Taxonomy 2028 Challenge: Recording Indigenous nomenclature

Australia’s first nomenclaturists were those who first settled country, and in doing so began to utilise our plants and animals for food, tools, shelter, medicines and ceremony. During the more than 50,000 years of living on and with the land, Indigenous people have developed a rich nomenclature for taxa used in these ways. In each language group, specific words are used for around 10% of plants in the area, sometimes with multiple words for one Western-accepted species when there are multiple uses or different life stages are used. With many language groups and many species across Australia, this is a very large body of knowledge.

With the historical and ongoing disruptions to traditional knowledge, languages and cultural activities, many of these words, and their connections to knowledge, are endangered. This loss would be a tragedy, particularly as it would foreclose important connections to country for present and future generations.

I propose that by 2028, as part of the decadal plan, we will have implemented a national mechanism for recording these names for all language groups in Australia, in close and meaningful collaboration with their custodians and the communities for whom they are meaningful. This will be done in ways that are fully cognizant of the potential for cross-cultural miscommunication in any endeavour like this. Importantly, it will be done with due respect for the deep knowledge tradition that’s being recorded, and in a way that’s most appropriate for the needs of communities and of Indigenous people, rather than in ways that are most convenient for us. The prime goal is to record words for the language-speakers, with any advantages to our own community secondary.

 Specifically, this program will not:

  • Send out inexperienced people to record names as a shallow, one-off exercise – this would be disrespectful;
  • Record names in ways and on platforms that are convenient for us but of little use to communities – this would be useless;
  • Be rolled out with minimal consultation from communities themselves – this would not generate trust;
  • Be rolled out as a one-size-fits-all program – this would be ineffective.

 The program could work like this:

  1. A strategic assessment will be made, in collaboration with linguistic and cultural experts, of language groups throughout Australia that still have strong cultural knowledge of plant and animal names, but with the knowledge endangered by imminent loss of cultural custodians and first-language speakers;
  2. In each state or region, one or more skilled, retired botanists be identified and approached, to take part in the program;
  3. After training and with appropriate support, the botanists will build relationships with their counterparts in communities, and seek community views on the need to record names, and the most appropriate ways to do this
  4. During repeat visits, with support from linguists contracted as part of the program, names will be recorded in as simple and straightforward a way as possible
  5. Names will be provided back to communities in whatever format they consider most useful, as well as recorded in national databases to ensure they are safe in the medium to long term.

{Thanks very much to Glenn Whiteman, NT Herbarium, for useful discussions on this idea.}

3 responses
Kevin, surely you mean botanists AND zoologists?!
Kevin Good idea, long overdue as many Indigenous languages are now extinct with no Elders left to speak for Country. A few comments/suggestions: Why retired botanists? With all due respect to retired botanist and zoologists surely this is also an interesting and exciting field for early career scientists, especially when it is linked with anthropology, bioprospecting and fields of scientific research such as ethnobotany, phytogeography and the evolution/biogeography of our unique flora and fauna. And let’s be somewhat aspirational, by 2028 the scientists undertaking this work are actually Indigenous scientist, not ‘white-fellas’. They are working with or for their community, on their Country with Indigenous linguists and rangers to capture and pass on the knowledge of their Elders, while also building the knowledge-base to support western science, a two-way learning experience. Speaking of bioprospecting, this issue presents a significant challenge for such an exercise in respect to who the Intellectual Property actually belongs to and how that IP is managed. This is why it is as you suggest critically important for such an endeavour to have the cultural authority from the owners of Country, the knowledge holders, to proceed with such a project. Issues around IP are not straight forward, with respect to Native Title, Future Act matters, exclusive vs non-exclusive position of determined land/sea and even the extinguishment of Native Title rights. Hopefully by 2028 these matters will have be well and truly resolved. Stephen
Museum Victoria and the Gunditj Mirring Traditional Owners Aboriginal Corporation recently produced an electronic field guide which is a great example of this concept. Field Guide to the Budj Bim Cultural Landscape The unique landscape and wildlife of the Budj Bim Cultural Heritage Landscape are of special significance to the Gunditjmara people. This app presents descriptions of 250 species found in the Budj Bim Cultural Heritage Landscape, over half with traditional names and information about their cultural significance. It includes birds, fishes, frogs, lizards, snakes, and mammals as well as freshwater, terrestrial and marine invertebrates. It is only a fraction of the complete fauna of the area. The content has been developed by staff at Museums Victoria, Australia’s largest public museum organisation in collaboration with the Gunditj Mirring Traditional Owners Aboriginal Corporation.