Living on Stolen Land by Ambelin Kwaymullina

“This story begins

with the tree on the cover

which shows futures

The roots go deep

down into the ground

because just futures

must be grounded in respectful relationships

with Indigenous peoples

Indigenous homelands

Indigenous sovereignties

(Living on Stolen Land)

Living on Stolen Land is written by Ambelin Kwaymullina who belongs to the Palyku people of the eastern Pilbara. This work is published by Magabala Books. It is slender page-wise but holds deep and far-reaching content, of which only some will be explored here.

The book begins with the words quoted at the start of this interview. They describe the author’s own illustration of the tree on the book’s cover and continue by speaking about the tree trunk as external and internal structures for change and the leaves and flowers as ideas and possibilities. It is a powerful image.

Thank you for speaking to PaperbarkWords, Ambelin.

Why have you chosen such a hard-hitting title, Living on Stolen Land?

I guess to me that doesn’t seem hard-hitting, just a statement of fact, because this land was never ceded. It was taken.

I have heard a number of Indigenous authors and others express fatigue when continually asked to explain their backgrounds and beliefs to non-Indigenous people – and field queries about what non-Indigenous people should do or how they should change.

Why have you decided in this book to address “all the non-Indigenous people wanting to create better relationships with Indigenous peoples”?

The first part of the book ends with the words: you are living on stolen land/what can you do about it? I wrote this for everyone who asks me that question, or a variation of it. A lot of people who ask me are in their early 20s and they haven’t learned much about First Nations through the education system. I wanted to have something I could give to people, something they could hold in their hands, something they could take out and reflect upon.

Ambelin Kwaymullina

Your book is described as a manifesto. Could you describe your writing style and also why you have used this form to write your “call and a guide to action”?

I was trying to write in a way that was simple and accessible. This was the best way I knew to do that. I don’t even really know how to describe what the writing is. I suppose to me it is a speaking book, one I read out to myself as I was writing it, feeling the rhythm of the words rather than consciously thinking about structure. The breaks are where it felt right for there to be a break; the lines have more words or less words depending on what felt natural to me.

You explain three forms of bias – structural, explicit and unconscious. Which do you believe to be the most damaging or difficult to eradicate and why?

The three forms work together, and I think it’s really important to be clear about the ways in which they manifest and to understand the complexities of the interactions between structural, explicit and unconscious bias. I’d say however that often its structural bias that gets ignored. Or it gets conflated with another form of bias – when that happens, a systemic problem gets reduced to an individual issue and the focus on systemic change is lost. And structural bias (systemic racism) needs addressing urgently. I don’t think I need to elaborate on the reasons why it’s so vital to overcome systemic racism, because many First Nations peoples have spoken powerfully for decades about what needs to be done and how it can be done, including over the past few months. I’d ask people to tune in to the conversation – there’s a lot of material online at the moment – and listen to First Nations voices.

I love how one way you advise readers to shift bias is by engaging “with the stories that Indigenous peoples tell about ourselves”. You urge readers to seek out work by Indigenous authors, playwrights, dancers and singers as well as Elders and communities.

It is no doubt impossible to include everyone you would like to, but could you give some specific recommendations here?

There’s so much amazing First Nations work in Australia. But – because my other work is in kids lit, and I’m often approached by parents – I’m going to give some recommendations to get people started sharing First Nations books in their families. There’s a huge range of First Nations books for kids and teenagers, most of them published by the amazing Indigenous publisher Magabala Books. For all the mums and dads, the aunties and uncles, the grandmas and the grandpas – don’t let the next generation of Australians grow up never hearing First Nations voices speaking to our worlds.

For the little ones

Baby Business by Jasmine Seymour (Darug)

This gorgeous book tells the story of a Darug smoking ceremony that welcomes and protects babies. It is a warm, beautifully told story with wonderful illustrations that speak as eloquently as the text to home and family. The author/illustrator Jasmine Seymour is a descendant of Maria Lock, the daughter of Boorooberongal elder Yarramundi who met Governor Phillip on the banks of Dyarubbin (Hawkesbury River) in 1791. 

Listen to Jasmine Seymour talking about colonial history, storytelling and language here.

Upper primary/lower secondary

Brenton E McKenna (Yawuru), The Ubby’s Underdogs series (The Legend of the Phoenix Dragon; Heroes Beginnings; Return of the Dragons).

The Ubby’s Underdogs series is a graphic novel trilogy set in Broome in the 1940s about an outcast gang led by the fearless Ubby. The stories were inspired by the life of Brenton’s grandmother. These stunning books are action packed, cleverly told, and brilliantly illustrated.

Read about Brenton discussing the long journey to getting his voice heard and the healing power of stories here

Older Readers

Ruby Moonlight by Ali Cobby Ackermann (Yankunytjatjara/Kokatha).

Ruby Moonlight is set in South Australia in the 1800s. Told in haunting, searing verse, it tells of a massacre and follows the journey of the teenage girl who survives, Ruby Moonlight.  It is a powerful, unforgettable book which speaks to colonial brutalities and Aboriginal strength.

You can listen to Ali talking about the book and about what she hopes readers take from it here

What are you writing now?

A science fiction book that draws on colonial history to explore Aboriginal women’s resistance.

What platforms or forums do you expect this book will take you to – in the sense of who you will be addressing and how you will help contribute further to change? Or you intend Living on Stolen Land to stand as your voice?

One of the things I say in Living on Stolen Land about change is this (p 16):


is processes

It is journeys

not destinations

A series of transformations

which can only be born out of

and be answerable to

locally based relationships

with the sovereign Indigenous peoples

in whose homelands

Settlers live



So I’m not really wanting people to talk to me – my hope is the book helps non-Indigenous people on their way to doing the work of forming respectful relationships at local levels, engaging with and supporting local First Nations peoples and sovereignties, and dismantling the structures of settler-colonialism.

Thank you for your descriptions and explanations about patterns, time, connections and “learning to read the signs”. Thank you for exposing unconscionable denigrations by colonial settlers and their descendants who consider Indigenous people as “less than”. Thank you for so clearly outlining the impact of living on stolen land. Thank you also, Ambelin, for showing a way forward.

Living on Stolen Land by Ambelin Kwaymullina (Magabala Books $22.99)

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