As the oldest astronomers in the world, First Nations Australians have fashioned ways of observing the night sky that inform how they navigate the world, their lives and the relationship they have to each other.
Despite First Nations people in Australia belonging to the longest continuous culture on Earth and holding this incredible wealth of knowledge, our school curriculums do not illuminate young people about the breadth of Indigenous knowledge and its deep implications.
But a number of new courses, as well as a number of Indigenous women, are aiming to change that.
“Indigenous knowledges are comprehensive,” says Monash University geologist Andrew Giles. “They don’t compartmentalise into geography, geology, biology, chemistry. It’s all interconnected.”
For Giles, a Ngarrindjeri man, Indigenous knowledge aims to “put you in a framework that is connected with the society and Country you come from. It teaches you how to respect it and care for it,” he recently told Monash University’s key site, Lens. Giles teaches in what is possibly Australia’s first Indigenous science course at Monash University.
Monash’s Program coordinator Angela Ziebell said the Indigenous science unit, which only recently became available in the second half of this year, was over-enrolled. Ziebell wants Indigenous voices in every class and for their voices to evolve as the course evolves.
“We want to instil in our students an understanding of how traditions (and the science that was part of them) can easily be lost when a culture or opinion is allowed to dominate at the cost of others,” she told Lens.
Monash student and Research Support Assistant Krystal De Napoli agrees that learning the history of Australia is everybody’s responsibility, and Aboriginal culture is a part of that. De Napoli, who is majoring in astrophysics and teaches the astronomy and chemistry section of the course, is a prolific science communicator who has spent years advocating for Indigenous sciences.
She believes the Indigenous science course “is not only correcting that historical narrative, but it’s a way for people to develop a deeper appreciation for Indigenous culture, and the really complex knowledge that has been developed over tens of thousands of years on this land.”
As a young Kamilaroi woman growing up in Wangaratta, De Napoli was not exposed to indigenous science. It took until the time she reached university that she realised the “…massive cross-section between Indigenous knowledges, and science in general”.
Having undertaken years of volunteer and mentorship work, this young astrophysics is promising to shake up our nation’s understanding of what the night sky can tell us about ourselves and our precious world.
Other good news? This week, Australia’s most famous radio telescope has been given a new Aboriginal name. Known as “The Dish,” the telescope near Parkes will also be called “Murriyang,” meaning “Skyworld” in the local indigenous language.
Here are some key women to follow in this field.
There are not many women working in the field of astronomy and astrophysics in Australia. Less still, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Kirsten Banks, a Wiradjuri woman, is just 23-years old. Already, she has a large public profile, and has spoken at TEDx Youth Sydney.
In 2018, she was interviewed by SBS where she spoke about her role as the Astronomy Educator at Sydney Observatory. The University of NSW graduate was also featured on an episode of a Japanese documentary program called Cosmic Front: Next, and regularly speaks at schools, on radio, and on television.
Think she is busy enough? Well, she also has a podcast, which she hosts with fellow astronomer Ángel López-Sánchez from Australian Astronomical Optics at Macquarie University. “The Skyentists” have so far covered topics including migrating planets, spiral density waves, astrophotography gear and the life cycle of stars.
Where to begin with Karlie Noon? The young Gamilaraay woman was the first Aboriginal woman to graduate with a dual degree in maths and physics. Back in August of this year, she was appointed Sydney Observatory’s first astronomy ambassador, where she hopes to share her love of space and science with a wider audience.
“I think science, and university in general, is something that has always only been an option for people who come from a wealthy background, people who are supported,” Noon told SMH.
“For a field that contributes to so much change in society and really drives where society’s going, I think we all should be represented. We all have different backgrounds, we all have different values and I think those values need to be in this space.”
In her role at the Observatory, she will present a series of programs over the next six months including a weekend live streaming session exploring the planets, stars and southern skies.
As an educator, Noon has worked with Indigenous students and studied science communication, delivering interactive, scientific ‘edutaining’ shows for students across Australia.
Since then, Noon has been involved with the Indigenous STEM Awards program from CSIRO, been a research assistant for the Indigenous STEM Education Project’s monitoring and evaluation, a mentor for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students in the ASSETS program and a research assistant to John Giacon in the production of a Gamilaraay language phrase book.
And prizes? This young woman has had no shortage of being recognised for her brilliant work. She was a 2019 3M Eureka Prize finalist, ACT Young Australian of the Year finalist, a 2017 STEM Professional Early Career Award finalist and a 2017 Women of the Future finalist. AND she’s been named a Women’s Agenda Emerging Leader in Science, Medicine and Health award.
Carol Redford and Madeline Anderson
Astrotourism WA, a company that provides stargazing experiences and astronomy events in Western Australia, is seeking to collect the stories that First Nations people have been sharing about Dreamtime for thousands of years. Sharing stories while creating jobs was the perfect marriage for Carol Redford, CEO and founder of a company that is recruiting Aboriginal people to help create an Aboriginal astronomy tourism trail to help people learn about the magic of night skies from Aboriginal elders and guides.
“We’re now just at the beginning of adding this beautiful part to the astronomy scene in Western Australia and we’re hoping that one day there will be people coming to Yallalie Downs to gaze at the night sky, talk with the elders, and hear the stories of the night from an Aboriginal perspective,” Redford told ABC. She envisions Aboriginal people sitting around campfires with guests, sharing ancient stories and using modern-day technology to unveil the intricacies of the universe.
Redford has spent a decade stargazing and working with passionate amateurs in the astronomy field, and hopes to expose visitors to the beauty of the Milky Way Galaxy.
“Western Australia’s night sky is an asset worth protecting,” she said. “Communities around WA are working to keep the night sky as dark as possible by reducing light pollution,” Redford explains on her company’s website. “While we’re protecting our night sky, we’re inviting visitors from around the world to share its beauty. At the same time, we’re growing our understanding of how stargazing brings people together.”
Madeline Anderson is the chairwoman of the Beemurra Aboriginal Corporation, where the Yallalie Downs-based team hope to launch astronomy tours at their Dandaragan farming property near Moora, WA.
“It’s these stories that we can not only pass on and share but it’s something that is part of who we are, it’s part of our identity, and it gives us a sense of belonging and connectedness to the land,” she told ABC.
Anderson is also the Founder and Chairperson of U4C the future — a not for profit organisation that provides a sound platform and engaging atmosphere to empower Aboriginal individuals and families within the community.