• Deadly Voices Live in Sydney featured a panel of 'accidental' activists each leading the way for positive environmental change and action. Credit Ken Leanfore (Sydney Opera House)Source: Sydney Opera House
Connecting to country, harnessing social media and taking action as a collective are some of the most powerful ways to affect change according to the three guest speakers that made up the 'Deadly Voices Live' event at the Sydney Opera House on Saturday. Part of the annual Vivid Festival, the discussion- held on the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Referendum, was an important and timely one.
By
Emily Nicol

29 May 2017 - 6:46 PM  UPDATED 30 May 2017 - 11:38 AM

In the face of global change, environmental destruction and corporate greed, there are some that find themselves at the forefront of resistance, either by choice or sheer necessity. For each of the speakers who made up the Deadly Voices panel, the paths that led them into leadership and activism were seemingly 'accidental', but ultimately effective and inspiring.

Led by Eualeyai/Kamilaroi woman, NSW barrister, award-winning novelist, prominent academic and documentary film-maker, Larissa Behrendt, the panel spoke about their individual experiences and challenges.

Kamilaroi Man and hydrogeologist, Bradley Moggridge is passionate about the fusion of traditional knowledge and western science and is on a mission to protect country and in particular, our precious water. Moggridge developed an interest in the study of environmental science and hydrogeology after a University lecturer stated that the future was going to be about water. "I struggled to say the word at first, let alone know what it meant. What connected me further in the study was the understanding of how Aboriginal people have lived and survived for thousands of years on the driest inhabited continent on Earth. Where there are no rivers, billabongs etc, you have to know where to find groundwater. That knowledge has been instilled in these people, they have known and tested the environment and I believe they were the first scientists."

Aboriginal people have lived and survived for thousands of years on the driest inhabited continent on Earth. Where there are no rivers, billabongs etc, you have to know where to find groundwater. That knowledge has been instilled in these people, they have known and tested the environment and I believe they were the first scientists. - Bradley Moggridge

Moggridge worked for the CSIRO as their only Indigenous Waters Research Specialist and as the Program Manager for the NSW Department of Primary Industries’ Aboriginal Water Initiative, and says that that experience has given him leverage in the field as a specialist in advocating for considering traditional knowledge.  After hearing stories from elders, the team learnt when and where water protections and systems can be effective. His mission now is to validate our oldest knowledge through scientific research. Moggridge is also an advocate to get more Aboriginal presence within environmental sciences, even coining his own term 'STEMoriginal' - an Aboriginal working within the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics fields, citing that he is often the only Aboriginal person in meetings, at the table.

 Ojibwe woman enrolled in Couchiching First Nation, Tara Houska, a tribal attorney in Washington DC, National Campaigns Director for Honor the Earth and Native American adviser to Bernie Sanders, spoke about her challenges fighting against corporations for native rights and her time on the frontline at Standing Rock.

Houska began her work as a lawyer within the courts against the removal of children from native families, an experience that was shocking and opened her up to the mistreatment and misunderstanding of native peoples in the justice system. "In South Dakota at the time there was a circle of judges, lawyers, state attorneys who were holding 60 second hearings taking native children out of home. 60 seconds for the parents to advocate to keep their kids. They found out that they were doing this because native children were worth more, there's federal dollars associated with them, so when they get put into foster care, the State gets more." From there her mission shifted completely and Houska went to work as a tribal attorney in Washington DC, lobbyist on behalf of tribes, basically lobbying for money for schools and hospitals versus the oil and tobacco industries. 

 

Upon moving to Washington DC, it became clear to Tara that native people were greatly misunderstood, that 'a disconnect' still existed where not only were they considered to not exist anymore but people would be incredibly ignorant about basic things such as culture and living situations going so far as to ask if Native peoples 'still lived in teepees?'. Houska was confronted also with the Washington NFL team whose name and mascot was Redskins. Native activists from across the US connected on social media and got together to form 'Not Your Mascot- We are A People' working together to rename the Washington team. It was this experience that showed Houska the power of marginalised voices coming together.  

For Houska there was a direct correlation from those overtly racist acts to the racism that still existed on Capitol Hill, the idea that Native peoples were 'savages' and enabled control over the money flow going to reservations. Her next challenge was at Standing Rock against Keystone XL - who were building a pipeline through the tribal lands and drinking water of North and South Dakota. Houska used her position as an attorney to give free legal service to those opposed to the pipeline, but joined those on the ground when it was clear the construction companies were not listening.

I wanted to advocate for those that didn't have a voice, those that were left out of the conversation consistently, whose rights were decided by somebody else. Standing Rock was a moment where Indigenous peoples stood up and said No. -No more. - Tara Houska 

"I wanted to advocate for those that didn't have a voice, those that were left out of the conversation consistently, whose rights were decided by somebody else. Standing Rock was a moment where Indigenous peoples stood up and said 'No. -No more- you have done this enough, you have consistently treated our lands as sacrifice lands." Houska had just come off the Bernie Sanders campaign and felt it was the right place to be. Though there were wins and losses with the resistance, including several people who were severely injured by  State troops, ultimately Houska believes that what happened was a move in the right direction. Her advice now to those who want to be part of resistance is to divest their monies from the banks that fund these types of projects.

Dayne Pratzky, aka 'The Frackman' rounded out the panel of Deadly Voices Live, and shared his story of becoming an accidental activist with passion and humour.  Not long after buying land in Western Queensland, a 'bush change' for the carpenter who grew up on Sydney's Northern Beaches, the gas industry came knocking on his door to let him know that he now lived on a gas field, and there was nothing he could do to stop them from creating gas wells.

He was immediately thrown into a position of advocating for land. "It was an Aha moment for me. I thought someone is trying to steal my land. This has happened before. All of a sudden, I became a custodian of that land and it broadened my horizons and forcefully educated me. I was oblivious. It wasn't until this happened that i became embarrassed that I had not taken notice of the history of the land that I was walking on."

All of a sudden, I became a custodian of that land and it broadened my horizons and forcefully educated me. I was oblivious. It wasn't until this happened that i became embarrassed that I had not taken notice of the history of the land that I was walking on. -Dayne Pratzky

Pratzky's battle against the government became the subject of a widely screened documentary 'Frackman' and it's an experience that took it's toll on him. After being diagnosed with PTSD, he is now returning to talk about the experience and remain a voice for the voiceless in the face of destruction and short sighted projects supported by corporate giants. His advice to those who are similarly passionate about taking up the position in a David v Goliath case? "Connect to your emotions. Connection to country and what Indigenous people have spoken about is in me now. I encourage people to get involved on some level. The people I've met and things I've experienced, money can't buy. That is what gives me strength."