Technology could help safeguard Aboriginal knowledge

A girl learns how to weave through a video of Aunty Ellen. SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY
A girl learns how to weave through a video of Aunty Ellen.

Technology could prove a lifeline to support the handing down of Aboriginal knowledge to younger generations, according to the research of a PhD candidate.

UniSA PhD student Jelina Haines has spent more than 15 years working alongside the Elders at Camp Coorong – a race relations and cultural education centre run and managed by the Ngarrindjeri people at Meningie in the State’s south east – most recently, as a researcher. The primary aim of her PhD is to record and disseminate research participants’ knowledge ethically with the aid of technology.

Jelina (who won first prize in this ‘year’s Images of Research Photography Competition for an image related to her research) says the passing down of Aboriginal Elders’ stories from one generation to another is under threat.

Uncle Moogy Sumner

“Elders are chosen as knowledge keepers are given the responsibility of passing on their knowledge to the future generation,” Jelina says.

“Knowledge is traditionally shared through storytelling, dance, singing, arts and crafts and social interactions, interwoven with their strong connection to the land and culture.”

But the ability to hand down oral knowledge in these ways are being eroded by a range of factors including new technologies which create barriers between generations; the difficulty maintaining the integrity of spoken knowledge, particularly when translated to written form; and the failure to capture stories ethically (for and with Aboriginal people) and transcribing them fully.

Jelina says that health issues in Aboriginal communities also have an impact.

“Some, by the time of their death, have not chosen the appropriate person to carry forward their knowledge for future generations,” she says.

“It is also heartbreaking to see that drugs, alcohol and youth suicide are major barriers to potential future generation to continue their traditional knowledge.”

Aunty Ellen Trevorrow

Jelina says that authorities and policymakers tend to overlook the principal cause of these issues, including a lack of health services.

“My heart goes to the Elders that work hard to deal with the issues by themselves. In the community I work with, there are only a handful of Elders who were educated in the traditional way of life.”

But Jelina’s research has found that technology – particularly video – whilst currently a barrier, could also be a way to safeguard and help share Aboriginal knowledge for future generations.

Although most of the Elders involved in her research have limited access to and experience in using technology, that could be addressed – and in doing so, help bring generations together.

“Why not bring these technologies to the Indigenous communities who need it most?”

Jelina says that through partnerships involving school children and industry, a research technology hub could provide mentoring and training for Aboriginal communities to create, edit, preserve and share video content.

“Giving them access to video cameras, computers and iPads allow the Aboriginal community to record their own stories, and that way it complies with their beliefs and Indigenous ways of knowing,” she says. “At the same time, it brings community spirit back and provides some purpose and ownership of their knowledge.”

While many Aboriginal stories have been captured by non-Indigenous people and researchers, Jelina says it needs to be done in partnership with the community, with benefits for the community, and without treating people as research subjects.

Ellie Trevorrow-Wilson

Jelina has made a series of videos with Elders from Camp Coorong, with participants involved as co-researchers and as “proof-readers of translated information about them”.

“Working in partnership is part of Indigenous knowledge preservation … it is crucial that appropriate ethical principles and protocols are followed in disseminating Indigenous knowledge.”

She says video offers the ability to capture Aboriginal people’s resilience, traditional practices and experiences holistically and within the cultural context.

“It’s important to see and hear the stories directly from the people who experienced it,” she says. “It provides that visual context as well as a sense of connection, feeling, passion, empathy, resilience and human touch. All senses that you don’t fully grasp from reading alone.”

Jelina will present her research paper, In search of Indigenous wisdom and interdisciplinary ways of learning together, to the 2017 Research Applications in Information and Library Studies (RAILS) conference, held at City West from 28-30 November 2017.