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Intertwined Languages and Broken Flows: Reading Ontological Polyphonies in Lower Murray Country (South Australia)

Camille Roulière


In the context of severe environmental degradation, this article analyses governmental and Ngarrindjeri discourses surrounding the understanding and management of water in Lower Murray Country (South Australia). It shows that mutated colonial practices around water management in the Murray-Darling Basin have placed the Lower Murray region under unprecedented environmental threat. Future-oriented, paternalistic and linguistically intransigent poetics of elsewhere are used to justify the implementation of these monolingual practices, which gag alternative epistemologies. In response to this imperialistic water management (labelled as a second wave of dispossession), and strengthened by the growing recognition of Indigenous rights worldwide, Traditional Owners from the Basin have developed the concept of Cultural Flows to subtly subvert these silencing discourses and reclaim their right to a voice within governmental agencies involved in developing water management policies. This article argues that this reappropriated and re-rooted concept of Cultural Flows is merely the tip of a larger poetic shift in language, and can serve as a pivot around which to understand the mechanisms through which Aboriginal Nations, and in particular the Ngarrindjeri, weave their cultural practices, both figuratively and literally, within mainstream artistic and ecological discourses. Current manifestations of this shift, as expressed through visual arts (Riverland: Yvonne Koolmatrie, Art Gallery of South Australia), music (travelling performance project Ringbalin) and environmental politics (National Cultural Flows Research Project), are examined to demonstrate that this shift creates a new language which can be understood as a mode of highly localised Baroque speech (following Édouard Glissant’s definition of the term).

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1As a brief preamble, two aspects of this work require explanations.

2First, the presentation of this essay is unconventional. It is primarily visual and to be understood, literally and figuratively, as a tableau in the dual French meaning of the term, i.e. as both table and picture. The graphic aspect of this non-linear vis-à-vis format was deemed the most constructive manner to achieve the article’s aim of preserving the opacity of Ngarrindjeri discourses, while shedding new light on the interdependency between the “hyphenated” histories (Johnson 2014: 318), both current and historical, of governmental and Ngarrindjeri ontologies and practices in relation to waters.

3This format allows for the author’s interpretative imaginary to be made explicit: this is its picture side. Ngarrindjeri quotations, extracted from material released and/or compiled by the Ngarrindjeri to support their projects, are separated from the body of the analytical text and presented as a picture framed between two dotted lines. This clear demarcation and relational apposition between the authorial voice, italicised theoretical definitions used as epigraphs and Ngarrindjeri discourses appearing as quotes generates a productive tension, the aim of which is to deconstruct the representational practice of the “Other”.

4This format also allows for autonomous and spontaneous connections between the cells, visually placed in dialogue: this corresponds to its table format. These reactional interactions are not designed solely as oppositions, but as infinite potential “juxtapositions” (Binney 1995) of multiple and multiplying realities. As each reader becomes involved and (re)(dis)connects the cells, the ontological divide between governmental and Ngarrindjeri discourses is to be interpreted as a deforming space filling with burgeoning polyphonies, rather than as the manifestation of an unbridgeable and absolute schismatic void. I also decided to insert a set of photographs which I took in 2015. These seemingly innocuous illustrations contribute to further disrupting the expected linearity of the reading experience by requiring yet another type of engagement from the readers. As they transition between text and photograph and unconsciously translate one into the other, their responsibility becomes involved: they are themselves bringing a vision of Lower Murray Country into being.

5Second, I must stress that the insights I offer come from a specific perspective: I am white, French-Australian, middle-class, and tertiary-educated. My “gaze” (Pratt 1992) belongs to the dominant majority which still continues to define and shape Aboriginality from the outside, and writing this article indubitably raises a number of ethical issues. The representational challenges posed by such an endeavour are sorely rooted in centuries of colonial practices, ranging from a denigrating essentialism to a mode of celebratory appropriation. My aim here, in an attempt to avoid reproducing these oppressive patterns, is to disrupt representational boundaries: left to speak for themselves, Ngarrindjeri quotations retain their opacity (i.e. the expression of what cannot be articulated) as I abandon, to a certain degree, a performative discursive authority by way of the renunciation of a purely demonstrative and/or argumentative logic.

Understanding the Waters of Lower Murray Country

Birds in Lower Murray Country

Birds in Lower Murray Country

All pictures by the author.

Western Discourses: the government’s voice


The quest for water, deemed to represent a source of mobility, development and commerce, whose hypothetical presence and abundance were tantamount to a good omen, figured at the centre of the European colonial imaginary in Australia. Australian waters nonetheless proved a source of disappointment and frustration: difficult to locate, lacking permanence, behaving unexpectedly and disappearing prematurely (Carter 1987: 54-60). When European explorers stumbled upon Murray River Country in the 1820s, it nonetheless represented an acceptable materialisation of their long-held dream. The physicality of the waters empirically substantiated the promise of riches and allowed for the projection of the squatters’ expectations, as a result of which this fertile region was promptly settled. An agricultural industry burgeoned. In the settler’s imagination, this fast-growing industry quickly emerged as a business of national importance upon which potential development success rested, and rests still (Robin 2007: 207-209; Alexandra and Riddington 2007: 326). Water management, centred on agricultural needs, became indispensable to support this ever-expanding pastoral vision (Regulation Impact Statement 2012: vii, henceforth RIS), and a plethora of investments flooded the region for that purpose (“Living Murray Story” 2011: vi). These investments gradually transformed Murray River Country into what is now colloquially known as the “food basket” of Australia. The agricultural yield of this annual $15 billion industry accounts for 40 percent of the country’s production, and 1/3 (or $5 billion) of it is “produced with the assistance of irrigation” (RIS 4-5, 7). This intensive agricultural development and expansion is not without dire consequences for the region’s environmental health. Man-imposed water diversion, storage and flow have placed the entire area under major and unprecedented environmental threat (RIS vii, 12-13; Zhu et al. 2010: 898).

The system’s unsustainability and the need for managerial change have been documented for decades (Norris et al. 2001; Gawne et al. 2011). While popular awareness about the “limits and weaknesses” of the current system was raised during the Millennial Drought, it has become clear that the appalling and constant decline in environmental health is not restricted to drought years (RIS iv, 16), and that this degradation has a profound impact on the physical and mental health of the Riverland communities. This threat has become so severe that the government has warned that, at the current rate of decline, critical water needs will soon be impossible to meet in certain areas (Ryan 2009: 8). Located at the very end of Murray River Country, the ecological health of the Coorong, the Lower Lakes and the Murray Mouth (in Lower Murray Country) is principally determined by upstream water management and regulation. Such a geographically-induced dependency means bearing the worst of the degradation (RIS 13, 16, 82). It also means that any proper discussion of the governmental understanding of water in Lower Murray Country requires a consideration of the entire Murray River Country.

Since European colonisation, water management in Australia has been implemented via diverse governmental agencies. In a bid to address the current environmental crisis through a standardisation of practices, a new managing body was appointed and now oversees and regulates waters throughout Murray River Country: the Murray-Darling Basin Authority (MDBA). Since its inception in 2008, this overarching governmental agency has already produced a great number of reports (see the MDBA Website’s “Publication” page). An in-depth analysis is beyond the scope of this article, and a choice was made to select and focus on the most pertinent sources:

  • The MDBA Website;

  • The 2012 MDBA-issued Regulation Impact Statement (RIS);

  • The 2015 MDBA-issued Annual Report 2014-1015 (Report).

