Indigenous knowledge on water: A country learning workshop/tour at the NMA

The group standing in the 'Breathing Space' installation at the National Museum’s Garden of Australian Dreams by renowned musician Genevieve Lacey.

Acknowledging Country is about demonstrating to First Nations people being the custodians of the land and recognising the continuing relation between them and their country. When we learn about our nations deep history we hear the streams, land, people, language, law and culture that much clearer. For this reason students from the ANU Centre for Heritage and Museum Studies gathered at the National Museum of Australia (NMA) for a tour and workshop discussion, eager to better understand Indigenous water management.

Led by Yujie Zhu from the ANU Centre for Heritage and Museum Studies and Kirsten Wehner at the NMA, alongside Jilda Andrews and Nicola van Dijk of the ANU Research School of Humanities and Arts and Martha Sear at the NMA, this country-learning workshop is part of the Master Program of Museum and Heritage Studies, in collaboration with NMA and the Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water Management (DCCEEW). Emphasising the integration of Indigenous knowledge into our comprehension of the environment and country. While last years’ theme revolved around fire, this years’ centres on water.

The group was first introduced to the Great Southern Land gallery, the Museum's newest visitor experience. Thinking about water flowing through this space sits comfortably with Creator Ancestors. Senior Curator of the NMA, Martha, explains, “it's really about our ancient continent and its very active set of forces that each interact with one other.” Artworks and artefacts reflect the Wandjina Creator Ancestor in the Kimberleys and the power of bushfires and Cyclone Tracy. Other stories depicting Lightning Man and the Rainbow Serpent are also alive here. We discuss how science, culture, ceremony and art help us tell stories of Country and make sense of our place in this land. The inclusion of “important beings whose presence created Country and who laid out the sense of Law and ceremony, is a crucial part of that ever-persistent dialog and relationship that allows Country to thrive and to renew itself,” Martha explains.


Another captivating section emphasis the intricate systems that tie the land, water, sky and ancestral spirits together. Presented in a case, this display exhibits objects and stories from different timeframes, creating a tapestry of history, culture, and ecology. It begins with flows of water up and down the west coast of the continent; we see plants, soils, rocks, tools, even a 2.2 metre Murray Cod carved out of river-red-gum. As you walk around, you go up to the mountains where snow charged the rivers, and around the corner you end up on the coast with the flows of the East Australian currents carrying whales northwards to their breeding grounds.


Jilda, a Yuwaalaraay woman, cultural practitioner and researcher commented, “we talk about water as an integrated story, not just to the Australian, and incorporate spirituality and power, animation and embodiment of country. We must also consider the importance and multiple values water has for everyone.”

The curators deliberately blurred the lines between a traditional Western museum approach and a more nuanced Indigenous perspective. Objects are displayed without extensive labels, inviting visitors to engage in a dialogue, to ponder the intertwined narratives, perhaps to recognise their place within these stories.

Yarning circle discussion: Bridging the Waters

Sheryl Hedges, a Walbanga woman and Branch Head, First Nations Policy Engagement, Water Policy Division for the DCCEEW gathered the group in a yarning circle to continue the discussion about the importance of First Nations' knowledge in water management in Australia. 

The term 'Country' defines the Indigenous holistic connection between land, sky, water, and spirit. With over sixty thousand years as Australia's custodians, First Nations people view resources as interconnected realms, respecting nature's balance. Their holistic relationship stands in contrast to the often extractive nature of Western practices. First Nations' ancient practices, exemplified by structures like the Brewarrina fish trap, can enrich management strategies. It’s reasoned such integration practices could better the nation’s important water sources, such as the Murray Darling Basin. Which has resulted in mass deaths of fish. The latest occurring in March this year, which was even worse than the 2018–2019 kill at Menindee.

For scientists, researchers, and policymakers, the challenge lies in truly integrating First Nations knowledge, rather than selectively adopting elements that fit Western criteria. Recognising First Nations people as partners and environmental decision-makers ensures that their wisdom is respected and fairly compensated.

Committee on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Water Interests has been established and as of August 2023 includes 10 water experts from across the country. This First Nations committee advise the National Water Reform Committee, the Australian Government, and Water and Murray–Darling Basin Ministers Council on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Water Interests. By embracing the Closing The Gap reforms and genuinely integrating First Nations' perspectives, Australia can foster a holistic and inclusive approach to our nation’s natural resources.

Reflecting on the workshop’s impact, one student commented on how it reshaped her understanding of waterscapes, connecting instead of dividing regions.

“I appreciate the way in which the workshop motivated us to rethink our relationship with water systems, waterscapes and water itself, not just a resource for human consumption, but the knowledges (intangible heritages) associated with it. When I was growing up in a small island in the Philippines, far from Metro Manila, I thought that the waters, Tayabas Bay in particular, has separated us from the ‘center’. However, in the workshop I was reminded again that waterscapes connect rather than divide the islands in an archipelago like the Philippines and its neighbouring countries in Southeast Asian region and the Pacific.”

Another, praised Sheryl's insights and found the 'circle' discussion format comforting.

“Sheryl gave a great overview of her work in government, the national Water Initiative and the Declaration and how First Nations Knowledge regarding caring for waterways are incorporated into government policy. The ‘circle’ was a good format to discuss these issues- I think it put people more at ease.”

The tour wasn’t just an exhibition of artefacts and tales. It helped students implement an ‘Acknowledgement of Country’ in practice. It reflected a living narrative, pulsating with life and stories, urging visitors to see, feel, and reflect on Australia's vast and intricate cultural and ecological landscape. Enriched by the discussion, students deepened their appreciation and understanding of Ngunnawal/Ngambri land.


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