Michael Michie
Centre for Science and Technology Education Research
of Waikato

Paper presented at the 36th annual conference of the Australasian Science Education Research Association, Hamilton , New Zealand , 8-10 July 2005.

After being invited to write a chapter on Australian Indigenous Science for a year 9 textbook, I reflected on the process and the ground rules which I set for myself as I undertook the project. The process is examined but of greater importance are the ground rules which are considered in terms of the concerns of other researchers, particularly as problems of representation. These problems include essentialising indigenous people, representation of their lifestyles and the temporal location of indigenity.

In the spirit of Reconciliation, I would like to acknowledge the Larrakia Nation as the traditional owners of the lands around Darwin and the Waikato people around Hamilton .

One of the challenges of multicultural education is to get people to walk in the shoes of others. (Roberta Ahlquist, 2000, p.362)

Late in 2002 I was approached to write a chapter on Australian Indigenous Science for a new science textbook, Science Edge, which was released early in 2005 (Sharwood & Kuhn, 2005), as well as appropriate teacher resource materials. Previously I had written about including indigenous science in the curriculum (Michie, 2002), so this was an opportunity to put some of my ideas into practice. Although the national curriculum in science had advocated the inclusion of indigenous knowledge in science courses (Australian Education Council, 1994), mostly this has been in the context of items of interest from a western perspective.

In Australia there has been a limited number of attempts to write specifically about Indigenous science for western students [e.g. From ochres to eel traps (Halling, 1999); Kormilda Science Project (Read, 1998; Read & Rose, 2001)]. Some materials have been developed to go with displays in museums, science centres and botanic gardens or online (e.g. Australian Bureau of Meteorology, 2002; Cooper, 1999; Jones, 1995; Nobbs, 1999; Questacon, 2003; Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne Education Service, 2004).

Although many other textbooks have included some examples of indigenous knowledge, these have always been presented as short items of interest and not cohesively. Researchers have looked at the representation of indigeniety in some of these texts here in Australia and overseas, particularly in Canada and Aotearoa New Zealand (e.g. Ninnes, 2000, 2001a, b; Ninnes & Burnett, 2001). Russell (2001) has looked at indigenous representations in museums and corporate identities and Francis (1992) has looked at the image of First Nations people in Canadian culture.

The criticism of textbooks by Ninnes (2000) is constructed using postcolonial theory and considers three main issues:

·         essentialism: creating a representation of indigenous people which is homogeneous, masking diversity within the indigenous population and limiting how indigenous identities can be constructed

·         prescription of indigenous identities, particularly in representing indigenous people as ‘traditional’

Ninnes (2001) also queries the ways in which indigenous knowledges are incorporated into texts. He quotes (Attwood 1992, iii) as a guide to the questions which need to be asked: “Who produces the knowledge, when and where; about and for whom is this knowledge; for what purpose is this knowledge created; how and in what form is it produced; and what are the effects of this knowledge.” The representation of indigenous knowledge tends to be piecemeal, frequently inserted for its exotic nature (or to fulfil an editor’s whim to be inclusive), and often as an isolated illustration and not as a cohesive whole.

Indigenous science and Science Edge

The editor’s brief for Science Edge (Sharwood, pers.com.) covered a range of topics relating to Australian Indigenous science and technology:

·         Traditional hunter-gatherers – practising scientists.

It was up to me to interpret the editor’s brief and write a chapter of about 5000 words in the predetermined style of the textbook, as well as a chapter for a teacher’s resource book.


As I wrote the student material, I kept in mind several key ideas about Indigenous science that I felt were important for students to understand. Some of these were developed further in the teacher resource materials.

1.                  Indigenous peoples still exist as part of the Australian community and many of them have different lifestyles to non-indigenous Australians.

Indigenous Australians live in a variety of situations today, ranging from modified traditional communities to towns, cities and suburbia. For some of them, these knowledges and technologies are still used or have been modified by Indigenous peoples for use today. Much of what is referred to in the text is written in the present tense to emphasise this point.

A related point is that knowledge and technologies can vary from language group to language group[1]; most technologies are not found throughout Australia and never were. Some knowledge and technologies are only for specific groups and may have been men’s, women’s or sacred business. For example, the didgeridu was originally only used in parts of northern Australia (where it is known by a variety of local names), although now its use has spread across Australia and worldwide. The use of a didgeridu is also traditionally restricted to men.

2.                  Indigenous peoples have lived in Australia for many thousands of years, they have developed technologies which allowed them to survive successfully over that time, and since colonisation they have adopted and adapted western technologies that they feel are useful.

