Indigenous knowledge FAQs

It is important and culturally appropriate that we acknowledge the spirits of the Ancestors, Elders, Traditional Owners and contemporary custodians from the Nations of Kulin, Melbourne, Wathaurung, Ballarat, Darug, Strathfield, Cammeraygal, North Sydney, Yagarra and Turbal Nations Brisbane, Kaurna in Adelaide and Ngunnawal, Canberra. We are doing this not as an act of political correctness but as one which connects us all to ourselves, to each other and to Country itself. We do this as a means through Story to connect us to an Australian history that is hundreds of thousands of years old.

I was thinking about when I supervised a pre-service teacher during her professional experience. She was teaching some units on the history of Australian fashion. She had done a lot of work, she was creative and she engaged the students in her lessons. At the end of a couple of lessons we discussed what she did. I told her I appreciated the work that she had put into the lessons and her enthusiasm. I asked her a question: given the lessons were on the history of Australian fashion why didn’t she have any Aboriginal content? She looked at me as if I was from mars. The next time I saw her she said to me “the students did them last term”. The implication was that the students were taught a bit about Aboriginal history in a general history unit, and that this was enough. A further implied question was how could you include Aboriginal perspectives in a unit on the history of Australian fashion? I asked, how can you not?

Imagine how engaging this unit could have been if the pre-service teacher had looked at the different ‘fashion’ that existed in the Country the school was located in prior to colonization? This would look at the geography, climate, flora and fauna and how these were engaged in people’s fashion: for example people from the Awabakal Nation around Newcastle in NSW had possum cloaks. Why? As the unit progressed a reference could have been made to changes of dress with colonization, the impact of missions and more recently contemporary designers such as Bronwyn Bancroft. All these threads woven and storyed as the rest of the material was.

Indigenous perspectives can be stories and information about Indigenous cultures, and peoples. It is a way that superficially and without context provides information. It becomes a way of marking what is exotic. It doesn’t connect to a bigger picture. Indigenous Knowledge is something different. Indigenous knowledge has more depth.

There is not one ‘set’ of Indigenous knowledge. I like to use the term Indigenous Knowings. This helps us to differentiate between two very different concepts. Indigenous Knowings are the ways Aboriginal peoples in Australia view the world, relate to the world, and are a part of the world. This is different to western knowledge. It is not better than and it is not inferior to Western knowledge. It is just conceptually different and this impacts on how people respond to and create things.

Indigenous Knowings are complex and they evolve from Country where everything is alive; people rocks, trees, stars, waterways and so on. People or humans become a part of a web of relationships and connections with everything else that is alive. Every element has a language and speaks to each other. Country is more than what Bawaka et al describe as a ‘passive backdrop to human experience’.  Therefore, Indigenous Knowings are constant, in states of flux, they are relational, transformative and exist on and through waves of energy, spirit. Indigenous Knowings are about process and action. Indigenous Knowings are like patterns, patterns within patterns, where the heart cannot be disengaged from the intellect.

Well, when we add Indigenous perspectives we graft on some understanding about Aboriginal peoples, our cultures and/or histories. What we don’t do is give this information depth and context. For example, if I am teaching a class about Australian art and I have a bit of information about dot painting. I may feel satisfied that I have added an Aboriginal perspective. But, how does this, how does dot painting relate to the role and place of art, communication, literacy, spirit connection, Country in Indigenous Knowings and so on. In this instance my teaching presentation is about dot painting and by presenting this in this way I am saying Aboriginal people paint and they use dots. This is not the case. I haven’t given a context or provided the bigger picture. I am saying my understanding and interpretation of art is the same as that of western understanding of art knowledge and purpose.  I am using my lens as a non-Indigenous educator to teach about Indigenous ‘art’ by adding a perspective which engages dot painting.

Indigenous Knowings involve relationality and the sensory engagement of all living beings. Concepts of story and storying, time and space are as a result vastly different and impact on the way we respond to and create information.

Indigenous Knowings are like patterns because everything is interconnected and dependent on each other. A dynamic interplay operates between relationships. Human and non-human inform and are  informed by the many diverse languages spoken between all and each of these entities. Indigenous Knowings like a pattern have many different threads and they all come in different colors and shapes, but all and each are connected to and have a relationship with each other. Think about looking at a woven rug for example or a basket. When you stand close you can focus on a single thread. As you move further away you see how the threads create the whole pattern. The whole is more than the sum of its parts. The whole exits in all its parts.

