns.

 

AN ANCIENT ANTARCTIC connection permeates through Country, hinting at Gondwanaland. Near yingina I spoke to jagged pencil pines, strewn across glacial block streams, their shapes bent in the mist-­laden air by an icy breeze. These kin are at least twice the age of James Cook’s great-­great-­great-­great-­great-­grandparents. But unlike their own Ancestors, these pines have seen their custodianship cheated, the language of their kin hidden from them, replaced by unfamiliar languages. Pencil pines can trace their genealogy through ice ages, seismic motion and tectonic place-­making. Their Ancestors lived as primitive trees throughout much of Gondwana – the places some call Australia, India, Africa, Aotearoa New Zealand and Antarctica today. The pencil pines still have close genealogical relatives living in Aotearoa and South America, according to Western science. They are more closely related through genealogy to their kin across ocean than to the kin they share a continent with. The same is true of other Gondwanan plants and animals.

I feel Indigenous Antarctic connections through pakana knowledge of creation. lutruwita remained physically attached to Antarctica for a long time, acting as a bridge to the mainland where non-­human kin could migrate within and between Countries. These Indigenous connections to Antarctica need to be articulated. While they are less obvious to some than more recent human presence in Antarctica, they are no less important.

In an enduring Indigenous connection to Gondwanan kin, I think we indirectly embody kinship with animals and plants that share genealogy with our close kin. To me, this idea extends past the geographical boundaries of Country’s physicality, and the implications of this seem immense. In my culture I am lutharakumina, and lutharakumina are my old people. My grandmother’s name is Woretemoeteyenner, meaning the same: black peppermint gum. I understand kin to underpin my relational responsibilities: that is easy to say and harder to practice. I have an enduring connection to lutha in particular – the gums. lutha are fossilised in South America, hinting at more Gondwanan connections. Can you imagine how it felt seeing lutha growing native in Papua New Guinea? Many of our totems relate to kin overseas. Not just genealogically, but ecologically too.

I am a pakana ecologist, trained in the Western scientific thought that has largely assumed responsibility for science education on this continent in place of Indigenous teachings. This raises questions for me: how can I work within the Western framework of science without losing an Indigenous spirituality, without losing a belief in the fundamental interconnectedness of the natural world? This problem arises because Western science seeks to distinguish the spiritual from the secular, ignoring the very fact that we breathe and so we are spiritual creatures. The Enlightenment sought to remove this aspect of humanity from us through liberalism, transforming human and non-­human subjects into objects informed by Eurocentric ontology. Though not inherently cultural, science becomes value-­laden when it is practised by people. Rather than an Indigenist, intersecting and relational approach to understanding what is real, the Western mode of science often seeks to universalise and objectivise truth and compartmentalise knowledge. Animals and plants were coded under Eurocentrism, Christianity and coloniality. Ecocide could be situated next to cultural imperialism because the ‘hard sciences’ were apparently separate from the ‘social sciences’. Western science was imbued with epistemological whiteness. The legacy of this is still felt today.

Engaging with the knowledge-­globalisation project feels dangerous to the mind of the developing Indigenous scientist. There is an interrogation of one’s own mind, often questioning ontological positioning and whether methodologies are culturally appropriate. I stress about the separation of human rights from animal and plant ethics in research. I am often left wondering if there is any point working within the ideals of Western epistemologies so fundamentally at odds with Indigenous ways of thinking and knowing. In research, I see Indigenous perspectives centred rather than Indigenous paradigms. Assimilationist Western science all too often imagines Indigenous sciences as extensions of itself, an expansion of the toolkit – or, worse, as nothing at all – rather than as a parallel and equal, separate and evolving way of knowing. Will my outputs ever serve my relational responsibilities to my community? My kin won’t be with me in my work until this is changed. Yet I and many other Indigenous scientists push on at the white coalface of knowledge production.

 

SCIENCE IS A key historical and contemporary framework through which the human world engages with Antarctica. The idea of Antarctica as a place for science and peace is the foundation of the Antarctic Treaty System. Yet it is important to remember that the physical presence of humanity was felt by Antarctica long before Western scientists came on to the scene. A Māori connection to Antarctica possibly extends beyond genealogy and kinship, beyond non-­human whakapapa, before the first sealing and whaling ships began their exploitation of the continent. This began with the famous explorer Hui Te Rangiora, an expert navigator who sailed Te Iwi-­o-­Atea from Rarotonga across the Southern Ocean in the seventh century. Hui Te Rangiora documented, for the first time, a potential human connection with the towering white ice of Antarctica in oral histories that still persist. If true, Antarctica was no longer just the theoretical place ‘opposite the Arctic’ proposed in the first century by Greek geographer and mathematician Marinus of Tyre. Māori scientists have done great work coding and critiquing these important oral histories in literature.

Māori people have seen Antarctica since, though their contributions to the many expeditions they have been involved in are rarely acknowledged. Sadly, and predictably, this is the case for many marginalised groups involved in Antarctic exploration. Today, Māori scientists are hard at work participating in Antarctic research and attempting to centre their own knowledge systems in Antarctic research frameworks and science policy. How can we not admire their tenacity? The more I consider the palawa connection to Antarctica, the more I echo their sentiments. I realise we should be having similar conversations. We are connected to Antarctica: where are our voices in Antarctic research and policy?

