Newslines Radio: When science and culture combine
- Nathan Ramsay
- Denise Morgan-Bulled, Yorta Yorta elder, VIC
Lee Joachim, Yorta Yorta Nation Aboriginal Corporation research manager, VIC
Leah Beesley, Arthur Rylah Institute for Environmental Research senior scientist, VIC
Katie Howard, Arthur Rylah Institute for Environmental Research technical support officer, VIC
Ray Ahmat, Working on Country program coordinator, Parks Victoria, VIC.
PRESENTER: Hi, I’m Nathan Ramsay and you’re listening to Newslines Radio, a weekly program produced by the Australian Government on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander issues.
Today Newslines is visiting the traditional lands of the Yorta Yorta people. Their country lies on both sides of the Murray River, from around Cohuna in northern Victoria up to Albury/Wodonga in New South Wales.
It’s a region that’s receiving increasing national and international attention because of the effect climate change is having on the Murray River.
The local Yorta Yorta Nation Aboriginal Corporation, based in Shepparton, is particularly worried about the impact of climate change on their lands, the river and wildlife such as turtles.
The corporation is playing a big role in scientific research on climate change and is actively involved in the major cultural decisions and projects that are taking place on their lands, as Newslines’ Danika Nayna reports.
NAYNA: Science and culture are often seen as opposing forces but according to Yorta Yorta elder Auntie Denise Morgan-Bulled, science has always been a part of Aboriginal life.
MORGAN-BULLED: Our people, they use the star system, there’s a lot of science involved, but in a different way to some of the western system. They use sciences as well our people.
They adapted a lot of materials to a way of producing for themselves. Like a returning boomerang. Who would think throwing a stick, you can’t expect a stick to come back unless you’ve got Rover there to go and pick it up for you, your puppy dog. The design of it and that makes it come back and these are things that are from a people that by some of the western knowledge base have said we got no skills. It’s just so wrong.
NAYNA: Scientific research is a big part of the work being done by the Yorta Yorta Nation Aboriginal Corporation to care for their country.
And working out ways to adapt to climate change is top of their agenda. Here’s the corporation’s research manager, Lee Joachim.
JOACHIM: We are right into climate change adaptation. In 2009 we had elders formulate the Yorta Yorta Climate Change Working Group and really invited a whole heap of people to come and talk to us about climate change, but also talk to them about how we see it affecting us and what is the future on Yorta Yorta country.
Because we still actively harvest from our country, how is government going to cater for that continued cultural practice? So this is what we’ve been doing with research, but it’s also about how do we bring our knowledge system and western science together to give a better outcome for country.
Because we realised there’s been significant changes made, whether it’s been the building of a weir or a dam or whatever it might be, changing the course of the river, that we have a role to play here and science can actually learn from what we know in regards to our culture.
So we’re very active in that and it’s really introduced us worldwide to significant players such as the Brown University out of Providence, Rhode Island, the National Science Foundation of America and other bodies internationally. They’re looking at what we’re doing and they’re interested in what we’re doing. So it’s a growing research area at the moment for us as well.
NAYNA: Representatives from the Yorta Yorta Nation have been invited to various international conferences to share their traditional knowledge, and Lee says he is happy about a new development, where high profile visitors are coming to Yorta Yorta country.
JOACHIM: So we’ve had the World Bank out here, who are a partner of our research as well. They met with the elders in 2010. This year we’ll have a workshop in conjunction with Monash University on climate change and that’ll be in Echuca so we have World Bank presentation and also people from Brown University and as well as the National Science Foundation of America coming out to talk as well.
It’s not a huge agenda in Australia. It’s very huge in other areas. And we can actually learn from other indigenous populations as well. That’s what we’re looking for. We’re looking for people to really grow in this space and start considering climate change really seriously.
NAYNA: While the Yorta Yorta Nation turns heads in climate change circles internationally, here in Australia, Auntie Denise says she’s surprised that some people still don’t recognise that climate change is a reality.
MORGAN-BULLED: I think there’s lots of people who say that there’s no climate change. How can you say there’s no climate change when there’s been so much non-production going on because we haven’t got the water, and we haven’t got everything happening with nature? Everything’s connected with nature, the birds, the animals, the insects, they help each other out. Then it comes around to us. If they’re not surviving then it’s going to be the land is not surviving.
NAYNA: Auntie Denise wants people to acknowledge that climate change is an issue and start working towards healing the land.
MORGAN-BULLED: It still needs a lot of acceptance I guess by a good lot of people that there is a problem. That will be one part of solving the problem, if people really accept it, that there is a problem, so then you can start dealing with it.
I used to make sure that I had at least one swim in the river each summer, but I tell you the last couple of summers, no, I haven’t [be]cause it doesn’t look right to me to actually do too much swimming in there. You’d never keep me out of the water as soon as the sun was shining it used to be; not so much now. And it’s sad.
