Communicating traditional Indigenous Knowledge

Communicating traditional Indigenous Knowledge

Methods for documenting and communicating traditional knowledge of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples include single disciple and interdisciplinary research projects designed to capture specific knowledge traditions expressed in Indigenous languages, recording oral histories and stories, and making images, videos, diagrams and maps to communicate Indigenous knowledge.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander fire practices

Aboriginal landscape fire changed the face of Australia. People used it to promote and distribute plant communities (such as grass or open forest), promoted drought-shielding native grasses and shrubs, minimized the impact of bushfire (‘wildfire’) by reducing fuel, and by creating fire breaks to break up or isolate areas with dangerous fuel loads, and used plant distribution to promote and protect animals, birds, reptiles and insects. Among its advantages, Aboriginal fire gave every species a favourable habitat, letting them flourish, and averting species extinctions. This is no longer possible in most areas of Australia because of dramatic Aboriginal demographic change. Many firefighters today are attending field days to learn Aboriginal burning techniques.

Fire is often the centre of social activities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, such as when a campfire is lit for people sit around it, teach stories, or have family meetings. Fire is used for cooking and for warmth. Fire was used, and in some regions still used, to communicate. For example, the use of fire to signal when when entering someone else’s country, to call for a guide to navigate an unfamiliar place, or signal for help. Fire is part of funeral or mortuary events after someone has passed away. Fires to cover with smoke the family of the deceased, and house and belongings. and is sometimes used to ward off evil spirits. It can be useful when extracting the medicinal properties of certain bush foods used in traditional healing practices, and is a good insect repellent. Fire is central to law, including men’s business and women’s business. Burning is also a key part of many hunting practices, and might be used to smoke a goanna out of a burrow or a kangaroo out the scrub. Smoking dingo pups can tame them. Tools and implements are made with the help of fire, such as burning spinifex to produce a sticky black substance that is used as a glue when making spears.

In some regions, fire is used to care for country, as it encourages the germination and sprouting of some species of plants1. In some regions, the use of fire for land management is complex and extensive, and is used to reduce fuel loads and clear the area around sensitive or important sites, such as rockholes, caves, sacred sites, logs that are home to animals, old trees, and medicine plants. The mosaic effect created in the landscape can act as a buffer or fire break, preventing larger hotter fires that could damage sensitive ecosystems and important cultural sites2.

Ngadju representations of fire: A case study from the Great Western Woodlands, WA

The Ngadju (also referred to as Marlpa) people are from the south-eastern goldfields region in Western Australia. Ngadju kala: Ngadju fire knowledge and contemporary fire management in the Great Western Woodlands (2013) is a document produced by the Ngadju Nation and CSIRO3, and records Ngadju knowledge about fire.

Communicating cultural fire knowledge and practices in a document involved using culturally appropriate methods to collate and share aspects of that knowledge. For example, the Ngadju kala document includes a story and song about how fire was given to the Ngadju people4. This story was told by Marlpa man Jimmer of Drollinya, and recorded by Daisy Bates around the year 19085. The use of the name, language group and location of the person who told the story is significant, and reflects the way that traditional knowledge is embedded in country and language and cultural groups.

In addition to stories recorded in the past, the document feature recent quotes by Ngadju people. These quotations are unedited, and reflect the diversity of languages, including Aboriginal English, to convey specific knowledge. For example:

‘Fire connects Indigenous people around the world. Fire is culture: water is number one; fire is second only to water. Stephen Rule, Norseman’6

‘Ngadju country is unique. Up north is different to here. Central Australia is different to here. The more you burn that country, the better things grow. The jarrah and black boys in the south-west—they won’t grow without fire. But here — if you burn the gimlets (joorderee) or salmon gums (marrlinja) it takes hundreds or thousands of years to come back. So Ngadju didn’t burn much in the old growth woodlands. Some areas need to be burnt a lot, but not everything does. Ngadju just burn in specific places. Les Schultz, Coolgardie’7

These contemporary quotations record where the speaker is from, reflecting continuity of their link to this country.

In this document, images, maps and diagrams are used in new ways to communicate Ngadju fire knowledge. The diagram Journey to a Ngadju fire gathering, provides a visual depiction of a temporal sequence explaining how fire was used by different members of a travelling party, as they followed a song series (or Songline) through the landscape8. The Ngadju seasonal calendar provides a graphical representation of Ngadju seasonal knowledge9. This calendar uses Ngadju words and English translation to show when significant seasonal events occur in the landscape, such as animals hatching in Ngawa, the egging season, which occurs around September and October.

All of these methods for communicating Ngadju knowledge are forms of narrative or story-telling, and reflect the various ways Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people communicate traditional knowledge10.

Classroom activity - English Year 6

In these classroom activities students will examine the Ngadju kala report and the Ngadju kala seasonal calendar to identify specific text structures and features, and explain the resulting effects. Students will describe the different uses of fire in their own context and compare this with the Ngadju context. Students will investigate the different ways that fire is represented in standard Australian English, Ngadjukala, and Aboriginal English by examining the words for fire and reading the story ‘How fire was given to the people’. Students will identify and summarise culturally specific information communicated through diagrams and images.

