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Project Statement

Living Memory


The Noongar people of Western Australia, as well as other indigenous groups in Australia, hold a living memory of the last dramatic climate change event and of a period of sea level rise that claimed 30% of Noongar land. The population adapted to that cataclysmic event in a manner that preserved culture, maintained peace between the different groups involved, and sustained strong governance systems in the aftermath.


Australian policymakers have much to learn from the indigenous peoples of Australia in designing and implementing our own adaptation strategies in the face of the imminent climate change and sea level rise.


Indigenous Knowledge


The indigenous peoples of Australia hold a knowledge and understanding of land that is crucial in informing how we adapt to climatic changes. Many of our non-indigenous interviewees revealed stories of working on scientific projects for years only to find that an indigenous elder could have explained the same idea in one morning. One interviewee stated, during the film, that while white scientists have 200 years of reference, indigenous populations have 60,000 years. As such, their capacity to observe and understand the climatic changes that are occurring is far beyond those of non-indigenous scientists who lack that long-term frame of reference.


To address this, we must understand and appropriately acknowledge that indigenous Australians possess scientific observations of climatic changes that are complementary to, and often go well beyond, those of non-indigenous scientists.


If this is not done, our climate change adaptation risks being ineffective, non-responsive, and maybe even maladaptive.


Indigenous Rights


The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, adopted by the UN General Assembly states that indigenous peoples have the right to fully participate in the political, economic, social and cultural life of the state (Article 5), especially in matters that concern their affairs (Article 4). They have the right to participate in decision-making on matters which would affect their rights (Article 18) and the right to be consulted in order to obtain their free, prior and informed consent before the adoption of legislation or administrative measures that may affect them (Article 19).


These Articles are a statement of customary international law, which means that they are binding upon every state and constitute the minimum standard to be met by governments.


A failure to incorporate indigenous voices in climate change adaptation strategies not only hinders our ability to effectively adapt, but also runs counter to these basic international standards.  


The Process of Listening


Indigenous Australians have a right to be heard. The realisation of that right requires us to learn to listen. During this project, we considered it to be our role to learn to listen, and not the job of indigenous peoples to cater to our communication style. We have attempted to articulate some elements which we found to be required for us to do that, and which we consider should be incorporated into future processes of engagement.




Interviewees in the film describe indigenous knowledge and non-indigenous science as running parallel, explaining the same phenomena and asking the same questions, but packaging that knowledge in different forms - such as in the form of a ‘story’. The storytelling manner of knowledge transfer takes time and a shift in thinking to translate. If that effort is made, indigenous stories contain a wealth of information. But if it is not, it can become difficult to appreciate the depth of what is being communicated.


Interconnected Knowledge


Indigenous knowledge systems have been described to us as ‘a spider web’ meaning that all the knowledge is connected in such a way that when one touches any point of that web, the whole shakes and moves in response. The process of learning to listen and to understand between cultures requires the listener to understand this, and to be prepared for the possibility that the information they seek will be connected to other themes and stories that are also relevant and require full attention and acknowledgement.




Indigenous knowledge is ‘place-based’. As a result, it is not sufficient to ask for information without putting in the work to sit on country and to listen to these stories at the appropriate location. The listener may find, as we did, that listening to the same story told in different locations reveals different aspects, different themes, or different levels of clarity. The phrase ‘let’s talk about this place’, indicating the place on which one is standing at the time, may be a helpful way to open any such conversation.


Story Sovereignty


Indigenous peoples hold what is labelled ‘story sovereignty’. This is a recognition of their full ownership of all indigenous stories and of all knowledge contained within them. Indigenous learning must thus be understood only through full inclusion of indigenous knowledge holders in our decision and policy-making systems, with the prior and informed consent given by those knowledge holders for each use of their stories.


Reparation and Healing


The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, also provides that indigenous peoples have the right to not be subjected to forced assimilation or destruction of their culture and that states have an obligation to provide an effective mechanism for the prevention and redress of any action done which aimed to, or did: deprive indigenous people of their cultural values or ethnic identities; dispossess them of their lands; force assimilation or integration into non-indigenous cultures; or promote racial or ethnic discrimination against them (Article 8).


Modern-day Australia, including Western Australia, has committed each of the above during the past 200 years of colonial occupation. The 1905 Aborigines Act (WA) provided for the removal of children from their families in order to integrate aboriginal people biologically into the white population, which “introduced an era of degradation, assimilation and cultural genocide” (Donna Oxenham in Boordiya Waangkiny: Elder’s Stories of Hope, Resilience and Connection)


These powers were extended in the 1936 Native Administration Act (WA) giving the government control over the daily lives of indigenous Western Australians, including by allowing the removal of indigenous people onto reserves and restricting their freedom of movement.


The 1944 Native (Citizen Rights) Act (WA) focused on assimilation, requiring indigenous peoples to denounce their aboriginal culture and heritage in order to gain citizenship, and arresting indigenous persons who were in the streets past 6 pm or within the boundaries of the Perth City.


These acts were paired with consistent practices of Christian conversation and ‘civilisation’, military intervention and massacres of indigenous populations in places such as Pinjarra, and the establishment of the Rottnest island prison, a location that Dr Noel Nannup speaks of throughout the film, and which now holds huge burial grounds for between 280 and 500 indigenous people who died in custody.


Positioning the inclusion of indigenous voices in climate change adaptation can be understood as a necessary act of healing and reconciliation.


Information on the above acts of dispossesion from a Noongar perspective can be found in Boordiya Waangkiny: Elder’s Stories of Hope, Resilience and Connection written by Donna Oxenham and available through Danjoo Koorliny)

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