Learning from Indigenous Knowledge

The Yorta Yorta people of southeast Australia are a river people. Dhungala is the life source and spirit of the Yorta Yorta.

In 1988, river authorities met with Yorta Yorta Elders to provide input on a planned removal of branches and logs from the river, which were a navigation hazard. The Elders advised against it, as it would remove key habitats for frogs and turtles, and cause enhanced bank erosion. The “de-snagging” plan went ahead.
In 2006, Yorta Yorta Elders were invited to preside over a ceremony to launch a multi-million dollar “re-snagging project.”

The challenge

River basins around the world are critical for water resources, biodiversity and agriculture, but they are facing increasing stresses due to degradation, overuse and climate change. We must find new, more integrated solutions that deliver benefits for:

  • healthy river ecosystems
  • sustainable agriculture
  • empowered communities

Seeing with two eyes
Indigenous ways of knowing can facilitate improved decisions that address complex environmental problems. The process of integrating diverse forms of knowledge leads to enhanced skills and aspirations for native peoples and improved outcomes for all.

Why aren’t we integrating Indigenous knowledge?
Conventional data structures and western scientific paradigms do not accommodate spiritual and cultural elements of landscapes and waterways, nor do they protect the culture and identity of Indigenous peoples.

Goals

Our program aims to create a framework that will enable inclusion of Indigenous knowledges into sustainability science in effective and ethically appropriate ways. We will build this framework, layer upon layer, with data and maps, stories and relationships, images and sound. The framework will be a model for other Indigenous peoples seeking a safe repository for cultural knowledge, an opportunity for skill building among the youth, and a seat at the river management table.

Program Outline

This program will consist of six highly integrated projects, all directed at creating a new paradigm for integrating western and Indigenous knowledges:

  1. Develop an intellectual property protocol to protect all information according to Yorta Yorta requirements to prevent misapproporiation and misuse, including data security policies.
  2. Yorta Yorta youth collect cultural data using GPS and audiovisual recorders, walking songlines on country with clan Elders.
  3. Collect hydrological, ecological and climatic data from disparate sources and assemble in a common format.
  4. Develop new data structure paradigms to incorporate measures of connectedness and relationship in indigenous and western data.
  5. Implement a Geographic Information System consisting of individually protected and identified layers.
  6. Craft integrated layer products for decision support in natural resource and climate adaptation policies.

Yorta Yorta country

Yorta Yorta Country

Yorta Yorta Country

The Yorta Yorta Nation comprises around 15,000 individuals by current estimates and is the second most populous Indigenous language group in Australia.

Yorta Yorta country centers on the River Murray (known as Dunghala), which makes up the lower half of the Murray-Darling River Basin. The people trace our origins back to time immemorial. We are the land and the land is us.
The Basin is home to over 2 million people and is important for an agricultural industry worth more than $9 billion per year, using half of Australia’s total water consumption. Over 93% of the land is privately owned.

Project team

Project leaders
Amanda Lynch, Brown University Professor, and Mr. Lee Joachim, Yorta Yorta Research Creator, have assembled a strong team with a proven track record:
Yorta Yorta: Jackie Walker, Sonia Cooper, Neville Atkinson, Denise Morgan
Monash University: Professor David Griggs, Dr. Xuan Zhu, Professor John Langford
Victorian Commissioner for Environmental Sustainability: Dr. Kate Auty
Pro bono legal advisor: Craig Hammer
Integrating Indigenous and Western Knowledge for Better Social and Environmental Outcomes (PDF 2MB)

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