In a school setting it is important to consult widely with stakeholders before teaching about Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander perspectives. This ensures that appropriate information and knowledge are shared accurately and in keeping with relevant protocols. It is imperative that clear and open communication is initiated, continued and renewed each year.
When working with Aboriginal cultures and/or Torres Strait Islander cultures, one fundamental question to consider is: who owns the knowledge?
The knowledge of Aboriginal peoples and Torres Strait Islander peoples is the intellectual property of particular people in a community — it is ultimately their decision whether it is appropriate to share cultural information. It is also their decision who they share information with, and the purpose for this sharing.
Some knowledge may be shared publicly; other knowledge may be shared only with people who have shown themselves worthy; or shared/withheld based on gender, kinship or totem relationships.
This approach is fundamentally different from the idea of copyright, which protects the expression of knowledge, but not the knowledge itself; it is more like the idea of information being ‘commercial in confidence’ or a ‘trade secret’.
The concepts of ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ knowledge — knowledge that may only be shared with certain people and knowledge that may be widely shared — apply to all areas of traditional Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander life, and as an example, we explore their application to ceremonies and sacred sites below.
Ceremonies are an important part of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community and spiritual life.
Protocols exist for transferring information about certain ceremonies: communities may share some information that provides a basic level of understanding about a ceremony, and that may be shared in a broad context outside the family and community. This is outside knowledge.
Within a classroom context, information shared about Aboriginal ceremonies or Torres Strait Islander ceremonies should be brief and involve general explanations rather than details of any particular ceremony. If a specific ceremony is being discussed, a local Aboriginal person or Torres Strait Islander person should explain the concept and details at an appropriate level.
The private and sacred details of most ceremonies constitute inside knowledge, which is shared within and understood by the family and community who practise the ceremony.
Many ceremonies practised in Aboriginal communities and Torres Strait Islander communities are of a sensitive and sacred nature, and all information about them may be considered inside knowledge, which it is improper to share.
Positions about access to sacred sites and the viewing of ceremonies may change within a community over time. Regular contact and consultation with the community will ensure an understanding of these changing practices and the required protocols. Regardless of the approach taken for teaching it is important to consider the sensitive nature of the information being discussed, to consult with the Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander families of the local school community on these issues, and to respect their decisions.
Visiting sacred sites involved in ceremonial practices is generally unacceptable, even if the site is not currently being used. Generally, the location and use of sacred sites is considered inside knowledge. In some areas, visits are conducted by local Aboriginal peoples or Torres Strait Islander peoples; however, this may occur through commercial and business venues and may not be accepted by all members of the local community.
There are some interesting sites, however, that are not viewed as sacred. These may be visited with the approval and guidance of significant members of the local Aboriginal community or Torres Strait Islander community.
Following community protocols for such visits is important — usually only some aspects of a site and its use are outside knowledge. Breaches of the access protocols may cause considerable harm to relationships with the local Aboriginal community or Torres Strait Islander community. Many people believe that ancestral spirits protecting these sites may harm any person that disturbs, destroys or disrespects them.
Visit the SBS Learn page Learning How Development Impacts Heritage to see Connection to Country 'Classroom Clip 2: Sacred sites' (scroll through to find it). Examples of reflective/discussion questions and classroom activities are also included in this teaching resource.