Redefining our understanding of air quality with Indigenous knowledge thought lost

As part of the CAUL Hub’s major project focused on improving air quatliy in Western Sydney, it was identified that the four common European seasons don’t necessarily represent the weather patterns in Australia. When this was discussed during an Indigenous Advisory Group meeting, Co-chair Jason Barrow spoke of his knowledge of the seasonal calendar in Perth. He suggested considering a more meaningful set of seasons for the Sydney region to understand annual changes in air quality.

Following on from this, Steph Beaupark, an early career researcher was appointed as the CAUL Indigenous Student Research Intern and it was her role to consult with volunteers from the Indigenous community of the Sydney region and find out about their knowledge of seasons and weather patterns. The task was more challenging than Steph, or the team, expected.

Historical relationships between the academy and Indigenous knowledge holders have been turbulent. Through the assimilation era Indigenous knowledge was devalued, ignored, and outlawed. This has led to a loss of traditional weather knowledge in the region. The following decades have seen researchers borrow from surviving knowledge without always providing acknowledgement or remuneration to Indigenous knowledge holders. This historical context creates challenges for contemporary collaboration.

The team worked to build relationships and investigate new approaches to collaboration. A particular difficulty encountered was finding people to talk to, because there was no previous relationship established with the Indigenous community of Sydney.

Due to this fragmentation of traditional knowledges, Steph researched Indigenous concepts surrounding weather patterns at different times of the year, and was able to define a set of natural cycles based on Indigenous understanding of weather. The seven cycles are named according to the dominant feature, including temperature, rainfall, and wind speed. As such, most significantly, this work could be the start of relearning knowledge that was thought to have been lost.

Through the process, Steph learnt a lot about how to, and how not to engage with the Indigenous community. She learnt that emailing and calling was too direct and that the emphasis should be on relationhip building, and not expecting buying-in on the project, as there can be engagement overload. In the future, longer-term projects would be more effective, as it would allow time build strong, lasting relationships.

This work has been an enriching experience for the early career Indigenous scientist. In learning more about her own cultural heritage, Steph has seen the significant place Indigenous knowledge has in scientific research. She has grown her own understanding of Indigenous knowledge as dynamic and ever changing.

The next step in the research is to see if the seven identified cycles will provide a more meaningful way to conduct a region air quality analysis.

Incorporating Indigenous perspective into this project has opened up a whole new dimension to this work, and could be the key to understanding air quality variation in Western Sydney, and beyond.

Featured image: Steph Beaupark recently completed a major university artwork that was inspired by the research she has been doing into Indigenous knowledges of weather patterns, as a part of the Western Sydney air quality project. The work is titled Unforeseeable Landscapes ll and explores variability and Indigenous concepts of weather.

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