How should scientists acknowledge Indigenous peoples in their research?

By Professor Sue Jackson, ARC Future Fellow

Acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which academics and others meet for conferences is now a common practice in Australia. Inviting a traditional owner to welcome those assembled at a function to their country, or customary land, has become an established means by which research organisations observe Indigenous engagement protocols.

Recently a Canadian researcher, Alex Webster, asked how and if we should extend acknowledgement of country to scientific papers. On Twitter Alex asked:

Any ecologists out there ever put native territory acknowledgements into their pubs? Wondering how co-authors and editors have reacted, and how to do it in a meaningful way….

This question prompts one to think about this form of acknowledgement and how it relates to the many ways in which non-Indigenous researchers can respectfully interact with Indigenous peoples (in the lab, at the conference, in the field and at the desk).

At the very least, when researchers access Indigenous lands for field studies, they should be conscious of customary land tenures. But Alex Webster asks how one should enact that recognition in a manner that is meaningful?

Perhaps it could bring the same benefits as a welcome to country at a seminar. A senior traditional owner of the Melbourne region, Joy Murphy, explains the effect of performing a welcome to country:

“Welcome to Country and Acknowledgment of Country is a very important way of giving Aboriginal people back their place in society, and an opportunity for us to say, ‘We are real, we are here, and today we welcome you to our land’…It’s paying respect, in a formal sense, and following traditional custom in a symbolic way.” – Joy Murphy Wandin.

It is interesting to ponder the symbolic effect of the world’s scientists acknowledging Indigenous land ownership in their publications. What might such a practice mean for scientific work and what effect might it have on broader relationships between non-Indigenous and Indigenous peoples, particularly in settler societies such as Australia, New Zealand, Canada or the U.S?

In these countries, states and their management systems are increasingly recognizing Indigenous forms of environmental governance and management.

leaf tailed gecko a new species
Would it be possible for scientists to ‘discover’ new species, like this gecko from Northern Australia, if the scientists had engaged with indigenous experts? Image Credit: Conrad Hoskin via Australian Geographic

Would finding out the traditional ties to the places that are of scientific interest change the way scientists look at the land and its ecology? Western science has inherited many of its views about landscapes from colonial society. These views often present ‘settled’ lands as ones that are devoid of customary attachments and local ways of knowing the world.

Could it be possible, for example, for scientists to ‘discover’ a species well known to local communities if those who were new to the area had engaged with indigenous experts?

Thinking further about acknowledging country in scientific practice calls to mind a paper on human-environmental relationships written by the Bawaka Collective: Caring as Country: Towards an ontology of co-becoming in natural resource management.

Bawaka collective is composed of non-Indigenous geographers, Yolngu colleagues from Bawaka, in north-east Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory, and the “country” itself. Bawaka country is the lead author of the multi-authored paper. The rationale for crediting the paper’s ideas is thus:

Acknowledging the authorship of Bawaka Country is important as it decentres the privileging of human authors as the only beings able to control and create, as the sole deciders of content and structure, and opens up opportunities for reimaging and co-creating not only how we write about NRM but how we think about and practice it (2013: 186).

Although few researchers have gone to this length to reflect Indigenous modes of acknowledgment, as well as Indigenous ontologies, over the past decade or so, the research sector has undoubtedly responded to the need to improve on previous practices.

As many will be aware, Indigenous organisations and individuals have voiced concerns about research ethics and the practices of research organisations. There are now more collaborative models as we have seen a proliferation of ethics resources serving as guides, particularly those pertaining to protecting Indigenous knowledge (see for example the guidelines produced by the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies).

A range of collaborative methods are now being utilised by government agencies, universities, research institutes, and NGOs to recognise and harness Indigenous knowledges and deliver benefits from research to Indigenous experts and their communities.

These all advocate acknowledging Indigenous knowledge and contributions in a range of ways, including co-authorship of papers, protection of confidential information and ensuring the results from projects are well communicated to communities.

Those interested in the efforts of a major tropical rivers research program (TRaCK) working in north Australia may want to read a paper by Sue Jackson and Michael Douglas: Indigenous engagement in tropical river research in Australia: The TRaCK Program.

Guided by an Indigenous Engagement Strategy (IES), the TRaCK program placed considerable emphasis on procedural issues regarding ethics, participatory methodologies, local employment in the research, and intellectual property rights.

The literature in the area of Indigenous knowledge partnerships, and the stated positions of many Indigenous organisations, would suggest that recognising Indigenous territories in publications is one of a number of acknowledgement mechanisms. Under what, if any, conditions it might be considered sufficient would need further consideration, particularly by Indigenous peoples.

The tropical river research collaborations referred to above saw researchers involved in processes of continual dialogue and genuine negotiation that extended beyond adherence to a protocol or procedure.

I would encourage researchers to seek out local traditional owners and discuss with them appropriate ways of recognising their customary laws and management systems, knowledge and values. Doing so will not only raise the profile of Indigenous societies, but will bring benefits to both Indigenous and scientific communities through exchange and the co-production of new knowledge.





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