Learn about Aboriginal cultural burning in South Australia

News article |

Cultural burning is a contemporary term used to describe the long standing First Nations practice of using fire to care for and manage Country.

For more than 60,000 years, Australia’s First Nations people have followed cultural practices, including the use of fire, to care for their Country (the term ‘Country’ in this context refers to the cultural connection that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have with the lands of their ancestors).

Forced separation of First Nations people from their traditional lands, as well as European colonisation and farming practices, has drastically altered the Australian landscape over the years. Large parts of Australia have not been managed using cultural burning for many generations, resulting in unhealthy environments and increased fuel loads that increase the risk of wildfire.

Cultural burning is now being reintroduced in some parts of SA and there is a growing awareness about its important role in urban and rural areas.

Cultural burning is used to manage land, plants and animals. Fire is used to expertly control weeds, regenerate plants, mitigate the effects of bushfire, increase food supply and improve access to areas for cultural purposes.

Cultural burning is generally different to western prescribed burning in that smaller, cooler and slower burning fires are used to manage the landscape.

Burning in this way allows wildlife enough time to escape the flames, while achieving environmental and cultural benefits.

Planning and implementing cultural burns allows First Nations people to better connect to Country. It is also an activity where traditional language is used and stories are told. Younger people in attendance learn the language and the stories while helping with various aspects of the burn. Cultural burns are a place where cultural knowledge is passed onto younger generations of First Nations people.

Local traditional fire practitioners are keeping this ancient, invaluable Aboriginal practice alive in SA.

There’s also with growing interest from private land managers keen to learn more about how this ancient practice could be used on their own properties.

Representatives of the Kaurna community have steadily been reintroducing cultural fire to contemporary land management over the past few years. Kaurna are the original people of Adelaide and the Adelaide Plains.

Did you know? Australia’s first cultural burn in a capital city since European colonisation was held in Adelaide

A Kaurna cultural burn was held at Carriageway in Parkin Tuthangga (Park 17) of the Adelaide Park Lands in May 2021.

The burn was a powerful example of healing together. It was the first cultural burn in an Australian capital city and the first on Kaurna Yerta (Country) since European colonisation.

Learn about Aboriginal cultural burning in South Australia
A cultural burn in the Adelaide Park Lands in 2021 was the first in an Australian capital city, and the first on Kaurna Yerta, since European colonisation. Photo: Matthew Turner

The Kaurna community with the City of Adelaide and Green Adelaide worked together to make this cultural burn a reality.

You can read more about it on the City of Adelaide’s website.

Since this landmark cultural burn, the Kaurna fire team has joined the Firesticks Alliance Indigenous Corporation, conducted multiple burns on different patches of Kaurna Yerta and held national conferences and cultural exchanges with Aboriginal ranger groups from all across Australia.

Through a partnership with Green Adelaide and local government, the Kaurna fire team have diligently been healing Country at Field River in Adelaide’s southern suburbs, restoring sections of the system to its natural state, increasing the water quality of the spring fed creek and successfully removing infestations of olive and ash trees. By allowing themselves to be directed by Country and applying the right fire to Country, the Kaurna fire team are re-establishing cultural fire as a key component of managing Kaurna Yerta, successfully healing Country and community as they go.

Nukunu fire practitioners demonstrate how fire interacts with culture

Nukunu Wapma Thura (Aboriginal Corporation) recently led a cultural burn at Wilmington alongside Firesticks Alliance, supported by SA Native Title Services.

The two-day workshop, which was held on a parcel of land that was returned to the Nukunu People from a private citizen in 2021, brought together invited community members from Nukunu, Narungga, Ngadjuri, Barngarla, and Kaurna nations.

Learn about Aboriginal cultural burning in South Australia
Nukunu Wapma Thura recently led a cultural burn at Wilmington alongside Firesticks Alliance, supported by SA Native Title Services. Photo: Matthew Turner

The group learned about the ways cultural burning helps to maintain biodiversity, stimulate plant regeneration and control invasive species to improve the country’s health.

Hear directly from Nukunu man Travis Thomas about The Significance of Cultural Burning for the Nukunu People, on an episode of SA Native Title Service’s Aboriginal Way podcast series.

Learn about Aboriginal cultural burning in South Australia
Clem Newchurch and Travis Thomas at the Wilmington Cultural Burn. Photo: Matthew Turner

This comes after cultural burning returned to Yorke Peninsula and the southern Flinders in May 2022 with Narungga and Nukunu First Nations people reconnecting with the ancient practice, when 5 burns were supported by the Northern and Yorke Landscape Board and, with funding from WWF-Australia’s Regenerate Australia program.

Kaurna and Peramangk cultural representatives learn more about cultural burning at National Custodians of Country Gathering

In August 2023, Kaurna and Peramangk cultural representatives travelled to Tjapukai (near Cairns) in August for the Biri Bulmba Budang National Custodians of Country Gathering, coming together with other First Nations from across Australia who are all working to manage Country.

Hosted by the Wet Tropics Bama and the Firesticks Alliance, the gathering demonstrated practical innovation for contemporary land and sea management, biodiversity, threatened species management and agriculture with several practical sessions and cultural workshops, with the use of cultural fire central to the theme.

Workshops also extended beyond the environmental focus and featured powerful expressions of culture and family connection, with performances of dance, ceremony and language incorporating elders and young children.

It is hoped the learnings gained will help further integrate First Nations ecological knowledge to manage Country in the Hills and Fleurieu region. Read more about the gathering here.

Landscape boards of South Australia Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Statement of Commitment

Landscape boards are committed to learning from and with First Nations partners, actively seeking their ideas and supporting their aspirations. The Statement of Commitment seeks to genuinely honour the intent of reconciliation and the ‘Closing the Gap’ principles.

NAIDOC Week

National NAIDOC Week celebrations are held across Australia in the first week of July each year (Sunday to Sunday), to celebrate and recognise the history, culture and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. NAIDOC Week is an opportunity for all Australians to learn about First Nations cultures and histories and participate in celebrations of the oldest, continuous living cultures on earth

This updated story was first published in May 2022.

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