While the content of these sources has been discussed extensively from scientific, political and environmental perspectives, they remain largely unexplored from a poetic perspective. Yet it seems that this discarded perspective could offer insights on how waters in general, and in Lower Murray Country in particular, are understood. This is important because the way in which waters are understood and represented conditions the way in which they are managed. This article thus explores not the efficiency or pertinence of governmental water management in Lower Murray Country as presented in these sources, but the ways in which waters are portrayed and their management orchestrated.

Aboriginal Discourses: Ngarrindjeri voices


Lower Murray Country is home to the Ngarrindjeri Nation: eighteen clans sharing a Dreaming (i.e. ‘time when supernatural beings and ancestors created the features of the land, along with social and moral codes and laws’).

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A Long, long time ago Ngurunderi our Spiritual Ancestor chased Pondi, the giant Murray Cod, from the junction where the Darling and Murrundi (River Murray) meet. […] As Ngurunderi travelled throughout our Country, he created landforms, waterways and life. […] He gave each Lakalinyeri (clan) our identity to our Ruwe (country) and our Ngarjtis (animals, birds, fish and plants). (Kungun Ngarrindjeri Yunnan 2006: 8, henceforth KNY)

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European colonisation of the region started in 1836. South Australia’s founding document, the Letters Patent of 1836, contained provisions with regards to the Traditional Owners’ land rights. These were ignored: Lower Murray Country rapidly became “a ‘white space’ framed by Aboriginalist myths” (Hemming et al. 2010: 92, 101).

The Ngarrindjeri never abdicated their land rights or remained passive in the face of dispossession and subsequent environmental transformation and degradation.

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The Ngarrindjeri have always occupied the traditional lands of the Ngarrindjeri Nation and Ngarrindjeri have never ceded nor sold our lands and waters […] we humbly require that your Crown forthwith recognise the Ngarrindjeri Dominium in our soil and beneath our waters. (“Proclamation of Ngarrindjeri Dominium” 2003)

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Since the beginning of European colonisation, the Ngarrindjeri have been “forced to negotiate a space within the Australian nation from a place of constructed cultural extinction” (Hemming et al. 2010: 94).

“Conscientisation” (Freire 1972): a process of forced analysis to define who one is in regards to others. The process of “becoming Indigenous” (Clifford 2013) is often assimilated to becoming modern (Gelder 2015) because of “strategic essentialism” (Spivak 1987: 202) or the “cunning of recognition” (Povinelli 2002), i.e. the production of Western-accepted performative versions of traditional cultures (see also Muecke 1984; Dodson 1994).

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Strange as it may seem, to be ‘Aboriginal’ is a comparatively recent experience for us, the Indigenous Peoples of Australia. (Lowitja O’Donoghue, in Chance 2001: viii)

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In recent decades, the reach of Ngarrindjeri voices has increased, strengthened by the growing recognition of Indigenous rights worldwide, the development of global activist Indigenous networks and the burgeoning popular and scientific interests in Indigenous environmental knowledges in response to global environmental crises. Yet, for the most part, these voices are silenced. While symbolically acknowledged, they mainly remain marginalised and excluded from governmental discourses surrounding the understanding and management of water in Lower Murray Country (Hemming and Rigney 2008, 2011, 2014).

The discourses employed by the Ngarrindjeri Nation to resist and subvert silencing and reclaim their right to a voice within and beside governmental agencies involved in developing water-management policies have become increasingly multi-layered and complex. Despite their evolution, the alternative management practices articulated in these discourses remain largely unscrutinised beyond Indigenous studies and/or environmental politics.

To respond to this gap, this article explores the characteristics of, and commonalties between, three specific Ngarrindjeri discourses through a poetic lens. These discourses are enacted through three productions which are, in turn, deployed through three different media—visual arts, performance and environmental politics. They are:

  • Ngarrindjeri cultural weaving, with particular reference to Yvonne Koolmatrie’s latest exhibition (“Riverland”, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, October 2015-January 2016);

  • the annual multi-art, travelling performance project Ringbalin (River Ceremony) which was initiated by Ngarrindjeri Elder Major “Uncle Muggi” Sumner in 2010;

  • the National Cultural Flows Research Project which has been advocating for the implementation of water entitlements to sustain spiritual, cultural, environmental and social Aboriginal practices and interests since 2012.

Western science


The Basin Plan (the MDBA’s regulating project governing uses for Murray River Country’s waters), is informed, through and through, by the “best available” Western scientific knowledge (RIS 19, 85; Report 62; MDBA Website’s “Publications” tab). As such, Western science is the systematic rationale behind water understanding and management, as promoted in and through governmental managerial practices in Murray River Country and, consequently, in Lower Murray Country. This can be no surprise: in Australia, as in other settler colonial countries (Dunlap 1999), there is a century-long history of governmental promotion and use of science as the nation’s building tool to move forward and into the future (Robin 2007).

Such scientific foundations mean two things in terms of the articulated water understanding: first, it is rooted in Western ontology, and is thus globalising; second, it is capitalistic and builds an antinomic conception between ecological and economic waters.

Government promoted centrality and authority granted to Western science secures the understanding of Australian waters within a wider Western ontological frame. As part of this transposition, scientific technicality is anchored as a universal truth, to the detriment of a location-bound technicality (see adjacent cell). This scientific technicality is numerical: it primarily rests on mathematics. As such, water is exclusively defined through and understood as numbers, expressed as percentages, quantities, tables, diagrams or coordinates (RIS 5, 25; MDBA’s live data). “[T]hrough the creation of apparently ‘objective’ formulas” (Weir 2009: 6), local differences are negated and “the heterogeneous life-world” is flattened “to a comfortable understanding” (Biln 1997: 30). Mathematical language turns waters transparent: the unknown and/or incomprehensible is removed, opacity and complexity are lost. Waters are imagined in rectilinear terms: “ungrounded”, stripped of their particularities, their unfamiliarity repressed (Carter 1996: 3-12). This mathematical metonymic logic, which can be and is applied to any and all environments, effectively severs the close and complex link and reciprocal dependency between waters and their locale. Waters no longer belong to specific geographies and ecosystems. Instead, they are understood as belonging to a single and transported knowledge system: Western science. This poetics of elsewhere renders all waters in the world equivalent, and thus legitimises global water management, where “global” is not primarily used in the sense of holistic, but in the sense of uniform and universal, based on the rather predictable European seasonal cycles (Livingstone 2003; Robin 2007). This geographical expansionism and projection means that “the West is not in the West. It is a project, not a place” (Glissant 1981b: 12).

