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Sharing Indigenous ecological knowledge on Country

As the water community becomes increasingly involved in biodiversity initiatives, it is also becoming increasingly aware of the crucial role of Indigenous ecological knowledge in caring for Country.

The Atlas of Living Australia (ALA) is Australia’s biodiversity data infrastructure that supports world-class science and decision-making. The ALA is the Australian node of the Global Biodiversity Information Facility, is funded by the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy (NCRIS) and is hosted by the Commonwealth Scientific Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO).

The ALA’s Indigenous Ecological Knowledge (ALA-IEK) program partners with Aboriginal Communities working on Country in New South Wales, the Northern Territory and Western Australia and aims to promote Indigenous language and knowledge and empower Western science to make more informed land and environmental management decisions from a broader knowledge base

The ALA-IEK program explores the role of data platforms in bridging the gaps between Traditional Knowledge and Western science for plants and animals.

ALA Indigenous Ecological Knowledge program lead Nat Raisbeck-Brown said the program was established around 2016 in recognition that, without Indigenous knowledge, the ALA was only telling a small part of the story.

“We had a lot of Western science information about plants and animals on the ALA, but there was no Traditional Knowledge included. To really look after Country, we need both knowledge systems working together,” she said.

“The ALA-IEK program of work is about bringing those two systems together in one place. The ALA is a good place to do this; it’s free, and easy to access and navigate.”

Raisbeck-Brown said the ALA-IEK program recognises language as a key component of knowledge and works directly with Aboriginal language centres to facilitate our relationships with local Communities. This ensures we are working with the right people in the Community, in the right ways.

“In the past there’s been a lot of academics collecting language and knowledge about plants and animals from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders,” she said.

“And, while some of that might make its way back to Community, a lot of it is locked up in journals and scientific publications, which are either not public or are difficult to read and understand.

“This program is about working with the Community to collect and share their knowledge. But not all of the knowledge is shared. We ensure the process is managed correctly by working directly with community facilitators.”

Djet Biyoo Project

Since 2020, ALA has partnered with the Noongar Boodjar Aboriginal Language Centre on the Djet Biyoo (Flower Awakening) Project, which included the careful collection and documentation of ancestral knowledge of plants and animals.

So far, the Djet Biyoo Project has included two field trips and one consultation on Wudjari Country (Fitzgerald River National Park, WA). The field trips involved a team of Traditional Owners, language centre staff and botanists working together to collect ancestral knowledge for 46 plants and 43 animals using an in-field data app.

Noongar Boodjar Language Centre Manager, Senior Linguist and Noongar woman Denise Smith-Ali said the centre has built a strong partnership with CSIRO and the ALA in order to document language and ancestral knowledge to Country.

“The beauty of this project is that it is reviving, maintaining and claiming ownership of the Noongar language, which has made a massive difference,” she said.  

“We ask the Elders to provide their own ancestral knowledge of the names of plants and animals. We are collecting, recording and protecting that knowledge.

“The Traditional Noongar language that’s been documented is pretty clean data. The forensic analysis of the Noongar language is well maintained and revived. And the project helps us bring that back to the people and anybody who wants to learn about language.”

Ali-Smith said it's important to facilitate this knowledge collection to ensure language and knowledge is carried forward.

“It’s important to document this language while Elders and Knowledge Holders are still around. We need to move quickly on projects like this. We need to be looking at Traditional Knowledge more now, and investing more in this process,” she said.

The language and knowledge collected from the Djet Biyoo field trips was processed and presented to the Elders.This last consultation allowed them to decide which pieces of knowledge could be shared publicly through the Atlas.

Raisbeck-Brown said this final consultation is an absolutely essential step in the ALA-IEK program’s ethical process.

“An important part of this work is about taking people on to Country. It is a very important part of connecting to knowledge. Sometimes it's about remembering, and sometimes it's about protocols, about only being allowed to speak about those things when you are on Country,” she said.

“Once the field work is complete, we come back to the office and prepare everything, including booklets to showcase the information with the Elders. We ask them to consent to every sentence being shared, or not.

“They decide what plants and animals to talk about, where and when to go, who is coming, and what information ultimately gets shared. The whole process is completely guided by Denise and the Noognar Boodjar Language Centre. Without that partnership, we couldn’t do it.”

Caring for Country

Ali-Smith said sharing Noongar language and ancestral knowledge about plants and animals on the Atlas is an excellent way to help education programs, but also to support anyone seeking to learn more about Aboriginal people’s knowledge of Country.

“It’s a very good tool for schools and education programs. It's a very strong platform to use for anyone who wants to know something about the Indigenous knowledge of the land,” she said.

“We have Indigenous rangers and they take care of the land. They take care of everything we talk about through the Atlas, which complements the caretaking system.

 “We’ve created a database of Country and our rangers are out there making sure Country is being looked after. The Atlas helps them do their job.”

Nat Raisbeck-Brown said an important element of the Atlas is how it presents Traditional Knowledges and Western science side-by-side.

"In Western science we like to split things into discrete groups, but the Aboriginal Peoples we have worked with have an alternate world view where the connection between everything, plants, animals, people, and place, is most important," she said. 

“If you look up Emu, instead of just getting the Western scientific and English names, you also get 23 Aboriginal names for emu across three regions. There is a whole lot more knowledge here that many people don't know about.

“Now that we have all these language names in the Atlas, people can look up Western and Traditional Knowledge using the language name that they know. Language can be used to search the atlas. This is also very important.

“The Atlas is also very dynamic. Over time, we can add more information to our encyclopaedias and profiles. The knowledge is always growing and open to change.”