6 Ngali Garima Mala Jugun (We look after this Country)

Reflections on Indigenous Education for Climate Action - An Australian Case Study

Kathleen Butler, Bundjalung and Worimi Aboriginal Nations and Shelly McGrath


While Climate Change is a topic with currency across the tertiary landscape in Australia, specific Indigenous focussed offerings are limited. The University of Newcastle consistently has the highest number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students of any Australian university and also has one of the largest dedicated Indigenous units (The Wollotuka Institute), offering our own degree program. An integral part of this program considers the impact of Climate Change on Indigenous people nationally and internationally across core offerings and electives. One of the largest elective offerings, Indigenous People, Global Warming, and the Environment, draws predominantly non-Indigenous students from the Social and Health Sciences as well as Environmental and Development Studies, joining Indigenous Studies students. Meeting the needs of this multi-disciplinary cohort is both a challenge as well as a valuable opportunity for modelling the need for a layered and collaborative stakeholder response to Climate Action. This chapter considers how the teaching team have responded to this rapidly expanding field, prioritizing Indigenous voices while calling attention to the rights obligations of nation states and international bodies.

Positioning the Authors

This chapter takes its title from an Acknowledgement of Country spoken/written in the language of the Bundjalung people whose Country straddles the settler colonial boundaries of northern New South Wales and southern Queensland in Australia. The choice of this language reflects the authors complementary affiliations to this Country being both a cultural homeland of Butler and the nurturing home of McGrath. The authors’ shared connection to this place and to their current residence on Darkinjung Country, shapes a deep and abiding commitment to both protecting environments as well as underpinning an emplaced pedagogical framework.

Collectively, the authors oversee and deliver the Bachelor of Global Indigenous Studies (BGIS), a unique degree program grounded in Indigenous ways of knowing, being and doing. The BGIS showcases Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and cultures, broadening to encompass an international scope designed to highlight both the collective challenges faced by Indigenous groups globally and importantly emphasize resilience, strengths and adaptation skills.

In Australia, both the mainstream schooling and tertiary sectors consistently prioritize the Indigenization of curriculum (Butler, 2016). Despite the authors having worked in this area, our approach now moves beyond this framing, problematizing the Indigenization model because it makes the curriculum the locus, with Indigenizing figuring to remold the existing Western-centric systems. Instead, we both theorize and practice Education for Social Action- rejecting the rigidity and universality of curriculum in favour of a localized place-based model, where Indigenous knowledges, peoples and environments are centered, and our emphasis is on creating social change based on Indigenous priorities.

Our initial contention is that educators and students alike need to begin with a reflective consideration of their own positionality, as actors both shaped by and always shaping, the local they interact with. This reflection moves beyond the individualistic to understanding positionality within families, communities and nations and the interconnectedness of those roles to the environment. In doing so we do not turn to Western theory but rather, frame our approach using the fish trap as a guiding metaphor- choosing to uplift and celebrate Indigenous practices and wisdoms.

Reflection: Kath

Kath 1970’s

My mother:     Did I tell you that’s where the fish traps of our people are?

Me/child:             Yes Mum, you say that every time!

Kath 2000’s

Me/mother:        Did I tell you that’s where the fish traps of our people are?

Daughter/child: Yes Mum, you say that every time!

The Aboriginal knowledges of my childhood were oral, rhythmic and cyclical. Stories were told on journeys, whether by foot or car; around kitchen tables or fires; on beachfronts as waves gently washed over us; or at night as young ones slept cuddled and safe to the backs of our Elders. Sharing stories binds us together, transmits cultures to the future and brings sunshine and healing to sorrow.

The writer Thomas King (2003) says, “The truth about stories is that’s all we are”. In our teaching we create space for stories, we invite students to share their stories as a means of entering into a relationship with us and the other students. We reject the Western normative practice of lecturer speaks to the audience in favour of a Talking Circle model which embraces everyone’s perspectives (Biermann & Townsend-Cross, 2008). We find that many students respond to having their lives in the classroom rather than being left at the door. It is from this basis that we deconstruct their taken-for-granted understandings of time, land and environment.