As with any project, expert managers and technicians are required, and this is how MDBA’s employees are recruited and introduced. They have been in charge of designing, implementing and adjusting the Basin Plan. Lengthy statements on its impacts (RIS; Explanatory Statement 2012; The Basin Plan 2009) reflect the importance of economic values and benefits for the MDBA: their ad hoc discursive or paper space is by far superior to the space devoted to other values and benefits. This simple and flagrant imbalance, justified by describing the latter as being difficult to measure (RIS xiii, 71), implicitly positions economic values and benefits as being of greater worth (Birckhead et al. 2011: vii). The lack of consideration of the (in)adequacy of using a finance-based measuring system—let alone the possibility of developing an alternative measuring system, or on the appropriateness of measuring in itself—means that values and benefits which cannot easily be quantified can legitimately be rapidly discarded. Through this restrictive and exclusively anthropocentric measuring system, the Plan translates water flows in terms of cost/effectiveness ratios and expresses outcomes in terms of capital loss/profit, and not in terms of ecological health. Aligned with previous governmental approaches and despite its supportive rhetoric in favour of the environment, the MDBA’s primary aim is to deal in waters. Profitability, not sustainability, is the priority (Mooney and Tan 2012: 33). The promoted reform thus remains firmly located within a capitalist narrative framework, despite the fact that this competitive, linear, aggregate growth economic model is precisely what impedes and destroys ecological resilience and regeneration (Jones 2013; Rose 2004) and compromises the recognition of the need for drastic change (Connell 2007: 37). Strategic shifts in focus divert attention from these issues: discussions on over-allocation and overuse (RIS iv) do not consider whether water allocations and uses are pertinent or ethical but solely focus on the excess (“over”) by pretending to tentatively counterbalance it with symbolical and circular (i.e. reused) environmental provisions; the act of diverting waters is not challenged, and it simply becomes a matter of rendering these diversions “sustainable” (RIS 23).

While presented as drastic, through a strong rhetoric of change, the implemented reform thus leaves the ontological understanding of waters, i.e. “the assumed terms of the relationships” between people and water (Weir 2009: 42), unquestioned. It is not based on a shift in mentality or practice, but on the recourse to ever-more efficient and upgraded technologies for optimised delivery and extraction, along with and coordinated by “improved […] administrative arrangements” (RIS xi). Managing waters in Murray River Country consists in “a very large plumbing exercise” (Weir 2009: 42). This propensity for technological upgrading and optimising reinforces, more than ever, the belief that waters should be viewed through under an unnatural economic lens (Robin 2007: 186), and thus driven and governed by market forces and “trading rules” (RIS 30). Waters are secondary: they—or their devastating absence—will not determine the fate and health of Riverland communities. Increased returns on investments will (RIS xiv, 12). As such, rather than advocating for radical change, the MDBA demonstrates that durable solutions will come from renewed and stronger capitalist investments. “[T]he deceptive neo-colonial authority of capitalism” (Satchell 2010: 111) acts as a hegemonic force driving pseudo-reforms to feed itself and remain in control of Murray River Country’s “liquid gold” (Sinclair 2001: 76-79; 233): waters. Even the Living Murray Initiative, an exclusively environmentally-centred project, is still based on the supposition that waters’ primary value is monetary by offering to buy the waters back.

This mercantile rhetoric positions the environment as a business competitor, with claims that rival those of pastoral development and prosperity, as if to say that waters used on the environment are lost for agriculture. A supposed dichotomy between economy and ecology is created, and this opposition is reinforced by the different, and often contradictory, flow regimes required by “agricultural growing seasons” and “river ecologies” (Weir 2009: 35; RIS vii). Articulated as incompatible, a sacrificial choice is made between one and the other (Altman and Markham 2015). As a result, the environmental management of waters is “flexible and opportunistic” (RIS 59), i.e. dependent on agricultural water needs being met.

Profoundly atavistic and technical


These three productions are rooted in marginalised stories of Australian environmental design. These stories originate in situated life rhythms and knowledges. They have been acquired, transmitted and adapted through observation and tradition for centuries.

Technique: a complex set of rules and principles which rely, depend and respond to an environment. Technique in that sense does not come first, it is not technique for the sake of technique, which does not need to relate to anything but itself. It is technique as a means to live within and care for a specific environment.

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There is a real connection to country through weaving, from when the rushes are picked, to the creation of a basket or mat. (Audrey Lindsay, Ngarrindjeri Lakun 2013: 49, henceforth NL)

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Hydrological connectivity is a constitutive component of stories about specific places, events and people. Geographically and historically grounded, waters are meaningful, critical life-forces. They form a web of relations which links diverse ecological entities, spaces and times (Birckhead et al. 2011; Hemming et al. 2007, 2010; Hattam et al. 2007).

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Our Lands, Our Waters, Our People, All Living Things are interconnected. […] The land and waters is a living body. We the Ngarrindjeri people are part of its existence. (KNY 5, 13)

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Through culture, history and spirituality the Ngarrindjeri are bounded with, in fact are part of, the river, the Lower Murray Lakes and Coorong. (Ngarrindjeri/Ramsar Working Group Paper 1998, in Birckhead et al. 2011: 7)

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Ruwe/Ruwar […] is the People, the Land, the Waters and all other living things. […] all of these elements are interconnected and […] one does not flourish without the other. (NL: cover)

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Weaving epitomises these interconnections. It is a form of expression which binds and brings together, spiritually, physically and temporally. It teaches to listen to both past and present places and people (Chance 2001: 101-103; NL).

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Stitch by Stitch,
Circle by Circle,
Weaving is like the creation of life,
All things are connected. (Ellen Trevorrow, in KNY 51)

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Weaving also reflects another layer of connectivity: that between the natural and socio-cultural worlds (Weir 2009: 47, 55). Culture and nature share a dynamic relationship: they interrelate, inter-care and interconnect, mutually nurturing and regenerating each other. Koolmatrie describes her work as intuitive and contextual: her shapes and inspiration are constantly renewing in response to the life of her Country and her own personal journey, while remaining anchored within the wider frame of her cultural heritage. Ringbalin, the revival of an ancestral ceremony, demonstrates a similar entanglement. Its aim is to regenerate the waters of Murray River Country through traditional songs and dances, and people journey from the Country’s spring to its estuary, performing along the way.

Culture: “the interface between us and the non-human world, our species’ semi-permeable membrane” (Mabey 2005: 23)

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Basket weaving stitches things together—the culture and the history, the people and the land. (Chris Koolmatrie in “Riverland: Yvonne Koolmatrie” 2015)

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Such double recognition of connectivity between human / non-human entities and nature / culture leads to an eco-sentient understanding of waters. Waters are not inert but living, active and reactive participants in the narratives. Similar feelings are expressed towards their decline as towards the decline of other humans (Ingold 2000: 69, 76). There are “no conceptual separations” (Muir et al. 2010: 263; Major Sumner, “Murrundi Ruwe Pangari Ringbalin” 2010).

Eco-sentient: capable of feeling and sensing. An eco-sentient understanding of Nature is witnessed in the ontologies of most First Nations throughout the world (Whyte 2016).

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The land and waters must be healthy for the Ngarrindjeri people to be healthy. We are hurting for our Country. (Tom Trevorrow in KNY 5)

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Maintaining (looking after) the environment is something that Ngarrindjeri must do. It is the same as, or an extension of, looking after oneself. (Ngarrindjeri/Ramsar Working Group Paper 1998, in Birckhead et al. 2011: 7)

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We say that if Yarluwar-Ruwe dies, the waters die, our Ngartjis die, then the Ngarrindjeri will surely die. (KNY 13)

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Because of these interconnections, water management is approached locally, but through a holistic lens (Birckhead et al. 2011: 38; Farley Consulting Group 2003: 5-6). It is based on dynamics of love, respect, mutuality, connection and reciprocity of care and health (Brearley et al. 2010: 8). This ethical approach transforms the Ngarrindjeri into the custodians of Lower Murray Country. This notion of custodianship builds on moral responsibilities and obligations on a human scale (Robin 2007: 217).

