How researchers work for greater inclusion of indigenous knowledge

When the second part of the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report was published earlier this year, it had a notable inclusion. The installment, which focused on the human and ecological impacts of climate change, featured indigenous knowledge alongside Western scientific research for the first time.

However, the Australian chapter did not include any lead Indigenous authors. Instead, three First Nations researchers were invited to contribute to specific parts of the report through the goodwill of the lead authors, rather than through government selection.

It was a reminder, the contributors wrote in March, of how “indigenous Australians have been largely excluded from climate change decisions”.

Related: Earth’s need is clear. To care for her, Australians must adopt First Nations values ​​| Jack Pascoe

One of the IPCC contributors was Bradley Moggridge, a Kamilaroi man and an associate professor of indigenous water science at the University of Canberra. “We are always consultative, we are never decision makers,” he says. “We should have a voice.”

It is well known that indigenous communities around the world contribute the least to greenhouse gas emissions, but are disproportionately vulnerable to the effects of climate change.

“In the Torres Strait, they’ve been experiencing climate change for several years,” Moggridge says, citing the extinction of the Bramble Cay melomy in 2016. The demise of the rodent, which lived on a small island in the eastern Torres Strait, was the first mammal extinction in the world to believed to be caused by human-induced climate change.

History of exclusion

Western science has a history of excluding and exploiting First Nations people. The rise of scientific racism in the 19th century, linked to European colonialism, resulted in the collection and widespread distribution of Tasmanian Aboriginal remains, says Zoe Rimmer, a Pakana curator and an academic fellow at the University of Tasmania.

“The museums played a big role in that, in collecting and distributing human remains and then having different anthropologists … look at these collections and make really broad and racist assumptions based on measuring skulls and things like that,” she says. “A very high value was placed on the remains of our ancestors because of the scientific theories that supposedly meant we were at the lowest stage of evolution.”

The discredited pseudoscience of phrenology – which linked bumps on the skull to mental abilities and personality traits – was also used to justify slavery and reinforce gender stereotypes.

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“They are completely debunked theories today, but the myths that came out of science still cause a lot of damage and trauma in society,” says Rimmer, adding that museums played a role in “creating myths around the ‘extinction’ of our society too” .

Although First Nations people were not counted in the Australian census until 1971, “data was still being collected about Aboriginal people from the earliest colonial times,” says Maggie Walter, a Palawa woman and distinguished professor emerita at the University of Tasmania.

“It was data that was specific to the powers that be, what the government authorities … thought was important to know. It was almost never what Aboriginal people thought was important to know and almost always positioned Aboriginal people in a derogatory way,” she says.

Related: Anthony Albanese rules out banning fossil fuel projects, citing risks to Australian economy

Walter is a leader in the data sovereignty movement, which asserts the right to ownership and use of indigenous data, and challenges the government’s historical use.

Global conservation policy has failed to recognize the importance of indigenous land management, says Michael-Shawn Fletcher, a Wiradjuri researcher and associate professor at the University of Melbourne. “Biodiversity loss and catastrophic fires: they began immediately after the British invasion of the Australian continent and the removal of Aboriginal burning,” he says.

“Landscapes that were deliberately curated and maintained as lower fuel loads are considered wilderness, as non-human, without human influence.” Modern science, says Fletcher, has largely ignored “the subtle influence that the Aborigines had all over this continent”.

Moggridge believes the exclusion of First Nations people from policy and scientific decision-making stems from the devaluation of Indigenous knowledge. “Our knowledge is still seen as myth and legend and fable, and not seen as evidence, not seen as thousands of years of observations related to your country,” he says.

“Lands have changed over generations: the stories of mobs on the continental shelf having to move to higher ground because sea levels started to rise at the end of the last ice age – there’s proof of that. Stories of volcanic activity and meteors – these sightings of the land are told and retold through generations, says Moggridge. (Aboriginal stories have been linked to the identification of meteorites previously unknown to Western science.)

What constitutes science is an assumption worth questioning, says Walter – a topic she will discuss at next week’s Beaker Street Festival in Tasmania. “If you take science as a standpoint – using the scientific method, which is empirical observation, analysis and then interpretation through theory of how to explain it – then obviously indigenous knowledge is also science.

“The idea that Western science is somehow true and non-Western science is culture or folklore is what needs to be challenged,” she says. “The scientific method says that you repeatedly have to go back, and paradigms are broken, and what everyone believes at some point is not necessarily so.”

Related: Precolonial First Nations oyster fisheries have sustained millennia of intense harvests, study shows

Science is often seen as objective. “It’s not,” Fletcher says. “The questions you ask, the way you look at a subject, which then leads to your hypothesis generation… are deeply cultural and come from your set of understandings of the world.

“The exclusion of different perspectives limits our capacity to really understand what’s going on.”

Long-awaited recognition of Indigenous knowledge has begun in recent years in Australia. The 2021 State of the Environment report, released this month, included historic input from First Nations. “It was the first time that Indigenous people have been seen as equals in terms of being … contributors,” says Moggridge. “There are 11 of us who co-authored our respective chapters.”

More must be done to create opportunities for indigenous people in science, he says. A 2020 report published by Science & Technology Australia found that while one in 20 non-Indigenous people of working age have a tribal degree, this figure is one in 200 for Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander residents.

“The culture of science needs to change itself,” says Moggridge. “It turns the whole paradigm around: the indigenous people are not the research – they become the researcher.”

  • Maggie Walter and Zoe Rimmer will speak during a panel discussion, “Is Science Really for Everyone?” 5 August as part of the Beaker Street Festival, a celebration of science and art in lutruwita/Tasmania from 5 to 14 August.

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