A NEW encyclopaedia is bringing together Indigenous knowledge and western science in a publicly available online tool for the first time.
The Noongar Boodjar plant and animal encyclopaedia links Indigenous species names with western scientific names across more than 90 plant and animal genus in south-west Western Australia.
It also includes the ancestral ecological and cultural knowledge about plants and animals in Noongar Nation.
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 descriptions of what it is used for (they can be eaten) and its cultural significance (it is part of a lot of dances).
The project is a joint initiative of the Noongar Boodjar Language Cultural Aboriginal Corporation in Perth and the Atlas of Living Australia (ALA).
Denise Smith-Ali, senior linguist at the Noongar Boodjar Language Centre, said the encyclopaedia is 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,” she said.
“Putting our own Noongar names to things, putting that into the encyclopaedia and working with the traditional owners and giving them their own rights to reclaim their language… was a highlight for me.
“It means we can preserve the language… in a hundred years’ time, people can come back and see what our language used to look like.”
The online resource was developed through collaboration with Elders, western-trained and Indigenous scientists and linguists from the Noongar Boodjar Language Centre.
Nat Raisbeck-Brown, project lead on the Indigenous Ecological Knowledge Program at the ALA, said this type of co-innovation is important to integrate western and traditional science knowledge in the right way.
“There’s a lot of pressure, and rightly so, that we are working with the right people in the community,” she said.
“Working with language centres is a really smart way for us to go because the language centres have the relationships that they’ve built up over many years with communities.
“So we have absolute trust there that we are working with the right people and that those people have the community consent to share.”
The ALA and the language centre worked together with knowledge custodians of Wudjari Nation, Lynette Knapp and Gail Yorkshire to collect and record ancestral ecological knowledge.
Field trips out on-Country with the traditional knowledge custodians were an integral part of developing the reference work.
“It’s well documented and understood that if you take Aboriginal people back on country, it triggers a lot of memories… and we could see that happening with Gail and Lynette,” said Ms Raisbeck-Brown.
This process was crucial because Indigenous ecological knowledge comes from life experience and being part of the land.
Discussing stories of plants and animals together, on their traditional country, helped Gail and Lynette to remember more and access knowledge.
“The next important part was when they came into the language centre and worked with Denise on the linguistic analysis and the creation of the new words,” said Ms Raisbeck-Brown.
“There’s a whole new part of memory that opens and develops, and that’s really based on the revival, survival and protection of the language.”
Ms Raisbeck-Brown said the compilation sets an example for the importance of looking at the two knowledge systems as equal.
“Right now, predominantly because Western science still dominates, we don’t have the full picture,” she said.
“We’ve been here 200-something years, but really we’ve got 75,000 years of knowledge that we can add to that to have the full picture of how to look after country.”
The Noongar Boodjar plant and animal encyclopaedia is publicly accessible on the ALA and can be visited at https://profiles.ala.org.au/opus/noongar.
Jessica Roberts is a Masters of Journalism and International Relations student at Monash University. She is interested in advocating for women’s empowerment, amplifying the voices of marginalised communities and creating a society more inclusive and welcoming of minority groups. Jessica is passionate about writing stories that help make a difference.