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He [Ngurunderi] taught us, don’t be greedy, don’t take any more than what you need, and share with one another. (KNY 8)

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We implore people to respect our Ruwe (Country) as it was created in the Kaldowinyeri (the Creation). We long for sparkling, clean waters, healthy land and people and all living things. We long for the Yarluwar-Ruwe (Sea Country) of our ancestors. Our vision is all people Caring, Sharing, Knowing and Respecting the lands, the waters and all living things. (KNY 5)

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We’ve been in this country for thousands and thousands of years. We looked after each other, and we looked after our country. (Major Sumner, in Riley 2010: 37)

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[…] we had a perfect management plan in place, and that management plan was: don’t be greedy, don’t take any more than what you need, and respect everything all around you. That’s the management plan. It’s such a simple management plan, but so hard for people to carry on and to do. (Tom Trevorrow, in “Murrundi Ruwe Pangari Ringbalin” 2010)

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[…] sharing is one of our strict laws. (Hemming and Trevorrow 2005: 243-244)

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The ethical duties of humans towards the non-human world are reinforced by the articulation of interspecies kinship (Christine Egan, “Murrundi Ruwe Pangari Ringbalin” 2010).

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Ngarrindjeri people hold cultural and spiritual connections to particular places, to particular species of animals and plants, all elements of the environment are part of our kinship system. Particular animal and plant species are the Ngartji (totem or special friend) of Ngarrindjeri people, who have special responsibility to care for their Ngartji. To care for Ngartji is to care for country. (KNY 12)

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Aboriginal knowledge “is not a toolkit for management, but an ethics for living” (Muir et al. 2010: 260).

Bulls on Kumarangk (Hindmarsh) Island

Bulls on Kumarangk (Hindmarsh) Island



Measuring also fragments and compartmentalises Murray River Country. It contributes to “fixing” the waters by transforming flows into predictable and manageable data, through increased regulation. This transformation, combined with mathematical metonymy, turns waters into completely disconnected and disembodied resources: a non-existent ecological entity.

Australian waters tend to spread out and form “dis-tributaries” rather than permanently flowing streams “by way of tributaries” (Carter 1987: 55). Such irregular and unpredictable tendencies do not suit the strategic business needs for quantifiable and controllable states. Applying a business model to the waters of Murray River Country thus makes compartmentalisation and alteration not only possible, but inevitable. This transformation occurs through multi-layered partitioning, both abstract and concrete, which breaks the flows and confines waters to specific predetermined and manageable locations. Clearly delimited geographical zones are defined (from States through to sections for specific small-scale interventions and expert reports). Over 30 structures, ranging from dams to locks, punctuate these geographical zones and act as boundaries so that the waters are not randomly (or naturally) distributed within them. Measuring points, such as the 122 hydrologic indicator sites dotting Murray River Country, “make facts” (Latour 2001: 17-18, 24) and produce the relevant data inputs, a plumbing blueprint, through which to decide where to distribute the waters for optimal results.

These three modes of partitioning are ontologically linked: each in turn justifies and reinforces the legitimacy of the others. For instance discourses denouncing evaporation rates and water loss in open earthen channels led to the advocacy of pipes. The discursive modes ideologically support and enable the implementation and construction of the material ones, while the latter empirically demonstrate the pertinence of the former. Each, whether through its physical or imagined presence, provides a caption from which waters can be read. No longer flowing through Murray River Country but transformed into well-defined, stable and confined quantities, waters belong, at specific times, to the physical spaces within it. They are fixed and hyperseparated; their commonality as a complex and moving ecological identity is negated. As such, the environmental problems menacing Lower Murray Country, while caused and aggravated by insufficient upstream flows, can be responded to in isolation: the closing of the Murray Mouth leads to continuous dredging; salt water influx from the estuary to the construction of five barrages, which destroy “The Meeting of the Waters”, an important Ngarrindjeri identity marker and place (Kämpf and Bell 2014).

Separated and fixed, reduced to numbers, never referred to as an ecological entity and thoroughly uprooted from their ecosystems, waters are silenced. They are translated into a simple object of science and commerce and grasped “in consumptive terms” (Weir 2009: 73): a number of gigalitres to be stored or sent flowing, a mute “natural resource”. Their role is purely utilitarian: something useless is “improved” and becomes a vector of development. Such a reductive and narrow conceptualisation of waters negates individuality and connectivity by empowering “destructive modern water habits” (Weir 2009: 143). It not only kills the life of the waters, it also kills our capacity to connect with this life (Rose 2007: 12-13).

Embracing changes


Ngarrindjeri emplaced, technical and eco-sentient understanding of waters is expressed through a large variety of artistic means. This media-polymorphic propensity in itself serves and contributes to its expression.

One shared characteristic of the way water understanding is expressed across these media is that it is oral-in-essence. The repetitive quality of orality is essential to the expression of what is being said. It is as much a way of conceiving it as of spreading it. What is expressed is constantly altered through different genres, forms and sites. It is tailored to place and audience. It moulds itself on them; it talks to, and through, them.

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Repetitive quality of orality.
Redundancy – Media within the medium.
Break: the systematic character of genres.
PROLIFERATION (similarly to Nature).
“Le ressassement du discours est la mesure d’un Nous.” (Glissant 1981b)
The dialectics between
oral and written
spoken and sung
grounded and flowing
is being played on.

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Repetition in this case does not represent a missed encounter, with place or people.

            Repetition is the articulation of a constantly transforming encounter, or of waves of encounters which endlessly transform.

                        Repetition highlights the relational nature of Ngarrindjeri understanding of waters: it is flexible, organic, flowing; it shifts and evolves with the environment, through human and non-human meetings.

Repetition protects and guarantees the opacity of these discourses. It focuses on the specific, not the singular. Ngarrindjeri imaginary is transmitted through obscurities. Examples are followed by other examples: this layering creates a profusion of images. These “inventories of the real” (Kullberg 2013: 972), favoured over summarising grand truths, bridge a potential distance which could distort and fix the real through abstract theoretical constructions. Truths come from the unarticulated within each located example.

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“Ringbalin – River Stories”: websites, application, documentary film and trailers, social media, and annual ceremony.

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Repetition is humid.

“Humidity”: the indeterminate, unfinished, intermingling nature of social and environmental transformation (Carter 2004).

Another main characteristic of the way water understanding is expressed through these media is the ephemerality of its manifestation. The chosen media rarely last, and each reiteration is different, adaptive and reactive, mirroring its constantly changed and changing context.

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It morphs.
PERFORMATIVE (not didactic).

“If engaged with a complex reality, knowledge would no longer be a discourse; it is a practice seeking its expression.” (Kullberg 2013: 978)

Place: Stage/Space
Part of the performance.
Reason for the performance.
Location of the performance.
It moulds itself
on waters.
The river flows with the dancing and the music. It all goes
The seeds of the sedge are spread. It dries. It is wet. It is weaved.
It travels.
Seasonal creations on a natural calendar.

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Cyclicity answers to the pulse ecology of Australia, characterised by long and irregular rhythms of scarcity and plenty (Robin 2009).

            The cyclicity of natural processes and rhythms is mimicked by Ngarrindjeri creative practices.

                        Cyclicity means that performance represents an ongoing engagement through which relationships to Country are embodied and (re-) enacted (Mackinlay 2005: 83-84; Dunbar-Hall 1994).