I wish I had answers for everything. I think everybody wished they had answers for it because it’s been a long time where it’s been totally interrupted and to reverse some of it back, I don’t know how long that could take. I know it can be done. It has to. There has to be a time to start to heal it I guess because it needs to be, if we are to survive as a people on the river system.
PRESENTER: You’re listening to Newslines Radio. Today, we’re talking to the Yorta Yorta people who live along the Murray River, either side of the New South Wales and Victorian border.
We’ve heard how the Yorta Yorta Nation Aboriginal Corporation is trying to tackle climate change.
Times of drought have become more frequent, which has caused a lot of problems for one of the Yorta Yorta totems, the long neck turtle. Elders have noticed a decline in the numbers of long neck turtles and so the Yorta Yorta Nation has teamed up with Melbourne’s Arthur Rylah Institute for Environmental Research to find out why the turtles are dying.
Newslines spoke with senior scientist of the Arthur Rylah Institute Leah Beesley on the bank of the Murray River in the Barmah National Park.
BEESLEY: There was a long term drought in south eastern Australia, and that’s caused a lot of the wetlands, the floodplain wetlands to dry up along the Murray River. One of the outcomes of that has been that a lot of the turtles have started dying, particularly the ones that live in the forest.
The Yorta Yorta were very concerned about that because one of their totems, animal totems, is a turtle. The project was started to try and monitor the health and status of the turtle populations in the forest, and hopefully this way we can help to manage the turtle populations so they can continue into the future.
PRESENTER: Katie Howard also works at the Arthur Rylah Institute. She says while technology is an important part of the turtle research, the contribution of the Yorta Yorta people has been invaluable.
HOWARD: We work quite closely with the Yorta Yorta elders and more recently with the Yorta Yorta rangers. The Yorta Yorta elders in the past have set the aims for the project and also the sites which we trap at. The Yorta Yorta rangers are now coming on board helping us with our terrestrial surveys and becoming more involved in the project as a whole.
At the moment we don’t know a lot about where the turtles move to and where they nest, and how they move in relation to flood and drought, so we’ve put 13 GPS data loggers on the turtles and we’ll take these off later in the year. This information will tell us how far the turtles move and hopefully lead us to some key nesting sites.
PRESENTER: Yorta Yorta man Ray Ahmat is the coordinator of the Working on Country project at Barmah National Park, which is jointly managed by the Yorta Yorta Nation and Parks Victoria.
Working on Country is an Australian Government program that funds Indigenous rangers to undertake environmental work.
Ray says it is a cultural necessity for the Yorta Yorta people to actively participate in the preservation of the turtle species and to learn as much about them as possible.
AHMAT: To recognise that totem you’ve got to understand what the totem is, it’s habitat, it’s range and again that associates back to the Dreaming stories of the creators and how the turtle and the family groups all fit around that.
So there’s more than the turtle within the nation as well, there’s various sorts of animals but the turtle’s more symbolic within the nation because it’s used as part of the business and everything else and a lot of people recognise themselves through the long neck turtle. It’s just customary responsibility knowing more about your totem species.
PRESENTER: Ray says the Working on Country rangers have really valued the opportunity to learn more about the turtle from a scientific perspective.
And from the scientists’ side, Leah Beesley says the partnership between the Yorta Yorta people and researchers has really worked.
BEESLEY: It’s been a really great opportunity to kind of marry those two different cultures and knowledge bases. We bring a bit more rigour in terms of the scientific community and some of the information on the basic biology of the turtles and then the Yorta Yorta have obviously a long extensive history of knowledge so they can bring to the table Dreamtime information and then all their local on ground knowledge, which we just don’t have because we’re based in Melbourne, so nesting site information and how the turtles move around the forest and how floods and droughts affect the turtles.
PRESENTER: Elder Denise Morgan-Bulled, who we heard from earlier, has been involved with the turtle project since it began and says she’s also found the mixing of traditional and scientific knowledge a new and positive experience.
MORGAN-BULLED: In the past I’ve been a bit thingo about anthropologists and archaeologists and things like that when they’ve taken our remains and put them away, that’s the academic world.
But I can see yeah, like the GPS I really loved, I really loved the GPS because it really does document it. They can complement each other and they can work together, the two knowledge bases, so long as one respects the other one. And what I’m meaning is the western knowledge base respecting the Aboriginal knowledge base.
PRESENTER: As the turtle project continues, the Yorta Yorta people will take on an even greater role – using the scientific knowledge they’ve gained from the Arthur Rylah Institute to help them meet their custodial responsibilities to their totem.
To find out more about the projects happening in the Yorta Yorta Nation, and the Australian Government’s Working on Country program, check out the links on our website indigenous.gov.au.
You can also read our Indigenous Newslines magazine there. And don’t forget to like Newslines on Facebook.
I’m Nathan Ramsay, thanks for listening to Newslines Radio.