Posted to the Ethnos Project by on February 5th, 2012

This post contains abstracts and links to a selection of papers written about Indigenous Knowledge and Resource Management in Northern Australia (IKRMNA). From their website: IKRMNA was a three year 2003-2006 ARC Linkage Project to support and develop Indigenous databases that maintain and enhance the strength of local languages, cultures and environments in Northern Australia. The project was coordinated through the School of Australian Indigenous Knowledge Systems at Charles Darwin University.

This list has been modified from its source on the IKRMNA site.

Jointly authored papers

Digital Technologies and Aboriginal Knowledge Practices 
by Helen Verran, Michael Christie

Abstract: Indigenous Australians are often keen to use digital technologies in their local knowledge practices as part of a struggle to develop sustainable livelihoods on-country. They want to use digital technologies to ensure that ‘history stays in-place’, seeing their knowledge practices as expressing the remaking of an Ancestral reality. This paper tells of a research project that discovered the hard way that the notion of ‘development’ Aboriginal groups articulate is better understood as ‘envelopment’. As we began to discern Aboriginal Australian ways of ‘doing place’ we came to see how Aboriginal Australians struggled against the grain of digital technologies designed as tools for representation, turning them to use in knowledge practices where each instance of re-presentation is a unique performance choreographed for a particular momentary situated purpose. At the same time they were prepared to use possibilities the technologies offered in producing seeming definitive representations to achieve political ends when dealing with representatives of mainstream Australia.

Keywords: Indigenous Australian knowledge; development; Yolngu Aboriginal concepts; use and design of digital technologies of representation.


Using/Designing Digital technologies of Representation in Aboriginal Australian Knowledge practices 
by Helen Verran, Michael Christie

Abstract: Indigenous Australians are often keen to use digital technologies in their struggle to develop sustainable livelihoods on their own lands. This paper tells of gradually coming to recognize how an Aboriginal Australian elder struggled against the grain of digital technologies designed to represent, in using them in Aboriginal Australian knowledge  practices where knowledge is always actively performative rather than representional. The performance of Aboriginal knowledge must express the remaking of an ancestral reality. At the same time, this man exploited possibilities the technologies offered for representation in achieving political ends in dealing with representatives of mainstream Australia.

Keywords: indigenous Australian knowledge; Yolngu Aboriginal concepts; use and design of digital technologies of representation.


Designing Digital Knowledge Management Tools with Aboriginal Australians 
by Helen Verran, Michael Christie, Bryce Anbins-King, Trevor van Weeren, Wulumdhuna Yunupingu

Abstract: The paper describes an approach to digital design grounded in processes of Indigenous collective memory making. We claim the research should be understood as performative knowledge making, and accounting it should also be performative. Accordingly we present four texts generated in the course of our research as an exhibit. They attest design processes for a file management system TAMI. We briefly theorise our approach as exemplifying Suchman’s ‘located accountability’.

Keywords: Indigenous knowledge management, collaborative software design, located accountability in design


Indigenous Knowledge and Resource Management in Northern Australia: Non-coherence as a Virtue 
by Helen Verran, Michael Christie

Abstract: This paper is a story of an Australian Research Council funded project involving Aboriginal knowledge communities, resource management, and digital technologies. We argue that in this work promoting non-coherence, both epistemic and ontic, is a virtue. In our presentation we will use our project website to show how non-coherence can work in promoting Aboriginal methodologies while also interrupting and resisting the (Western) epistemological and ontological values native to computers and other digital technologies.

Papers by Michael Christie

Boundaries and accountabilities in computer-assisted ethnobotany 

Abstract: Designing software alongside ethnobotanists, and Indigenous owners and practitioners of traditional knowledge brings to light a range of issues which expose some of the assumptions underlying both western ethnobotany, and software design. Collaborating over the development of software to facilitate the use of digital objects in knowledge work, issues of knowledge politics, accountability, ontologies and epistemologies arise. This paper discusses the ways these issues, in a particular context, led to the development of a flexible, ontologically flat, epistemologically open ethnobotanical software design.

Digital Tools and the Management of Australian Desert Aboriginal Knowledge  (draft)

Introduction: This is a story of my work as a member of a small group set up within the CRC to develop a scoping study of Indigenous knowledge, its role in research and its protection under law. The group has mixed Aboriginal and nonAboriginal constitution, and is still ongoing, now trying to make sure that the findings and recommendations which we develop, become ratified by the governing board of the CRC. There is reason for some concern on the part of Aboriginal desert knowledge owners, given the value of their ancestral knowledge, and the goals of the CRC, whereby “marketing the products of our unique research brand to some 1.5 billion people around the globe who also live in hot, dry and isolated places, our innovative research partnership will pave the way for Australia’s next major export sector.” The Desert Knowledge CRC is supported by over $20m of Australian Federal funding as well as cash and in-kind commitments from its 28 partner organisations to create a research effort worth a total of $90m over the next seven years.

