Indigenous Knowledge and Ecology

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The mistake of culture as timeless, knowledge as data Take a walk down Bourke’s main street and about midway, on the northern side, you will see a panoramic mural spanning the roofline of a simple brick building. It is a kind of timeline. At one end there is a panel devoted to Aboriginal life and Dreaming before colonisation, while the rest of the panels show a sequence of white exploration, pioneer settlement, a changing pastoral industry, reminders of historic floods, and a modern outback town. Where are the Aboriginal people in the rest of this story? Where are the Ngemba, Morowari, Paarkinji, Weilwan, Barabinja, Ualarai, Kamilaroi, or any of the other people from 21 different language groups who have settled in Bourke? The mural is typical of perceptions of Indigenous people as timeless. Forty-thousand years can be represented in one panel because traditional culture is unchanging; history begins with the arrival of whites. This perception has had broad implications for law and policy, such as constraints in Native Title legalisation that require Indigenous people to not only prove that they owned the land (according to Western notions of ownership), but that they prove continuing practice of ‘traditional’ customs. Historian Heather Goodall (2008) points out that pressure to construct Indigenous knowledge as a ‘static repository of pre-colonial knowledge’ also came from the environmental movements that emerged in the 1960s, where ‘indigenous people were depicted as exotic “noble environmentalists” living “in harmony” with the non-human environment’. These perceptions have also shaped how environmental managers and policy-makers have understood and made use of Indigenous knowledge for ecology. Natural resource managers infor... ... middle of paper ... ...ontext, even though, as David N. Livingstone (2003) has so elegantly demonstrated, science is always ‘a view from somewhere’: the museum, the field, the botanical garden, the hospital, the human body, or a particular region. Lauer and Aswani (2009), drawing on Ingold (2000) argue that it is not the scale, comprehensiveness or validity of knowledge that should be compared, but ‘modes of apprehending the world’. Indigenous knowledge should not be viewed as content ready to be extracted and applied to help with natural resource management, but instead it should be seen as a process – a set of practices and interactions between people, other living beings, and things; one that has been developed and tested over many generations, has enable people to live in Australia for more than 3000 generations, and one that is underpinned by a complex relational ethics (Rose 2005).

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