“Know where you stand”, the Centre of Excellence for Biodiversity and Heritage (CABAH) Masterclass ‘Indigenous community engagement in a field setting: Working on Country‘

by Tessa Smith, 29th January at 11:46 AM

*All posts are personal reflections of the blog-post author and do not necessarily reflect the views of all other DEEP members.


Between 15th and 19th of January, Matthew McDowell and I represented the DEEP Group at the 2018 CABAH Masterclass ‘Indigenous community engagement in a field setting: Working on Country’ , hosted by Monash University (Wurundjeri land) and the Taungurung Clans in Melbourne.

Over the five days we heard talks from representatives from Monash University Indigenous Studies Centre, James Cook University (JCU) and the Taungurung Clans, participated in discussions on set readings and visited historic sites around Central Victoria with our hosts. I was excited to return to Monash Clayton Campus, the location of my undergraduate studies in science.


Masterclass participants and leaders, Monash University, Clayton Campus, 16th of January 2018 .Clockwise: Holly Jones-Amin (Monash), Chantal Knowles (Queensland Museum), Matthew McDowell (UTas), Shane Ingrey (UNSW), Darren Curnoe (UNSW), Martin Nakata (JCU), Mary O’Malley (UOW), Matilda Handsley-Davis (UOA), Lynette Russell (Monash), Ian McNiven (Monash), Sandra Humphry (UOW), Bruno David (Monash), Kasih Norman (UOW), Aara Welz (UOW), Chris Unwin (Monash), Mady Kelly (Monash), Tessa Smith (UTas), Daniel Derouet (Monash), Jeremy Ash (Monash), Lauren Linnenlucke (JCU), Brit Asmussen (Queensland Museum).

The first two days saw us meet and get to know the research interests of Masterclass participants. We spanned a large range of fields, including education, journalism, geochronology, palaeoecology, museum studies, archaeology and microbiology. The group included enthusiasm for tooth microbes, native rats, osl dating, medicinal plants, exhibition curation, rock art, lapita pottery and bugs.

Presentations by Monash and JCU staff were highly informative, imparting a great deal of the knowledge they had built up over their careers (over 100 years of combined experience working with indigenous groups). The discussions challenged us: the confrontation with the bleak history of western science in Australia, the concepts of alternatives to the linear timeline that we are so used to as a paleoecologist, alternative ways knowing through songlines, stories, and so on. We were introduced to some guiding principles of collaborative research indigenous groups, with a quote that stuck with us: “We cannot own the outcome if we do not own the process.”

A presentation by Monash PhD Candidate Chris Urwin on his fieldwork in Orokolo Bay, Papua New Guinea gave us a look at how the process worked for a younger researcher. Chris’ talk produced some good suggestions for working in this area:

  • Having a translator
  • Leaving time to conduct meetings over several days
  • Communication of results in multiple forms
    • Papers
    • Theses
    • Posters (in several languages)
    • Reports tailored for each clan group

We heard from Dr. Shannon Faulkhead from the Monash Country Lines Archive about their project making 3D animations to assist in intergenerational language preservation. The archive was collaborating with communities around Australia (including the Taungurung) and had produced at least 15 animations since their establishment in 2014. In addition to their participation in the Monash Country Lines Archive, Aunty Lee Healy, Linguist and Project Coordinator with Taungurung Clans Aboriginal Corporation, with the help of Buxton Primary School students had created an app for learning Taungurung language. The app can be downloaded from the apple store (not yet available for android).


The Taungurung Language app (Victorian Aboriginal Corporation for Languages).

On our field trip we visited rock wells at the Mount Wombat-Garden Range Nature Conservation Reserve in Strathbogie. Three wells were known from the site, but more may exist under vegetation. Our hosts from Taungurung Clans (and coincidently past residents of my hometown Healesville), Aunty Lee Healy, Shane Monk and Angela Moate explained that they had been informed of the presence of the rock wells by a member of the public, and they had since been able to register the area as an indigenous site. The wells were formed from holes or defects in hard rock that hold water. Each hole can be enlarged by the process of lighting fire inside, quickly cooling with water to crack the rock of the edges followed by grinding the edges and removing the rock debris. The wells are covered by a flat stone to prevent animals falling in, or the water evaporating out.


Shane Monk demonstrating the depth of a rock well. Note the rock cover that prevents evaporation. This well probably holds up to 100L of water.  Mount Wombat-Garden Range Nature Conservation Reserve (T.Smith).

Our hosts then took us to a scar tree where a shield or temporary shelter has been cut from the tree. The scar was nearly 2m tall, and it was cut all the way down to the ground, a feature that is uncommon for scar trees in Australia. They then took us to a local creek where they showed us axe sharpening grooves that had been cut into the granite of the creek bed. The grooves were numerous, and some were quite deep. As the weather on the day of visitation was around 37°C, we could see why Aboriginal people would choose this location to return to over many generations. There were some local families enjoying the cool water in the swimming holes while we were there.


Stone axe sharpening grooves in granite outcrop, Seven Creeks, Taungurung Country. The greenstone axes were quarried from Mount William. (T.Smith).

The educational background of Matt and I was deemed ‘hard sciences’, which have historically only asked for permission to complete scientific studies on indigenous managed lands rather than working collaboratively from project inception. This often leads to undesirable end results. One PhD candidate from the ‘hard sciences’ I knew had asked an indigenous group for permission to do geological research on their land, and after a stressful four months, had been rejected. Throughout the Masterclass I had thought that if that PhD student had been able to undertake cultural awareness training and education on research collaborations like the Monash Masterclass, they would have been able to make more inclusive decisions that may have led to a better outcome for all parties over a longer period of time.

Matt and I would like to thank Masterclass organisers and hosts at Monash and Taungurung clans for a great week.


One thought on ““Know where you stand”, the Centre of Excellence for Biodiversity and Heritage (CABAH) Masterclass ‘Indigenous community engagement in a field setting: Working on Country‘

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s