Across our courses we problematize Western conceptions of time and seasons that attempt to regularize the Gregorian calendar and the European four-season system of Summer, Autumn, Winter and Spring. Through activities, we draw out alternatives that include examples of Indigenous calendars globally which embrace a 13-month lunar calendar. This simple activity destabilizes the taken-for-granted element of the Gregorian calendar which ignores the natural markers of time/seasonality for the purpose of empowering industrial capitalism, where environmental considerations become regimented to an external and often inappropriate timing (Woodward & McTaggart, 2019). This is extended through an introduction to a range of Aboriginal seasonal calendars, including from Nyoongar Country in the southwest of the country where there are six seasons, to Walabunnba Country in the central desert of Australia, where there are two. These “calendars” highlight that changing seasons can be conceptualized through engaging with local environments rather than arbitrary models. For example, in Australia’s north, “The Wet season”, commences with the monsoonal rains, not at a consistent, concrete date. Similarly in the coastal south-east where we are situated, the blooming of plants corresponding to the running of fish is based on temperature rather than time. Through understanding these nature-driven markers there is a basis for different environmental management (Prober, O’Connor & Walsh, 2011).

Reflecting on these observations, student perceptions shift when they are then asked to map the seasonal markers of their own lives- to move the abstract to the concrete. For example, spring may be indicated by their first swim in the ocean, signaling warming weather. Autumn is heralded by the change to long pants in children’s school uniforms as the weather cools. From this critical positionality, discussions are moved towards broader issues around Global Warming, with students asked to reflect on the changing of natural patterns which they can recognise within their own social and cultural milieu. As each student brings examples forth, from eroding cliff faces threatening beach side homes to the university transitioning to clean energy, there is a subtle shift in the group towards ownership of both problems and solutions. Recalling her own experiences of growing up in Cavenbah (Byron Bay) on Arakwal lands, McGrath shares how the coming of “Spring” was signaled by the northern migration of pregnant humpback whales travelling to warmer waters to give birth, rather than by the month. Similarly, the end of the season was marked when the last of the whales who had stopped by the Bay for safe harbour with their calves on the way back had left for the year. Our belief is that climate change must be taught initially through a lens of the personal, building towards structural considerations so that as educators we can empower everyday micro change, as well as broader macro change.

Ironically, when we both began engaging in public debate about climate change, there was significant resistance to its very existence. Climate denial was rampant within Australian life from Prime Ministers to the local pub. Concurrently, climate activism was labelled as the bastion of the lunatic left or radical greenies, sharing a dismissive rhetoric directed towards Aboriginal people as being anti-progress and Un-Australian (Gasgoine, 2008). In a class such as ours, most students outwardly identify as supporting climate change activism and this is borne out by their discussion and assessment responses. In their Week One Introductions they are asked to identify motivations for undertaking the course, which has often served as a catalyst for a quick edit of materials to directly respond to their interests. Over numerous offerings, a key desire is to better understand Indigenous environmental epistemologies, linked with current efforts to stem the degradation of Indigenous environments.


Indigenous Peoples and Climate Change

A foundation of our course acknowledges the increasingly destructive impacts of global warming and climate change which continue to have disproportionate effects on the lives of Indigenous peoples. While Indigenous peoples contribute the least to climate change drivers, around the world many Indigenous groups and communities bear the brunt of intense weather changes and the environmental degradations that are resulting from the current climate catastrophe/emergency (Thomas et al. 2018). Concurrently, Indigenous peoples, despite holding just one-fifth of their customary rights to traditional territories, remain guardians of approximately eighty percent of biodiversity across the world (Recio & Hestad, 2022). Mobilising to defend their collective rights to territories, Indigenous communities are equally striving to protect many of the last remaining healthy ecosystems of our planet.

