Daniel May on ‘Fire-sticks, planes, and the ‘Australian strategy’: The Rodger Royal Commission and Indigenous burning discourse in Australia

History seminar at the University of Western Australia
6 September 2017, 11am-noon
Room 1.33 Arts Building

Fire plays a central role in Indigenous Australian cultures, and has been associated with Indigenous Australians since Europeans first sailed past these shores. Yet non-Indigenous perceptions of Indigenous burning aren’t merely academic curiosities; today, they are political incendiaries. In my PhD thesis I seek to explore how conceptualisations of Indigenous burning have changed over time, and how and why these understandings have been used or disputed by non-Indigenous interest groups. I argue that a discourse of Indigenous burning has developed in Australia, and wish to test the degree to which this reflects local or national contexts.

This seminar will focus on the 1960-1 Dwellingup bushfires and following Rodger Royal Commission. It has been argued that the Commission enshrined prescribed burning as an accepted land management practice and legitimised the systems to deliver it – in particular aerial ignition. Contemporary advocates for greater prescribed burning often draw upon the Rodger Commission and academics such as Sylvia Hallam to conflate prescribed burning with Indigenous burning. An examination of the Commission will help shed light on the historical processes which led to the ‘Australian strategy’ of widespread prescribed burning, and question the contemporary entanglement of prescribed burning and Indigenous burning.

Daniel May is a PhD Candidate in the School of History at The Australian National University. His PhD thesis focusses on the politics of Indigenous burning in Australia and the Western United States.

Image: Bert Knottenbeld, bushfire, via Flickr.