Teacher background information


Year 4 Science Content Description

Science Understanding

Biological sciences

Living things depend on each other and the environment to survive (ACSSU073 - Scootle )

  • recognising how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples perceive themselves as being an integral part of the environment (OI.2, OI.3)

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples have the longest continuing living cultures on record. As such, many people feel that this is evidence of perhaps the most successful model of sustainability in existence. For millennia Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples have maintained a careful balance of the environment and the complex ecosystems within their Country/Place. This elaboration provides students with the opportunity to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples’ world view and understand how such cultures identify themselves as a fundamental part of the environment. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Peoples have deep knowledge of the dependencies of living things in an environment and perceive themselves as integral to these systems. This elaboration will deepen students’ understanding of the place of Peoples in the environment and the consequences of removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples from the environment.

As the First Peoples of Australia, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples have established and maintained a shared living culture with their environment since time immemorial. As Noonuccal woman Karen Martin-Booran Mirraboopa of North Stradbroke Island explains:

“We believe that Country is not only the Land and People, but is also the Entities of Waterways, Animals, Plants, Climate, Skies and Spirits. Within this, one Entity should not be raised above another, as these live in close relationship with one another. So People are no more or less important than the other Entities.” (Martin & Mirraboopa, 2003, p. 207).

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples live in a symbiotic relationship with their Country or Place and see themselves as belonging to the environment rather than having dominion over the environment. A reciprocal interrelationship exists between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples and the environment, which integrates sustainable practices with obligations to Country/Place. Humans, other animals, and the natural environment are all fundamentally connected in this holistic, ecocentric environment. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples view themselves as living components required by the environment, and dependent on other living things, for the environment to thrive.

Environmental understandings held by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples have been developed through long-held intellectual practices to generate, validate and interpret scientific knowledges gained empirically about the natural environment. This knowledge base is often called ‘traditional ecological knowledge’ (TEK). For millennia in Australia, First Nations Peoples have been an integral part of the environment and have developed deep understandings of the interrelationships that exist in the environment. This has resulted in potentially the most successful example of long-term environmental sustainability. For example, prior to colonisation, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples used their long-held knowledge to protect parts of the environment that provided sanctuary for specific animal species. Within the boundaries of a sanctuary, no hunting, fishing, burning or gathering was allowed. The sites were refuges to protect a breeding or nesting ground for a particular species, as well as the organisms in that area. The species is protected from human interference for the benefit of the environment and the Peoples. Eunonyhareenyha, north-east of Wagga Wagga in New South Wales, is a breeding ground for emu that, prior to colonisation, was protected by the Wiradjuri Peoples. Similarly, in the central desert of Australia, Aboriginal Peoples manage parts of the land by banning human activities such as hunting, gathering and burning, to ensure there are areas of sanctuary for the Red Kangaroo.

Care of the environment by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples has changed the land, and over many thousands of years, the animals and plants within delicately balanced ecosystems have adapted to human interaction. As Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples were completely dependent on the environment, they implemented carefully considered practices that ensured the existence of co-dependent species. For millennia Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples have used fire to consciously and deliberately promote the wellbeing of organisms within their environment. This is often referred to by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples as “cleaning up the Country”, and reflects a practice of care and consideration in maintaining a healthy and well-managed environment. The Martu Peoples of the Western Desert use fire in specific areas to encourage the regrowth of plants that are important food sources for people and animals, to create habitats for species, including endangered species such as the mankarr (bilby), and to prevent larger, damaging fires. Some areas of Country are not burnt in order to protect flora and to provide patches of older growth as refuge from predators. As humans are an integral part of the environment, changes to human interactions can impact other species within that environment.

Colonisation in Australia led to forced dispossession and physical disconnection from Country/Place for many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples. Consequently, the Australian environment, of which people are such a vital component, changed from the carefully balanced and managed system to an unbalanced system. For example, prior to colonisation, the Kuku-Yalanji Peoples of the rainforest regions in far north Queensland carefully managed large areas of tropical rainforest, and areas of open sclerophyll forest, through the implementation of fire regimes. Different types of environments require different fire regimes. Rainforest environments contain species that are susceptible to fire and rely on the dense tree canopy to provide a shaded, humid environment. Many sclerophyll forest plants are resistant to fire or may require fire for germination, and thrive in open well-lit conditions. For millennia, the Kuku-Yalanji Peoples have applied fire only to specific areas of their Country, to provide the environmental conditions necessary for plants to thrive. The disruption of these practices by policies of fire suppression following colonisation of the region has impacted the environment, as the integral role of People within the environment became disconnected. This disruption had a significant impact on biotic and abiotic factors within the environment, and as a consequence, caused significant change in the structure and composition of communities within ecosystems. Another consequence was the encroachment of dense, shaded rainforest into sclerophyll regions, which overshadowed open well-lit conditions and prevented the germination and establishment of seedlings of plant species such as Eucalyptus spp. This, in turn, impacted other living things in the interdependent environment.

The physical disconnection and forced displacement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples at the time of colonisation affected Peoples from fulfilling their obligations to Country/Place. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples have intimate and highly detailed knowledge of their Country/Place and understand the complex and intricate processes required for healthy, productive Country/Place. As the land no longer had Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples’ careful and controlled interactions, not only did the environment become unbalanced, but the Peoples who could no longer carry out their cultural responsibilities to Country also suffered greatly. As an integral part of the environment, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples are needed for the balance and survival of all living things within that environment.   