Students consider, with the rapid increase of monocultures, findings from the latest Living Planet Report that 75% of our worldwide crop diversity has been lost over the past century, with food insecurity increasing and humanity now relying on just six main crops to feed itself (WWF, 2022). A strong case study model demonstrates that in places where Indigenous peoples continue to successfully manage lands and waters, food sovereignty is emplaced and levels of biodiversity can either equal or surpass that of formally protected areas, as seen in countries including Canada, Brazil and Australia (WWF, 2022). While in a sense “preaching to the converted”, students prioritize practical examples of how Indigenous knowledges can be of multi-layered utility shaped by local concerns of sovereignty and global targets such as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). For example, Indigenous seed management techniques passed down through generations continue to supplement the more short-sighted practices of neo-colonial practices, providing reliable crops while regenerating soils and repairing damaged aquatic ecosystems (Recio & Hestad, 2022). These practical examples show that rather than being ancient knowledge of value for its curiosity, Indigenous knowledges are rigorously tested systems which hold vital histories and strategies for climate adaptation and management. We argue this expression is hampered by the normative positioning of the West as the arbiter of value.

Another strong example concerns the fundamental conceit in Western academic research which attempts to prove the validity oral histories and cultural practices of Indigenous peoples. For instance, Wroth (2019) details a research project which confirms that the Aboriginal Dreaming in Oral Histories are correct in recording the use of fire by birds to set small grass fires and then wait for small game to be visible escaping the burn. There is thus, an unacknowledged ethnocentrism that Indigenous knowledges exist in a vacuum, waiting to be validated by Western science rather than generating their own authenticity and utility.

Similarly, it has taken settler-colonial Australia over two centuries to acknowledge the significance of Aboriginal fire practices. For instance, colonial records note the use of fire to drive game and to shape the Australian landscape. Rather than use this however, Western agricultural expertise has consistently allowed large areas of bushland to build significant levels of tinder- like detritus, culminating in what are referred to as Black Summers (periods where extended catastrophic bushfires lead to significant loss of fauna, human life and property). After the most recent experience in 2020-21, newspaper headlines consistently reflected the growing public consciousness that Aboriginal movements on Country were not aimless, but purposeful; that Aboriginal spirituality housed the practice of burning as an expression of custodian responsibility and regeneration rather than destruction. Suddenly, the discourse has shifted to a more nuanced understanding of burns with European management facilitating hot burns which are indiscriminate and damaging to soil health rather than Aboriginal cool burns which are controlled and allow animals the opportunity to move to safety, as well as providing nutrients back to the soil (Steffenson, 2020). Given that many of our students are domestic, this information allows them greater understanding to advocate for creating safe, sustainable ecosystems in their communities. This practical outcome is mirrored in the philosophical shift that expertise is not the sole province of the settler, the academy, nor the state. Rather, it positions Aboriginal knowledge/s as First Knowledges, the apex of thousands of years of experimentation, and critical reasoning based on the holistic interconnection between humanity and environment, not the Western hegemony of Industrial Capital whereby the degradation of environment and possible regeneration are offset through metrics of profit and the false narrative that knowledge only progresses in a linear fashion.

As part of the digital revolution, the Big Data movement has drastically increased the quantity of data (Coulton et al., 2015). There are three “V’s” that contribute to understanding the movement for big data. The first V is Volume – attributed to the increasing amount of data produced daily (Thatcher et al., 2016). The second V is Velocity – which is described as the high speed of data flowing in and out of systems (Thatcher et al., 2016). The third and final V is Variety – which details the ever-broadening range of types of data and data sources (Thatcher et al., 2016). Ultimately, big data entails more data, moving at higher speeds, and multiple types of data and data sources being available at unprecedented rates. Big data has generated wide appeal as it offers the ability to have a multi-view perspective available in real-time (Montiel & Uyheng, 2022) and provide new and accurate insights (Thatcher et al., 2016). The buzz around big data has prompted new attention to previously overlooked communities but also exacerbates preexisting data disparities, particularly giving rise to a new social justice issue: data colonialism.