It is often surprising to remember that Antarctica, despite its image in the global imagination of an empty desert, is a complex cultural space. Colonial Australia, to this day, claims sovereignty over the ‘Australian Antarctic Territory’, which covers nearly half of the continent. In 1930, the Union Jack was raised on an island near Antarctica by several raitji asserting British sovereignty by stating some words of British law. This was all done under a deal that would see the United Kingdom then give the land to Australia, which it did in 1933. As those raitji made their way back to the ship, birds were shot, geological samples were stolen, and almost half of Antarctica was transformed into an Australian spatial possession. Six other countries had territorial claims to Antarctica, including so-­called New Zealand and the UK, whose claim overlapped with Argentina’s and Chile’s. It is not lost on me that the area of Antarctica claimed by this combination of British colonial law comprises most of the frozen continent.

Colonisation in a land that is truly terra nullius seems particularly insidious. Who can speak on behalf of Antarctica to the coloniser? The idea that the land cannot offer Indigenous resistance to ecocide brought about by the imperialist presence means that occupying these lands is easier for the coloniser. In this way, colonising forces can influence connected global systems such as climate and ecology, harming Indigenous peoples while rendering themselves invisible as the proximate cause.

Following Federation, white Australia was trying to come to terms with the fact that Indigenous peoples survived the colonisation of the continent. Amid surging Indigenous political presence, protest and reform throughout the twentieth century, the colonisation of Antarctica might be seen as a means to legitimise the colonial foundations of Australia in the public eye through the legal framework of terra nullius. As former Prime Minister Tony Abbott said in 2014: ‘I guess our country owes its existence to a form of foreign investment by the British government in the then unsettled or, um, scarcely settled, Great South Land.’ Antarctica, too, may not have existed in the settler-colonial imagination until it was also ‘settled’. In the case of Antarctica, its inhospitability to human occupation rendered it unsuitable for the sustained presence of a typical colony.

A lack of settler presence in Antarctica seems to subvert colonial claims of sovereignty, but modern nation-­states have found a convenient workaround: Antarctica became a place for science and peace, and the permanent settler presence became that of scientists. None of Australia’s early ‘expeditions’ to Antarctica met the British criteria for effective occupation, so the government built a couple of permanent scientific research bases. This reminds me of the ways in which post-­Enlightenment scientific goals have been used to justify colonialism. Cook’s first voyage into the South Pacific was to capture information from a rare transit of Venus between the Sun and the Earth. Often, these scientific endeavours go hand in hand with the domination and possession of the natural world.

One major impetus for Australia’s Antarctic Territory claim stems, again quite predictably, from international interest in resources and the development of resource bases. Seals and whales, coal, even uranium for a time. At one point there was talk of Antarctica becoming a waste ground for nuclear weapons and waste. This resource narrative flies in the face of Cook’s proclamation, on his second expedition, that Antarctica was ‘useless’. Cook was promoted to post-­captain upon returning to England from this voyage in 1775. Ironically, one legacy of that expedition was horrific colonial violence in the form of the mass slaughter of seals and whales that would follow in his wake. I sleep a little better knowing that though Cook spent three years searching, he never did find Antarctica. Perhaps he and his crew left the harder points of navigation to Māori sailors.

The other, possibly more important, reason Australia lays claim to almost half of Antarctica was one of legacy. During the ‘Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration’, the continent was engaged with by the white man in his pursuit of personal and national glory through adventure. Hegemonic masculinity and imperialism flow through ink in the many diaries of our Antarctic ‘heroes’, yet many historians still seem to read them in awe. The stories of the rich white man braving the tempestuous weather in the name of his country has captured the imagination of many a coloniser.

The product of these values still shapes global imaginings of Antarctica. Recently, Australia’s new Antarctic icebreaker ship was named nuyina: palawa kani for the geomagnetic Aurora Australis that is linked to many Indigenous cultures, even as far as Central Desert Tjukurrpa. Today, the Australian Government claims that ‘the adaptability and resilience of the Tasmanian Aborigines are qualities emulated by our modern-­day Antarctic expeditioners as they travel south’. By misaligning the ‘heroism’ of Antarctic scientists as akin to palawa, the colony reveals its infatuation with imperialism. At face value, naming the icebreaker nuyina is well meaning, but does this naming reproduce colonial dominance and reinforce a power imbalance? And where’s engagement with mob in Antarctic science? That would be worth more to me as pakana than the coloniser naming all their boats in Indigenous languages.

The heroic exploration of Antarctica continues today, with (white) science as the vehicle, fuelled by the Antarctic Treaty and Madrid Protocol. These international agreements are seen as embodying a scientific dedication for environmentalism and peace on the continent. You’d be forgiven for thinking that contemporary Antarctica has been transformed into a responsible and green pursuit, worlds apart from its exploitative and militaristic foundations. Without a treaty, the contradicting claims to Antarctic sovereignty unfreeze and political tensions escalate. Whenever the Antarctic Treaty is renegotiated, concerns of capital development, resource extraction and militarisation will return to the fore.

