Reclaiming and reviving indigenous knowledges to reduce disaster risk

University of Canberra
Di Vincenzo/Shutterstock
Di Vincenzo/Shutterstock

By Indigenist Participatory Action Research Project Team

In 2015, two Category 4 cyclones hit Australia’s Northern Territory, in quick succession.

Their impacts were centred on the remote Indigenous Yolŋu community Galiwin’ku on Elcho Island.

Thankfully, nobody died or was injured. However, the community suffered a significant economic hit – the damage was about $80 million, and two-thirds of the houses on the island were destroyed or badly damaged.

Residents were left without water or power for many days. A week after the cyclones, 250 residents were still homeless.

Worse still was the psychological toll on the Indigenous peoples, and the damage to the natural environment.

Fast forward to nearly five years after the cyclones, and over a third of the funding allocation to rebuild remains unspent, worsening the impacts of the cyclones and existing overcrowded housing issues.

To ensure that this devastating history does not repeat itself, the community initiated a community-based research project.

A research team consisting of Indigenous researchers from Galiwin’ku’s Yalu Marŋgithinyaraw Aboriginal Research and Education Corporation, co-led by Associate Professor Elaine Lawurrpa Maypilama (Yalu) and UC’s Assistant Professor Petra Buergelt, together with Professor Douglas Paton (Charles Darwin University, University of Canberra), Professor James Smith (Menzies School of Health) and PhD student Tahir Ali (Charles Darwin University), co-designed and co-implemented the Indigenist Participatory Action Research project.

Adopting a strengths-based approach, the research aims to proactively develop community capacity and capability by holistically identifying and understanding the unique mix of psychological, cultural, social, environmental, economic and political factors that interact over time to influence the disaster risk reduction (DRR) beliefs and practices prevailing in this Indigenous community.

Specifically, the team is exploring how Yolŋu worldviews, knowledges and cultural practices strengthen individual and collectivistic adaptive capacities, and reduce the risk of disasters.

This work encompasses how these capabilities and relationships inform planning for and responding to all facets of a comprehensive DRR approach throughout all phases of the risk management cycle (preparing, responding, recovering and regenerating).

In February, Lawurrpa, senior Indigenous local co-researchers Rosemary, Dorothy, and Stephen, and Tahir talked with and listened to 20 Yolŋu from diverse clan groups living in Galiwin’ku.

The conversations and yarning circles took place in their diverse clan languages, with the Yolŋu co-researchers translating the stories into English.

Lawurrpa and Tahir then analysed the stories and created a grounded theory of community-based Indigenous DRR.

The research revealed how the sophisticated worldviews, knowledges and cultural practices of the Yolŋu reduced the risk of natural disasters before colonisation.

“Yolŋu had Yolŋu Rom [law and culture] and Yolŋu identity, which gave us Yolŋu power. We are country and country is us,” said Lawurrpa. “Yolŋu were healthy and strong.The sharing of the Dreaming Stories, songs, ceremonies, art, language and history explain how Yolŋu connections with the environment make people strong.”

To further demonstrate Yolŋu’s sophisticated knowledges about early warning signs for cyclones and recovery practices, the clan group who are custodians of the burmulala (cyclone) songline organised a traditional ceremony, singing and dancing the burmulala.

"The stories the Yolŋu shared, the songlines and dance show how burmulalas are cherished because they are a natural part of Yolŋu and life,” Lawurrpa says. “Prior to colonisation, when people lived in connected and harmonious relationships with nature, burmulalas were smaller and less intense. They didn’t cause damage, but recycled life – they cleansed and purified everything, refreshed everything and gave new life.”

“A natural event is a natural event,” says Tamara, who participated in the study. “Back in the old days, if a cyclone came in, slashed everything, it was a normal thing. It prevented the natural disaster itself. It is the recycling of life.”

Participants’ stories exposed the diverse ways in which historical and contemporary colonisation has been, and remains, the real disaster, weakening Yolŋu and increasing the risks of extreme natural events and disasters occurring.

Participating Yolŋu emphasised that to reduce the risk of disasters, non-Indigenous peoples need to stop engaging in the diverse colonising practices that weaken and undermine Yolŋu, and instead create conditions that enable Yolŋu to revive and strengthen their ancient worldviews, knowledges and practices.

Participating Yolŋu realised that they need to take back their inner power and values, revive their beliefs, strengthen their socio-cultural capabilities, and live according to their traditional worldviews and knowledges.

In September, the research team engaged in two-way feedback sessions with the Local Authority (comprised of Traditional Owners and non-Indigenous Shire Representatives), Yalu Marŋgithinyaraw and seven community groups. This research aspect was especially important – findings are rarely fed back to the community, let alone via two-way dialogue.

The over 50 Yolŋu who participated in these yarning feedback sessions greatly welcomed the collective story that emerged from the analysis of individual stories. This story deeply resonated with and validated the community members; opened their hearts, minds and eyes; and lifted their confidence, strengthening them.

Rosemary shared that the collective big story opened Yolŋu’s eyes to how colonisation has weakened them, and how they can reclaim their power.

Through this research, Yolŋu started realising the importance of their involvement in reducing the risk of damaging cyclones.

“Cyclones wiped away the old thinking and allowed new grass shoots to come up – representing how Yolŋu get stronger,” Lawurrpa emphasises.

“We need to get ready inside for the next disaster, for our kids and for the future by bringing back our power. We need to do something. We need to stand up and take power back. We have to start to open up the package [i.e., what the government says] ourselves.Women and men need to walk together side by side in this.”

Dorothy added that “One of the key messages that we got from this research is that that Yolŋu people are now seeing the things that need to be done here on the ground in Galiwinku”.

“This is the first time I am going to raise and discuss this in a Shire meeting. It is through this research that we will write this proposal. We want to see young Yolŋu being trained for emergencies and getting jobs in emergency services,” said participating community member Valerie Bulkunu Garrauura.

Yolŋu living in Galiwin’ku call upon non-Indigenous peoples and agencies to stop imposing non-Indigenous beliefs, knowledges, laws, ways of living, governance and education on them; to recognise and value Yolŋu beliefs, sacred laws, sophisticated knowledges, ways of living, governance and education; and work towards genuine partnership and two-way learning to create new ways that strengthen Yolŋu and reduce the risk of natural disasters.

On behalf of the research team and the community, Lawurrpa expressed her sincere gratitude to UC and its Collaborative Indigenous Research Initiative (CIRI), which made this community-level research possible by awarding seed funding.

“I am really honoured that you have recognised us and worked with Yolŋu,” she says. “We are looking forward to work more with you in future.”

Share this