In Conversation: Victor Steffensen

Portrait of Victor Steffensen.

After the devastating bush fires in the summer of 2019, there has been increased awareness of the efficacy and sustainability of cultural burning for healing Country. Reconciliation News sits down with Tagalaka man Victor Steffensen, author of ground-breaking book Fire Country, on where to from here.

Victor Steffensen is a Tagalaka man and author of the ground-breaking book, Fire Country. Guided by his mentors, Kuku Thaypan Elders Dr Tommy George and Dr George Musgrave, Victor has worked for decades tirelessly advocating for a decisive Aboriginal voice in land management and ecological services.

He has been a key activist for a return to cultural burning practices led by local Aboriginal people holding fire workshops across Australia for farmers, firefighters and government agencies.

Your book Fire Country is as much about the journey of an Aboriginal man reconnecting to Culture, as it is about fire. Can you tell us a little about that journey?

My mother’s family are Tagalaka. My Granny was sent to be a housemaid, separated from her brothers, one was sent to Palm Island and one to work on the cattle stations, so we were separated and unable to pass on a lot of knowledge and language.

That was why it was hard for me to learn my culture and language and that’s what drove me to relearn those things, that’s been my aspiration from when I was a little boy.

How did that aspiration manifest itself?

I felt there was a gap, a big hole inside. I learned about my father’s family and his Viking heritage at the table, Mum would talk about where the Aboriginal side of the family came from but it couldn’t go no further because she and her family were taken away from Country and her Elders.

I grew up in an Aboriginal community at Kuranda in Far North Queensland, and many friends didn’t know where they came from. This loss of knowledge and connection was the key reason I started recording this knowledge and sharing it with other communities. Right around the country we have Indigenous communities suffering from the effects of colonisation, and I wanted to change that.

In the book you describe meeting your mentors, Kuku Thaypan Elders, Dr Tommy George and Dr George Musgrave, for the first time. It’s clear that Uncle Tommy saw something in you when he invited you to share his home in Laura. Tell us about that first meeting.

Old TG (Dr Tommy George) saw me and I saw him and that was the beginning. It was like we were drawn to each other. Those two old men saw my huge thirst for knowledge and they had a similar thirst to share knowledge, to pass that down to the next generations. When the three of us met, we found a place where we could fulfil that dream.

Where I could learn and they could teach, and together we could help pass on knowledge on Country. All Indigenous Elders across the world have that dream; to see the people and Country healthy again, thriving and healing.

Back then there was no involvement of Aboriginal people in land management; it was a time when the knowledge of those old men was most needed.

Both of those Elders have passed on but how much of your successes did they see before they went?

Those old fullas left knowing that they had achieved something important in their lives. They were confident that I would carry this on for the rest of my life. They were very happy to see their knowledge being shared with other Mobs and to receive their honorary doctorates (from James Cook University) in recognition of their life’s work.

Those Old Men are also recognised by all the communities we work with across Australia, as the seed of all that knowledge and that’s something very beautiful.

Aboriginal knowledge and science, has been largely ignored, even dismissed and ridiculed by mainstream Australia. The 2019 bushfires caused a significant shift in attitudes towards Aboriginal fire management techniques. Is this a sign that real change is happening?

Our work has occurred during a time of considerable change in the attitudes of the broader community towards Aboriginal knowledge. Since the 2019 wildfires there’s been a huge shift and that is what we are all about, Aboriginal voices and Aboriginal knowledge being heard. Fire is just the beginning.

Our first burns were illegal burns, we couldn’t get a fire permit. Even today we’re still up against all that denial. It’s just based on fear that’s been taught to all Australians since colonisation and that has produced who we are today, black and white. If you’re an Australian that thinks that colonisation only affects Indigenous people, you’re wrong. If you think that Aboriginal people can’t do things for ourselves then you have a colonised mind.

The healing of communities is crucial, the healing of Country is crucial and decolonising the minds of Black and white Australians is crucial to us finding solutions into the future.

In the book you express a fear that the broader community might take fire knowledge while continuing to exclude Aboriginal people from both burns and a role in broader land management issues. How do we ensure that doesn’t happen?

Aboriginal people understand that non-Indigenous people and government agencies are part of our lives and we want to share our knowledge. Aboriginal people have always been like that; the Guugu Yimithirr even helped feed Captain Cook when he was laid up in Cooktown. Aboriginal people are a generous people whose culture is based on sharing.

When we see non-Indigenous and government organisations take this knowledge, run off with it, and all of a sudden, they are controlling it, wanting to do it their way, dictating how it should be done, it’s no longer cultural burning and we are not applying Indigenous knowledge any more. They need to take a step back and let Aboriginal people lead for a change.

If we continue to see this western dominance then we are going to see opportunities lost and our knowledge bastardised.

Are you saying that for Aboriginal fire practices to work there must be a bigger societal change to return power and agency to Aboriginal people?

Yes, Aboriginal knowledge can’t be utilised effectively without Aboriginal people, without people who understand that knowledge and its cultural context. Too many government agencies and others want to jump the gun, run off with our concepts without properly understanding them. It’s the same old way of thinking; that there’s always gotta be whitefellas in charge. How can they be in charge when they don’t know what they are doing?

But in many places it’s working very well, we are getting a lot of communities running their own burns and getting cooperation from the government and private landholders.

Are you optimistic about the future? Do you think Australia is heading in the right direction?

I’m always optimistic! You have to be optimistic! My advice is don’t listen to negative people; those who say that something can’t be done, that it’s too time-consuming, too costly. What I learned from my mentors and from the Country itself is that we can heal this land. This is an exciting time not a time for doom and gloom.

This story appears in the October 2020 issue of Reconciliation News

Paul House with gum leaves and smoke
Paul Girrawah House

Paul Girrawah House has multiple First Nation ancestries from the South-East Canberra region, including the Ngambri-Ngurmal (Walgalu), Pajong (Gundungurra), Wallabollooa (Ngunnawal) and Erambie/Brungle (Wiradyuri) family groups.

Paul acknowledges his diverse First Nation history, he particularly identifies as a descendant of Onyong aka Jindoomang from Weereewaa (Lake George) and Henry ‘Black Harry’ Williams from Namadgi who were both multilingual, essentially Walgalu-Ngunnawal-Wiradjuri speaking warriors and Ngunnawal–Wallaballooa man William Lane aka ‘Billy the Bull’ - Murrjinille.

Paul was born at the old Canberra hospital in the centre of his ancestral country and strongly acknowledges his First Nation matriarch ancestors, in particular his mother Dr Aunty Matilda House-Williams and grandmother, Ms Pearl Simpson-Wedge.

Paul completed a Bachelor of Community Management from Macquarie University, and Graduate Certificate in Wiradjuri Language, Culture and Heritage and Management from CSU.

Paul provided the Welcome to Country for the 47th Opening of Federal Parliament in 2022. Paul is Board Director, Ngambri Local Aboriginal Land Council, Member Indigenous Reference Group, National Museum of Australia and Australian Government Voice Referendum Engagement Group.  

Paul works on country with the ANU, First Nations Portfolio as a Senior Community Engagement Officer

Acknowledgement of Country

Reconciliation Australia acknowledges Traditional Owners of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing  connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures; and to Elders past and present. 

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples should be aware that this website contains images or names of people who have passed away.

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