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Snowchange Regional Coordinator for Australia Victor Steffensen Revitalizes Crucial Traditional Burns and Skills in Australia

Barron River Falls, QLD

Barron River Falls, QLD

A Billion Burnt Animals, East Coast on Fire, ScoMo in Hawaii – Could this have been averted?

Indigenous knowledge holders in Australia think so. Victor Steffensen, Indigenous Australian based in Queensland and Snowchange regional coordinator for Australia, learned traditional burning skills from two Aboriginal Elders by living with them in the wilderness for decades. Dr. Musgrave and Dr. Tommy George have both now passed on, but the knowledge and their vision for a healthier fire practice continues as Victor applies it across Australia.

He is involved with FireSticks alliance that advocates a return to the cultural burns and Indigenous-led fire and country management. FireSticks and Victor have been organising national training Workshops on burns for over a decade across a range of different ecosystems and landscape formations across Australia from Tasmania to Queensland. As Victor said recently: “We need a whole other division of people out there looking after the land.

The 2019-2020 fire season has brought Victor to national level discussions on re-applying Indigenous practices of fire management on country: ”So many changes have occurred since 1975 … but we can take that knowledge and we can adapt it to suit our times. The key message is that we can take the idea of humans using fire skilfully — we can manipulate vegetation, we can reduce fuel loads, we can sharpen fire boundaries.”

In the recent IPCC meeting in Portugal the Indigenous burns were discussed unofficially amongst the lead authors. More sceptical scientists identified the scale and quality of the traditional fires to differ from the present-day need of burns. Victor and FireSticks have been framing the Indigenous burning techniques as able to adapt to a whole range of ecosystems, habitats, fuel loads and situations. In a recent media interview he said:

“It’s a whole complex system. I’m not saying that it’s all easy. But what I am saying is that if they were all trained and we had a lot more of those practitioners out there we would find that we can burn a lot more country.  For those who have gone through a trauma through these fires, it is very sensitive. I want to really acknowledge that. But at the end of the day I don’t see fear — I see an opportunity. I see an opportunity for people to see hope, to have workshops to go to, to see smoke and know that it’s a good fire that people are out on the land doing something about it.”

Finnish Elder Eero Murtomäki (left) during a recent visit on country with Victor Steffensen (right), November 2019. Snowchange, 2020 (Rita Lukkarinen)

Finnish Elder Eero Murtomäki (left) during a recent visit on country with Victor Steffensen (right), November 2019. Snowchange, 2020 (Rita Lukkarinen)

Victor Steffensen has been working with Snowchange since 2008, and has been our regional coordinator for Australia since 2009. Whilst he is known internationally for his fire work he has developed methods for revitalisation of traditional knowledge, culture and practices more widely. A large Indigenous knowledge recording project has produced educational tools such as the Living Knowledge Place and exchanges with the Skolt Sámi in Finland for over a decade. He is highly respected by people of the land both in the Arctic and in Australia.

An accomplished musician, artist, film maker, fire practitioner and knowledge holder, Victor looks forwards to applying his skills as a part of the Snowchange network and in the national context with a full and strong commitment to country and to his people: “The bottom line is that we need to start looking after the landscape.”

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Children of Unalakleet, Alaska Paint Their Future 2020

Looking towards Norton Sound from Unalakleet, November 2008, Snowchange

Looking towards Norton Sound from Unalakleet, November 2008, Snowchange

Snowchange has been working with the Tribal Village of Unalakleet for close to 20 years on Indigenous knowledge and science of climate change.

In order to see how the children in their community see their situation and things to come, we publish their paintings of the “Future Unalakleet” as a web exhibit to celebrate the vision of the young at the time of immense change in Norton Sound and Alaska.

“In the future I think it will look like one house on the hill and the rest in town. The hill will be bright green it will be really pretty I hope. I will live in that house with my kids. We will go to town every day and it will be very fun.”

Turi: “In the future I think it will look like one house on the hill and the rest in town. The hill will be bright green it will be really pretty I hope. I will live in that house with my kids. We will go to town every day and it will be very fun.”

 

Brendan: “I put snow, snowmans, and clouds. There are shapes and animal clouds. I put the sun. In the future it’s going to snow a lot.”

Brendan: “I put snow, snowmans, and clouds. There are shapes and animal clouds. I put the sun. In the future it’s going to snow a lot.”

 

Caelyn: “Snow Night: My painting is snowing at night. The black thing is the moon but clouds are blocking it. And people could paint their house any color. There is stop, go, and slow is yellow stop signs.”

Caelyn: “Snow Night: My painting is snowing at night. The black thing is the moon but clouds are blocking it. And people could paint their house any color. There is stop, go, and slow is yellow stop signs.”

 

A painting by Eli

A painting by Eli

 

Painting by Ezra

Painting by Ezra

 

Kianna: “In the future I think the snow is going to be colorful. I think the northern lights are all the way to the hills. And the sun looks colorful too. I think the snow mans are gonna be taller and fatter.”

Kianna: “In the future I think the snow is going to be colorful. I think the northern lights are all the way to the hills. And the sun looks colorful too. I think the snow mans are gonna be taller and fatter.”

 

Kiiriq: “The Beach: In the future I think the ocean will get higher.”

Kiiriq: “The Beach: In the future I think the ocean will get higher.”

 

Sidney: “My picture shows what I think it will look like in the future. It might be like a city.”

Sidney: “My picture shows what I think it will look like in the future. It might be like a city.”

 

The visions of the children as painted tell of a future of multiple-coloured snow, sea level rise, urbanisation and houses of distinct colours – reflecting multiple pathways for this strong Norton Sound community might take in the future. Thank you to the pupils and school of Unalakleet as well as Ph D Brie Van Dam for organising the exhibit!

General Store of Unalakleet, November 2008, Snowchange

General Store of Unalakleet, November 2008, Snowchange

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The Ecologist Discusses the Plight of the Winter Seiners of Extremely Warm Winter

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The Ecologist has published an article reviewing the current, on-going collapse of the winter seining conditions in Finland. Winter seiners have written to the EU Commissioner and DG Mare regarding their situation.

The article features Snowchange communal fishery and calls for action on keeping these unique cryosphere cultures. The article is available here.

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Two New Magazine Stories Highlight Snowchange Work in the US

Puruvesi winter seining

Puruvesi winter seining

National Fisherman, a US-based national journal for professional fisheries, published recently a wide-ranging story on the Snowchange fisheries and issues in Kesälahti, North Karelia, Finland. Wooden Boat, another US journal has a story on Arvo Ketolainen, a master of traditional wooden boat building from Karelia.

Snowchange received media attention in the US in Autumn and January 2020 with the publication of two national stories. The National Fisherman highlights issues and climate change impacts to the Puruvesi seining, a fishery that has the first historical records starting at 1300 AD. Geographical indicator, young fishermen and seal issues are discussed.

Wooden Boat, a devoted journal to traditional wooden vessels, has a feature on Arvo Ketolainen, a traditional boat master builder from North Karelia. Arvo’s approach to boat-building and thoughts on revitalisation of the skills and materials used for centuries in Karelia are featured along with original Tero Mustonen photography in the story.

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BBC Documentary Brings 2019 to an End

Season's Greetings

Season’s Greetings

BBC has released a documentary and a podcast documenting Snowchange rewilding efforts in North Karelia, Finland as well as the communities, moose hunting, river seining and land use issues. 

The documentary can be seen here and the podcast is here.

With that Snowchange thanks all staff, partners and allies for a wonderful 2019 and we will see you again in early 2020!

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