A Personal Reflection on Trans-Indigenous Collaborations in Scientific Research
School of Culture, History and Language PhD scholars, Matthew Adeleye in dialogue with Talei Mangioni
Edited by Niroshnee Ranjan
Featured Image: Matthew arriving at the southeast coast of Cape Barren Island, Bass Strait, for sample collection for their PhD research. Photo taken by Feli Hopf.
Talei: From 2019-2020, the unforgettable Black Summer bush fires engulfed unceded Ngunnwal/Ngambri Country in a smoke-bowl of toxic haze for several months. For those living in the settler-colonial nation-state’s heart, otherwise known as Canberra, this was for many settlers their first direct experience of catastrophic climate change. For Aboriginal peoples who were among those most impacted, this was yet another chapter in a long legacy of environmental plunder, which can be directly attributable to the government’s appalling mismanagement of lands and waters and unsustainable economic dependence on resource extraction.
In this piece and Q&A, Mathew Adeleye explains his research and considers his relationality to Indigenous knowledges and Country, highlights the importance of meaningful Indigenous-settler collaborations in research and the need to center Indigenous voices in the process.
Matthew: Traditional knowledge is now increasingly gaining attention in many parts of the world to inform ecosystem management strategies under the current changing climate and never-seen-before wildfire regimes. Traditional historical knowledge is being promoted in South America, North America, and Australia to preserve ecosystem biodiversity and minimize impacts and rates of damaging wildfires. In particular, the Indigenous traditional fire management approach in northern Australia is considered one of the best and most successful globally, demonstrating how valuable traditional knowledge is in informing effective management strategies.
The application of traditional knowledge begins with researchers recognizing Indigenous legacies on the landscape and conducting research in partnership with Indigenous communities. This helps to better interpret research findings, especially in the context of anthropogenic roles. Personally, I have found this to be invaluable in my Ph.D. research. My research focuses on understanding past links between ecosystems, climate, fire, and anthropogenic land use in southeast Australia, especially in the Bass Strait region.
My research involves visiting truwana (which is also known as Cape Barren Island in the Bass Strait) for sample collection. The results of my research could not have been achieved without the field assistance, local expertise, and hospitality provided by truwana and Pakana Indigenous communities. Aside from the field assistance and hospitality provided, the conversations I had with some of the community members and my supervisor regarding the island’s history really helped interpret my research results. Some of these conversations include Indigenous plant use, human occupation history, and traditional land management strategies. After the fieldwork, it was exciting to find out that my research findings were consistent with these Indigenous oral accounts.
For instance, Indigenous people are believed to have used frequent, low-intensity fires to maintain open woodlands to increase resource availability. This burning practice, in turn, reduced the likelihood of climate-driven mega-fire occurrences in southeast Australia in the past. My research results similarly show (empirically) that Indigenous frequent burning maintained open woodland on truwana, reducing the likelihood of climate-driven fire spread in the past. Conversely, periods of reduced Indigenous cultural burning promoted denser woody vegetation and widespread fires, which was exacerbated after European colonisation. Furthermore, I found that periods of frequent Indigenous fire usage in woodlands specifically promoted peppermint eucalypts, which are gum trees (Eucalyptus) that mostly occupy open vegetation on truwana today, reflecting Indigenous people’s role in the maintenance of Australia’s biodiversity for millennia.
Matthew on truwana (Cape Barren Island) in Bass Strait carrying a sediment core during sample collection on the island, with the truwana Indigenous community’s assistance. Photo taken by Feli Hopf.
Even though climatic changes have played a role in past fire regimes in southeast Australia, the consistency of my results with Indigenous accounts provided the opportunity to make multifaceted inferences and robust conclusions in my research, which will assist in informing future ecosystem management in Australia.
In summary, sparking engaging dialogues with the Indigenous community in a research study area goes a long way in helping to shape research questions and result interpretations, especially when conducting environmental, ecological and historical research. Hence, integrating Indigenous knowledge with scientific research makes for better science.
Talei: How did you become interested in this particular field of study? How does your positionality as a Nigerian scholar who is an international student studying on stolen land shape your research and engagement with Indigenous communities and to Country?