All learning is shaped by the broader nexus of connections that is the world. Locating the self in this nexus, as an equal partner removes any distance in creation.

Indigenous storying is not about finding a right answer, it is about opening up and compiling a bundle of possibilities.

In academia, knowledge  is ‘open’. Knowledge is published and public. This is not always the case in Indigenous cultures. Some Knowings are public, but all Knowings are earned dependent on someone’s relationships with Country. Some Knowings are known to a few where Elders are the custodians of most.

Western knowledge compartmentalises knowledge into disciplines. To understand the world is to stand apart from it and to disconnect from surrounding relationships. Humans are privileged but must remain emotionally distant in order to create knowledge. Time and space are linear and are tied to the idea of - more knowledge equates to progress, civilisation and wealth.

Let’s share a story: let’s look at the’ wheel’. Western knowledge values the wheel in terms of resources and material wealth through its connection to the progress of western civilisation. Aboriginal Australians value the wheel in terms of its connection to the tree that it was made from. The wheel is connected to the death of the tree and all associated relationships and connections.

Accept these world views as different. Be nourished by the difference and grow our perspectives in what and how we teach.

A lot of people feel this … because they are disconnected. When we understand the whole story rather than the bits of a story, and we see the bits in isolation, then this is the way this presents. We need to understand the whole story.

There is a space in between these world views and it is possible to not only bridge the gulf between them but to be nourished by and nourish each world view.

Embedding Indigenous Knowings adds depth of understanding to all of our student’s knowledge and experience. To understand the wheel or even the history of Australian fashion through the embedding of Indigenous Knowings nourishes our spirits as Australians.  We are given a bundle of possibilities to identify with. This process, this action engages all of us in connecting to Country, to our space and place in this ancient and timeless land. It helps all of us to better shape our identity as Australians. We are all a part of this Country’s Dreaming.

Country, B. Wright, S., Suchet-Pearson, S., Lloyd, K., Burarrwanga, L., Ganambarr, R., Ganambarr-Stubbs, M., & Maymuru, D. (2015). Working with and learning from Country: decentring human author-ity. cultural geographies, 22(2),

Hokari, M. (2000). History Happening in/between Body and Place: Journey to the Aboriginal Way of Historical Practice. Habitus: A Sense of Place, (p. 2). Perth.

King, T. (2003). The truth about stories. A native narrative. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press

Morgan, S., Mia,T., & Kwaymullina, B. (Eds) 2008. Heartsick for country. Stories of love, spirit and creation. North Fremantle, WA: Fremantle Press.

Embedding into curriculum FAQs

If you think about embedding Indigenous Knowings  in your units and you focus on how this can nourish, add depth to what your unit story is it is a more comfortable focus. It is not deficit thinking.

Indigenous storying explains, explores and projects our being, our connections and relationships. Indigenous storying is different to western stories. It is a process, a form of communicating Indigenous Knowings. Indigenous storying engages different people telling bits of a story; they each speak what they have come to know through their relationships with Country, through their place within the web of relationships that exists in that place. Indigenous storying is not linear, it’s cyclic - and even spiral turning inward onto itself at different points. It is not about answering a question. Indigenous storying is about finding a ‘bundle of possibilities’.

Ask yourself what the course you are designing the curriculum for is about….

At the level of the REASON (rationale) of the course, you need to think about how the course engages with Indigenous Knowings and how these Knowings contribute to a more holistic vision of the knowledge, sense-making and skill development that graduates will NEED to be productive practitioners in the worlds in which they will ultimately participate. Then ask yourself how these Knowings are embedded in the course level learning outcomes.

Then, when looking at the units which comprise the course, ask yourself what is my unit about? WHY is it in the course? What are my intended outcomes? How can embedding Indigenous Knowings enhance and add depth to my unit? Brain bloom your responses.

Go online and see what information is available. There is quite a lot of information already there for educators like us. Find a story that relates to what you are doing; look at it holistically, look at the pattern. Then look at the bits, the threads in the pattern, the colours and shapes.

