Whales and dolphins are culturally significant and totemic species for many Aboriginal nations, particularly in south-eastern Australia. Stories of their importance are portrayed in song and dance, rock art and contemporary artworks.

Many of these large marine species have experienced serious declines. While whales are no longer hunted in Australia, their marine and coastal habitats continue to be developed and utilised. They also face the effects of climate change, both in Australia and along international migratory pathways. Some are listed as threatened under national and state laws. Efforts to protect and rebuild populations are based on what is known about populations and the threats they face.

Indigenous ecological knowledge can contribute to a better understanding of threatened and migratory whales and dolphins. For example, Indigenous knowledge passed from generation to generation includes an understanding of ecological dynamics such as migratory patterns and relationships between species. But the Indigenous perspective and use of cultural knowledge is not considered in the protection and recovery of listed threatened and migratory species.

This Indigenous-led project will identify and share (where appropriate) cultural knowledge of relationships with whales and dolphins, and connections between land, sea and sky. Indigenous communities will participate in research that explores cultural ideology around kinship and responsibilities to kin, through expressing the knowledge, values and concerns they hold for whales and dolphins.

The acquired knowledge and methods will support the cultural governance of sea Country by Indigenous communities and organisations, and policymaking, implementation and review by government agencies in relation to resource use and conservation.

Approach

This project will focus on Indigenous knowledge relating to the southern right whale, humpback whale, orca and dolphins, with cultural, environmental, social and technical research themes.

An Indigenous Cultural Connections Reference Group will be established to assist the Aboriginal researchers with cultural and spiritual leadership of the project. The group will include knowledge holders with an interest in connecting Aboriginal people to uphold traditional relationships with sea Country.

A desktop study will assess national and global Indigenous marine mapping, anthropological and ethno-anthropological historic records and documents, oral history and language associated with the identified marine habitats and species.

On-Country gatherings will be co-designed with Indigenous communities invited to share and weave knowledge. These will follow the path of the annual whale migration, with a focus on coastal areas between K’gari (Fraser Island, Queensland) to Lunawanna-allonah (Bruny Island, Tasmania) and across to Warrnambool (Victoria). The two to four-day gatherings will include artistic workshops, yarning circles and on-Country learning. The first, on Bruny Island, will be in March 2024.

Engagement and knowledge-sharing

The project was developed in consultation with government research users. The engagement will continue to ensure a shared understanding of intended outcomes, communicate progress and findings, and explore opportunities for applying Indigenous knowledge for the protection and recovery of threatened and migratory species. The project team will also report back to participating Indigenous people in a culturally appropriate way that supports the reawakening of cultural practices and sharing of knowledge.

The project threads will be brought together to generate insights from a weaving together of Indigenous knowledge with western science knowledge. Indigenous knowledge will be portrayed in artworks, written stories, images, video, and a final technical report, for research users and to promote awareness of cultural connection to species/Country.

Expected outcomes

Indigenous people will benefit through the employment a mid-career Indigenous researcher, paid participation on the Indigenous Cultural Connections Reference Group, and capacity building by reawakening cultural connections and sharing cultural knowledge.

Intergenerational knowledge on cultural connections to whales and dolphins will be shared across Indigenous communities. This knowledge transfer will help to reawaken cultural practices.

Opportunities will be identified for applying Indigenous knowledge for the protection and recovery of threatened and migratory species listed under the Environment Protection and Biological Conservation Act 1999.

A model approach will facilitate collating, analysing and sharing knowledge on Indigenous connections to country.

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