Cyclicity makes them pulse creations: they come and go non-linearly, reacting to changes and adapting themselves, constantly recreating and reimagining their forms and relationships with their surroundings. They both respond and message. Koolmatrie’s contemporary reproduction of a small aircraft woven during the early stage of colonisation also embodies this great adaptability to both environmental and historical changes. From gathering practices through to design, weaving is constantly renewed along with its surroundings.

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[…] when you dance on the land, you’re letting Mother Earth know you still care about her. This is about restoring the energy, dancing the spirit back into this country, dancing the spirit back into ourselves. (Major Sumner in Riley 2010: 37)

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There is a need […] to dance the spirit back into the lands and the people. (Major Sumner in “Ringbalin – Breaking the Drought” 2013)

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We’re dancing for […] the spirit of the water to come down and heal the land. Heal everyone’s cultural land. (Major Sumner in “Murrundi Ruwe Pangari Ringbalin” 2010)

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“It’s easy to become disillusioned about the condition of the Murray but it itself is an Indigenous, resilient place. (Steven Ross in “Water Flows” 2009: 11)

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Cyclicity is resilient.

Resilience: “capacity of a system to absorb disturbance and still retain its basic function and structure” (Walker and Salt 2006: xiii).

One more characteristic of the way water understanding is expressed across these media is that it is pictorial and sensorial. Places are built on anthropomorphic attributes, waters are embodied. All have a voice.

Aetiology: diseases.
are involved.
is emotional.
(Koch and Hercus 2009: 5)
Intimate – Personal.
UN-ANTHROPOGENIC (humans are not
the centre).

Feeling propels good social relationships as fundamental to good ecological relationships (a position increasingly defended within academia: see Pretty 2003; Pretty et al. 2009).


            Feeling ecology—as Nature feels; as Nature is not human-centred—is not a luxury but a basic need and right.

                          Feeling articulates human and environmental healths as dependent. The death of the waters and flows is the death of people. Waters are blood; locks and dams are clots around the heart deterring this blood from flowing (“Murrundi Ruwe Pangari Ringbalin” 2010).

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I cried enough tears to flush the River Murray. (Doreen Kartinyeri in Kartinyeri and Anderson 2008: 186)

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If you ask how important the river and the lakes is to us, it’s like taking our spirit away from us. You’re dead, you’re nothing, you got no feeling. (Major Sumner in “Ringbalin – Breaking the Drought” 2013)

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Feeling is knowing.

“feeling-as-knowing”: emplaced and embodied knowledge based on emotional and sensorial perceptions and sensations (Bell 1998: 219-225)

These three characteristics are sustained and fostered by place. Lower Murray Country, and particularly the waters, are the generative and founding substance of any and all acts of creation. The dialectics between waters, speech and the creative impulse is strong.

Telluric: arising from, sustained by and rooted in place.

Waters are read as material records, as multifaceted and sentient archives onto which creative practices can be articulated and flourish.

Ecopoetics: simultaneously (among other things) a way to denounce environmental disasters and injustice, a model mimicking ecological processes, and a form of site-specificity, of favouring of place over theme; “accountable-as-human-language” (Roberts 2010).

Dredgers working at the Murray Mouth

Dredgers working at the Murray Mouth

Lower Murray Country

Lower Murray Country



This understanding of waters means that future-oriented discourses emerge as viable solutions for managing the present environmental crisis (RIS 38, 83). Pro-active water management, built on the postulate of dealing with future needs and orientations over immediate ones, is favoured. Further alterations are implemented to reinforce control and potentially counter a predicted disastrous ecological future. This silences the potential alternative solutions in the present, and prevents ecosystems from naturally balancing the impact of the Anthropocene. By fixating the solution in the future, such an approach does indeed effectively negate the concepts of natural resilience and regeneration, or downplays them as being less primordial than “engineered resilience” focused on efficiency, constancy and predictability (Muir et al. 2010: 262). Every action is part of a larger plan for a brighter outcome, and some places and species are sacrificed for the benefit of specific others—termed “iconic” according to government-designed evaluating standards (Brown et al. 2015)—or for the system’s overall better functioning. This dissociation allows the MDBA to articulate half-truths about the state of Murray River Country. By focusing on and privileging selected elements, the extent of the devastation is rhetorically diminished. Neglected sites, deemed of lesser importance or interest, or which simply do not fit into the overall ‘grand plan’, become “shadow places” (Plumwood 2008; see also Gibson 2002, Tumarkin 2005). Under this understanding, wetlands are often destroyed to favour more efficient water movements throughout Murray River Country.

Continuous Present


Ngarrindjeri tellurism is multi-temporal: it rests on the notion that the past and the ancestors are contained within the present (“Murrundi Ruwe Pangari Ringbalin” 2010; NL: 40).

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Ngarrindjeri have responsibilities to their Elders and ancestors to look after the country and the burial sites and other culturally significant places that still exist. (Ngarrindjeri/Ramsar Working Group Paper 1998 in Birckhead et al. 2011: 7)

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[…] interwoven within the spiral and woven coils of Ngarrindjeri weaving from the past, present and future are continuity, identity, diversity and cultural voices. (Rita Lindsay Junior in NL 56)

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Weaving can connect people across time, from the past into the future. (Yvonne Koolmatrie in “Riverland: Yvonne Koolmatrie” 2015)

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The Coorong represents a bond with the past, a closeness to the earth. (Rankine 1974: 9)

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The present is not simply the present, it is the “continuous present” (Stein 2008: 220). This non-linear division of time represents an important ethical positioning (Rose 2004).

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The emphasis of our roles, responsibilities and spiritual / cultural connections to our Mother, Mother Earth, is as profound yesterday as it is today and will be tomorrow. We must not neglect these mandatory responsibilities. (Matthew Rigney in Birckhead et al. 2011: I)

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It makes “situated engagement” possible, as an antidote to the power of universals (Howitt and Suchet-Pearson 2006: 332). Situated engagement respects ecological rhythms. It opens up possibilities for regeneration and resilience by drawing on the natural power of places, waters and ancestors (Pring 1990: 175).

(Re)centring English: Rooted Thought


This destruction is particularly significant. Empirically liminal places, often historically imagined as miasmic, wetlands threaten the ontological security of governmental discourses by suggesting transgression (Potter 2007: 250). By presenting wetlands as useless expanses which impede the creation of better places, governmental discourses manifest their propensity for “dry thinking” (Carter 2004: 107), i.e. place-making through exclusions and oppositions, in order to gain and/or retain command. This “drying principle” operates as an insulating, intransigent and smothering monolingual intellectual framework which rejects discursive diversity, non-linear time and instability in the production of place.

Most notably, Indigenous modes of knowledges are subdued through a past / future disjunction in which authority is conferred upon the supposedly better-suited settlers (Rose 2004; Byrne 2003; Calderon 2014; Wolfe 2006; Altman and Markham 2015). This Aboriginalist construction reinforces the “possessive logic of patriarchal white sovereignty” (Moreton-Robinson 2007: 112) by collapsing the Native into Nature in accordance with notions of pre-modern harmony, and by negating Indigenous presence in the present (e.g.: Berndt et al. 1993; Newland 1965; Cleland 1936; Power 1977). The articulation of environmental flows as sufficient to satisfy Indigenous communities’ water needs is thus justified (Weir 2009: 23), and the same “bridge the gap” rhetoric (RIS 20, 85) is employed to discuss both Indigenous and environmental issues. The chronological order also acts as a form of legitimisation, “continu[ing] to confuse routes with roots” (Carter 1987: xviii). The resulting creation of a fictional Indigenous identity is used as an instrument of domination and legitimisation of this domination.