A common racist argument has been that Indigenous Australians were members of a primitive society still living in the Stone Age. The limitations which existed for Indigenous people prior to colonisation were in the materials which they used, and they were able to exploit them to a high level of sophistication. For example, although Australia is rich in minerals, they are highly weathered at the surface so that the conditions which were needed to be able to discover metallurgical processes did not occur. Similarly, the total Indigenous population did not reach great numbers, so there was no pressure to develop agricultural lifestyles, although this was the case in New Guinea . However, they continue to use methods of enhancing the environment both to ensure that plants continued to grow nearby and to attract grazing animals using fire as a management tool, often referred to as fire-stick farming.

Since colonisation Indigenous Australians have demonstrated abilities to judge, adopt and adapt the imported technologies in a variety of ways. They make use of modern technologies including communications technologies similar to the rest of the Australian community, but often in innovative ways because of their remoteness. They have also substituted western materials in their own technologies, such as steel axes and hatchets for stone axes, making spear points out of glass, ceramics and steel, and using western paints and glues in their artworks.

3.                  Divisions between science and technology in particular, and science and other forms of knowledge in general, don’t exist in an Indigenous context, so much of the student material refers to technologies that Indigenous people have used to survive.

The division between science and technology is a western construct, so there is an emphasis on technologies in the chapter. There is limited explanation of the Indigenous technologies in western scientific terms. Much of the scientific knowledge varies between language groups, such as the seasonal knowledge. For instance, seasonal calendars in the Top End vary by having between three and seven seasons although from a western perspective the climate is essentially the same.

A cohesive approach to Australian Indigenous science and technologies was needed rather than integrating topics with western science, and related to a holistic world view. It was the editor’s intention to include the topic of Australian Indigenous science in the texts as a separate unit. In doing so, I attempted to use it as a vehicle to promote better understanding of indigenous ways of thinking and to create the perspective that Indigenous science is how these people have and in many cases still view the world.

Some Indigenous scientific knowledge is described by western science as traditional environmental knowledge and includes knowledge of the use of bush materials for food, medicines and other technologies, as well as management of natural and cultural resources.

One area of science not included in the editor’s brief was classification. Where this has been examined, usually by linguists rather than scientists, there are often hierarchies of naming used, although these rarely parallel scientific classification. Indigenous classifications are practical rather than based on structural anatomy; for example, dugong and dolphins are usually classified with fish.

4.                  For Indigenous people explanations of why things happen are often related to the Dreaming and are significant parts of the associated knowledge.

There are many stories in the Indigenous world which explain how the landscape and the nightscape were created by the action of Creation beings, many of whom still exist as part of Indigenous life. Some remain active in the world while others may be dormant and for whom due regard must continue to be made. As well, Indigenous people see that events in the environment are related actions rather than coincidental. For example in Gundjeidmi calendar from the Kakadu area, Yamidj, the green grasshopper, calls out that the cheeky yams are ready.

It is worth reminding yourself that even less than 200 years ago that many western scientific phenomena were still explained in a similar way and that divine intervention (or intention) is still used to explain even some well-documented scientific phenomena (such as hurricanes in Florida, Lee, 1999).


The material in the textbook was augmented by activities described in the teacher’s resource book, and a teaching plan which allowed for choice of activities by the teacher. Each of the lesson themes (Table 1) was supported by the text as well as one or more activity. Bush medicine was the only area where there were no practical activities, which I saw mainly from the perspective of a safety issue.

Sources of information and consultation with Indigenous people

Throughout the project information was derived primarily from sources in the public domain, much of it from the Encyclopaedia of Aboriginal Australia (Horton, 1994). Potentially special or sacred knowledge was avoided. A number of Indigenous people were consulted once the material had been written (as well as people in my own network) and I had discussions with one of them at various times during the project. Another member of the panel scrutinised the final draft of the material for the teacher’s resource book.

Problems of representation

Although I had come across some of Ninnes’ writings before taking on the task of writing the chapter, my own experience led me to cover some of the issues he discussed, as the considerations above.

  1. Essentialising Indigenous people. There are a number of ways in which the diversity of Indigenous Australians is expressed in the text. From the beginning it is pointed out that the Indigenous Australians are Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, as well as being about 350 groups with their own languages and beliefs. The point was made frequently that the knowledges and experiences were not uniform for the Indigenous peoples of Australia . Particular groups were identified where this was appropriate (e.g. Guugu Yimidhirr and Eora in naming the kangaroo; David Uniapon is identified as a Njarindigerri man; the Gundjeidmi seasonal calendar is considered).
  2. Representation of indigenous lifestyles. Much of the indigenous science and technology dates from pre-colonial times and as such could be described as ‘traditional’. It is difficult in a text of limited size to describe how traditional knowledge has been modified or updated to account for western influences over the past 200 years (and earlier influences, such as the Macassans in Eastern Arnhemland ). For example, mention is made of using glass and ceramics to make spear points, as well as the use of radios, 4WDs and airplanes for communicating and travelling in their country.