The movement for big data has also brought about a new manifestation of coloniality – data colonialism. The everyday collection of data surrounding our daily lives has naturally been converted into an ever-flowing stream of information, fundamentally creating a new social order (Herther, 2022). This social order consists of nonstop tracking and surveillance which brings with it unprecedented opportunities for prejudice, discrimination, and colonialism at large. While historic settler colonialism appropriated land and resources for settler profit and gain, data colonialism normalizes the appropriation and exploitation of communities through data (Herther, 2022; Couldry & Mejias, 2019). Data produced from data colonialism perpetuates policies and programs that further marginalize underrepresented knowledge systems and communities (Mills, 2022). Big data can be implicated within data colonialism by decontextualizing data from specific communities (Montiel & Uyheng, 2022). This decontextualization excludes community-driven knowledge, particularly Indigenous ways of knowing and being, and only works to amplify existing coloniality and perpetuate harm (Mills, 2022; Montiel & Uyheng, 2022).


Bringing in the West

As noted in the previous section, the Western academic norm is to test the validity of Indigenous knowledges. In contrast, our teaching flips the lens where, having championed Indigenous environmental knowledge and its utility in climate change debates, we then move to critique Western knowledge using the very theories and terminologies which have previously acted to marginalize Indigenous knowledge and practices. We search for those authors whose work aligns with Indigenous world views, creating a textured ontological weaving of perspectives which takes difference and co-constructs new knowledge to be stronger than each of the original strands. We link this to the Yolgnu concept of Ganma which describes saltwater meeting freshwater as a metaphor for Indigenous and Western knowledges. These strands, it is argued, created and shaped through dialogue can provide a “mat we can all sit on” (Haynes et al, 2022). For instance, Land-based practices and their deeply embedded knowledge configurations create what Coulthard describes as a ‘grounded normativity’ (2014, p.13), where the instructing modalities of place-based foundations inform axiological engagements with both human and more-than-human worlds. Recognising the place-based axiologies of Indigenous world views in contrast to Western approaches to land stemming from ideologies centered around capitalism and commodification establishes fundamental understandings of Indigenous anticolonialism. Further, Coulthard & Simpson argue that grounded normativity offers an ethical framework for relational engagement with both human and nonhuman kin “in a profoundly nonauthoritarian, nondominating, nonexploitive manner” (2016, pg. 254). Thus, to develop more effective approaches to climate change education and solutions, there needs to be a fundamental reconfiguring of relationships, as well as a broader understanding of the at-times-oppositional standpoints of Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples, theories and practices. With Indigenous world views emplaced, the Land is Law, providing the first foundational relationship for people and a template for everything else to come- for Graham, how we treat land “is what determines our humanness” (1999, p. 182).

In contradistinction, non-Indigenous, Western ontologies “have never learned to consider the nature of the world discerned from a spatial point of view” (Deloria, 1973, p.75). Instead, Westernised mentalities essentially relate to concepts of time and linearity, where notions of ‘travelling’ through history creates a sequential view of reality- despite being illusionary, people believe they always moving towards a better future (Graham, 1999, p.185). This perception is inherently problematic in that it dominates Eurocentric ontologies and prevents Western cultures and societies from transitioning to place-based thinking. Through Indigenous education streams, such as the BGIS where First Laws and Ways are foregrounded and positioned as expertise, spaces are forged where both educators and learners alike are empowered to engage with strengths-based models that emphasise emplacement and local knowledge. These approaches represent a significant shift away from western perspectives that view environments through a commodifying, possessive lens, repositioning “nature” as kin and relations to land as reciprocal exchanges.


Education for Social Action

Indigenous People, Global Warming, and the Environment, forms a directed unit which is, through online delivery, also a popular elective available to various other streams. This course is both multidisciplinary and international in scope, with units broken into modules based on themes relating to environmental issues, i.e., Land; Water; Resource Colonialism and Ways Forward. While the content provides an explicit examination of the climate change challenges Indigenous peoples face, the cultural lens is unequivocally strength-based, highlighting the resilience, capabilities, and adaptation strategies of Indigenous peoples globally, from an Indigenous standpoint. Course Outcomes are designed to assess student knowledge development of relevant themes and issues such as understandings of Indigenous philosophies relating to the environment and the fundamental impacts of colonisation on the environment and its peoples. Importantly, outcomes also focus on the building of abilities to apply critical thinking and analytical approaches, centering Indigenous-specific methodologies. For example, one of the major assignments is composed as a Podcast – the task is to select three pieces of media from sources of the student’s own choosing for analysis, and using these items as primary documents, respond to the question: “How can media platforms impact on the way Indigenous environmental issues are portrayed?” Assessment criteria specifies that the media must relate to the experiences of Indigenous peoples (in any global location), and that responses should: provide a brief description of what the media piece is and why the issue is important; critically discuss the role of media in each case, identifying the media platform/outlet and how it portrays the issue; and consider the broader implications/responsibilities of media in terms of representation of Indigenous people’s experiences of environmental issues. Structured as a ten-minute oral presentation, there is no written component and students are partially assessed on their verbal delivery, underlining the importance of incorporating Indigenous pedagogies into assessment.