Articulated as purely cultural, Aboriginal environmental knowledge—not science, as this could potentially undermine the authority of Western science (Weir 2009: 116)—is segregated. It is treated as a baseline, an easy-to-employ disconnected database suited to abstraction, and those parts relevant to Western environmental ideas are extracted from this timeless static archive (Goodall 2008; Lauer and Aswani 2009). This illustrates the ‘cannibalistic’ propensities of Western logic which “readily constructs other cultural possibilities as resources for western needs and actions” (Haraway 1989: 247), rather than genuinely making space for them within its own midst by respecting their right to (ontological) opacity. Indigenous inputs are thus subordinated to and shaped by processes and approaches outside of Indigenous control (Whyte 2016; Rose 2004). Additionally, Indigenous-led projects remain bound as they must enter into complex and unbalanced relationships with governmental agencies which retain the power to provide funding and dissemination. Misunderstandings arising from discarded differences in lexical nuances and motives often tinge these tentative collaborations. More generally, the situated-ness of knowledges (Haraway 1988: 581-93) is not considered: knowledge is understood as transcending cultural diversity (Rose 1999; Demeritt 1994: 32) and such angled understanding devaluates non-Western cultures by imposing a clear separation between culture and nature (Muir et al. 2010: 263). The incorporation of Indigenous knowledges in governmental understanding and management of waters is thus symbolic and Indigenous rights (including Native Titles) remain subdued to state interests and priorities (Cullen 2004). The Ngarrindjeri remain constantly excluded from water management policy making and planning (Foster 1993: 1-30; Hemming et al. 2007; Altman and Cochrane 2003; Hattam et al. 2007).

The opening paragraphs in governmental documents offer a good example of this symbolical inclusion. Statements about the value of Traditional Owners’ knowledges are enunciated. Full of positive rhetoric regarding the inclusion of Indigenous inputs, they hide the fact that governmental water management remains monologic, as a true cooperation which would translate words into practice is never initiated (RIS ii, viii-vix, 17-8, 79-81; Rose 2004; Hattam et al. 2007: 113; Weir 2009; Perry in Basin environmental watering outlook 2016: ii). This “language of complaisance” (Glissant 1981b: 328) illustrates the fact that Indigenous contribution and consultation are approached as a token step for the symbolical endorsement of already-decided measures.

This lack of inclusion within decision-making does not only affect Traditional Owners. Governmental discourses also sever connectivity within the wider community through their paternalistic approach to managerial responsibilities. Indeed, while the MDBA explains that localism has been “hardwired” into the Basin Plan (RIS xviii, 88), local communities never design and implement, they can only observe, monitor and report back to the competent authority: the MDBA. Local communities thus remain powerless, passive observers. The outside body retains all responsibilities and power to adjust water management according to their agenda. Deprived of their responsibilities and power to (re)act, local communities are thus disconnected from their disconnected environments. They become dependent on, and thus controlled by, the MDBA.

These governmental discourses act as root language (Glissant 1981b). Excluding all else, severing connectivity, based on linear progression, they deny the plurality of places and (his)stories. They possess and are closed off for and towards others, particularly the native voice. Possessing Australian waters is, in a manner similar to what the possession of Australia was at the beginning of colonisation, “first and furthermore, a rhetorical exercise” (Carter 1987: 59). Positing their authority through their expertise, scientists contend that they speak for nature (Robin 2007: 9; Demeritt 1994: 34). As such, Western science replaces, rather than informs, the debate (Cullen 2006: 10). Conquest and control of the waters is first established through words which plaster a Western scientific ontology and grand narrative onto them, effectively gagging multilingualism and the insertion of alternative and/or multiple ontologies.

Decentring English: Rhizomatic Thought


Ngarrindjeri understanding of waters, while strongly rooted in and through Lower Murray Country, does not constitute a root language (see adjacent cell). Instead, it is simultaneously (and perhaps paradoxically) rhizomatic.

Rhizome: crucial tenet in the work of philosophers Édouard Glissant (1997a), Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari (1980). The rhizome, through its enmeshed root system, offers an alternative understanding of identity which does not rest on a predatory and totalitarian rootstock (Glissant 1997a: 18). This can be linked to Homi Bhabha’s notion of difference, as opposed to diversity (1994: 34). By extending “each and every identity […] through a relationship with the Other” (Glissant 1997a: 11), the rhizome combines groundedness with openness and mobility (Massey 2006: 38). It calls for “act[ing] with one’s place, think[ing] with the world” (Glissant 2006: 150).

This rhizomatic aspect is palpable through Ngarrindjeri artistic multilingualism (see above). This multilingual propensity also manifests itself linguistically: Ngarrindjeri words are regularly incorporated within primarily English discourses (e.g.: KNY; Chance 2001: 99).

Additionally, the rhizomatic thought is visible through Ngarrindjeri search for and reliance upon the richness of intercultural connections and exchanges to spread and render their voices widely audible. Connecting is surviving.

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[…] it doesn’t matter what language group or what group you belong to, there is a common cause, there is a common thread along the river people. (Agnes Rigney in Weir 2009: 97)

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Bring the people together. This is the most powerful energy you can get, it’s to bring the people together so that we look after this country together. (Major Sumner in “Ringbalin – Breaking the Drought” 2013)

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We therefore see the benefit of building links with other Indigenous peoples who share our challenges and who share responsibility for our culturally significant species. […] We will maintain and strengthen these alliances and plan to engage with Indigenous groups elsewhere in the world. (KNY 30, see also 31-51)

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The Ngarrindjeri compose and network with others: they actively connect with other Indigenous people or professionals (such as researchers and lawyers) who can help them secure a voice in water management (Hemming and Trevorrow 2005; Hemming et al. 2007). They created Camp Coorong for this purpose.

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In modern times, however, Indigenous Australians have been forcibly united: united in dispossession, in oppression, poverty, sadness and, never let it be forgotten, in struggle and resistance. (Lowitja O’Donoghue in Chance 2001: viii)

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We want to build partnerships, through Kungun Ngarrindjeri Yunnan Agreements, on foundations of trust and respect […] We welcome training, knowledge, skills and other support to build our economic future. (KNY 16, 28)

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The Ngarrindjeri also draw on previous and/or existing actions taken by Indigenous Nations throughout the world: occupancy mapping (Hemming and Rigney 2012), cultural flows models (Tipa and Nelson 2012), UN and Ramsar conventions.

Ngarrindjeri discourses thus strongly connect and (inter)react with diverse people and strands of cultures and cultural materials. This relational component is at the heart of their strategising as to how to express their water understanding so that it matters in a society which has marginalised them: it facilitates (re)appropriation and creolisation of English through shifts in uses and meanings.

Creolisation: ongoing cultural creation in language through linguistic accumulations and deformations.

