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6 minutes

Our Islands, Our Home

Jess Johnston
Last edited: March 26, 2024

On a calm and warm early evening in March, the Australian National Maritime Museum became a site of creative disruption and decolonial place-making.

Much has been written recently about the ways in which museums and colonisation are inextricably linked. As physical spaces that house collections of objects, archives, cultural heritage items and even human remains – many of them stolen and violently extracted – these institutions have often arranged, presented and told narratives about as opposed to with the peoples to whom these items and stories belong. Worse, these thinly-veiled colonial narratives have typically been offered up to genuinely curious individuals, school groups and communities divorced from their proper historical and cultural context, without specificity, as if they were part of an objective, neutral and singular historical voice. 

On 5 March, the cavernous, clean-lined spaces of the Maritime Museum were suddenly filled with the sights and sounds of Zenadh Kes (the Torres Strait Islands), the Pasifika and surrounding seas. Bursts of colour, the rustle of woven skirts, dancers’ feet rhythmically hitting the cold tile floor, and the call of the bu shell which you could feel reverberate inside your body. Waskam Emelda Davis, a City of Sydney Councillor and second-generation Australian South Sea Islander woman of First Nations and Caribbean descent, called the evening a display of protest and resistance through art and story and a disruption to colonial spaces. It was a night of creativity and storytelling co-hosted by that brought together Traditional Owners from the Beetaloo Basin and the Torres Strait to tell their stories of resistance against the fossil fuel industry’s impact on First Nations communities.

Standing on a balcony overlooking the traditional dance and music, I kept thinking about a tension we all face – whether we know it or not – as we hurtle collectively into a future that is both full of possibility and increasingly marked by catastrophe. Fire, floods, coral bleaching, cyclones, rising tides, food insecurity… these are quickly becoming our new normal. There is no ‘going back’ to a time before the intertwined crises of colonisation, capitalism and climate emergency (the three extractive C’s!). We are in it, all of us together, having to rapidly find new ways to build futures that are safe, just and sustainable. But what traditional cultures and lifeways remind us is that as we hurtle into this unknown future, we are also rooted in the past. We all come from somewhere. Places and people that survived long before us, and whose her(his)stories, traditions, knowledges and practices we have inherited. We have to find new and better ways forward, and maybe those new ways ask us to first look back. 

In 2022, a group of Torres Strait Islander activists made international legal history after the UN Human Rights Committee found that the Australian Government is violating its human rights obligations to Torres Strait Islanders by failing to act on climate change. This, of course, is a deep-seated reality that many Torres Strait Islanders and First Nations Peoples all over the world don’t need the UN to confirm for them. It is written in their bodies, in the rising waters that are their homes but also their living relations, and in the plants and animals that are vital to all of our survival but which they have not seen for many years due to climate disruption caused by fracking, mining and other carbon-intensive activities. Still, the landmark decision obliges the Australian Government to do whatever it takes to ensure the safe existence of the Torres Strait Islands and sets a precedent for First Nations Peoples all around the world.

As Yessie Mosby, a Zenadh Kes Masig man and Traditional Owner living in the Kulkalgal tribe area in the Central Torres Strait Islands, spoke that night, he wove a traditional basket out of coconut leaf. The beautiful metaphor wasn’t lost on me. Listening to him, two truths landed in my body where the sounds of the drumming still echoed: the first is that the quality of our lives and our futures are interconnected and interwoven like the coconut leaf, no matter how distant we may feel geographically or otherwise. What happens in Zenadh Kes happens to us all. This is the wisdom that First Nations Peoples and communities across the globe have held since time immemorial, and that climate catastrophe is slowly teaching the rest of us. The second message is that in order to build sustainable and vibrant futures based on justice and safety for all, we have to listen to those who hold the knowledges and stories of the past, whose wisdom is woven into their bodies. Tradition doesn’t have to send us back to the past. It is also an invitation to build new worlds together. 

Mosby, together with seven other activists known as the #TorresStrait8, runs a campaign called Our Islands, Our Home. The campaign aims to build community support in urging the Albanese Government to protect Zenadh Kes from climate damage and has five main demands: 

1. Fund adaptation programs that will allow Zenadh Kes (Torres Strait Islands) communities to adapt to climate impacts;

2. Commit to going 100% renewables in Australia in the next 10 years;

3. Support Zenadh Kes communities to build community-owned renewable energy;

4. Transition away from fossil fuels as rapidly as possible through a just transition for workers; and

5. Push the world to increase global ambition and keep warming to less than 1.5 degrees.

This is not a campaign whose effects or principles are limited to the Torres Strait Islands. Their five demands are all of our demands. The future of Zenadh Kes – and indeed of all the lands, waters and skies that are our collective home – is our future. The way the very first coconut leaf is woven at the bottom of the basket ripples upward to the very top, and so it is in our world. 

The sights, sounds and stories that evening at the Maritime Museum were loud and clear as they said: we are here, as we have always been. These spaces, filled with objects and stories and futures, are ours too. Listen to us, and join us. 

As the incredible Gangulu artist and activist Dr Lilla Watson said, born of the collective process of the Aboriginal activists group in 1970s Queensland:

If you have come here to help me you are wasting your time, but if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.

To learn more about the Our Islands Our Home campaign, visit their website. You can take action and sign their petition here.

Jess Johnston
Research and Policy Officer

Jess comes to ANTAR with a diverse range of professional and life experience. She holds a BA in Government and International Relations and Philosophy, and is a recent graduate of the University of Sydney’s Master of Peace and Conflict Studies program where she wrote her dissertation on the politics of refusal.

Jess has spent the last fifteen years on Treaty 7 territory in and around Moh’kins’tsis and the traditional territory of the Stoney Nakoda people, and now lives on Gadigal land where she is a mother, a feminist and an avid coffee drinker.