Mathew: During my undergraduate years back in Nigeria, my course advisor, a palynology lecturer (Prof. Peter Adeonipekun), through series of undertaken paleontology courses (study of plant pollen and spores), helped me develop an interest in pollen studies, particularly in their usage in past environmental reconstructions (palaeoecology). This facilitated me to obtain a master’s degree in palaeoecology. During my master’s degree in Canada, my supervisor then (Prof. Terri Lacourse) further helped not only in sharpening my skills in palaeoecology but also exposed me to research possibilities and increased my passion for the field, prompting me to further explore the world of palaeoecology at the Ph.D. level in Australia under Prof. Simon Haberle’s supervision. I have no regrets choosing this field.
Being an Indigenous person (Yoruba tribe) myself in my home country (Nigeria) has helped me connect with the history, significance, and sovereignty of Indigenous peoples in Australia, especially in terms of their connections to the landscape (plants, animals, waters, mountains, rocks and so on). For instance, in Nigeria and in many parts of Africa, many people depend largely on the environment for medicine. Personally, I have only visited the hospital a few times in Nigeria and have mostly used plant-based medicine. Rivers and mountains are also associated with cultural and spiritual beliefs in many parts of Africa. This is similar to Indigenous land usage for livelihood, cultural practices, and well being in Australia for millennia, and European colonisation may be translated to ripping Indigenous people off their livelihood, well being and culture, which is devastating.
Talei: Indigenous peoples have a complicated relationship to Western science, especially since its implicit racial bias has justified their subjugation. How can we action this solidarity between Indigenous and settler scientists in Australia?
Mathew: That is a good and complex question. I think a good starting point may be to admit the limits of Western science and the need for Indigenous knowledge. Thereafter to encourage settler scientists to partner meaningfully with Indigenous communities in countries where their research is being conducted. By involving the local community representative/body in every step of their research projects, there is a better opportunity to forge solidarity.
I believe Indigenous-settler collaboration in research can be generative and can produce beneficial results to non-scientific Indigenous and settler communities, as well as, scientific and academic communities. Such collaboration, for instance, can provide Indigenous students access to educational materials that could help in understanding Indigenous history, culture, art and craft, music, language, and so on, and at the same time aid in understanding the contributing roles of science in helping to reveal this information.
Western science and Indigenous knowledge are both important for development in the society and none can be discarded. Creating awareness on the importance of these knowledge facets will help eliminate potential negative outcomes. This means making Western setters understand why Indigenous knowledge and expertise is paramount to achieving a better and sustainable Australia, and vice versa.
Talei: How do you ensure accountability to the truwana and Pakana communities that you work with? How does this study intend to serve these communities to reach a vision of Indigenous sovereignty and Indigenous ownership of fire-management practices?
Mathew: The truwana Indigenous community (which is part of Pakana) is involved in every step of my research, including their approval for manuscript publications. An ongoing conversation is also maintained regarding research findings and potential future research. At the end of my research, the scientific and plain-language versions of my findings will be presented to the truwana community, including the local school students. These documents will also be provided to the community for future use, especially for teachings in secondary schools.
The confirmation of Indigenous fire-management practices in the past in my research supports current cultural management practices, which will further affirm the necessity of using Indigenous cultural burning strategies to protect Country.
Matthew Adeleye, an international student and temporary settler of Nigerian heritage, moved to Australia to undertake his Ph.D candidature in Archaeology and Natural History at the School of Culture, History, and Language. Adeleye’s research focuses on understanding the environmental history of South-East Australia over the last 35,000 years using fossil plant materials. Adeleye’s research has become increasingly pertinent in the time of severe climate crisis. Indigenous peoples across Australia are grieving the loss of (in)tangible cultural heritage and calling for the healing of Country and environmental justice through the re-assertion of Indigenous land management such as cultural burning practices.
Talei Luscia Mangioni is currently a Pacific Studies PhD candidate in the School of Culture, History and Language. Talei was born and raised on Gadigal land of the Eora Nation and is a settler of Fijian and Italian descent. She is currently a Research Officer on the CHL funded Indigenous Remix and Decolonial Possibilities flagship. Her PhD research charts the Nuclear Free and Independent Pacific (NFIP) movement through historical ethnography and creative works.