Working across Indigenous and Western Science knowledge systems – how our perspectives have evolved over the last decade

Rebecca Dobbs (School of Biological Sciences, The University of Western Australia)

Over the last fifteen years we have supported wetland management in the Kimberley region of Western Australia through programs including Tropical Rivers and Coastal Knowledge (TRaCK), the National Environmental Research Program (NERP) and currently through the Northern Australian Environmental Research Hub of the National Environmental Science Program (NAERH, NESP). These programs have Indigenous engagement protocols to ensure a collaborative approach, and at the core of this collaboration is the need to work across western science and Indigenous knowledge systems. As ecologists trained in academic (western) science, in order to work collaboratively with Indigenous knowledge-holders, we have had to challenge ourselves to change our ways of thinking and “doing” research. Our experiences along the way have allowed us to adapt wetlands science to become more aligned with place and its custodians

Monitoring wetlands in the Kimberley with Nyul Nyul Rangers. Credit: Rebecca Dobbs.

Initially, a “Waterways Education Program” (WEP) co-developed and delivered with the Kununurra section of the Western Australia Department of Water in 2007 offered training in freshwater monitoring techniques for local schools and Indigenous communities in the Kimberley. This hands-on program was designed to discuss research and government planning (relevant to wetlands) on country and to support communities to engage in these processes and projects. Through this relationship building, the WEP was able to identify local concerns and adapt to support community driven research, such as an investigation into an outbreak of worms (parasites) in Yaku (fish) for the communities around Paruku in the Kimberley. As the WEP developed, Indigenous Ranger groups expanded across the Kimberley, all keen to monitor and manage wetlands on their country (traditional lands). The WEP evolved in response, recognising the importance of supporting Kimberley Indigenous Ranger teams as key land managers in the region. The program has worked with multiple groups trialling and adapting standard western science monitoring techniques to meet local concerns and management aspirations. 

As we spent more time on country with Traditional Owners, we began to question how our approaches could better elevate local Indigenous knowledge, practices and beliefs when supporting groups to monitor and manage wetlands. How could we step outside of our western science way of thinking about wetlands, and what benefit could this provide to Indigenous communities and the management of these systems? A three year project with the Nyul Nyul Rangers provided an opportunity to trial a more equitable and collaborative approach to wetland research. Through this research, we adopted multiple techniques (workshops, questionnaires, site visits, collaborative field sampling) to share wetland science, and support the Nyul Nyul community to share their knowledge and aspirations for wetlands. This approach enabled the community to prioritise sites and issues for the research program, and together Nyul Nyul knowledge and western science techniques provided a comprehensive understanding of wetland change and condition. 

Supporting a PhD project also helped to address some of these issues, by exploring the knowledge, practices and beliefs of two Kimberley Indigenous groups towards wetland management. This research revealed the system within which these groups interact with and care for wetlands, and provided insight into different ways in which western science and Indigenous knowledge systems perceive and manage them. For example, ecological characteristics generated from the practices that custodians used to maintain wetlands were sometimes at odds with characteristics and management practices desired and used by western science ecologists. Yet the way in which traditional owners’ maintained wetlands had potentially important conservation benefits. This research has allowed us to better support traditional owner ways of caring for wetlands, and has ultimately led to us having researchers from multiple disciplines embedded in our research projects.

If this last decade of research has taught us anything, it is that there is no set formula for navigating and applying different knowledge systems. There is a lot of great work both within Australia and internationally to build on. We have also been extremely fortunate to have worked with communities and traditional owners who have been generous and patient in helping to guide us as we are both being challenged to think outside our world view. Looking back, some might say that calling the program “Waterways Education” was uninspired. Or was it based on a premonition that although we had bold ambitions to help build the capacity of Indigenous ranger groups and communities to input into freshwater research (and ultimately management), we as scientists were about to be, and still are being, educated in how to look at wetlands through the lens of a different knowledge system? We are currently applying these learnings and expanding our research through a NESP NAERH project exploring local or culturally meaningful indicators, and partnering with Environs Kimberley to apply our work within a broader regional approach. Although we have come a long way from the enthusiastic but rudimentary beginnings of our Waterways Program, we still have progress to make as western scientists in how to weave multiple knowledge systems to support better monitoring and management of freshwater ecosystems.

For more information, contact Rebecca here:

This article was first published in the ESA Bulletin March 2021. 

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