Indigenous knowledge

Saturday, 1 June 2019

What is Indigenous knowledge? According to the United Nations: ‘Indigenous knowledge refers to the understandings, skills and philosophies developed by societies with long histories of interaction with their natural surroundings…[and] informs decision-making about fundamental aspects of day-to-day life. This knowledge is integral to a cultural complex that also encompasses language, systems of classification, resource use practices, social interactions, ritual and spirituality’. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander knowledges have developed, deepened and been enriched by the more than 65,000 years of sophisticated social and cultural life lived by the people of over 250 Indigenous nations on the land we now know as Australia.

These deep knowledges have helped shape and define the way Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples live on Country and if we take the notice we should, provide the basis for problem-solving and well-being not only for Australia’s First Nations peoples, but for all of us.

Worldwide, Indigenous knowledge systems have viewed the world we live in as an integral whole. The knowledge embodied in those systems has been handed down over thousands of generations, transmitted through cultural authority from Elders to the young, held in memory, supported by artistic, cultural and scientific practice, playing a foundational and profound role in society. Indigenous knowledge is therefore not only valuable in and of itself and for the Indigenous people who own it and live it, but critical, in today’s Australia, for the benefits it can bestow in maintaining a heathy, strong, and sustainable society and environment.

Indigenous knowledges and their various material expressions do not fit easily with modern legal and social systems. Indigenous Cultural and Intellectual Property rights (ICIP), based on the principles of self-determination, respect for traditional obligations and communal rights, are not fully recognised under Australian law. Where First Nations’ cultural heritage is collected in libraries, museums and galleries, it does not fit well with the ontologies, taxonomies and categorisations that are employed to describe and provide access to our collections. Indeed, the very concept that not all Indigenous knowledge is available to be, or should be, shared is not always one that sits easily in cultural and collecting institutions.

This is changing. New work is happening to help us more appropriately describe Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander knowledge expressed in collections.

The Australian Institute for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) and the National Library of Australia (NLA) are promoting the use of Austlang, an online resource providing information about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages, to enhance the description of Indigenous Australian language material in library and archive collections. Austlang codes can now be added to MARC catalogue records with the support of the Library of Congress. A recent webinar gave you the tools to apply Austlang codes to catalogue records improving the discovery of Indigenous Australian language material. AIATSIS has developed thesauri to assist in the use of appropriate subject headings and the ABI records (also found in Trove) can assist with the names of people.

In this International Year of Indigenous Languages it is important to think how you might use Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages not only to correctly identify language groups, but also to make your library a more welcoming place. First Languages Australia in partnership with local language centres across Australia has developed an interactive map to display and promote the diversity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages. The map, titled Gambay, translates to ‘together’ in the Butchulla language of the Hervey Bay region in Queensland. Gambay showcases over 780 languages, using data contributed by regional language centres and programs working directly with language communities around Australia ( As well, you can use the AIATSIS map of Aboriginal Australia.

Reflect on your spaces. How might Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples see themselves reflected in your libraries? Are they an embedded presence, or rather a curiosity, treated as the exotic? Is there an Indigenous voice visible and audible anywhere? Do they see and meet Indigenous staff? The very best way you can value local knowledge and respectfully use it to make both your physical and digital spaces welcoming is to form a relationship with the local traditional owners and take their advice. Seek their permission to use the local language in your library and work with them to understand how your libraries can welcome your whole community, making them places of cultural safety for users and staff.

For working in your library across a number of dimensions there are the ATSILIRN Protocols to guide and assist you. The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Library, Information and Resource Network (ATSILIRN) has now become an ALIA group and intend to revise the Protocols in the coming year. The Protocols give some straightforward guidance on the management of Indigenous knowledge within your library.

It has been my great pleasure to focus on Indigenous matters as the theme for my presidential year and I’ve loved reading the articles and hearing the stories of what people are doing. I look forward to many more – let’s keep the momentum going.

For more information also see First Peoples: A Roadmap for Enhancing Indigenous Engagement in Museums and Galleries created by Terri Janke and Company for the Australian Museums and Galleries Association.

Lyndall Ley
Former ALIA President