A long running project of the indigenous Ngalia people of Western Australia has adapted a wide variety of technologies in their fight to preserve their traditional knowledge and culture.
Back in the 1980s, the indigenous Ngalia people of Western Australia started their own community research project devoted to the ‘preservation of significant Aboriginal sites … to rejuvenate, restore and protect all good aspects of traditional Ngalia culture and language…’ The initiative was largely in response to damage caused by increased mineral mining on Ngalia land.
From very early in the project, the community recognized the value of using ICT to help preserve their culture. They began with genealogical archiving as family records are important in Australian law when indigenous people want to lay legal claim to their traditional lands. However, most of the, ‘family tree’ archiving software available at the time was based on European family systems and was not compatible with the structure of Ngalia families. For example, the software was not designed for men with multiple wives or other societal differences found in traditional Ngalia life. Software problems such as these made the already complex transition from an oral to a text medium even more difficult for the community.
But for the Ngalia people, the greatest challenge in using ICT in their preservation effort was finding people with the required technical expertise. Only a small group of individuals in the community had these skills and the Ngalia were reluctant to involve external ‘expert’ assistance, fearing that outside help would reduce the community owned feel of the project.
Although only a few people had in the community had the necessary skills, they managed to achieve a lot. By 2003 they had generated vast volumes of cultural research material, including a full Ngalia language dictionary and thesaurus, digital song archives, complex databases of genealogy records and maps of culturally significant resources by using GPS receivers to plot locations such as waterholes, rock formations and rivers. Despite such success, it became obvious to the community leaders that it was only this very small group of individuals who were driving most of the progress. Wider interest in the project was essential for the success of future initiatives.