NAIDOC Week has been celebrated every July since 1975, with a history dating back to the 1920’s when Aboriginal civil rights groups sought recognition for the treatment of First Nations Australians. This year’s theme, ‘Voice. Treaty. Truth.’, encourages all of us to celebrate and promote Indigenous voices and languages. This week has seen art installations, film screenings, and community workshops among many other events being held across Sydney and the rest of the country.

This year’s theme ties in with the United Nations Year of Indigenous Languages (NY2019), which aims to celebrate indigenous languages and raise awareness about the declining numbers of speakers of these languages. In Australia alone, the number of Indigenous languages spoken has been estimated to be anywhere from 300 to 700 prior to 1788. Of these, less than 150 are still spoken daily and many are endangered, facing the possibility of no longer being spoken at all. While this can be discouraging and there are many challenges to overcome in language revival and renewal, there is an increasing number of programs and initiatives that are working with First Nations communities to support their languages and preserve their traditional knowledge.

What is Traditional Knowledge?

Traditional knowledge, also called Indigenous knowledge, is generally defined as a body of knowledge, skills, practices, and know-how that has been passed down across multiple generations of a community. For Indigenous Australians in particular, traditional knowledge incorporates many fields, including medicine, agriculture, ecology, engineering and science more broadly, and is embedded within cultural practices and language. In fact, traditional knowledge has many applications, especially in creating new medicines and for sustainable land management and conservation.

For example, Budj Bim, a 6,600 year-old Indigenous eel-harvesting site in south-west Victoria, recently became a UNESCO World Heritage listed site. As one of the oldest aquaculture sites in the world, the site is just one of the ways that Indigenous Australians, such as the Gunditjmara people that built Budj Bim, have been using traditional knowledges in their agricultural practices for thousands of years. The site has also been praised for the Gunditjmara people’s use of complex civil engineering when creating the system of water channels, canals and weirs used to farm the eels.

Recognising Traditional Knowledge in Sustainable Practices

Combining traditional knowledge and Western knowledge has numerous benefits for Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians alike, but it’s important that Indigenous communities that share their knowledge are properly recognised as owners of knowledge used and benefit from their contributions. There has been a history of exploitation of Indigenous communities and their traditional knowledge by companies, especially those in the pharmaceutical industry, that commercialise native foods, plants or other products, so it’s especially important that Indigenous communities are recognised, which may involve the inclusion of Indigenous community members on IPs, sharing profits with the community, and respecting how Indigenous communities want their knowledge to be shared, reproduced and interpreted.

With this in mind, researchers at universities and the CSIRO have been working with Indigenous communities and using traditional knowledge to protect Australia’s biodiversity, save the bees, and even fire-proof homes and prevent the increasing number of severe bushfires by using Indigenous fire management practices .

How to Get Involved

There are plenty of ways to celebrate, support, and learn more about Indigenous knowledge and languages. Supporting programs that celebrate Indigenous cultures and host Indigenous individuals is one of the easiest, with the ABC hosting Awaye!, an arts and culture program featuring Indigenous Australian Indigenous languages, and Little Yarns, a podcast aimed at pre-schoolers.

Learning an Australian Indigenous language is another way that you can support and celebrate Indigenous cultures. It can also be a great way to connect to the local community while recognising the history of Indigenous Australians and understanding the loss of language, culture and identity that they have dealt with for hundreds of years.

Language classes are currently offered at community and university levels across Australia, and Australian Indigenous languages can even be taken as an HSC subject in NSW. Local language programs often work alongside language centres to support a range of language classes in their community, while universities offer classes in only seven languages, including NSW languages Gamilaraay and Wiradjuri. Plus for the last three years, the Sydney Festival has run language classes for Bayala, one of the languages spoken in the Sydney area, with talks of a language Symposium for the 2020 festival that you can keep an eye out for.

If you'd rather get your hands dirty, planting natives in your backyard is another way to appreciate traditional knowledge and the history of Indigenous Australians. Your best choice would be those that are native to your local area and native grasses such as kangaroo grass, which can also attract native (and stingless) bees! To find out more about native plants and how Indigenous Australians used them in agriculture, you can check out our chat with Bruce Pascoe, Indigenous author and Aboriginal language researcher, here.

Find out more

If you’re interested in finding out more about Australian Indigenous languages, traditional knowledge, NY2019, or want to learn some words in an Australian Indigenous language, check out these links.

Learn some words from Indigenous Australian languages with these four young speakers

Five ways Indigenous science explains the world

Torres Strait Islander & Australian Aboriginal Word Lists

Australian Indigenous Languages Institute

First Languages Australia


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