Inspiring Australia on sharing Indigenous knowledge

Western science and Indigenous knowledge can be complementary, and used properly and sensitively can augment and improve each other.  Take for example the case of an old man in a community who knows all about a particular kind of fish. It’s part of his skin knowledge, part of his own story. And say there’s a Western researcher looking at that fish, maybe for conservation purposes. The Indigenous knowledge can hugely help the Western scientist.

And this kind of cooperation is a win-win. The research gets done quick smart and the fish gets saved.

But this isn’t always the way things work. Indigenous knowledge can get buried in the jargon, the source can be overlooked or dis-valued. Ideally, non-Indigenous academics should acknowledge where knowledge came from. Principles of reciprocity and respect should obtain.

Some communities have formalised this. They have written research and IP policies and an ethics process.  IP clauses are written into research agreements.

Traditional medicine is a field which shows tremendous potential for drug discovery, but which is also fraught with issues of recognition and respect. While communities accept that specific recognition may be lost along the way, and acknowledgement that the ‘discovery’ is drawn from Indigenous culture and intellectual property is of fundamental importance.

The Indigenous perspective is that we need to look at the world holistically, and to connect holistic Indigenous knowledge with Western science.

A plant from the Fitzroy River in Queensland has long been a subject of Western scientific study, and one of its properties has been identified. Indigenous knowledge has identified this plant as being an antibiotic, an antiseptic and an analgesic some 30 times as powerful as morphine. More on this tomorrow.

Teaching science in Indigenous communities presents some problems if it’s done in the conventional manner. But there are now attempts to embed Indigenous perspectives across the curriculum. To look at localised stories and unpack the science behind it. For example, to explain the science behind the observation that if there are dragonflies on the front beach  that means there’s good squidding on the back beach. And don’t ask me. I’m buggered if I know why.

Butt defining yourself as a scientist creates a barrier between you and an Indigenous community – it’s seen as an unattainable goal. We need to ‘flatten science out’ , and impress on kids that we LIVE in science.  (Nicely put, don’t you think? It’s a quote. Wish I’d thought of it.)

Wouldn’t it be good to create a database of communities who want Western science to come and work with them to share knowledge?

Engagement with Indigenous people needs a truthful approach. This is fundamental to developing a relationship, and it energises engagement with Indigenous science.


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