Curriculum connections

This resource addresses the following content descriptions from the Australian Curriculum:

  • Understand that different social and geographical dialects or accents are used in Australia in addition to Standard Australian English (ACELA1515)
  • Identify and explain how analytical images like figures, tables, diagrams, maps and graphs contribute to our understanding of verbal information in factual and persuasive texts (ACELA1524)
  • Analyse how text structures and language features work together to meet the purpose of a text (ACELY1711)
  • Use comprehension strategies to interpret and analyse information and ideas, comparing content from a variety of textual sources including media and digital texts (ACELY1713)
  • Analyse strategies authors use to influence readers (ACELY1801)

This resource addresses the following excerpts from the achievement standard for Year 6 in English:

  • select evidence from texts to analyse and explain how language choices and conventions are used to influence an audience
  • understand how to use a variety of language features to create different levels of meaning
  • create texts that respond to issues, interpreting and integrating ideas from other texts

Inquiry-based learning questions

  • Why are oral and narrative traditions such as storytelling important for the communication of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander knowledge?
  • How does the use of direct quotes give you a different perspective of Ngadju knowledge about fire?
  • What does the use of diagrams and images contribute to the communication of traditional knowledge?
  • How does the way information is represented affect what is communicated?

Activity 1 – Different uses of fire

Suggested timing for activity: one lesson divided into two 20 minute blocks, with 10 minutes for whole class report back at the end

Required resources: Electronic or print version of the Ngadju kala document11, paper, writing and drawing materials

Students will compare their own experiences of utilising fire with Ngadju uses of fire as documented in the Ngadju kala publication. In pairs or small groups, students will brainstorm and document (using words and images) all the ways that fire is used in their culture/s and life experiences. Students will then examine the Ngadju kala document (p. 11-15) to locate and list specific examples of how Ngadju use fire.

Extension: Students can list all the words they know for fire, elements of fire, or that describe its effects. Then they can compare this list with the list of Ngadju words collected on p6 of the Ngadju kala document (also listed in the glossary on p. 54).

Activity 2 – The story of how Ngadju got fire

Suggested timing for activity: 30 minutes, including whole class discussion

Required resources: Electronic or print version of the Ngadju kala document

Students will read the story inset ‘How fire was given to the people’ (p. 3) from the Ngadju kala document. They can read aloud in small groups or pairs to get a sense of the different sounds and cadences in this example of Aboriginal English. They will then discuss how this is different from the surrounding text in the document, what the story communicates, and why it is important to write the story in the way that it was spoken. Students can also discuss the reasons why this and other quotations are attributed to the author using their name and where they are from.

Activity 3 – Communicating traditional knowledge with images and diagrams

Suggested timing for activity: one lesson

Required resources: Electronic or printed version of the Ngadju kala document, notebook and writing materials; optional extension using the Ngadju seasonal calendar document12

Students will investigate the relationship between Ngadju uses of fire for social/cultural practices and for land management practices. Referring to the Ngadju kala document, they will read the text ‘Fire in the landscape’ (p. 39-41) and examine the diagram ‘Journey to a Ngadju gathering’ (p. 41). Students will list the uses of fire reflected in the diagram. And then write a paragraph describing one fire practice (eg burning to flush out a kangaroo) and the purpose or multiple purposes it serves (such as providing food for the group and promoting new growth for animals).

Extension: Students can refer to the Ngadju seasonal calendar document (p23) to write a summary of the main events occurring in the landscape during each of the four seasons. Student can then describe the four seasons of the Western calendar and compare the main differences.


1 Prober SM, Yuen E, O’Connor MH, Schultz L (2013). Ngadju kala: Ngadju fire knowledge and contemporary fire management in the Great Western Woodlands. CSIRO Ecosystem Sciences, Floreat, WA, p. 11-14.

2 ibid., p. 14-19.

3 ibid.

4 ibid., p.3.

5 ibid., p.3.

6 ibid., p.4.

7 ibid., p.16.

8 ibid., p.41.

9 O’Connor, M.H. and Prober, S.M. (2010). A calendar of Ngadju seasonal knowledge. A report to Ngadju Community and Working Group. CSIRO Sustainable Ecosystems, Floreat, WA, p.23. Retrieved from:

10 Prober, Yuen, O’Connor, op. cit., p. 11.

11 Prober SM, Yuen E, O’Connor MH, Schultz L (2013). Ngadju kala: Ngadju re knowledge and contemporary re management in the Great Western Woodlands. CSIRO Ecosystem Sciences, Floreat, WA. Retrieved from:

12 O’Connor, M.H. and Prober, S.M. (2010). A calendar of Ngadju seasonal knowledge. A report to Ngadju Community and Working Group. CSIRO Sustainable Ecosystems, Floreat, WA. Retrieved from:

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

The development of these resources was funded through an Australian Government initiative delivered by the University of Melbourne's Indigenous Studies Unit. The resources include the views, opinions and representations of third parties, and do not represent the views of the Australian Government. They have been developed as a proof of concept to progress the inclusion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander content in Australian classrooms. In drawing on the material, users should consider the relevance and suitability to their particular circumstances and purposes.