Reciprocity and #ESA14

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#ESA14 was held in beautiful Alice Springs

Earlier this year I submitted two abstracts to the Ecological Society of Australia Conference (#ESA14), to be held in Alice Springs in October. My intention was for four Indigenous Rangers from the Kimberley to attend #ESA14 with me. Two Bardi Jawi Oorany (Woman) Rangers would co-present with me, focusing on Bardi Jawi perspectives of freshwater ecosystem management. Two Nyul Nyul Rangers would present alone, focusing on using science and cultural perspectives to monitor and manage freshwater ecosystems.

The Nyul Nyul Rangers were just wrapping up a 2-3 year National Environmental Research Program (NERP) project to develop a freshwater ecosystem monitoring protocol for Nyul Nyul country. Buoyed by the results of the NERP project (a collaboration of UWA, NAILSMA, Griffith University), the Nyul Nyul Rangers were keen to discuss the scientific water monitoring techniques they were now familiar with, as well as discuss how Nyul Nyul cultural knowledge contributed to the project. I created the Nyul Nyul abstract using the Rangers’ own words after a brainstorming session.

The presentation I would give with the Bardi Jawi Oorany Rangers was a little different, as it would focus on research associated with my PhD. With fieldwork barely started this was a small leap of faith; I was just beginning to build an understanding of my project with my Indigenous participants and co-researchers.

With both abstracts accepted, the conference catalysed activity and excitement. None of the Rangers had been to Alice Springs, been to an ecological conference nor presented at any conference. The conference became our motivation – we needed to make sure we had interesting things to say and had thought about how we were going to say them! Four months of intense fieldwork commenced.

In conducting a PhD based on Indigenous Ecological Knowledge (IEK), my entire ‘data set’ relies on the good will of Indigenous participants. I’m acutely aware of the importance of ethics in working with Indigenous people and relying on their knowledge. According to the NHMRC there are six values and ethics crucial to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander research (developed for health research but relevant across-the-board): reciprocity, respect, equality, responsibility, survival and protection, and spirit and integrity (see http://www.nhmrc.gov.au/guidelines/publications/e52). It’s the first value, reciprocity, that continually influences my own actions, including attending #ESA14 with Indigenous Rangers.

The NHMRC considers “reciprocity” to have two components, inclusion and benefit. Inclusion is “…the basis for mutual obligation, describes the degree of equitable and respectful engagement”. I relate inclusion to day-to-day research life; being equitable and respectful underpins my capacity to do any work in collaborating with Indigenous participants and documenting IEK. Benefit is “…the establishment or enhancement of capacities, opportunities or outcomes that advance the interests of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples and that are valued by them”. It is this concept of “benefit” that really occupies my mind, how to ensure that participating Indigenous people and communities receive tangible benefit from my PhD research.

Perhaps this begs the same question of many PhDs, “What is the point?” “What impact will this have?” or “What are you going to do with this information”. This is more glaringly important when Indigenous people are involved in research, individuals who are often over-researched and rarely see research outcomes. Hence, it was clear to me that I could not attend #ESA14 alone. Here was a chance to provide an opportunity to Indigenous Rangers who are co-researchers in my own project to travel, learn and be challenged.

The Universe aligned to assist. Thanks to ESA for providing Indigenous scholarships to assist with travel and accommodation costs, which were significant for our group. The Kimberley Land Council supported the Rangers to attend and also agreed for a KLC representative to accompany us.

We attended, presented and learnt. Despite hoards of butterflies, the Rangers all stood up and presented at the IEK Symposium, and they all did mightily well. Afterwards, lots of people spoke to us, asked questions, and talked about their own work. We watched others’ presentations and learnt about a myriad of topics. We also saw some sites around Alice Springs and did a bit of shopping! Benefit was had all round and it was fun.

Presenting in the Indigenous Ecological Knowledge Symposium

Presenting in the Indigenous Ecological Knowledge Symposium

For me, attending #ESA14 accompanied by the four Indigenous Rangers was the most significant thing I’ve done all year. Benefit to myself wasn’t something that I foresaw, but it accrued gradually as I saw #ESA14 from a different perspective to my own.

The Rangers asked questions that I wouldn’t have asked. For example, “Will a Traditional Owner be attending the field trips? We don’t feel comfortable walking on someone else’s country without their permission”.

One of the women wasn’t happy with the way Indigenous people were characterised in some presentations, through a context of poor health and poor education. We waited until the discussion part of that Symposium to raise the point. She spoke clearly about Indigenous people of the Dampier Peninsula and reminded the audience that not all Indigenous people are the same and not all consider themselves disadvantaged.

The Rangers absorbed cultural information about the Red Centre and Arrernte people. They marvelled at the eucalypts that Albert Namatjira painted and cautiously checked out caterpillar dreaming paintings in the East Macs.

One #ESA14 participant commented to our group “I want to see you guys here next year with some results”. Asking the Rangers if they would attend another ESA Conference? “Yes!” We hope to be back next year to present our research even bigger and better!

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