University researcher develops system to preserve Aboriginal knowledge

University researcher develops system to preserve Aboriginal knowledge

The impact of European colonisation over the past 200 years has eroded much of the traditional networking practices of Aboriginal Australians. However, a university researcher is developing a system that could preserve what remains of their knowledge.

Jelina Haines, a researcher at the University of South Australia, is developing a system of video ethnography and information-mapping that captures the integrity and authenticity of the knowledge of Aboriginal Elders.

“Elders’ knowledge is inherited from the generational stories and the experiences of living on a particular land,” Haines said.

“But their knowledge is also continuously evolving and their experiences of living in contemporary Australian society have provided them with another source of new knowledge."

“Preserving these personal histories and the group histories they mesh with is essential for keeping alive their collective cultural and national history.”

Capturing the complexity
Complex and intertwined in nature, Aboriginal knowledge is extremely complicated to capture because of its oral nature and the communal manner by which it has traditionally been shared.

With a long-running relationship with the Ngarrindjeri Aboriginal community situated at the lower lakes of the Murray River in South Australia, Haines was able to develop a unique research model to recognise and capture this complexity.

Haines has worked as project manager with the community since moving to Australia from the Philippines in the late 1990s and became close friends with Ngarrindjeri Elder Ellen Trevorrow, with whom she bonded over a mutual love for weaving.

“Ngarrindjeri Elders share stories with younger women, telling the tales of the community while the women are working at basket weaving,” Haines said.

“This is a very traditional way of sharing knowledge, but it’s never just one person talking – one Elder will start the story, and then another will pick it up, and another might finish it. Each person brings themselves to the story as well as sharing the culture of the group.”

Combination of video and text
By working closely with Trevorrow and other members of the Ngarrindjeri community, Haines developed a form of multi-modal ethnography that preserves Aboriginal Elder knowledge that is both understandable to people outside the community and meaningful and empowering to those within.

According to Haines, so many researchers have fallen short of studying these cultures over the years because they failed to approach it “from the perspective of what is good for the people they are studying.” 

She combines video interviews and dynamic textual “knowledge maps” to capture the life stories of each elders and put these stories in the wider cultural context of their land, history and people.

“With video ethnography, it is them telling the stories, not me,” Haines said.

“Anything that they say, is represented exactly as they say it, and in that way, we maintain the integrity of the knowledge. And the knowledge maps are graphical and textual charts that show the connections between the various elements of an Elder’s life story.” 

Haines believes the model she has developed with the Ngarrindjeri people can be readily applied in other Aboriginal communities as it is a sensitive, respectful way to preserve millenniums of ancient wisdom.

“There is so much knowledge possessed by these Elders, and we are in real danger of losing it,” she said.

“It is time we worked with these communities to ensure their stories are always remembered in a way that is true to them.”