For example: I am teaching a unit in Law on Constitutional law or I am teaching a unit on accounting in Business or geometry in maths … I look for and find this story told by Sally Morgan. Sally was speaking to her grandfather about Captain James Cook. Her grandfather said to her : “that Captain Cook, that fella, he didn’t know how to read the signs”. You see when Cook arrived in Botany Bay and got off the ship the Endeavour, he walked up to a tree and carved his name, the ship’s name and the date on the tree. To Cook this was a mark claiming possession for the British Crown. It was a mark that sounded a warning to other colonising nations. To the Gweagal and Kameygal clans this act was a transgression of ancient laws. It was mutilation of the tree and all of the relationships connected to it, with it.

Reflect on how this story can be translated into units in the law, maths, business lessons identified earlier …

Don’t be afraid you fellas, be bold! As with anything we teach for the first time we need to check our sources … and remember in terms of Indigenous Knowings we are not searching for a right answer … we are storying a bundle of possibilities … what if? In the example above when we teach we can discuss the different clans : Gweagal and Kameygal, and how different maps, different people refer to different Aboriginal groups in this area. They spell the clan and Nation groups differently. Check with the local Aboriginal Land Council and see how they refer to the people in the area you are teaching about.  The issue from a western knowledge perspective is one of identifying boundaries, boundaries that surveyors developed and which exist on maps today informing storying, language, law (Native Title for example) and so on. Aboriginal people didn’t create the maps. Our views of the boundaries, even our concept of ‘boundaries’ are different. Views that are neither inferior or superior, just different.

It is important we teach our students how to be critically reflective and inclusive. This is a process as much as it is about content.

It’s also important to check that it is okay to make the information you share public by asking an appropriate Indigenous person. Start a dialogue with different people. We all have different experiences and understandings and … remember we are looking for a bundle of possibilities not one right answer to a question.

If you know Aboriginal people in your area or Aboriginal community organisations you can contact them for information. This has to be a two-way process it can’t be us just bleeding Aboriginal people of their intellectual property. Think about ways there can be reciprocity. Look online to see how to engage with correct cultural protocols when speaking to First Nations peoples.

Go online. There is a lot of information available for educators. Check out the LTC website for links to different sites and resources. If you have information share it through this portal. Put your ideas up and discuss with your colleagues through this space. This portal is organic. It like Country is alive and is dependent on nourishing the relationships and connections inspired by and for it.

I can hear you saying but this takes time, time I don’t have. All good curriculum takes time but the rewards of creative curriculum that embraces diverse storying is both powerful and empowering. Once you have developed the material you have it there as a foundation for ever. You can build on this for future classes in less time.

We all make mistakes and this is what we grow from. It is important in this context to acknowledge the mistake. I remember a colleague of mine telling me off for using and writing Aboriginal ‘lore’ in a document I was drafting for him. This comment made me realise that ‘lore’ is associated to ‘folk lore’; something that is old, possibly even ancient but it is not real, it is fictional. Whereas ‘law’ is associated with ‘fact’, with reality. These are vastly different concepts. I’ve never done it since and my depth of understanding grew astronomically from this point on.

Remember Aboriginal peoples and Torres Strait Islander peoples have many different Nations. It is not surprising people have different ideas and different expressions of this. It is not surprising because Indigenous Knowings emanate from Country which we now know is organic, it is a place where everything lives in constant motion. There are for example many different Storys about the ‘seven sisters who became stars’. Every story is true within its own space.

How enriching is this diversity: diversity of understanding, storying amongst Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples alike: the Dreaming Storys of the seven sisters as stars and Pleiades and the Orion belt?  Embedding and embodying such diversity is what being Australian is.

Congratulations! You have already begun the journey by asking this question. You are too deadly!

Storys/stories:

We have chosen to use the term Story/Storys to reflect and show respect for Indigenous diversity and Knowing of the concept of Story. The word is capitalised throughout to embrace its significance The spelling of the plural – Storys – rather than ‘stories’ reflects cultural distinctness of the concept.

Country/Countries:

Country/Countrys is the term we have chosen to use to describe Aboriginal Countrys, spaces and places. It is capitalised and pluralised to give respect to our diversity. The term Country embodies ecological systems so much a part of Indigenous Knowings; it is not just limited to geographical space and place. I have chosen to spell the plural differently to embrace distinctness of concept.

Page last updated on 16/04/2020

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