One problem was in the choice of photographs in the text, because often the images which were available portray Indigenous people in stereotypical ‘traditional’ rather than contemporary settings. I didn’t have access to suitable photographs and although I gave some guidance from afar, the selection was left to editorial staff. Some were changed after viewing an early draft.

  1. The temporal location of indigeniety. Throughout the text I tried to indicate that the science and technologies were still in use, and a section of the text was about using knowledge in people managing their land. However this has to be tempered with the understanding that many Indigenous people who live in urban areas often have limited knowledge of their own or access to their traditional lands.
Between a rock and a hard place

I see as the salvation of this area really, not so much slipping little bits of Māori into the Pakeha curriculum but actually taking the nature of science strand seriously and doing much more with it. Miles Barker (interviewed 22 March 2005)

In a recent report the ICSU Study Group (2002) indicated that traditional knowledge was informing western science in many areas, most notably in taxonomy, medicine, agriculture, natural resource management and conservation (p.6), and they recommended “a strengthening of the interactions between the holders of traditional knowledge and scientists” (p.11), as well as the need for scientists to become aware of the cultural setting of their own trade. The report also demarcates between pseudo-science and traditional knowledge acknowledging that the latter is “a cumulative body of knowledge, know-how, practices and representations maintained and developed by peoples with extended histories with the natural environment (pp.10-11). Thus it developed independently of, did not intend to be in competition with, and has in fact always informed, western science. On the contrary, the study group saw that pseudoscience “tries at least partially to delegitimize existing bodies of scientific knowledge by gaining equal epistemological status” (p.11).

Typical, until this time the representation of Indigenous knowledge in science texts had been fragmented and often treated in a pejorative manner (e.g. Ninnes, 2000); to present indigenous science in this way only focuses on content. In Science Edge there was an attempt at a more holistic approach, although of course one chapter in a four-book series was never going to cover the area to any depth. Apart from its content, science is about how people see their world, and it would be more appropriate to include Indigenous science when looking at the nature of science (cf. Miles Barker’s comment above). However, the nature of science is not a topic found in the Australian science statement (Australian Education Council, 1992), although it may have been included in some state science curricula.

From a curriculum perspective, the rationale behind writing a chapter on Australian Indigenous science is because most if not all education authorities in Australia now have policies for including Australian Indigenous Studies in the curriculum and the science learning area should be included (Michie, 2002; Michie, Anlezark & Uibo, 1998). Its inclusion in science moves away from a “spaghetti and polka” perspective (what I have termed “bush tucker and corroboree”) on Indigenous cultures to create the possibility of looking at different ways of understanding the world.

An associated issue is that the commodification of Indigenous knowledges and they are made to fit the western knowledge scheme (e.g. Nakata, 2004). The indigenous knowledge included in the chapter is identified as belonging to the western knowledge fields of science and technology. Other parts of that knowledge, particularly relationships to other events or to the creation beings, are seen as either coincidental or mythological and would not be normally included in the science field.

The issue of who writes and what is written is always going to be difficult when writing about indigenous knowledge (or indigenous knowing) from a western perspective. As part of the writing and editing process, I was able to get opinions from a number of people who had worked in the field, some of whom had also written materials, and from three Indigenous Australian teachers to whom I owe a debt of gratitude for their time and considered opinions.


Ahlquist, Roberta. (2000). Whose world is it, anyway? Multicultural science from diverse perspectives. Comparative Education Review, 44(3), 356-363.

Australian Bureau of Meteorology. (2002). Indigenous weather knowledge. http://www.bom.gov.au/iwk/ (accessed 14 June 2005).

Australian Education Council. (1992). A statement on science for Australian schools. Melbourne : Curriculum Corporation.

Cooper, Linda. (1999). Aboriginal perspectives on science and knowledge. Workshop presented at CONASTA 48, Adelaide SA, July 1999.

Francis, Daniel. (1992). The imaginary Indian: The image of the Indian in Canadian culture. Vancouver : Arsenal Pulp Press.

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Sharwood, Jennifer, & Kuhn, Monica. (Eds.) (2005). Science edge, Book 3. Melbourne : Thomson Nelson.

Table 1. Lesson themes and activities

Lesson themes


Who are the Indigenous Australians?

Distribution of language groups

“The Earth is our Mother”


“Caring for country”

Making fire. Fire management

Bush tucker

Bush tucker walks, excursions or gardens. Bush tucker meal. Making damper. Macadamias

Bush medicine



Gyroscopes. Airfoils. Boomerangs


Wood science. Soft and hard wood

Indigenous geologists

Rocks used for tools. Ochres. Changing gypsum

Staying alive in the desert

Finding their way – desert maps

Indigenous astronomy

There’s an emu in the sky

Indigenous issues


[1] The term “tribe” is not used to describe the individual groups of Indigenous Australians, rather they are grouped together by common languages and ways of knowing; “language group” is considered a more appropriate term.