Aboriginal Knowledge Traditions in Digital Environments  (draft)

Abstract: According to Manovich, the database and the narrative are natural enemies, each competing for the same territory of human culture. Aboriginal knowledge traditions depend upon narrative through storytelling and other shared performances. The database objectifies and commodifies distillations of such performances and absorbs them into data structures according to a priori assumptions of metadata categories. It is misleading and dangerous to say that these database contain knowledge, because we lose sight of the embedded, situated, collaborative and performative nature of knowledge. For the assemblages of digital artefacts we find in an archive or database to be useful in the intergenerational transmission of living knowledge traditions, we need to rethink knowledge as performance, and data as artefacts of prior knowledge production episodes. Through the metaphors of environment and journey we can explore ways to refigure the archive as a digital environment available as a resource to support the work of active, creative, collaborative knowledge production.

Words, Ontologies and Aboriginal databases  (draft)

Introduction: This paper tells of a group of people working in the increasingly digitised context of teaching and researching Aboriginal languages and cultures in a university context, and in remote Aboriginal communities. The first phase involved the development of digital archives with CDs and a website for university teaching purposes. The second phase takes us into the work of developing digital object management systems which will allow Aboriginal people to control, configure and utilise their digital resources for themselves in their own local contexts. Can digital technologies be developed which enhance rather than inhibit Aboriginal knowledge traditions? How can a group of people build its collective memory and perform its knowledge in a digitised context? And what happens to the work of collaboratively assessing truth claims in such a context? This paper concerns that part of this work which deals with the role of words (or strings of text) and ontologies in developing systems for Aboriginal digital object management.

Fracturing the Skeleton of Principle: Australian Law, Aboriginal Law, and Digital Technology  (draft)

Introduction: Aboriginal people in Australia today are constructing extremely diverse cultures. Increasingly, these cultures involve some aspect of digital technologies – videos, DVDs, CDs, digital photos, audiofiles etc. This paper is part of a wider project looking at how emerging Aboriginal digital environments are affecting the intergenerational transmission of traditional culture. Aboriginal digital environments are emerging wherever Aboriginal people are using digital technologies in their work of (re)producing culture in cities, towns and very remote locations. The work which is being done in some of these contexts is discussed in other papers (Christie, 2001, 2004, forthcoming) and on a project website (

Aboriginal Knowledge on the Internet  (draft)

Introduction: Aboriginal people have traditional ways of understanding knowledge: what it is like, where it comes from, how people make it, how it is remembered, celebrated, and made new, how knowledge belongs to people, and how secret and sacred knowledges relate to public knowledge.

At the same time, Aboriginal people in remote communities are beginning to use the internet to communicate with each other, to market their art, and for teaching and learning.

This paper is about my reflections (my research) on what Aboriginal philosophy teaches us about indigenous knowledge on  the internet.

Computer Databases and Aboriginal Knowledge  (draft)

Introduction: At a recent workshop on Aboriginal knowledge in Darwin, several women from the local Larrakia community talked about putting their elders’ knowledge onto a database. One cautious non-indigenous researcher voiced some doubts about the overenthusiastic embrace of digital technology: “Indigenous knowledge lives in country, and in doing things together in country – not in computers.” The Larrakia women responded: “That’s all very well, but while our elders are getting very old, the young teenagers today aren’t interested in learning anything from them. We need to find good ways of preserving some of the knowledge of the old people before they all pass away.”

Papers by Helen Verran

Software for Educating Aboriginal Children about Place 

Abstract: In this paper I imagine how a piece of software (TAMI) that is yet to be built might contribute to learning of being in-place by Aboriginal Australian children. I take up an analytic toolkit that has been emerging in science and technology studies since the 1980s, of which perhaps the best known expression is actor-network theory (ANT). This entails struggling with new ways to understand what knowledge is. I argue that a significant aspect of TAMI’s contribution lies in the non-coherence it promotes. In explaining how this might possibly be beneficial in children’s learning about place, I make analogy to the benefits bilingual children derive from conceptual non-coherence.

Nineteenth Century British Explorers and Twenty First Century Australian Databasers 

Abstract: This paper develops an unlikely analogy between the cultural work of the 19th century British scientific expedition of HMS Investigator and a 21st century project working digital technologies with indigenous knowledge (IKRMNA). Both can be understood as making collective memory but that seems to be all they have in common. They differ in media of collection, and they involve alternative knowledge traditions. While one enterprise was located at the centre and characterised by the hubris of empire, the other is situated at the margins, motivated by a desire to resist and reclaim. I argue that despite, or perhaps because of, these significant differences, these two enterprises can be usefully juxtaposed in analysing them as assemblage. Close examination shows them both as clusters of heterogeneous clusters of projects which work alternative moments of assemblage—differing workings of the formal relation unity/plurality. Within both enterprises some projects effect assemblage as the relation one/many; while others work the whole/parts version. Of most interest, we see that both clusters contain projects that work both versions simultaneously.

Knowledge Traditions of Aboriginal Australians: Questions & Answers arising in a Databasing Project 

Abstract: In answering some questions about the place and role of databasing in Aboriginal Australian Knowledge Traditions, the paper gives some interesting insights into the nature and workings of Aboriginal Knowledge Traditions. I consider knowledge traditions of Aboriginal Australians comparatively, by referring to a particular contemporary way of ‘doing knowledge’. The aim of the project I write out of is to devise some specific forms of databasing that might be useful for Aboriginal people. This paper takes the form of questions and answers that are frequently asked about Aboriginal Australian  knowledge traditions in the context of such projects.

Please visit the IKRMNA site for more information.

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