Indigenous astronomy to revitalise the Australian curriculum

8 Dec 2018

Krystal De Napoli is a Gomeroi woman and astrophysics student at Monash University.

Did you know that you can tell a lot about what is happening on land from what is happening in the sky above? Ever wondered how to navigate home when lost in the bush? Or how to use the sky and stars to predict environmental changes? What if I were to tell you that a brief glance at a single constellation in the sky can tell you about current local animal behaviour, seasonal change, the availability of food sources, and impending weather patterns? These topics will soon be easily available to our primary and secondary school students, thanks to the introduction of Indigenous scientific knowledge into our national curricula.

New classroom resources have been announced to help teachers include Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander knowledge systems in the classroom.The resources will assist teachers in implementing the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Histories and Cultures’ cross curriculum priority from the Australian Curriculum.

The new classroom resources provide rigorous and refereed resources to ensure teachers feel confident teaching Indigenous science and astronomy to their students.

The recently released resources are designed for Years 5 and 8; and expose them to topics such as natural indicators of time, measuring spatial distances with their hands and lunar and solar eclipses.

This knowledge has been developed over 65,000 years.

Students will develop insight into how an oral culture has the capability to encode and transmit this level of complex knowledge on the timescale of thousands of years.

The Indigenous scientific method is unique in its ability to integrate many fields of science into a comprehensive knowledge system. This approach to learning will enable students to develop the ability to contextualise what they learn in the classroom and apply it to the real world.

This extraordinary shift has been driven by the tireless efforts of Indigenous knowledge holders and research scientists, and I’m here to tell you why this is not only a massive step forward for Indigenous Australians, but for the entire nation as a whole.

These changes to the curricula are a crucial first step toward correcting the false historical narrative that has been taught in the past.

The widespread myth of Terra Nullius and a land covered by nomadic wanderers who lived without agricultural, economic, or scientific practices is harmful for those of us on both sides of history.

The current lack of understanding of Indigenous culture is detrimental to both Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, as it leads to a fundamental misunderstanding of each other.

We have long maintained a split narrative of this nation’s founding history, and it is important to understand the true extent of what was lost and embrace opportunities to preserve what knowledge survives.

Our continent is home to the world’s longest continuing cultures, and teaching this knowledge in schools is an important step in enabling us to continue to thrive in the future.

This extraordinary shift has been driven by the tireless efforts of Indigenous knowledge holders and research scientists

The science that will be taught to the students has been developed over thousands of years for specific application to the Southern skies and the sunburnt country with which we are graced.

The new curriculum is a healthy step towards genuine reconciliation, not only for our First Nations students, but for our nation as a whole.

For those of you who missed out on the benefit of a comprehensive and positively riveting education, please allow me to be the first to introduce you to some of the wonderful things my ancestors knew before me!

First, I should clarify that this introduction of knowledge will assist in correcting the astronomical historical timeline, not only for our nation, but for scientists worldwide. For we did not see an isolated birth of astronomy in Greece 2000 years ago, nor Mesopotamia 5,000 years ago.

Our ancient Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander astronomers have scientific knowledge which dates back tens of thousands of years.

Our Indigenous astronomers aren’t just this continent’s First Nations scientists, but may very well be the World’s First astronomers.

We have long held the skills for precise observation of our skies, while developing a holistic understanding of the intricate ways that the land and sky are connected. Many astronomical discoveries which have been attributed to Western astronomers in the last few centuries were in-fact long known by the people of these lands.

Wardaman astronomers observe that the planets are distinct from stars due to their wandering motion across the zodiac, but also because of the ways that they did not generally twinkling like that of typical stars. They were able to observe and describe the quirky phenomenon called “retrograde motion” – an effect that sees our neighbouring planets counter-intuitively change their direction of motion in our night sky.

Kuringai is the emu rock carving in Kuringai National Park.

Variable stars – a subgroup of stars that have only been known to Western astronomers since 1840 – change in brightness over time. This variability can occur over a period of hours to years!

Not only do these unique objects feature in Indigenous oral traditions, but these traditions specifically describe the relative brightening and dimming of these stars compared to others. The pulsations of these peculiar little objects were observed and well understood by Aboriginal people long ago.

The appearance of Moon haloes are used to predict the likelihood of inclement weather. Neap tides, which occur at a specific alignment of the Sun and the Moon around the Quarter Moon, are understood to correlate with less turbulent waters – the prime time to fish. We find oral traditions describing the appearance of rare phenomena like solar eclipses, meteorite impacts, and supernova, which are known to occur on a timescale of hundreds to thousands of years.

We find oral traditions describing the appearance of rare phenomena like solar eclipses, meteorite impacts, and supernova, which are known to occur on a timescale of hundreds to thousands of years.

In the midst of writing this piece, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to present on Indigenous Astronomy to a group of prospective Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander university students.

At the end of my presentation, a staff member said to them that this was an exciting time for us to see the spreading of knowledge of our excellent traditional practices.

He recalled how in his time at school, as a young Aboriginal boy, his cohort’s Indigenous education consisted of the word “Abos” written on the board, with the declaration that there was “nothing but bush when Cook discovered Australia”.

This obviously sombered the mood.

To then be able to take the chance to assure these students that the curriculum was in the midst of changing, and that we are beginning to see an age in which our history and knowledge will be properly taught to all, I was met with a crowd of triumphant cheers and exclamations of “YES!”.

It caught me off guard, and emotions ran high, as I realised the direct impact that this shift will bring is already starting to take effect.

I am appreciative for those who have fought for this change.

I am appreciative for any role I can play in this change.

Mostly, I am so thankful to my Elders before me who preserved this knowledge and remained resilient, and to those dedicated researchers who have helped support us in this quest for recognition.

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