Through critical engagement with media sources, students also develop an awareness of the significant influence of mainstream media platforms and the power they hold over how Indigenous environmental issues are portrayed. An appreciation for both independently owned and Indigenous produced media is also highlighted as a key takeaway, with many students identifying the important role these have to play in sharing the stories of Indigenous peoples and truth telling more broadly. Emerging themes include: identifying environmental conflicts as symptoms of ongoing neocolonialism; connecting Indigenous rights to land to broader power inequities; and understanding the criminalization of Indigenous peoples on frontlines.

Another effective example of how students are supported to achieve Indigenous-specific course outcomes is evidenced in an activity using maps. Students access several interactive maps available through online resources- one shows the spread of colonisation across the world using a timeline, another provides a satellite view of a timelapse of land clearing, illuminating the expeditated loss of biodiversity as colonial powers expanded. Student feedback to this activity is passionate and energetic, with many astounded by the visualizations detailing the extent of these phenomena. The visual imaging prompts students to connect colonization with environmental degradation, further illustrating the impacts these events have had on Indigenous peoples across the world. Comments from students largely relate to development, one observing “not all development is good development”, with another raising the issue of “development for who”. A third student stated the maps “show us how badly our environment is suffering in regard to Indigenous people’s lands being destroyed”, expressing a desire to hear the stories of the affected peoples as well as the intention to acknowledge Indigenous people’s connection to land more often going forward.

The authors contend that these learnings, high levels of engagement and overwhelmingly positive feedback shared by students in course experience surveys, suggest that the online delivery of Indigenous Peoples, Global Warming and the Environment provides opportunities for critical interculturality and acts as a site of solidarity. 


Sites of Solidarity

For many, the intensification of anthropogenic climate change has been accompanied by significant social, political and economic challenges, exacerbated by the global pandemic. Over the last three years, climate-induced disasters have ravaged the continent of Australia, from the Black Summer fires mentioned earlier in this chapter to a series of devastating “once-in-a-hundred-years” flood events. Whilst a recent change in government emphatically signaled a desire for change in climate policy, on the ground progress in key advancements such as transitioning to renewable energies from coal and gas, has been slow. As highlighted through the course, as in many other nation states, the First Peoples of Australia, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, are leading the fight to protect homelands and Country from the ravages of resource colonialism. However, unlike other settler-colonial states such as Canada and Aotearoa New Zealand, Australia remains the only still-occupied British outpost to not have Treaty with its First Peoples. While current examples of ecologically destructive practices, such as mineral extraction through fracking and mining, embody these contested spaces, by engaging with First People’s resistance to ecocidal state projects that threaten the collective health and wellbeing of all peoples, potential ways forward emerge. Through the sharing of common goals, sites of solidarity are created, providing opportunities for decolonial praxes where both intercultural consociations and shifts in axiologies can occur. These fundamental changes in how we relate to each other, and our more-than-human worlds, create a critical interculturality that is ultimately required if we are to respond collectively to challenges stemming from destabilized living environments and the subsequent, widespread socio-political crises we are witnessing today. In our teaching of this unit, the student desire to connect is clear, with many projecting their intentions to enact change in their Week One introductions. The severity of anthropogenic climate change when taken in whole can be overwhelming for many, however through the course, students find a vehicle to not only learn but to actively engage in the sharing of solutions.

