12.3 The interface between Indigenous and Western knowledge systems

New knowledges emerge from the interface between Indigenous knowledges and Western-based systems of knowledge. Current research projects and initiatives seek to build on Indigenous knowledges and open new avenues for research. Respectful engagement with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and people supports growth in the nation’s knowledge base. Community-led research requires sharing decision making, resources, credit, results and knowledge.

12.3.1 Critical success factors

Critical success factors include:

  • organisations are focused on long-term relationships with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities
  • each party’s project inputs are recognised, and ownership and use of outputs are negotiated at the start
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander research is published to contribute to increased understanding and academic interest.

12.3.2 Key challenges

Key challenges include:

  • committing to long-term relationships between universities and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities
  • dealing with the fact that research is starting from a low base, which can result in funding challenges.

12.3.3 Examples

Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation – research involving Indigenous knowledges

The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), Australia’s national science agency, is engaged in a range of research projects that utilise Indigenous knowledges. The following are three prominent examples of CSIRO’s work.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander biodiversity management and planning

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are important agents and collaborators in biodiversity conservation. Both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander aspirations and knowledge contribute management capability and unique perspectives on balancing biodiversity risks and benefits.

Work with communities has included:

  • collecting scientific and cultural knowledge to develop an atlas for Martu native title holders of the Great Sandy Desert in Western Australia
  • developing the first national guidelines for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander protected area management plans and a range of effective planning tools for integrating Indigenous ecological knowledge
  • producing multi-case study analysis of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander engagement in environmental management, identifying the positive influence of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander governance on Indigenous ecological knowledge and science integration
  • drawing on Australia’s longstanding experience with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander co-management to inform innovative directions for treaty claim settlements in New Zealand.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander co-benefits from carbon economies

CSIRO research has critically examined the opportunities available to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people interested in participating in carbon management and markets, and informed the design of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander co-benefit criteria and requirements under the Carbon Farming Initiative offset regime. CSIRO has played a research leadership role on the National Indigenous Climate Change project, which is working on the development of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander-specific co-benefit evaluation frameworks and carbon management methodologies. This research links strategically to biophysical science in forestry and fire management for greenhouse gas mitigation and carbon sequestration. It also supports research that is developing a decision model for fire management by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander landowners in remote deserts under different climate change scenarios.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander water values and planning research

National standards for water planning and management in Australia require that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ values are taken into account. CSIRO research has generated the knowledge and tools to enable effective incorporation of these values.

Highlights of the research include:

  • identifying Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander socio-economic values and water flows, including quantitative economic assessments of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander resource use and studies of Indigenous ecological knowledge in the Daly and Fitzroy Rivers
  • identifying Indigenous knowledges and perspectives relevant to water availability (for example, in the Northern Territory’s Roper River region and in the Murray–Darling Basin)
  • analysing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander water governance and planning.

CSIRO uses its own protocols in engaging with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities based on:

  • consent, consultation and mutual agreement with communities
  • equity and respect
  • benefits for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and their communities
  • respect for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander right of ownership to ecological, cultural and traditional knowledges.

Macquarie University – Aboriginal Astronomy Centre

The Aboriginal Astronomy Centre at Macquarie University is driven by interdisciplinary research, using approaches from the physical and social sciences, to better understand the astronomical knowledge and traditions of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. The project aims to explore, for example, whether complex motions of the sky and transient phenomena such as supernovas, comets and meteors have been recorded verbally or in rock art or stone arrangements.

As research outputs increase, students are learning about Indigenous scientific knowledge. The centre aims to attract Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and non-Indigenous students who wish to pursue projects in Aboriginal astronomy. A student at the centre has recently completed a PhD and another is currently commencing a master’s degree by research. The centre has also employed a vacation scholar in partnership with the Macquarie University Research Centre for Astronomy, Astrophysics and Astrophotonics. This partnership increases research outputs and improves skills of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander academics in the centre.

The Aboriginal Astronomy Centre collaborates on projects with CSIRO Astronomy and Space Science, the Macquarie University Departments of Physics and Astronomy, and Earth and Planetary Sciences, Sydney Observatory and the Powerhouse Museum. The research is breaking down barriers between Western science and Indigenous knowledge, and rapidly advancing understanding of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander knowledge systems.

Macquarie University works closely with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Elders, custodians and communities, and heavily promotes its work to the public. The work of the centre is guided by respect and support for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and culture, and ensuring that communities retain ownership and control of information.

Information on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander astronomy perspectives from the project are incorporated into school curriculums, higher education course material and institutes, such as museums, observatories and planetariums.

The centre’s research blog has received over 50,000 views in one year, many of which come from overseas visitors. The research has resulted in 10 journal papers, four conference proceedings, and speaking engagements to public and academic audiences on six continents. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are co-authors on journal publications where possible.

Monash University and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities – Monash Country lines Archive

The Monash Country lines Archive is a living archive that aims to assist Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities to animate their stories as material for intergenerational knowledge sharing. These stories can be a combination of the community’s history, knowledge, poetry, songs, performance and language. Every animation is made in partnership with the community that owns the story. This partnership spans all levels of production. The copyright of each animation remains with the Indigenous knowledge owners.

The success of the program depends on partnerships between Monash University and the participating Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. Building trusting relationships and finding shared objectives between university academics and community members takes time.

The project came from a long partnership between the Yanyuwa people of Borroloola in the Northern Territory and the Monash Indigenous Centre and Faculty of Information Technology. In December 2010, the Monash Country lines Archive program was developed through the vision, trust and support of the Alan and Elizabeth Finkel Foundation. The gift from the Finkel Foundation will enable the team to animate 20 country lines a year (equal to more than 40 minutes of animation) over the next five years. The five-year plan for the program includes engagement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander higher degree by research students in the various areas of Indigenous studies, 3D digital animation, archival science and community partnership research.

Charles Sturt University and Wiradjuri Council of Elders – Wiradjuri Language and Cultural Heritage Program

Charles Sturt University is working with the Wiradjuri Council of Elders and the Wiradjuri nation towards the recovery, maintenance and development of Wiradjuri language and cultural heritage. The Wiradjuri Language and Cultural Heritage Program Committee, jointly chaired by the Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Academic) and the Chair of the Wiradjuri Council of Elders, aims to empower Wiradjuri communities as custodians of Wiradjuri history, knowledge, cultural heritage, community life, language and land.

The program includes language teaching, language teacher development, curriculum development, language research, collection and storage of oral history, heritage and care of Wiradjuri country and the ways of life that nurture and support Wiradjuri people and country.

The university has appointed a full-time project officer from the Wiradjuri Council of Elders to liaise with the university and other agencies, including the Museum of the Riverina, the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies and the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage.

The focus of the program is establishing and maintaining engagement with Elders and Indigenous communities to support Indigenous higher education students, and providing Indigenous education across the university curriculum. It also provides opportunities to support the Indigenous employment strategies of the university and in the local communities.