Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Knowledge, sometimes called Traditional Knowledge*, refers to the practices, skills, innovations, and know-how of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. That knowledge has been developed by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples over tens of thousands of years and has been shared intergenerationally through oral transmission. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Knowledge is based on individual and collectively learned explanations of the natural world and is verified by Elders. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Knowledge can be encapsulated in language, song, and stories; visual works and expressions of art; rituals or ceremonies and lore; and management and use of the land, including flora (plants) and fauna (animals).
* Naming Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Knowledges as ‘traditional’ can risk relegating Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Knowledges to the past. It is important to affirm that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Knowledges shape contemporary understandings and continue to be upheld in the present.
Oral traditions such as storytelling substantiate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspectives about the past, present, and future and are an imperative part of Aboriginal and Torres Stait Islander peoples’ cultures. Storytelling, like other forms of communication, serves to pass down concepts and beliefs from generation to generation. While commonly understood as an oral tradition, stories can be passed down through various media such as message sticks, rock and sand art, song, dance, and body painting. Stories generally fall into four broad categories: collective histories; spiritual narratives; cultural practices; and life histories. However, there are some stories told by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples that do not fall into these categories, such as fiction stories.
Ceremonies reflect the diversity and complexity of the cultural and spiritual practices of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and cultures, and can take various forms. Generally, ceremonies are used to share and spread knowledge between people, but it is important to understand that specific beliefs, stories, and lore of The Dreaming are individually owned and sustained by specific members of a language group. On top of this, participation in ceremonies can be restricted by gender and age. Roles in ceremonies vary considerably depending on the purpose of the ceremony, with men and women undertaking different roles. Most sacred sites are restricted to one gender, and often these areas, and their associated knowledge, are referred to as ‘women’s business’ or ‘men’s business’. Neither gender has greater spiritual responsibilities or needs, but rather, as Queensland’s Curriculum and Assessment Authority explains, men and women have different – and sometimes separate – roles or functions in ceremony.
Ceremonies can also serve as a vehicle for communication between different language groups. For example, ceremonies may communicate the discussion of lore, set out any consequences for breaches of protocol, or explain how to trade gifts and items such as food, raw materials, and special objects.
The Little Red, Yellow and Black Book Online offers information about the diverse cultures and histories of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, as well as resources for teachers.
Lore and Knowledge Keepers
‘Knowledge keepers’ are responsible for upholding Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander lore, which is the embodiment of creation and governs the relationships people have with themselves, others, with animals, plants, and with the land and waters. These knowledge systems are designed to ensure the survival of specialised knowledge of all aspects of human existence.
Visual Works and Expressions of Art
Art is used by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities as a form of communication and a teaching tool, and has a significant role in ceremonial practices. The sheer diversity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander language groups ensures Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander arts practice cannot be classified into one form or style.
Art is developed and shared for a variety of purposes. It is used to express Traditional Knowledge, set out relationships between people and other communities, and to explain the purposes of positions held in society. Art also expresses Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ political aspirations and political relationships, depicts historical events, and explains communities’ beliefs and relationalities.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art is art that has been developed by an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander artist, just as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Knowledge is knowledge that has been developed by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
The forms of media used in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art can be broadly categorised into three forms:
- 2D forms, which include collage, drawing, painting, photography, printmaking, etc.
- 3D forms, which include ceramics, fibre art, installations, sculptures, wearable art, body adornments, etc. and
- Time-based forms, which include performance art, sound art, electronic imaging, film and animation, and other digital artforms.
Yarning circles, or dialogue circles, are an important aspect of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and have been used by indigenous peoples around the world since the beginning of time. They allow individuals to learn from a collective group and build meaningful and respectful relationships, and serve to preserve and pass on cultural knowledge. Yarning circles are becoming a more frequent practice in contemporary Australia and allow people, particularly young children of non-Indigenous descent, to learn about the importance of respectful relationships. They encourage harmonious, creative, and collaborative discussion and foster accountability, while providing a safe place to be heard and to respond. In some instances, yarning circles can have a ‘no language’ form, where the primary method of learning is through observation. This method originated from watching the Elders interact and communicate with each other.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Knowledges, and the ways these are shared among people, are characteristic of the holistic conception – and interconnectedness- of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures. The physical, human, and sacred worlds are all interconnected, as is the Knowledge that describes these worlds. The connections between these aspects give rise to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ ‘ways of knowing, being and doing’ (Karen Martin 2008) and, in turn, form the basis of their Knowledge. Understanding the interconnectedness of these aspects is critical to understanding Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and Knowledges. It can also assist in understanding the disconnection from culture experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
Given the depth and breadth of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Knowledges, it is not surprising that they are becoming a valued source of information in domains including agriculture, technology, ecology, medicine, biology, psychology, and archaeology. As the owners of the land, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have been applying their Knowledge to care for Country, generating benefits for themselves and the environment. Such Knowledge provides an insight into the land, society, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures that Western knowledge cannot offer. The need to use both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Knowledges and Western science is becoming increasingly evident.
Watch Albert Wiggan, a Bardi-Kija-Nyul Nyul man from Boddergron (Cygnet Bay) on the Dampier Peninsula, which is North of Broome in Western Australia. He is passionate about culture, Country and Indigenous science and in this Tedx Talk, he argues for the recognition of Indigenous Knowledge as science. (The case to recognise Indigenous knowledge as science, YouTube, 10m26s).
Researchers and policy makers, who are given the difficult task of combatting Australia’s complex environmental challenges, are noticing the positive impact of the application of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Knowledge by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. To learn more about how the health of Australia’s ecosystems can be improved, read the Indigenous Knowledges Key: ‘Healing Country’ , originally published in UQ’s Contact magazine. Further work by UQ, such as efforts to cement an Indigenous-led Bushfood Industry and the involvement of Traditional Owners in UQ’s Centre for Social Responsibility in Mining, highlights how important Traditional Knowledge is to improving both Australian and global society.