Meeting of waters: Aligning traditional knowledge and science

Ten Mile Swamp, Kowanyama

Griffith University researchers partnered with Traditional Custodians to tell the story of how science interweaves with the Traditional Knowledge of Wawu Budja (the Mitchell River).

The Mitchell River Story Map, a collaboration between researchers with the National Environmental Science Program (NESP) and the Mitchell River Traditional Custodian Advisory Group (MRTCAG), is an innovative and accessible way to bring together the latest research on the Mitchell River with the cultural knowledge of Gugu Yalanji seasons.

“Scientific approaches can teach us how these ecosystems function, but often our science is only ‘new knowledge’ if we ignore the wealth of traditional knowledge that has existed for thousands of years,” said Dr Ben Stewart-Koster, project lead and senior research fellow at the Australian Rivers Institute.

Dr Ben Stewart-Koster, project lead and senior research fellow at the Australian Rivers Institute and Dr Ruth Link, Chairperson of MRTCAG, lawyer and Gugu Yalanji woman

“In this project powerful relationships were developed with the project leaders which enabled us to draw on the Gugu Yalanji knowledge, values and wisdom that is essential for the advancement of water science on Wawu Budja,” said Dr Ruth Link, Chairperson of MRTCAG, lawyer and Gugu Yalanji woman.

The clans of the upper and middle catchment of the river, the Western Gugu Yalanji, Mbabaram, Wokomin and Kuku Djungan are represented by the Mitchell River Traditional Custodian Advisory Group (MRTCAG) and the Traditional Custodians of the lower catchment are the Kokoberra, Yir Yoront (or Kokomnjen) and Kunjen clans.

The environmental, cultural and economic values of the Mitchell River catchment in far north Queensland and the pressure for development of the river, with proposed dams, irrigation expansion and other forms of agriculture, has made it the focus of environmental research for decades.

Dr Stewart-Koster and Dr Link point out that past research hasn’t always been so integrative or been made available in a format that is relevant to the people who need it for decision-making.

The mouth of the Mitchell River – Gulf of Carpentaria

“Historically, scientific research has ignored First Nations people which has excluded traditional knowledge and cultural values from decision making processes,” Dr Link said.

“MRTCAG wants to work with western scientists like NESP and Australian Rivers Institute to make sure the knowledge, and solutions make spiritual, economic, scientific, cultural, social, political, and emotional sense for current and future generations.”

The Story Map format used presents findings about the environmental water needs for the Mitchell River in a user-friendly way, with Traditional knowledge of the Gugu Yalanji seasons at the heart of the story.

Dr Link stated that MRTCAG seeks to help scientists “respect and understand the complex knowledge of our deep understanding of place and our commitment to living according to the five seasons.”

“We aligned the knowledge systems around stories of floods, climate change and dams, the links between the latest research on algae as the powerhouse of Gulf wetlands/rivers and coastal productivity for fish, prawns and migratory shorebirds, and details how a healthy Mitchell River ecosystem delivers millions of dollars to the economy,” Dr Stewart-Koster said.

The dynamic web-based interface includes:

  • maps of floodplain inundation over the past two decades
  • models of rates of algal productivity which can tell us how much food is available for fish and other animals
  • food web analyses showing what foods invertebrates and fish eat, and where the aquatic ‘supermarket’ is
  • models of fish movement across the catchment
Yalanji designs from Natarsha Bell that manifest the traditional knowledge articulated in the story map

The research findings are accompanied by Yalanji designs from Natarsha Bell that manifest the traditional knowledge articulated in the story map.

“Each of these designs was developed by Natarsha to reflect the hearts and minds of the lead researchers who published the findings told in the story map,” Dr Stewart-Koster said.

“Most importantly the story map shows the power and the value of embedding traditional knowledge into western science.”

“It shouldn’t surprise us when scientific findings are closely aligned with what Traditional Custodians know since they have been studying their Country for over 60,000 years.”

For the Gugu Yalanji, western science needs to investigate and examine how to live according to the seasons.

“The cultural knowledge of Gugu Yalanji, Mbabaram, Wokomin and Kuku Djungan is invaluable to NESP research projects as solutions are holistic and address [both] the science questions and the need to heal Country,” stated Dr Link.

“At MRTCAG we refer to Dr Stewart-Koster as Guyu, which in language refers to the catfish. The catfish is our people’s favourite fish.

“Ben, as NESP’s science leader on the Mitchell River, has taken the time to understand the relationship we have had with NESP and with western science and has taken the time to develop a strong relationship with us through truth-telling and by not focusing on western concepts of time.

“These powerful developments are leading to the synergy of western science and cultural knowledge that will benefit the health and wellbeing of Wawu Budja within seven generations. A journey we, as First Nations people, are committed to.”

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