Media (films and photographs) and public spaces (museums and art galleries) are used in order to revive and promote Ngarrindjeri culture (e.g.: the “Ngurunderi: An Aboriginal Dreaming” exhibition; the “Ringbalin – Breaking the Drought” film). They are no longer solely the support of Western anthropological research (e.g.: Taplin 1879, 1886; Tindale 1974; Berndt et al. 1993). Koolmatrie’s career as a cultural weaver epitomises this re-empowering shift: weaving, after being promoted for commercial purposes during the early stages of colonisation, was discouraged by governmental agencies which judged it detrimental to the assimilation of Indigenous peoples. Koolmatrie is partly responsible for its revival among Ngarrindjeri people, and is now very involved in passing down this tradition. Weaving is resistance and resilience: it is a survival kit. Koolmatrie has gained local and international recognition for her work since her selection to represent Australia at the 47th Venice Biennale in 1997. It is through this formerly disapproved practice—weaving—that she has become instrumental in raising awareness for the cause of Ngarrindjeri culture and people.

Cultural flows:

– once only used to describe movements across cultures, generally to the disadvantage of minorities whose cultures partially or totally succumbed to Western acculturation. This notion of cultural flows is colonialist and shuts exchanges. It provides a discursive structure through which to appropriate “Others’” cultural experiences and changes, and reduce and distort them through analysis in a Eurocentric frame (Glissant 1969: 122).

– an Indigenous response to environmental instability and injustice devised in ontological continuity with their stories of environmental design. It represents an empowering scientifically-quantifiable tool which disrupts and challenges settlers’ binaries around water management by using Western logic to articulate dynamic nature/culture relationships (Weir 2009: 81).

Re-routed in Lower Murray Country, this diverted concept of Cultural Flows points to a creative counter-use of English. The gradual inclusion of non-English words and shift in meanings of English words support alternative speaking modes. This subverts the colonial gesture of silencing that had been implemented through the imposition of only one form of English—the “civilisational rosary” (Glissant 1981a: 48) to control and alienate Indigenous populations. A decentring ethnopoetics is created (in the general sense that its aesthetics is no longer defined and controlled by Western canons). By not remaining anchored in standardised and rationalising English, this ethnopoetics is a tool of resistance which confronts the world of politics. It provides the Ngarrindjeri with a Western legal base to express their concerns about the health of their waters and their subsequent lack of access to healthy waters, on which depend their possibilities for self-determination (KNY 11).

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[…] our spiritual relationship and obligation as caretakers is made difficult to sustain because of the failure of the Australian Government to acknowledge our inherent right to self-determination. […] the majority of indigenous nations residing in the State of South Australia remain dispossessed. (Watson 1992: 67-68)

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Settler law becomes a site of creation which offers opportunities for engagement (Gover 2010).

Lower Murray Country

Lower Murray Country

Imperialist Discourses


Imported from evergreen Great Britain and imposed on the pulsative water ecologies of the Australian continent, the articulated understanding of waters is a copy-pasted grand verbal delirium anchored in Western aesthetics. Ecologically unadapted and disconnected, these discourses encapsulate a declamatory language of abstraction through which oppression is recorded and sustained (Tjukonia 2003, Glissant 1981b). A capitalist, metonymic and drying narrative of progress is used to generate a “destructive breach between human and non-human worlds” (Potter 2007: 251-2). This justifies the (ontological) separation of humans from their distinct non-human environment, which is relegated to being a décor, a theatrical space and territory primarily designed for a performative self-demonstration of technological skills and engineering ingenuity, leading to the creation of a vast agricultural heartland open to exponential economic profits. Waters do not belong to place. Severed from their entangled and intertwined ecosystems and the complex web of relations they form, they have become the epicentre through which disembodied geographies can be created. Waters are reduced to the status of a non-existent ecological entity metonymically symbolised by numbers, a quantified and thus manageable resource, which can and should be controlled and exploited.

Governmental discourses are thus languages of colonialism: they sustain and seemingly justify the implementation of mutated colonial practices, exhibiting a clear genealogy to old forms of colonialism over humans and non-humans alike, in order to satisfy “a vision of drought-proof Australia” (Potter 2007: 247). Part of a “practical reconciliation” agenda, they present “the final colonial act (normalising the outcome of oppression)” as justice (Hattam et al. 2007: 110-117).

Over two hundred years after their first implementation on Australian landscapes, these discourses have so far clearly failed to foster or lead to the conception of a sustainable management plan for Murray River Country. This failure has had profound impact on both humans and non-humans. While the wake-up call of the Millennium Drought led to changes, the ontological bases behind water management remain fundamentally unaltered. The “mentality” (Weir 2009: 44) remains: the recurrent destructive cycle of “deplete, destroy, depart” continues (Grinde and Johansen 1995), ecocide is ignored (Sinclair 2001: 234) and history unacknowledged (Goodall 2001).

Among residents, the Ngarrindjeri are doubly affected by these discourses: resulting practices, labelled a “new wave of dispossession” (Weir 2009: 57), impede their right to self-determination (Jackson et al. 2010). Connectivity, with localities but also intergenerational, is lost as places disappear and forms of knowledges can no longer be transmitted in an embodied form (T. Trevorrow, “Murrundi Ruwe Pangari Ringbalin” 2010). The ecological devastation is such that Ngarrindjeri cultural weavers need to source their sedge from elsewhere as it no longer grows abundantly on their Country’s banks (Corowa 2006; Ngarrindjeri Lakun 2013: 15-7; Chance 2001: 104; E. Trevorrow, “Murrundi Ruwe Pangari Ringbalin” 2010).

These governmental discourses present Country as a passive stage for human action (Matthew 1994: 17, 31), and speak in terms of human success or failure. The human subject is imagined as the sole entity able to bring agency, and placed at the centre of any ecological project. Waters, abstracted, are understood in terms of human needs alone. Distributed according to “entitlements”, they are not constructed as a privilege but as an unquestionable right. Waters are, without a doubt, possessed. Notions of responsibility, connectivity, ethics or reciprocity are removed from water use and control. The use of waters thus becomes “free” of impact. This anthropocentric terminology and perspective favours a metonymical paradigm of loss and redemption through objective reflection on man-made destruction (Potter 2005: 3; Massey 2006: 39-40). This does not challenge the way the environment is understood, approached and managed. Complexity and connectivity are reduced to what is and can supposedly be defined and understood in a complete way.

Baroque Speech


Ngarrindjeri ethnopoetics can be interpreted as Baroque speech, as defined by Édouard Glissant, i.e. a “worlded” yet highly localised speech.

The Baroque: historically, “a reaction against the rationalist pretence of penetrating the mysteries of the known with one uniform and conclusive move” (1997a: 77; also 1987: 18). The Baroque represents a crisis of meaning. It eschews transparency and stands against monological uniformity achieved through the dissection of the world and its expression into conceptually fixed, separated and bounded forms and datasets (1997a: 79; also Plumwood 2002: 49; Latour 1991). It is extension, proliferation, redundancy and repetition (1995: 70; 1990: 57). It is unstable and plural, constantly and endlessly reformulated through extreme inclusion and expansion (1997a; Carpentier 1995: 93). The Baroque is thus born and thrives from “precipitate” cultural contacts and exchanges (1997a: 163). Social relationships and cross-fertilisations are crucial to its formation and development (1987: 19). Such a Baroque is a world philosophy which goes “beyond an aesthetic mood to represent the contemporary global cultural dominant of creolisation and Relation” (Oakley 2011: 276). Glissant writes: “In sum, there is a ‘naturalisation’ of the baroque, no longer only as art and style, but also as a manner of living the unity-diversity of the world […].” (1997a: 79; also 1987: 19) Despite this worlded connectivity, the Baroque remains strongly dependent upon locality. It is always rooted in and shaped by a terroir: “it is literally identical to nature, directly expressive of nature” (Hallward 2001: 123). Such an understanding of the Baroque has been termed a “New World Baroque”, a “rebellious Baroque” which can be assimilated to “a decolonising strategy to deform—creolise—the metropolitan standard” (Zamora and Kaup 2010: 622). It plays with representation and transculturation, performing as a counter-conquest form of expression which deconstructs and decentres (re-arranging and re-presenting) the Western cultural “storehouse” (Tuhiwai-Smith 1999).

