The State of the Comparative Wests Project, 2013

Creating countries: mosaic burning in indigenous lands in the Sierra Nevada, California, and the Western Desert, Australia. Photographs by Don Hankins (CSU Chico) and Rebecca Bliege Bird (Stanford).

The Comparative Wests Project (CWP) is a broad interdisciplinary investigation into the dynamics of settler colonial invasion of indigenous countries, and how the legacy of this interaction continues to shape the ecologies and social landscapes of the western United States, Canada, and Australia. The project explores the shared settler colonial histories of these “Wests” by bringing together indigenous leaders, historians, anthropologists, ecologists, literary and legal scholars, art historians, artists, journalists, policymakers, and land managers from Stanford, nearby institutions, and from Canada, Australia, and the Pacific. Since its conception in 2010, the CWP has convened a series of seminars, conferences, and exhibitions at Stanford and Australian institutions, and has provided support for four visiting scholars (from University of New South Wales, La Trobe University, and Prescott College), honors undergraduate research projects, doctoral dissertation fellowships in history and anthropology, and two post-doctoral fellowships at Stanford’s Bill Lane Center for the American West. The CWP is now providing a foundation for a new program of multi-disciplinary research supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF) focused on land use change and livelihoods among indigenous communities in California and Western Australia, with broad implications for new comparative scholarship and policy across “The Wests.”

The CWP events over the last year were capped by an unprecedented exploration of “country” in Australia. With support from NSF, the Mellon Foundation, Stanford’s Woods Institute for the Environment, and the Australian National University (ANU) Humanities Research Centre and Research School of the Humanities and Arts), the CWP assembled scholars, policymakers, artists, journalists, land managers, curators, and First Nations representatives from Australia, the American West, and Canada. Symposia series were held at the ANU and the University of Western Australia (UWA) to investigate the processes and implications of creating and maintaining the indigenous “countries” that continue to define western North America and Western Australia.

Following the UWA conference, the First Nations and Bill Lane Center participants traveled with Martu Traditional Owners to their Native Title lands and Karlamilyi National Park, situated in the heart of the Western Desert, 1,300 kilometers northeast of Perth. Participants spent a week with Martu community members, hunting, gathering, caring for country, weaving baskets, and traveling throughout their homelands. The remarkable cultural exchange has established new partnerships for understanding how countries are constructed, the forces involved in their transformation, and the relationship between livelihoods and arts that comprise those countries.

This partnership forms the basis for our NSF funded program to investigate the role of indigenous burning practices in a range of vulnerable ecosystems in California. The basic research program, involving data collection on distinctive cultural fire regimes in tribal lands in the Sierra Nevada, Central Valley, and Klamath regions, is now underway. The project offers unprecedented opportunities for scholars, tribes, and land managers to collaborate in solving pressing issues on the changing nature of California landscapes. In association, the Bill Lane Center is supporting Jared Dahl Aldern (Prescott College) as a visiting scholar, and providing media fellowships to three First Nations young leaders focused on producing a series of videos on the restoration of traditional burning practices and stories to the indigenous lands of western North America and Australia.