Indigenous knowledges key to ‘Healing Country’

5 July 2021

UQ science lecturer Jim Walker says the best way to achieve a national collective database describing the health of Australia’s regional and remote ecosystems is to work alongside Indigenous peoples.

He says it’s a key to ‘Healing Country’ – the official theme of this year’s NAIDOC Week celebrations (4–11 July), which calls for Australians to continue to seek greater protections for land, water, sacred sites and cultural heritage from exploitation, desecration, and destruction.

UQ School of Earth and Environmental Sciences lecturer Jim Walker.

During NAIDOC Week, Australians are invited to recognise and celebrate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ knowledges and understandings of Country as a vital part of Australia's national heritage.

“Indigenous peoples are best placed to advise on matters of environmental management and biodiversity,” Mr Walker says.

“Working with Indigenous communities from across the continent can help to build a national collective database of regional and remote ecosystem health.

"Furthermore, engagement with Indigenous peoples and knowledges in response to climate change globally delivers economic, environmental, social and cultural benefits that can have a positive impact on the planet.”

Mr Walker is an Aboriginal man from the Jagera, Yiman and Goreng Goreng First Nations peoples, and an Indigenous lecturer within UQ’s School of Earth and Environmental Sciences.

He is involved in a range of research relevant to ‘Healing Country’, including an ARC project promoting bush foods and another aimed at focusing on Indigenous knowledges and perspectives within the science curriculum at UQ.

Mr Walker also promotes the value of Indigenous governance for scientific and environmental research projects, as the “best way to engage effectively and appropriately with Indigenous peoples”.

“If you are looking at climate change adaptation, then Indigenous peoples really are at the frontline,” he says.

“Indigenous communities are in regional and remote areas, and other environmentally important places. They work and live on Country and are the first contact for these changes.”

Image: thakala/Adobe Stock

“When you put their experiences together you get a synergistic effect on how climate change is spreading across the continent.

“Indigenous peoples are also helping with healing Australia. For example, as cultural burns are not as hot, there is a reduction of carbon into the atmosphere.

“Indigenous title exists across 40 per cent of Australia; our ways of knowing and environmental management have sustained this continent for more than 2000 generations, so it’s good sense and good business to engage with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the healing of this country, now and in the future.”

UQ researchers are working with Indigenous peoples and have utilised Indigenous knowledges to study how and why Indigenous communities managed Australia’s cycle of drought and flood in inland waterways before European settlement, and how floodplain management changed after settlement.

The study team includes Dr Duncan Keenan-Jones, from the School of Historical and Philosophical Inquiry, Indigenous Honorary Research Fellow Malcolm Connolly (Archaeology), from UQ's School of Social Science, as well as Mithaka Aboriginal Corporation collaborators Shawnee and Joshua Gorringe, who are Mithaka Traditional Owners.

Research led by Associate Professor Michael Westaway, from the School of Social Science, is also investigating how people lived on the Channel Country in Western Queensland. The research is a collaboration that brings together knowledge of today’s Mithaka traditional owners, ethnohistorical accounts – primarily from Alice Duncan Kemp – and new archaeological research.

That archaeological research includes analysis of plant and animal remains recovered from ancient settlements, which are the remains of meals prepared and consumed in the past. 

“Fine-grained archaeological work is giving us new insights into how people used this country for food before and during European colonisation, and will allow us to evaluate current ideas about how the Channel Country may have seen some form of agriculture,” Associate Professor Westaway says.

Meanwhile, UQ’s Centre for Social Responsibility in Mining (CSRM) has projects working with Indigenous peoples around the management of mining on their lands. One of the projects involves plans to expand a 2020 scoping study on Indigenous groups, land rehabilitation and mine closures.

CSRM Senior Research Fellow Dr Sarah Holcombe says the study seeks to address the persistent lack of direct employment of Indigenous landowners on mines operating on their land, and the increasing expectations that mining companies engage local communities in closure planning and criteria setting as a prerequisite for relinquishment.

“Enabling factors included government funding of Indigenous Ranger programs and Indigenous Protected Areas, which underpins the ability for mining companies to secure fee-for-service work,” Dr Holcombe says.

“Other positives included support for well-resourced Indigenous representative organisations with professional land-management expertise and commercial capacity.

“Local-level agreements between Indigenous landowners and mining companies stimulate the imperative for innovative engagement.

“It’s important to ensure that participants from remote communities have culturally informed ‘wrap-around’ support available to them and are sustained through a system of mentoring, work-ready training, and flexible work arrangements.”

UQ's Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Indigenous Engagement) Professor Bronwyn Fredericks says the projects discussed in this article are a small snapshot of the work being done within UQ that connect students, staff and communities to this year's NAIDOC Week theme, 'Healing Country'.

"Look out for other work at UQ that is being led by Indigenous peoples, and in partnership with Indigenous peoples and communities," Professor Fredericks says.

- This article originally published in UQ Contact Magazine.