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Bringing Indigenous knowledge into science courses

Despite Indigenous Australian knowledge slowly integrating into land management practices, it's still absent from many tertiary environmental science courses.

Indigenous Australians possess a profound and culturally intertwined knowledge of country, and their unique insight is finally being recognised in western science. The Atlas of Living Australia (ALA) has consulted with First Nations communities, gathering over 26 Indigenous names—so far—for the emu across three language groups. Prior to the project, only the common and scientific name were listed on their database. First Nations fire management strategies also continue to be implemented in national parks across the country. However, despite Indigenous knowledge slowly integrating into current ecological practices, it is still glaringly absent from many tertiary environmental science courses nationwide.

Universities Australia’s Indigenous Strategy 2022 – 2025 highlights the importance of integrating Indigenous knowledge into curriculum, maintaining that the use of Indigenous knowledge not only elevates current research but also enriches students’ understanding.

Professor Stephen van Leeuwen, a Wardandi Noongar leader and Australia’s first Indigenous Chair of Biodiversity and Environmental Science at Curtin University, says that the main obstacle to attaining and teaching First Nations knowledge is that it relies on a strong relationship with Indigenous communities.

“It’s about building respect, trust and a partnership that is more than just consulting,” he tells upstart.

Nat Raisbeck-Brown, a CSIRO Spatial Scientist working closely with Indigenous communities in Perth, says that without an existing relationship, Indigenous communities are less likely to share their knowledge with academics due to historic mistreatment of their knowledge.

“Just going in and saying, ‘I want the name of that frog, tell me about that frog’, it just doesn’t work anymore,” she tells upstart.

“And so Aboriginal groups are really averse to that, because scientists would come in, they’d collect the information about the frog, and then they’d just leave.”

Professor van Leeuwen says that there is still a long way to go in terms of respecting Indigenous knowledge in academia. He says that some academics assume they can simply take knowledge from Elders and First Nation’s communities without crediting or paying them properly for consultation. This also contributes to the slow integration of this knowledge into tertiary courses.

“If you were asking the botanist or the architect, or the lawyer to come to a meeting to provide their advice, they’d be charging you a couple of thousand bucks,” he says.

“Elders are experts, especially on their country. And if you’re asking about their country, then you need to respect them and, dare I say, remunerate them as you would any other expert.”

Raisbeck-Brown says that while learning about Indigenous knowledge can enrich a non-Indigenous scholar’s understanding of a topic, they should never consider themselves as an “expert”.

“When we step in and start working with Indigenous knowledge, it is never ours. I can never be an expert and don’t want to ever be an expert,” she says.

“Some of the old-style scientists find that bit really difficult. They’re so used to being the experts.”

While making space in the world of university curriculum is a tricky task, Curtin University have begun the process. Professor van Leeuwen says that the university offers Indigenous engagement electives and also has advanced cultural awareness training available at three different levels. The most basic level involves an online module or guided tour of campus with an Indigenous engagement officer, which is compulsory of all staff and students. The most advanced training is an optional four-day camp elective with Indigenous elders on country.

While some universities are still navigating the integration of Indigenous knowledge into their curriculum, others are already teaching it. Victoria University Outdoor Education and Environmental Science student Samantha Earle says that while First Nations land management is not a core part of her course, her lecturers tend to intertwine traditional knowledge with western practices.

“After learning more about the Indigenous methodology behind land management and Aboriginal Australian culture in general, my respect for the land had grown immensely,” she tells upstart.

A group of Outdoor Education and Environmental Science students from Victoria University on camp, supplied by Samantha Earle.

Learning about Indigenous practices has industry benefits too. A 2022 study found that implementing First Nations’ fire management strategies provided a unique and effective way for Aboriginal communities to care for their country while working in conjunction with western scientists.

Earle says that so far in her course, she has learnt about practices in the context of a pre-settlement environment and then explored how the environment changed now that is it not being managed by traditional owners.

“I would love to see field trips where we incorporate practices similar to those of the Australian Aboriginals,” she says.

“I think it would develop people’s respect for our natural environment as well as their respect for Indigenous culture.”

Professor van Leeuwen says that the future of Indigenous science in universities involves “two-way science”, where there is a collaboration of both Indigenous knowledge and western science.

“It could be senior knowledge holders in community, working with and involved in the curriculum development and delivery with the academics who are teaching those subjects,” he says.

Raisbeck-Brown is putting “two-way science” into practice. She worked with First Nations communities to gather knowledge for the Djet Biyoo Indigenous language project. It is because of her collaboration with Indigenous communities that the emu —as well as many other species—now has a collection of different names from First Nations language groups in the Atlas of Living Australia.

“Projects like this help link traditional and western science knowledges together,” she says.

Professor van Leeuwen says that ultimately the goal is to break down the barriers between Indigenous and western science.

“It’s about opening the eyes of non-Indigenous to what is there, but also unlocking the potential in Indigenous to be able to tell their stories and share their knowledge.”


Article: Ruby Oosthuizen is a fourth-year Bachelor of Arts (Digital media) and Bachelor of Science (Zoology) student at La Trobe University. You can follow her on Twitter @OosthuizenRuby

Photo: Supplied by Samantha Earle.

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