This conception of the Baroque is particularly tangible in language and Glissant develops the related notion of Baroque speech, propelled by similar relational yet rooted propensities (1990). Baroque speech offers an essential “disturbance against certainty” and represents the “intersubjective extension of a favourable site for the multiplication of a multitude of diverse and new realities” (1997a: 79, 203). It is “world-music”: polymorphic and multifaceted, “inspired by all possible forms of speech” and representing “the result of all aesthetics, of all philosophies” (1990: 89, 93). It gives voice to the unfamiliar and the unknown, through detours, striving in disguise beneath the symbol, working to say without saying (1997a: 68). Such speech, open and desiring, impulsively seeking extension, working in confluence and interchange rather than isolation, is posited as a prerequisite to any form of creation (1990: 122). It is through this speech that the unity-diversity of the world can be lived (1997a: 79). Yet, it does not correspond to a global uniformisation of language. As layers of meanings are stacked unto each other, they do not fuse and form one transparent mass or mirror image. Rather, Baroque speech preserves and fosters ephemerality and opacity. It is “subsistence within an irreducible singularity” (1997a: 190). Linguistic multiplicity and complexity are retained, and protect plural forms of expression (1997a: 96).

Ngarrindjeri discourses about waters present most of the Baroque characteristics enunciated above. They function through a creolising dynamics which leads to an explosion of meanings and bearers, thus carrying an overarching message of connectivity with sentient waters. They are dynamic, inclusive, connective, adaptive, mutable (reactive and creative) and contextual, responding to both changing ecological and social environments. They use multiplicity, proliferation, redundancy and repetition by drawing on and/or (re)appropriating forms of expressions, formats and discursive genres to embody and transmit their ontology. Re-empowered through these cross-pollinations, they nonetheless maintain their complexity (opacity), most notably through multilingualism, technicality and locality, thus weaving an operational oral essence into the rigidity of the English language. Such discourses indubitably act as a decolonising tool designed to overcome colonial silencing and emptying through the creolisation of the settler’s language and the creation of a poetics of connection, of freedom, of located presencing and being. The importance of social relationships and exchanges in the expression of Ngarrindjeri understanding of waters, and the importance of these relationships in relation to place, ultimately contribute to the securing of these discourses within the wider notion of Baroque speech.

The centrality of place in this Baroque speech exposes a place-making strategy where Country, rather than humans, is the agency entity. “In Australia, we have Indigenous knowledge traditions that elaborate relationships with the river country that know of this agency and communicate with it. [...] this knowledge is an incredibly valuable perspective for addressing ecological devastation. The traditional owners tell us that instead of perceiving country through modern knowledge we should listen to how country perceives modern knowledge.” (Weir 2009: 145)

The Lowelr Lakes

The Lowelr Lakes
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Governmental Water Management Body

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Basin environmental watering outlook for 2016–17. MDBA Reports. MDBA, 11 April 2016.

Explanatory Statement: Basin Plan 2012. Federal Register of Legislation, Commonwealth of Australia. Web. 19 Dec. 2015.

Live Data. Commonwealth of Australia (Murray–Darling Basin Authority). Web. 3 Feb 2016.

Murray-Darling Basin Authority. Commonwealth of Australia (Murray–Darling Basin Authority).

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The Basin Plan: A Concept Statement. MDBA Brochures and Factsheets. MDBA, 1 Jan. 2009.

‘The Living Murray Story: One of Australia’s largest river restoration projects.’ MDBA Reports. MDBA, 25 Oct. 2011.

Ngarrindjeri Cultural Weaver Yvonne Koolmatrie

“Riverland: Yvonne Koolmatrie.” Tarnanthi: Festival of Contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art. Exhibition, Galleries 9, 10 and 11. Curated by Nici Cumpston, Jonathan Jones and Hetti Perkins, with Yvonne Koolmatrie and Genevieve O'Callaghan. Art Gallery of South Australia. 12 Sept. 2015 to 10 Jan. 2016.

Riverland: Yvonne Koolmatrie. Exhibition Catalogue. Adelaide: Art Gallery of South Australia, 2015.

“Riverland: Yvonne Koolmatrie. » Interpretive Guide. Adelaide: Art Gallery of South Australia, 2015. [outdated link:] updated link:


“Murrundi Ruwe Pangari Ringbalin (River Country Spirit Ceremony).” MDBA Media. YouTube, 24 Nov. 2010.

Ringbalin – Breaking the Drought. Dir. Ben Pederick. Perf. Major Sumner, Cheryl Buchannan, Kooma/Gwamu Ngyiaampa and Ngarrindjeri: tribal dancers and performers, Ellen Trevorrow, Paul Gordon, Herb Wharton, Beryl Carmichael, Doreen Micthell, Barney Lindsay. Goodmorningbeautiful films in association with JDR Screen, 2013.

“Ringbalin – Breaking the Drought.” Online video clip. Adelaide Film Festival. YouTube, 1 Sept. 2013.

“Ringbalin: Dancing the River.” Ananguku Arts. Ananguku Arts and Culture Aboriginal Corporation, 2014. [outdated link:] updated link:

Ringbalin, River Stories. Application. The Project Factory AU.

Ringbalin, River Stories. The Project Factory AU. Web. 6 Dec. 2015.

The National Cultural Flows Research Project

The National Cultural Flows Research Project. National Native Title Council as trustee for the National Cultural Flows Planning and Research Committee, 2012. Web. 4 Jan. 2016.

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List of illustrations

Title Birds in Lower Murray Country
Credits All pictures by the author.
File image/jpeg, 142k
Title Bulls on Kumarangk (Hindmarsh) Island
File image/jpeg, 170k
Title Dredgers working at the Murray Mouth
File image/jpeg, 124k
Title Lower Murray Country
File image/jpeg, 124k
Title Lower Murray Country
File image/jpeg, 167k
Title The Lowelr Lakes
File image/jpeg, 118k
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Electronic reference

Camille Roulière, “Intertwined Languages and Broken Flows: Reading Ontological Polyphonies in Lower Murray Country (South Australia)”Angles [Online], 4 | 2017, Online since 01 April 2017, connection on 09 August 2022. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Camille Roulière

Camille Roulière is a cotutelle PhD candidate at the J. M. Coetzee Centre for Creative Practice (University of Adelaide, Australia) and ERIBIA (University of Caen Normandie, France). Her research centres on spatial poetics and she investigates the links between place and art, and primarily music, in Lower Murray Country (South Australia). Her research specifically aims to trace, map and interpret cultural perceptions of these landscapes, and their evolution. Her academic interests range widely from digital and environmental humanities to Indigenous studies and ethnomusicology. Contact: camille.rouliere [at]

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