The Antarctic Treaty calls for any nation to join, provided they are first conducting ‘substantial scientific research’ on the continent. In this way, the treaty ensures human connection to Antarctica remains through the praxis of Western science. I see this as a hangover of its elitist foundations. Antarctic scientists still probe social scientists and humanities researchers when they comment on the continent: ‘Have you ever been to Antarctica?’ ‘Why are you interested in the place? You don’t really need to go there.’ These attitudes are weakly masked by the new ‘enlightened’ politics focusing on conservation and climate-change research. Would these same questions be asked of Indigenous peoples? Conservation thinking is inherent to an Indigenous worldview, not simply a category as it is in Western science. Our Ancestors have been practising conservation for millennia, and scientific thought is one part of this.

The reality is that an Indigenous presence in Antarctica disrupts the hidden colonial agenda, much as women and ethnic minorities were considered invaders of the ‘last bastion of male supremacy on Earth’. I would go a step further in labelling Antarctica a bastion of white supremacy: a place reserved for nothing but the most advanced Western science could only be associated with great white men. The whiteness of Antarctica extends well beyond its ice to the science that is conducted there, to the policy that governs it and to global imaginings of the continent. In the beginning this whiteness was visible through the outcomes of racism and under-­representation of ethnic minorities in the sciences. Only white people were doing science in Antarctica. Things are a bit different now. But it’s still white science.

The whiteness of Antarctica was recently illuminated by the exposure of national Antarctic involvement by apartheid South Africa as something constructed by and for white male colonisers. Consider this statement about Antarctica made by white Antarctic research minister Ben Schoeman during the apartheid era:

The South African nation also knows lonely places, because our forefathers were pioneers. Today South Africa is slandered by people who want us to relinquish our birthright. This is because we want to bring about an order of peaceful togetherness for all races in this country, to help those who have not yet reached this stage in their development and lead them to maturity.

This attitude still plays into how nations interact with Antarctica today: through a benevolent ‘white paternalism’.

Indigenous ways of thinking challenge this white imagining of Antarctica. They disrupt European narratives of the continent and imbue humanities and spiritualities with science. It is an illusion to think that our ontologies project ideas of Antarctica as if the continent were a blank screen. However, the history of colonialism, racism and whiteness hiding underneath that screen is a stronger driver of the ways the world thinks of Antarctica. It has been something to stick a flag in, to conquer and claim, to fight in, to extract from, to brutalise and to colonise. It is now something to protect, but we must not be fooled into thinking that the vestiges of whiteness are gone – that whiteness is blinding to those who can see.

Epistemological whiteness and colonial narratives have dominated and continue to dominate conceptions of Antarctica and how science is conducted there. This needs to be ‘unmasked’, to be properly interrogated. How can we be sure that the agents claiming to represent us in Antarctica will not reproduce coloniality? How can we be sure that outside influences won’t drive the science in Antarctica as they have done in the past? Will Indigenous voice to that treaty be limited by the political realities of our current settler-­colonial context?

There are absolutely no assurances.

Antarctica is linked in so many ways to the health of Country. If we continue to be denied involvement in Antarctic policy, it is another denial of Indigenous sovereign rights. I hope for a future where Antarctic policy reflects the values of Indigenous communities connected to the frozen continent. In this future, the global imagination of Antarctica looks quite different. It is one that honours and centres Indigenous ways of thinking and knowing, our ancestral connections and cultural responsibilities.

 

I AM STANDING on the coastline looking seaward, feet planted firmly on the ancient glaciers of a place deeply intertwined with my ancestral homeland. My kin surround me, in spirit and atom, space and time, in the sea, in the sky, on the land, living and fossilised. The ice carries its evidence of slow global change, ode to the storytelling of time immemorial. Water morphs from solid to liquid to gas, again and again, a tale known well by ocean.

I’m on beautiful Antarctica milaythina.

I watch yalingbila begin their long journey north.

 

Author’s note: I acknowledge all Indigenous peoples, and non-­human kin with connection to Antarctica, as well as the various Countries that have held me where I have written and conceptualised this story. I acknowledge palawa/pakana Country across all nations of lutruwita/trowunna, our Elders and our old people. My inspiration extends to Aotearoa, and I pay my respects to Māori and Moriori peoples and cultures. I realise that our similarities extend well beyond our Antarctic connections in the Indigenous struggle.

I am particularly indebted to the many Indigenous friends and scholars who have inspired me to think on this writing through their words. The list is long, but I was especially inspired by Bundjalung editor Grace Lucas-Pennington, trawlwoolway/plangermaireener nita and scientist Jam Graham-Blair and Ngā Rauru, Te Ātihaunui-a-Pāpārangi, Tūhoe scientist brother Dr Billy van Uitregt. It should be noted that the dissemination of concepts relating to whiteness and decoloniality are constructed from the hard work of many Critical Indigenous theorists and their profound research. I acknowledge those peoples and their life works with deep respect.

This article was commissioned by Grace Lucas-­Pennington as part of ‘Unsettling the Status Quo’, thanks to support from the Copyright Agency Cultural Fund.

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