Central to transforming theories of change into movement or action is the reinterpreting of power relations, where power is not viewed as a thing, but as a capacity “composed of active and changing relationships” (Gilmore, 2007, p.247). Through the examination of place-based sovereignties, we teach that in looking beyond power as a structure, which thus requires agency to take it, recasting power as a capacity enables people to make it. Reimagining space and place as a dynamic and co-constituted state of shared being between human and more-than-human elements creates enormous possibility in terms of connecting across the politics of difference. Through grounded normativity, we can learn to negotiate respectful relationships with both Indigenous and non-Indigenous agents where shared interests or other connections may exist (Coulthard & Simpson, 2016). In becoming open to Indigenous relational world views, we reveal opportunities for Western/colonial societies to transition from individualistic, neoliberal principles to a grounded normativity guided by collective care. By participating in place-based engagements that foreground collective care and First Laws and Ways, broader power inequities are rebalanced through a changing of relationships that recognise Indigenous sovereignties and inherent rights to self-determination as First Peoples. This is particularly potent today when intercultural consociations around environmental issues bring together diverse actors for common interests or goals, such as protecting nature/Country, and First Laws and Ways are valued as expertise. The course Indigenous Peoples, Global Warming and the Environment, and the BGIS program more broadly, stems from these principles, aiming to provide a ‘mat we can all sit on’, where safe spaces empower Indigenous and non-Indigenous participants alike to share themselves, the exchange of ideas and ways to move forward together.

Centuries of education systems enculturated with colonialism will not be overcome quickly. Through our courses we hope to nurture more reflective and reflexive practitioners, providing a layered introduction to Indigenous environmental practices and philosophies. Moving from the local to global, we deconstruct processes of settler-colonialism and capitalism, revealing their often rapacious complicity in environmental degradation. Decentering Western theories while still incorporating those we find complimentary, our shared pedagogical approach is to strengthen and uplift Indigenous knowledges, delivering education for social action.


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About the authors

Kathleen Butler, Associate Professor, is the Head of the Wollotuka Institute at the University of Newcastle. Kath has experience in local, state, national and international Indigenous engagement contexts in community and education contexts. She has held Executive positions on her Local Aboriginal Land Council; Home and Community Care funded service; and Local and Regional Education Consultative Group and currently sits on the Board of the Barang Regional Alliance.

The longevity and growth of her commitment is demonstrated by her recognition in 1994 as the NSW NAIDOC Aboriginal Youth of the Year to the 2015 award as the inaugural Hunter Region Equity and Diversity Champion and 2022 Citation for Outstanding Contribution to Student Learning (Neville Bonner Award for Indigenous Education category).

As the Indigenous Cultural Competency Coordinator of the Indigenous Cultural Competency Model Project for Universities Australia, and as the Senior Officer at ACARA coordinating the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Histories and Cultures Cross-curriculum Priority for the first national K-10 curriculum, Kath has managed multiple teams collaborating nationally; negotiating with Area specialists; community stakeholder groups; seven state/territory education jurisdictions; while remaining consistent with federal education ministerial oversight. Kath was the first Australian, first woman, and first Aboriginal person to be awarded a Toihuawera Visiting International Fellowship at the University of Victoria, Wellington New Zealand.

You can read more about Dr. Butler’s work here.

Shelly McGrath is Academic Coordinator at the Wollotuka Institute of Indigenous Education and Research, where she also teaches into the Bachelor of Global Indigenous Studies program while undertaking her PhD. She has settler-heritage and acknowledges the privileges this brings in living and working on the unceded lands of the First Peoples of the country now called Australia. Shelly is a long-time co-resister of colonialism and capitalism, with work located in an academic-activist nexus that focuses on both dismantling settler-colonial systems and structures, and the (re)building of more equitable, ecocentric futures. Having represented her local electorate for the Australian Greens in a federal election and coordinating the regional Amnesty International Australia local group, Shelly recognises the inherent power of First Laws and First Ways and works to create sites of solidarity through decolonial praxes that destabilise white supremacy while forging spaces for Indigenous self-determination and sovereignty.

You can read more about McGrath’s work here.


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Ngali Garima Mala Jugun (We look after this Country) Copyright © 2023 by Kathleen Butler, Bundjalung and Worimi Aboriginal Nations and Shelly McGrath is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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