Mapping Aboriginal knowledge of the bush

By Natalie Muller 22 December 2012
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Indigenous insights into Australia’s landscape are being documented by the CSIRO.

THE NGAN’GI PEOPLE FROM the Daly River, Northern Territory, rely on the life cycle of spear grass to alert them to a change in season, and the best time to look for bush tucker.

When the grass stalks die and turn a reddish colour as the dry season approaches, it’s time to look for prawns in creeks. When the grass seeds turn brown and start falling, the dry season has started and it’s time to fish for barramundi. When the grass has burnt, the turtles are fat and ideal to hunt.

For the first time, this knowledge is being collated into a series of calendars by indigenous elders, in collaboration with the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO).

Ecological insight aids indigenous survival

“We learnt all the knowledge growing up, when I used to travel with my mum and dad across billabongs, creeks and rivers,” says Patricia McTaggart, a Ngan’gi linguist from the community of Nauiyu on the banks of the Daly River.

“The red flower kapok tree tells us the crocodile has laid its eggs, so we can go out collecting them. We try to teach the little ones that when that tree is in flower, we’re going to collect the eggs.”

The seasonal calendars that document these intimate insights are part of the Tropical Rivers and Coastal Knowledge research program. So far six calendars have been made from six different language groups across the Northern Territory and Western Australia. They depict a wealth of indigenous ecological knowledge based on the culture’s continued observation of the landscape over thousands of years.

Preserving Aboriginal landscape knowledge

Patricia says there was an urgency to record this information. “Our old people are passing away. There are only two or three old people left with the knowledge. These old people were born in their own country, and they’ve been observing things around them without all the intrusions.”

Emma Woodward, an ecologist at CSIRO, worked with Aboriginal elders over the last three years to complete the calendars. She hopes they will be used as a tool to teach students in schools.

She says they could also inform decisions surrounding land and river management, and help monitor changes in the climate and environment over time.

“That knowledge has built up over many generations and people have taken the time to observe those things happening,” says Emma. “There are people out there, not western scientists, but the indigenous communities, who have this really strong connection to country.

“Their knowledge is not currently being used in a modern day sense or in contemporary management decision making.”

Indigenous involvement in land management

Professor Max Finlayson, an ecologist at Charles Sturt University in NSW, says the work put in to capture local knowledge in the calendars is a big step forward.

“In some cases we’ve actually lost a lot of that knowledge, which is a really sad point, and once we lose things, it’s very hard to get them back,” he says.

Max says there should be greater efforts made, where possible, to involve Aboriginal people in water and land management issues.

“There’s no better way to involve people than to work with them to use their knowledge,” he says. “In northern Australia where you still have a lot of local people with that knowledge, we should be trying to work with them.”