Culture, science and education are three of my key passions and have been as long as I can remember.
To me, these are a logical combination – culture provides the lens through which we see the world, science the knowledge, and education how we share both.
It wasn’t until I got older that I realised there were people who believed that ‘science’ and ‘culture’ (Indigenous culture at least) didn’t go together. They imagined a world where science was solely the realm of white people, and ‘culture’ was a loose term combining all the spiritual and superstitious elements they imagined Indigenous cultures to contain.
This is a painfully shallow understanding that not only misses the beauty and genius of Indigenous knowledges, it fundamentally misunderstands the nature of humanity.
Humans are naturally curious creatures. It is what makes us so amazing, so clever, and at times, so dangerous. The drive to understand the world around us and how we fit into it, to shape the world for our own benefit, the ability to be able to create understanding and to then share that understanding with others – these are all fundamental drivers of what it is to be human.To imagine a world where this is solely the realm of only one group of people is simply beyond me, and is a sad indictment on the history of scientific racism and how that history still shapes attitudes today.
I see the same drive, the same need for knowledge and understanding in Newton’s Laws as I do in being able to treat and detoxify cycads to be able to safely consume them.
I do not see them as better or worse, but as different expressions of the need to understand the world around us. This drive manifests itself differently across cultures, and just as different available materials lead to different discoveries, so too does different philosophical and ethical considerations shape what paths of knowledge are revered and which are shunned.
Sustainability was a key driver for many aspects of Indigenous science – a desire to benefit not just ourselves but the ecosystems which we relied on. This is something that western science is only now coming to realise.
It frustrates me to see this core aspect of Indigenous knowledges misrepresented through the lens of scientific racism and construed as being a lack of knowledge, a lack of wisdom, a lack of ‘science’.
Love of science and culture and a frustration with scientific racism has lead me to my role as the Education Officer at IndigenousX leading the Kooriculum™ Indigenous Science schools program.
The Kooriculum™ program is built upon the Australian Curriculum: Science, and the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (Acara) Science Elaborations. Using these as the foundation, IndigenousX developed a series of activities for each year group K-6 in consultation with a number of current and former educators.
Since developing the Kooriculum™ Indigenous Science program, the main question or retort that I have heard is, ‘What is Indigenous Science?’ and ‘How is it different from western Science?’ The first point to make is that Indigenous Science is not a completely different science but a way of looking at western science, that incorporates aspects of Indigenous cultures and practices.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have a deep understanding of scientific principles and techniques developed and refined over thousands of years. This understanding was necessary for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to be able to adapt and thrive across all types of landscapes and living through phenomenal levels of geological change.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, like all humans, had to develop an understanding of a variety of scientific methods and processes. This scientific knowledge was weaved throughout culture, spirituality, law, and social norms; it was encoded in stories, in songs, dances, rituals and ceremonies. It was cherished, and passed on for countless generations.
Indigenous science contains a breathtaking level of understanding about astronomy. We have our own constellations, knowledge of planets, of tides, and of seasons. We used the stars for navigating the lands and seas, and we used them to mark out special places and events.
Astronomy – Knowledge of Astronomy has been and is still used by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to enable navigation via the stars as well as being able to mark significant events and times. Wurdi Youang is a stone arrangement created by the Wathaurong people in Victoria. The Wurdi Youang site consists of a stone arrangement that has several larger stones which align with the sunset position on the horizon for mid-winter, mid-summer and the equinoxes. This information was used in the timing of ceremonial practices as well as being used to inform people of when rites, tasks and when particular plants and animals were able to be eaten or gathered.
Detoxification – Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people understood that to be able to eat the seeds of Cycad plants, Cycasin (a chemical substance found within the cycad seed) had to be removed. If it wasn’t the cycasin would cause symptoms such as vomiting, diarrhea and seizures. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people developed 3 methods of removing the cycasin, including brief leaching (where the seed was cut to create more surface area), prolonged leaching and aging. Studies have shown that all 3 methods were effective in the removal of cycasin.
Mechanical Advantage – Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people developed tools to assist with mechanical advantage, such as the woomera. In skilled hands a woomera was able to allow a person to throw a spear at approximately 150km/h. The use of the woomera also allowed the user to be more accurate.
The second question I have gotten is ‘Why, why do we need to look at Indigenous Science?’ One of the main missions of the Kooriculum™ program is to not only promote Indigenous Science but to help encourage and develop a sense of pride among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students. The long held narrative has been that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people didn’t have any scientific knowledge or developments, because we didn’t invent the wheel. The Kooriculum™ program aims to help highlight some of the scientific knowledge that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people had. It is hoped that by providing this opportunity all students and educators will be able to recognise, appreciate and value Indigneous Knowledges not only in science but all learning areas.
There has been a recent resurgence in interest in Indigenous science – the rise of more Indigenous science communicators, and the impacts of Bruce Pascoe’s book, Dark Emu, but we need to make sure these aren’t just the latest trend but are embedded in Australian society for the future, and the best way to do that is with our children – they are the ones who are going to continue to push the boundaries of science, whilst hopefully holding firm to the foundation that has been built and supported by culture.
We look forward to sharing the Kooriculum™ program and sharing and teaching science in a culturally immersive way – contact us to discuss.
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