Plants and animals of Noongar Nation break new ground in Indigenous knowledge tool

CSIRO

The Noongar Boodjar plant and animal encyclopaedia will link Indigenous species names with western scientific (both Latin and Common) names, as well as ancestral ecological and cultural knowledge chosen to be shared by local communities across more than 90 plant and animal species.

For example, the entry for Witchetty Grub includes its Latin name (Endoxyla), its Noongar-Wudjari name (Baardi), and the Wudjari group name (Barna). It also captures the description of ‘no legs or bits or spikes hanging off them’, and that it tastes like ‘almonds and butter’.

The project is a joint initiative of the Noongar Boodjar Language Cultural Aboriginal Corporation in Perth and the Atlas of Living Australia (ALA), with funding from the Australian Government’s Indigenous Languages and Arts Program.

The encyclopaedia was developed through field trips including Elders, western-trained and Indigenous scientists, and linguists from the Noongar Boodjar Language Centre going out on Country to share and record ecological knowledge.

Denise Smith-Ali, Senior Linguist at the Noongar Boodjar Language Centre, said the encyclopaedia was an important step towards better integration of traditional and western knowledge.

“In the past there has been no formal mechanism to digitally capture the layers of Indigenous meaning around plants and animals beyond Western science. The Noongar-Wudjari plant and animal online encyclopaedia is the first to do this,” Ms Smith-Ali said.

“In addition to developing the online encyclopaedia, an important part of this project was establishing ‘ways of working’ protocols and strong inter-organisational relationships between the language centre and the ALA.”

Nat Raisbeck-Brown, project lead on the Indigenous Ecological Knowledge Program at the Atlas of Living Australia, said matching western scientific names and knowledge to traditional language and knowledge is not always straight forward.

“While western science uses a single Latin genus and species name to document flora and fauna, there can be many species linked to a single Wudjari name, for example, Pibaarak for wattle or Acacia,” Ms Raisbeck-Brown said.

“A lot of species definitions in western science are based on what the plant or animal looks like, like how many scales on the lip or how many petals. By comparison, Indigenous names and classes of plants and animals can be based on what they are used for and sometimes what other plants and animals they are used with.

“By working together on this project we are demonstrating how co-innovation can integrate western and traditional science knowledge. The Noongar-Wudjari community are providing the traditional science knowledge and the ALA are providing a pathway to access both knowledge systems together.”

Minister for Communications, Urban Infrastructure, Cities and the Arts, the Hon Paul Fletcher MP, said this Australian-first online plant and animal encyclopaedia would play an important role in preserving Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages, with support from the Indigenous Languages and Arts program.

“With the Australian Government’s $90,000 of support, the Noongar Boodjar Language Centre, in collaboration with the CSIRO, is supporting the preservation of Indigenous languages for generations to come,” Minister Fletcher said.

The encyclopaedia is publicly accessible on the ALA, Australia’s national biodiversity data infrastructure funded by the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy (NCRIS) and hosted by Australia’s national science agency, CSIRO.

To access the Noongar-Wudjari plant and animal online encyclopaedia visit: https://profiles.ala.org.au/opus/noongar

To access the Atlas of Living Australia’s IEK program: https://www.ala.org.au/indigenous-ecological-knowledge/

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