This elaboration provides students with the opportunity to understand the interconnected world view of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples. This ecocentric perspective places Peoples within the environment, as an intrinsic part of the larger system rather than in a place of dominance. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples have long understood the intricate relationships within the environment and have carefully implemented management practices that promote the sustainability of all organisms within the environment. Students will have the opportunity to understand how living things depend on each other and the environment to thrive, and that the change to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples’ role as living components within the environment impacts other elements within systems.

In the construction of this teacher background information, a list of consulted works has been generated. The consulted works are provided as evidence of the research undertaken to inform the development of the teacher background information. To access this information, please read and acknowledge the following important information:

Please note that some of the sources listed in the consulted works may contain material that is considered culturally offensive or inappropriate. The consulted works are not provided or recommended as classroom resources.

I have read and confirm my awareness that the consulted works may contain offensive material and are not provided or recommended by ACARA as classroom resources.

The following sources were consulted in the construction of this teacher background information. They are provided as evidence of the research undertaken to inform the development of the teacher background information. It is important that educators recognise that despite written records being incredibly useful, they can also be problematic as they are often based on non-Indigenous interpretations of observations and records of First Nations Peoples’ behaviours, actions, comments and traditions. Such interpretations privilege western paradigms of non-First Nations authors and include, at times, attitudes and language of the past. These sources often lack the viewpoints of the people they discuss and can contain ideas based on outdated scientific theories. Furthermore, although the sources are in the public domain, they may contain cultural breaches and cause offence to the Peoples concerned. With careful selection, evaluation and community consultation, the consulted works may provide teachers with further support and reference materials that could be culturally audited, refined and adapted to construct culturally appropriate teaching and learning materials. The ability to select and evaluate appropriate resources is an essential cultural capability skill for educators.

Baker, L. M. & Nesbitt, B. (1996). The role of Aboriginal ecological knowledge in the Horn Expedition and contemporary ecological research. In S. R. Morton, & D. J. Mulvaney (Eds.), Exploring central Australia: Society, the environment and the 1894 Horn expedition. Chipping Norton: Surrey Beatty & Sons.

Burgess, C., Johnston, F., Bowman, D., & Whitehead, P. (2005). Healthy Country: Healthy People? Exploring the health benefits of Indigenous natural resource management. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health, 29(2), 117-122.

Coastal and Marine Studies in Australia. (1994). The nature, purpose and scope of coastal and marine studies. Retrieved from http://www.mesa.edu.au/cams/module14/readings.htm

Hill, R., Griggs, P., & Bamanga Bubu Ngadimunku Incorporated. (2000). Rainforests, agriculture and Aboriginal fire‐regimes in wet tropical Queensland, Australia. Australian Geographical Studies, 38(2), 138-157.

Hill, R., Cullen-Unsworth, L., Talbot, L., & Mcintyre-Tamwoy, S. (2011). Empowering Indigenous peoples’ biocultural diversity through World Heritage cultural landscapes: A case study from the Australian humid tropical forests. International Journal of Heritage Studies, 17(6), 571-591.

Jackson, S., & Douglas, M. (2015). Indigenous engagement in tropical river research in Australia: The TRaCK program. International Indigenous Policy Journal, 6(2), 1-23.

Lawrence, D. & Reeves, L. H. (2004). Torres Strait: The region and its People. In R. Davis (Ed.), Woven histories, dancing lives: Torres Strait Islander identity, culture and history. Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press.

Martin, K., & Mirraboopa, B. (2003). Ways of knowing, being and doing: A theoretical framework and methods for Indigenous and indigenist re‐search. Journal of Australian Studies, 27(76), 203-214.

National Museum of Australia. (n.d.). Cultural mapping. Retrieved from https://www.nma.gov.au/exhibitions/on-country/cultural-mapping

Reconciliation Australia. (2017). Welcome to and Acknowledgement of Country. Retrieved from https://www.reconciliation.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/Welcome-to-and-Acknowledgement-of-Country.pdf

Rose, D. (1996). Nourishing terrains: Australian Aboriginal views of landscape and wilderness. Canberra: Australian Heritage Commission.

Roth, W. E. (1901). String, and other forms of strand: Basketry, woven bag-, and net-work (No. 1). North Queensland Ethnography Bulletin. Brisbane: Government Printer.

Sangha, K., Le Brocque, A., Costanza, R., & Cadet-James, Y. (2015). Ecosystems and Indigenous well-being: An integrated framework. Global Ecology and Conservation, 4, 197-206.

Skroblin, A., Carboon, T. & Martu. (2017). Martu knowledge of mankarr (greater bilby): Distribution, habitat, management. Retrieved from http://www.nespthreatenedspecies.edu.au/publications-tools/martu-knowledge-of-mankarr-greater-bilby-distribution-habitat-management

Smyth, D. (1994). Understanding Country: The importance of land and sea in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander societies. Canberra, A.C.T.: Australian Government Publishing Service.

Stanner, W. E. H. (1979). White man got no dreaming: Essays, 1938-1973. Canberra: Australian National University Press.

Sveiby, K. & Skuthorpe, T. (2006). Treading lightly: The hidden wisdom of the world's oldest People. Sydney: Allen & Unwin.

The Minnesota Alliance for Geographic Education. (2014). The land down under: The effect of environment on settlement and human activity. Retrieved from http://magemn.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/Trygestad-Australia-Enviro.pdf

Wet Tropics Management Authority. (1993). Fire. Retrieved from https://www.wettropics.gov.au/site/user-assets/docs/15Fire.pdf

Yu, S. (2000).  Ngapa kunangkul: Living water: Report on the Aboriginal cultural values of groundwater in the La Grange sub-basin. Perth:  The Centre for Anthropological Research.