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Indigenous Science – Setting the record straight

Aboriginal people never invented the wheel.

Aboriginal didn’t have civilisation.

Aboriginal people were nomads aimlessly wandering around Australia.

Aboriginal people don’t have history – they have pre-history.

Aboriginal people didn’t farm the land, didn’t build fences or permanent houses, so it was okay for white people to take the land from them.

Aboriginal people are lazy.

I’ve grown up hearing these sorts of statements all of my life. I assume most of you reading this have too. Nowadays I mostly encounter them online, or from the random ignorant racist people I encounter.

These ideas do not just exist on the fringes though. These sorts of comments still all too often come from the mouths of teachers, managers, academics, politicians, media personalities and any other number of influential people.

Not so long ago, the statements above were regarded as scientific facts. Today, we refer to these outdated and grossly inaccurate racist ideas as ‘scientific racism’. Their roots sitting within the realm of eugenics, Social Darwinism and polygenism.

These scientific ideas shaped the attitudes and policies that affected Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples for the past two hundred years. Many of those who are responsible for shaping the policies that affect us today were taught the same or similar ideas when they were in school and at university.

The denial of Indigenous science, philosophy, sovereignty, nationhood, and basic humanity – these too all have their roots in scientific racism.

The dying race theory, the idea that Aboriginal people were naturally dying out as we were unfit to survive, and that white people just coincidentally turned up at the right time to serve witness to our natural demise, shaped the thinking underpinning the missions and reserve systems and the policies that caused the Stolen Generations.

The idea that Aboriginal could not be educated beyond the point of counting to 10 contributed to our exclusion from education systems. An exclusion that occurred well into living memory. Principals in NSW, for example, only lost the right deny schooling on the basis of race in the early 1970s.

The idea that we were naturally drunks, lazy, and violent, justified gross mistreatment in policing, employment and our exclusion from pubs and clubs. One only has to look at current CDP penalties inflicted against Aboriginal people, over policing, and alcohol restrictions to see that this thinking has not moved very far.

All of these ideas are tied to ideas of racial superiority and inferiority. In fact, it is hard to find any example of racism today that doesn’t have its core philosophy tied to the scientific racism of yesteryear.

Issues of intelligence, capability, deviancy, beauty – all of these are tied to scientific racism.

The denial of Indigenous science, philosophy, sovereignty, nationhood, and basic humanity – these too all have their roots in scientific racism.

So deep was this dehumanisation that the collection of Indigenous human remains as trophies for exhibitions and scientific studies was once common practice. Even though the practice itself has stopped, the massive collections of human remains are still difficult for communities to reclaim and have repatriated, demonstrating that our ‘scientific value’ still often rates higher than the value of our humanity.

Those of us who work in trying to correct this misinformation often talk about the need for white people to unlearn before they can learn. We also talk about the need for critical reflection on the lens through which Indigenous people are viewed and for this to be addressed before someone can see the strengths of Indigenous peoples, cultures and histories.

Unfortunately, we often spend so much correcting the misinformation and interrogating the white gaze that we have less opportunities to provide more accurate information and demonstrate the strengths of Indigenous philosophies and worldviews.

Education systems play a crucial role in either perpetuating, challenging or correcting racist ideas and attitudes.

My background is in education, and I have recently been working with the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) on the new content elaborations for the Australian Curriculum :Science F-10. These elaborations provide opportunities for teachers to incorporate different aspects of Indigenous sciences into the curriculum.

Working on this project has been an absolute joy as I have been able to engage with a number of Indigenous and non-Indigenous educators, academics and scientists to contribute to this work while enhancing my own knowledge and understanding of Indigenous sciences as well.

Education systems play a crucial role in either perpetuating, challenging or correcting racist ideas and attitudes.

Throughout it all though I was starkly aware that while this work is just one small part of what needs to be done in creating a cultural safe, relevant and comprehensive education for students, it is still an important step in the right direction. Given the historical role that science and education have played in the exclusion and mistreatment of Indigenous peoples, I believe it is crucial that they play an active role in redressing the misinformation, animosity and racism that has been perpetuated, but also provide a meaningful educational experience for Indigenous students where their culture and identity is respected and embraced rather than seen as a deficit or a problem to be solved.

This work will not cure racism, and no individual body of work could, but I believe that by providing students with a deeper knowledge of the amazing achievements of Indigenous peoples in agriculture, land management, chemistry, biology, astronomy, and any other number of scientific fields, it will provide an opportunity for greater respect for Indigenous excellence and for greater pride in identity for Indigenous students – and I can only see this as a positive step forward in creating a better nation.

IndigenousX will undoubtedly tap into the specific information included in these elaborations for content in future, this is just a reflection piece of what I hope will become the new norm in Australian education; respectful and intelligent inclusion of Indigenous culture, sciences, achievements, and philosophies in education and in other areas of society as well.

Ultimately, I just hope my own children aren’t still having to correct the racist and unscientific stereotypes that I mentioned at the start of this article and instead can feel safe in the knowledge that their identity and culture are valued and respected and that their achievements are not an anomaly, but are actually a continuation of thousands of years of Indigenous excellence.

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