By way of example, he gestures to the trees. In his language, he explains, the word for trees translates more closely to “tree people”.
“So fundamentally I have a different relationship with them if I see them in my language… because they’re my relatives. Whereas if it’s just a tree, I can cut it down, I can turn it into paper, I can call it a resource.”
The 29-year-old is a fluent Wolastoqey speaker, but his proficiency was hard-won.
At age six, his mother was forced to attend a residential school – “boarding schools that were designed to take our culture away” – where children were beaten for speaking their native tongue. It’s a scenario that was closely mirrored by Australia’s assimilation policies until the 1970s.
“It’s that same trick that’s been put on Indigenous people the world over,” Dutcher said.
“It was an actively bad thing – you were put in physical danger because you expressed your identity.”
His mother would later reclaim her language, and Dutcher grew up hearing Wolastoqey spoken by his maternal relatives. Later, during his opera studies at university, he was learning “new romantic European languages”, when he had a lightbulb moment.
“I was studying for a German test and I just had this moment of realisation of like, German will be fine. German doesn’t need me,” he said.
“There are less than a hundred fluent speakers of my language left… I just knew that my efforts could be put somewhere else.”
Dutcher now sees himself as part of a new generation of Indigenous artists who are driving a global renaissance of First Nations culture and knowledge.
“Through our songs we assert our sovereignty, which is to say that you tried to bury us, but we were seeds and so we grew.”
Dutcher points to Australian artists who are part of this new wave, such as “amazing” Aboriginal violinist Eric Avery, who similarly merges classical music with his custodial songs.
He is heartened by efforts to introduce Indigenous languages into Australian schools but gets frustrated by those who argue that learning Mandarin or Spanish is more practical.
“If we only view ourselves and our culture as something to be used – its usefulness – I think we miss the point of what language actually is,” he said.
“There’s so much in our languages… they’re so different from any European language, because they put us in relationship to the land. You can’t separate those two.”
Bearing that in mind, when Dutcher touched down in Australia this week in the midst of the bushfire crisis, he was filled with a sense of foreboding.
“We have prophecies in North America among Indigenous peoples that talk about this time,” he said.
“The world is burning, our water is not safe to drink, the animals’ habitat has died off… Australia is showing us what is to come.”
Dutcher says the land all over the world is “crying” for a return to cultural land management.
“The more that we can lift up voices that have been caring for the land for a very long time… the more we can be in a better relationship with the land around us,” he said.
“What is required right now is a radical shift in who has the microphone.”
Jeremy Dutcher will perform at the City Recital Hall on January 17 as part of the Sydney Festival, and then at Mona Foma’s Inveresk festival hub in Lauceston, Tasmania, over the weekend of January 18.
This article is brought to you with the support of the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.
Ella Archibald-Binge is a Kamilaroi woman and the Indigenous Affairs reporter at The Sydney Morning Herald.
Rhett is a Palawa man and a photographer at the Sydney Morning Herald.