Indigenous astronomy, communication, and digital technology

Indigenous astronomy, communication, and digital technology

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander traditions contain a wealth of knowledge about the Sun, Moon, and stars. This knowledge informs cultural concepts about origins (creation stories), social practices and protocols (law), and ideas about life and death (philosophy).

Digital animation and astronomical knowledge

Oral traditions and histories about the Sun, Moon, and stars are commonplace in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures, and serve a number of purposes. They contain different elements. Sometimes these relate to seasons, navigation, food, and weather. They might include moral lessons or explain concepts about life and death. All of this is incorporated into Law and Lore and passed to new generations via oral tradition.

A number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities across Australia are collaborating with researchers to develop a range of new technologies to share and preserve their traditional knowledge and language. One of these collaborations is the Monash Country Lines Archive (MCLA)1 at Monash University. The MCLA uses the latest 3D animation technology to bring Indigenous stories and languages to life. These serve as records of the past, preserving the present, and protecting Indigenous languages and knowledge into the future. The importance of incorporating Indigenous language into the animations is of vital importance. The loss of a language is a more than just the loss of words. It is also the loss of identity, spirituality, cultural knowledge, and values.2

Fig. 1: MCLA artwork by Nicholas Galanin.

This collaboration is between the Monash Indigenous Studies Centre (MIC), Monash Arts, and the Monash Faculty of Information Technology, along with a team of Monash researchers, digital animators, and post-graduate students working closely with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and knowledge custodians. The Monash Country Lines Archive aims to assist Indigenous communities preserve their language, stories, knowledge, and history through animation, and to maintain this knowledge across generations.

MCLA builds on the premise that Indigenous communities already have the structures to continue and preserve their language through intergenerational learning and that a new knowledge system is not needed.3 Instead, MCLA provides tools to re-engage and revitalise interest in language continuation by working with 3D animation as a method intergenerational knowledge sharing. These animations provide material for Elders and younger generations to sit together and share knowledge, keeping language alive.

Some of these animations feature knowledge and stories related to the Sun, Moon, and stars. The first animation produced by the Taungurung Dolodanin-dat Animation Project Group of central Victoria was developed in 2015. Entitled “Winjara Wiganhanyin”, meaning “Why We All Die” 4, it explores the relationship between the Moon and discussions about death. Winjara Wiganhanyin was developed from an amalgamation of Taungurung creation stories retold by elders and collected from various publications. It is narrated in the endangered Taungurung language.

Fig 2: Screenshot of Winjara Wiganhanyin (Why We All Die) video.

Other astronomically-related animations include the 2012 film “The Groper (a-Kuridi)”, featuring the Pleiades in the form of an octopus in Yanyuwa traditions from the Gulf of Carpentaria5, and the 2016 film “Yagun Gulinj Wiinj (How Man Found Fire)”, featuring the planet Mars in Taungurung traditions6.

Classroom activity - Technologies (Digital Technologies) Years 5 and 6

These activities will enable students to learn about the Monash Country Lines Archive, aimed at preserving and sharing Indigenous astronomical knowledge and language using 3D digital animation technology. The activities will help the students learn about changes in knowledge sharing by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, sustaining Indigenous language and knowledge, meeting the needs of the relevant Indigenous communities, working in ethical ways, and applying what they have learned to modern digital platforms, such as blogs and social media. This will be done with ideas and knowledge about Indigenous astronomy as a background theme.

Curriculum connections

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

  • Explain how student solutions and existing information systems are sustainable and meet current and future local community needs (ACTDIP021).
  • Plan, create and communicate ideas and information, including collaboratively online, applying agreed ethical, social, and technical protocols (ACTDIP022).

This resource addresses the following excerpts from the achievement standard for Years 5 and 6 in Technologies (Digital Technologies):

  • explain how information systems and their solutions meet needs and consider sustainability 
  • manage the creation and communication of ideas and information in collaborative digital projects using validated data and agreed protocols

Inquiry-based learning questions

  • How can 3D digital technologies help preserve and teach traditional Indigenous knowledge and language?
  • How can this be managed appropriately?
  • Should collaborations include consultation and engagement with relevant Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities?
  • What lessons can one learn from the stories that are digitally animated?
  • How does the use of digital technology enhance the narrative?

Activity 1 - Film and discussion

Suggested timing for activity: 30 mins to 1 hour

Required resources: TV/computer, notebook, pen.

This activity is based on students watching up to three of the digital animations related to astronomy, keeping notes about particular aspects of the films, and participating in an in-class discussion.

  1. The teacher can present up to three of the MLCA films that are linked to astronomy. They include “Winjara Wiganhanyin (Why We All Die)” 7, “The Groper (a-Kuridi)” 8, and “Yagun Gulinj Wiinj (How Man Found Fire)” 9.
  2. Instruct the students to write down notes after they watch the video and lead an in-class discussion. Notes and discussion topics can include the following:
    1. What is the moral, philosophical, or scientific lesson of the story?
    2. What are the astronomical links in the story?
    3. What did you find interesting or engaging about the story in terms of the animation?
    4. How do the animations meet the needs of the relevant Aboriginal communities and how does it help sustain traditional knowledge and language? (ACTDIP021)
    5. How is this done ethically? (Do the researchers just do it on their own or are the Traditional Custodians involved? Why is this important and essential?) (ACTDIP021)

Activity 2 - Write a blog

Suggested timing for activity: 30 mins to 1 hour

Required resources: computer

This activity expands on the class discussion about the videos. Students then apply what they learned and develop a blog post discussing it.

  1. Have students get together in groups, compare their notes, then write a small blog post about their answers and what they learned, as if they were to share their insights with the world (ACTDIP022).
  2. Have students discuss how can they ensure their blog post is written in an ethical manner? Should they check with the Traditional Custodians about their interpretations and ensure accuracy and sensitivity in the discussion? (ACTDIP021)
  3. If time allows, the class can watch the videos describing the aims of the MCLA and the behind-the-scenes process discussing how the new technologies are used10.

The blog posts serve as an activity and an application of what the students learned, but are not intended to be published online. Nor should the relevant Aboriginal communities be contacted. This activity is simply aimed at having students better understand the importance of collaboration and permission in doing things ethically.

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.