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Look to your own ancestry to understand Indigenous approaches to sustainability

Luke Briscoe Indigenous knowledge
Luke Briscoe

Non-Indigenous scientists and others could look to their own ancestral roots to find approaches that have a similar spiritual and ecological underpinning to Australian Indigenous knowledge, according to Aboriginal educator and communicator Luke Briscoe.

Achieving sustainability requires embracing Australian Indigenous science and cultural knowledge, and also for non-Indigenous science and commerce to “decolonise” itself, Briscoe says.

The Kuku-Yalanji educator, communicator, digital producer, networker and founder and director of INDIGI LAB, told The Fifth Estate that a good example was the work of astrophysicist Dr Duane Hamacher, Senior ARC Discovery Early Career Research Fellow at the Monash Indigenous Studies Centre.

Hamacher has worked closely with Australian Indigenous and Islander knowledge custodians, and is now also looking to his own Celtic roots in his work.

It won’t work for Indigenous people to tell non-Indigenous people to “decolonise their thinking”, Briscoe says, but they do need to “go back to their ancestral sciences and tools.”

Briscoe and the STREAMS (sciences, technology, reading, engineering, arts, mathematics and sustainability) network are tackling raising the awareness and appreciation for the 80,000 year-long Australian Indigenous science heritage on numerous fronts.

He says that the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) sector needs to embrace a STREAMS model that enables Indigenous Australians to be at the forefront these fields.

In a recent article for SBS, Briscoe sets out the case for decolonising STEM as a pathway to addressing climate change and other pressing environmental issues.

The approach is beyond just theory. Next week the STREAMS Network founded by INDIGI LAB is hosting STREAMS Connect, a summit featuring City of Sydney lord mayor Clover Moore, author and academic Bruce Pascoe, Wiradjuri astronomer Kirsten Banks and PwC Indigenous consulting manager and Worimi entrepreneur Joshua Gilbert.

The summit aims to look at how Indigenous knowledge can be used to transform business models and strengthen the teaching and learning around climate change issues and sustainability.

Another recent initiative is the launch of the Healthy Planet project. This digital campaign and resource base developed by INDIGI LAB aims to educate people about the importance of environmental rights and having those rights enshrined in law.

It will also teach people how to lobby their local council to adopt a model Municipal Declaration – a charter of environmental rights – and connect them with research in the sustainability space.

In addition, there is a new petition doing the rounds via Change.org calling on the federal government to enact laws around environmental justice and rights. Currently around 110 countries have such laws, but Australia does not.

Briscoe says that one of the interesting things about the sustainability space is that “almost everyone agrees on it”. The latest IPCC report has seen a majority of governing bodies world-wide express a sense of urgency around how to deal with the IPCC’s findings.

Indigenous science and cultural knowledge is part of the solution for Australia.

However, Briscoe points out there are some concerns around appropriate recognition, rights, and the sharing of the returns from Indigenous knowledge with the wider Indigenous community.

Most Australian Indigenous people live in urban areas, he says, so that is where opportunity and the benefits that comes from the utilisation of Indigenous cultural knowledge and science also need to flow.

We’re talking places like Western Sydney, for example.

When it comes to corporate reconciliation action plans, these also need to have a “decolonising model” embedded in them.

That means taking it further than the Welcome to Country-type event to having a genuine conversation around “truth-telling” about land, history and culture.

When it comes to events, Briscoe says it is important to have systems in place that mean the Elders or Traditional Owners are not just one, specialist part of the event.

A more decolonised approach would be, for example, the way his own organisation approaches events. The elders and traditional owners are contacted to discuss what the overall event is about, and what input they might have for the whole of it.

“So it is not just a Welcome – it is part of the whole conference and conversation.”

Briscoe says that traditionally, the kind of engineering and science knowledge that underpins technologies such as the boomerang, practices such as traditional cool burning, or Aboriginal agriculture were not labelled “science”.

“It is our Law,” he says.

Importantly, it is collective knowledge. No individual holds all knowledge, it is a synthesis of knowledge and law held across the Indigenous community.

Looking at the way knowledge works in Western science and structures, it is all about the individual researcher, or company or institution.

There needs to be a “devaluing” of the ideas of “self” in both science and business, Briscoe says.

“If you look at sustainability, and at the future, it will take a collective group of people to make it happen.”

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