This is the final story in the 'Earth, Body & Soul' series of profiles showcasing incredible women who use their bodies to fuel their climate activism. This week, Rikki Dank.
Rikki Dank made a snap decision when she saw Leonardo DiCaprio at COP26 last year. ‘Leo!’ she yelled out. ‘Talk to indigenous women in Australia about fracking on their land!’ DiCaprio, three deep in a media scrum, didn’t stop for a chat and Dank was escorted away by security. But the video of the exchange blew up and media sites around the world shared the story about the Australian Government fracking Traditional Owners’ country.
“It wasn't my intention to get international media,” says Dank. “I genuinely thought that if I could get Leo's attention, maybe he would have a yarn with me because he does lots of work with Indigenous women in South America.”
The Gudanji/Wakaja Rrumburriya activist says it’s been a struggle for Traditional Owners to get their story out about fracking. But usually, the 36-year-old doesn’t accost celebrities at climate events. She uses art as a way to raise awareness about climate change.
She runs Lajarri art gallery, showcasing and selling art by Indigenous Australian artists. Humans are generally visual people, says Dank “When they see a painting, and you explain to them it's a creation story that could be tens of thousands of years old, their eyes light up. They're amazed. And if someone can understand a creation story has been passed down through songlines and ended up in a painting, then it's not too much of a leap to think that knowledge about taking care of the land has also been passed down. You can easily shift people from the art to the environment.”
Rikki comes from a family of artists. Her mother used to paint silk scarves and design clothes out of barramundi leather, and her sister is a painter. “We're renaissance people. Art has always been really important to us. And I've always loved it.”
Art is a good tool to share culture and stories, and a means to smash stereotypes too. “Aboriginal people are painted with a particular brush - that we're hopeless, we're alcoholics, we don't work, we don't care for our kids or our people. And then when people see art and if it’s done on a big canvas and it's technical, it opens up their minds about Indigenous people. That we’re a whole lot more than that hopeless stereotype. We come with 65,000 years of knowledge and culture.”
The name of the gallery, Lajarri, is the Gudanji word for fire. “You’re igniting curiosity in people. The art is the shining thing that pulls people in, if they can go away with their heart opened a bit more then that's very powerful work”.
Growing up in Borroloola, a remote First Nations community in Northern Territory, Dank had to learn about climate justice and land rights from a young age. One of her earliest memories was being at a council meeting. She was about five and she got up to play. “My mother grabbed me by the arm and said, “you need to watch this, so you know how to deal with these people when you're my age”. Her family campaigned for land rights for years, finally getting their land back - 6,327 kilometres of traditional country they care for - in 1990.
They got their land back but were not consulted about fracking. “Fracking has, in a really sick and twisted way, allowed me to speak out as no one wanted to talk about rights before this. For years I've been going to politicians, newspapers and no one wanted to listen. It’s sad that it's taken this, the destruction of our country, for traditional owners to be able to speak about land issues.”
Dank wishes doubters and critics would understand that when Indigenous people say ‘land back’ it also means climate justice. “It means we will be able to help fix this crisis. It doesn't mean non-Indigenous people will miss out because that's not what we’re about. ‘Land back’ means we know how to care for our country, so we will all be here tomorrow. If we've been doing it for 65,000 years then I think we know what we're doing.”
Indigenous Australian people see the connection between land and humans as a partnership. “The land needs us to survive and we need the land to survive,” says Dank. “We burn off and it's not just clicking a match, we watch the weather, analyse how much rain we got this season, and the direction of the wind. We do it in a particular way so that animals have something to eat, and our neighbours are not affected. If we don’t burn off and there’s a lightning strike there'll be a big bushfire and it will go right through everyone's country. You’re caring for the country now so that you've got something later on.”
Splitting time between her mother’s traditional country in the Northern Territory and her fathers’ family in the Sunshine Coast exposed younger Dank to racism. That stress of being judged and ‘othered’ meant she left her home country and moved to Dubai three years ago, where she set up Lajarri gallery.
“Racism’s everywhere but in Dubai, I’m the right kind of brown so I’m not painted with that same brush as I am in Australia. My brother came over for a holiday recently and said for the first time ‘I don't feel this stress bearing down on me with people looking at me like I've done something wrong or I'm going to take something. He’d never felt that before.”
Dubai’s also a great place to showcase Indigenous art and culture, in a city teeming with diversity. “People didn't know there are Indigenous Peoples in Australia.” She’s building awareness of Indigenous Australian art, picking pieces, and buying from art centres.
Lately she’s seen a lot more protesting art, artists painting about the effects of fracking or mining. “We still have this obsession with old Aboriginal men doing dot paintings,” she says, “which we should, but if we ignore that protest art around mining or side-line it, then that old Aboriginal man with that dot painting is not going to exist anymore. It's going to die out.”
“Fracking is a fight that we can't afford to lose,” says Dank. “I will fight till I get them. Even if I’m an old woman and I die, we will still fight. Because it's not about me, it's about saving the country for our kids, and people.”
In terms of looking after her own body on earth, she says the Gudanji way is to think of bodies, like the land, as precious. “We don't separate our bodies from our souls, our Goojiga (soul). We make sure we care for our bodies as we would care for our souls. We're all going to get old at some point and we can't stop that. And I think this obsession with keeping young is damaging to society.
We need to be grateful for the life that we have been given and for the opportunity to pass on our knowledge and give space to the next person coming along. We Gudanji people worry more about our ethics and how we treat people and whether we've left the earth a bit kinder than it was before. That’s our Gudanji Rrumburriya ethos."
The writer wishes to acknowledge the support of YWCA Aotearoa for their help and aroha with this series.