The Aboriginal Way: Western Science Meets Aboriginal Science

This speech prepared by Merindah Bairnsfather-Scott, GIS Analyst for Winyama, was for the Art Gallery of Western Australia (AGWA) symposium “Perth Brutal: Dreaming in Concrete”. The exhibition symposium explored the Noongar, architectural, civic and cultural contexts for the design and realisation of the AGWA as a key component of the Perth Cultural Centre. The symposium took place on 2 October 2019 and the exhibition runs until 17 February 2020. The speech has been repurposed and edited for this blog. 

A photo of  Gnarla Boodja Mili Mili, Our Country on Paper.

A photo of Gnarla Boodja Mili Mili, Our Country on Paper.

My name is Merindah Bairnsfather-Scott and I’m a Noongar woman. While Whadjuk isn’t my traditional country, the preservation of Aboriginal culture, lifeways and knowledge is important to me and has been instilled in me by my ancestors. My blood links are to Menang country down near Albany in the South West, but due to colonisation and the displacement and movement of Noongar people, my mum was born on Whadjuk country, I was born on Whadjuk country and I was raised on Whadjuk country.

Yandilup is the overarching Noongar area where the current Art Gallery of Western Australia building is. It’s all sloping ground there, and it spans across the Gallery at Roe St going down to St Mary’s Cathedral at Victoria Square. 

The Gallery is also situated on the edge of a swamp area, Gooloogoolup (renamed Lake Kingsford by Europeans). The current man-made swamp area outside the Gallery today in the cultural centre is linked into the old waterway system, connected by underground pipes that allow the water to flow. The man made drains all follow the old natural system that comes out at the Claisebrook area in East Perth. Gooloogoolup covered the Perth Station area and out to the Perth Arena between King St and Lake St. The old waterways don’t go away because we build on top of them, we saw this when the development was happening at the Perth Station and the water continued to bubble up and flow.

My knowledge in Aboriginal lifeways and culture over time has been gained by both my own interest on the topic, coupled with undertaking historical research to verify Western versus Aboriginal science. Most importantly, information and stories shared with me by family members, Aboriginal people and Elders in general has instilled a passion to know more and ask questions. 

Essentially there are two worlds of thought, Western science and Aboriginal science. It is important to bring these two ways of thinking together and be open to being informed by Aboriginal perspective and history, rather than acknowledging them as separate.

Western science is just catching up to 60,000 plus years of Aboriginal knowledge, we can see this by looking at the waterway ecosystem around the Gallery site. These swamps are important in providing both a natural reservoir of water and a filtration system for nutrients – it is an ecosystem for plant life, animals, and ways of being and seeing – but most importantly, it is a natural organ for the land. 

This is the Aboriginal way. Some may call it environmentalist, however we have always understood the importance of caring for, and preserving the land for future generations. Now, modern science is acknowledging this too. 

The importance of recognising Aboriginal culture and history - especially the living aspects of it  when we talk about heritage, buildings, sites or waterways today - is crucial in bridging these two worlds. 

The map Gnarla Boodja Mili Mili (Our Country On Paper), that I worked on recently - guided by uncle Richard Walley - is a great example of Aboriginal science meeting modern science. It fuses the use of the colonial and government archives with records of the living stories and oral histories of our mob today. 

Gnarla Boodja Mili Mili uses an old archival map to show the original swamplands overlaid with Google Maps that reveal 21st century streets and built infrastructure. It shows users intrinsic Aboriginal knowledge in a modern digital setting and provides a detailed, pre-colonial Aboriginal place naming map of Whadjuk country. 

Experience now: Gnarla Boodja Mili Mili (Our Country On Paper)

Merindah Bairnsfather-Scott is a Noongar woman and GIS Analyst at Winyama.

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