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Learning from Indigenous Knowledge

Our Learning from Indigenous Knowledge initiative brought together researchers from MSDI and Indigenous leaders to study how the deep knowledge of the Yorta Yorta people could be used to help strengthen their community’s participation and influence in the complex processes that determine how their  traditional  lands in the BarmahMillewa are managed, and to help them respond to climate change.

Gaining the community’s trust

The process of gaining the community’s trust was a long one, explains Professor Dave Griggs. Just generally the conversations over the first few years we did nothing really other than talk… with no great purpose or end. To me that was frustrating and I didn’t quite understand where  it  was going and what use I was being. And people just kept saying, no – just be patient, just be patient. It’ll happen. Things will emerge. And sure enough over time as we got to know each other and we got to trust each other and we got to understand each other, we started to say oh actually  we  could do this… and wouldn’t it be a good idea if we could find a way to do that.”

Lee Joachim from the Yorta Yorta Nation Aboriginal Corporation said it was important to the community that the researchers understood where the Yorta Yorta community were coming from. “We needed them to understand who we are as a people, to respect our knowledge and not be scientists. We got to  a  point where we were comfortable with each other.”

Developing a Graphical Information System database

The extensive conversation eventually led to the identification of an innovative solution to the challenges the Yorta Yorta community were facing: the creation of a Geographical Information System (GIS) mapping framework that would capture both traditional Yorta Yorta knowledge and Western knowledge  of  the region. The system allows different types of data to be mapped and layered – enabling the Yorta Yorta to access and present their knowledge in ways that can best suit Western decisionmaking processes.

The GIS database has brought together a vast array of climate, hydrology, biodiversity, administrative, imagery, socioeconomic and cultural data within a common framework and single system.

The innovative database has also solved several additional challenges. It provides protection for Indigenous knowledge from inappropriate exploitation. It successfully integrates Indigenous knowledge with more conventional knowledge in an easily accessible way. It also gives the Yorta Yorta community  integrated  and actionable information they can use in negotiations with local stakeholders and policy makers, empowering them to be more deeply involved in decision making.

National workshop

As part of the project, a National Workshop on Indigenous Knowledge for Climate Change Adaptation took place on Yorta Yorta land on 14-15 November 2012, with over 90, mostly indigenous, participants from across Australia and overseas. Participants included a broad representation from  First  Nations across Australia, Samoa and Hawaii, as well as some representatives from academia, state and federal government, nongovernmental organisations and the private sector. It was cohosted by the Yorta Yorta National Aboriginal Corporation and the Monash Sustainable Development Institute. The  workshop  set out to examine how Indigenous knowledge can contribute to improved climate change adaptation for the First Nations of Australia, and the Australian community in general.

Positive impacts on the community

The project has had several big impacts on the community, beyond the development of the database. It has empowered the Yorta Yorta community to participate more fully in decision making processes affecting their traditional lands. It has also provided them with actionable information in the form of  the  database. The community led nature of the project has also increased the community’s capacity and knowledge of climate change.  Through working in close partnership, researchers and the community have both learned another ‘language’. The community can now better understand  the  language of science in the context of culture. MSDI’s researchers have also benefited enormously from exposure to traditional knowledge, allowing them to tailor information to the Yorta Yorta community’s needs. The process of collecting and storing Elders’ knowledge now means that  the  community’s cultural stories and history are recorded for posterity.

Reconnecting Yorta Yorta youth to culture and country

In order to collect data for the GIS database, Yorta Yorta youth were engaged to conduct interviews with their Elders to capture their stories and knowledge. This process helped to connect the younger generation with Elders. The result is an increased enthusiasm amongst Yorta Yorta youth for their history,    culture    and traditional knowledge. Thirteen Yorta Yorta Elders and six Yorta Yorta youth were originally involved. The enthusiasm the process generated in the wider community, however, has led to several followup interviews.

National and international interest

The project has garnered a great deal of interest from other communities around Australia. Because of the communityled nature of the project, the Yorta Yorta people are now in a position to provide leadership to other First Nations communities to start them on the journey to understanding climate change.    We    have also had significant interest in replicating the project from international communities. The World Bank sent representatives from Samoa to the National Workshop. The Samoan Indigenous community has expressed its interest in replicating the project, with potential funding from the World Bank.    The    World Bank Institute (WBI) has also expressed interest in using the GIS technology and approach in its work with the Shua Indians of the Amazon Rainforest. The WBI is interested in using a GIS database to help it identify and protect the medicinal plants of the Shua Indian community. We have also    been    invited to present on the project to to many audiences, including the Royal Society of Victoria.