Aboriginal Digital Knowledge Takes Centre Stage at International Conference


The couches came out at #dh2015 for the Indigenous Digital Knowledge panel. Photo by Bruce B Janz via Twitter.

The couches came out at #dh2015 for the Indigenous Digital Knowledge panel. Photo by Bruce B Janz via Twitter.

Ground breaking use of technology by Australian Aboriginal people was featured at the recent Global Digital Humanities Conference held at the University of Western Sydney. In a session that captivated the attention of academics from around the world the Indigenous Digital Knowledge plenary panel demonstrated that Aboriginal people are innovative in their embrace of technology.

Unlike so many conferences which non-indigenous people lead the discussion about indigenous issues, three of the four academics on this panel are Aboriginal people. As many Aboriginal people have observed, they are probably the most studied populations on earth, but it is the non-indigenous researchers who get credited in our society for their knowledge about Aboriginal people.  It was refreshing to hear from Aboriginal people who are experts in their fields of technology and the humanities tell a non-indigenous audience how it is for Aboriginal people.


Professor Peter Radoll

Professor Peter Radoll is Dean of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education at the University of Newcastle. He didn’t complete high school and became a motor mechanic until one day Aboriginal elders told him they believed that he should go to university (read about his story at ABC Newcastle). He ended up doing a PhD in Information Systems on the topic, ‘Stone Chips to Silicon Chips: A Grounded Theory of Information and Communication Technology adoption in Australian Indigenous households— rural, urban and remote‘.

Radoll pointed out that information technology is not culturally neutral and it is not value neutral. Non-indigenous people are generally the designers of technology. Hence technology is not designed to work in indigenous cultural settings.

Radoll shared with the conference the exciting IndigenousX initiative. This is a suite of social media and news initiatives started by Aboriginal man, Luke Pearson. Culture is expressed through technology. It has to fit in with the way we live our lives. The power of the IndigenousX initiative is that it is created in a way which works well with indigenous lives and importantly, allows Aboriginal people tell their stories on their terms to non-indigenous people.

IndigenousX started on Twitter – @IndigenousX. You can support IndigenousX by following them on your preferred social media networks and supporting the IndigenousX crowd funding campaign. (As an aside I liked the story IndigenousX host, Azra Rochester told of teaching Aboriginal students about how Aboriginal people served in the World Wars)

Susan Beetson

Susan Beetson

Susan Beetson is a PhD student from Brewarrina with a degree in information technology and has worked as a systems administrator and ICT manager. She tutors in information systems management at Queensland University of Technology and is researching the experiences of people networking using social media.

While discussing a program she was involved in to provide laptops and encourage digital storytelling by Aboriginal children, Beetson made a profound observation which resonated with the audience. It is not an issue of people not being ready to use technology. The issue, she said, was that technology was not ready for people. This is something we should remind ourselves when we feel confronted when we feel that we are failing when using technology. Quite often our inability to use some technology is really a problem in the design of that technology.

Julia Torpey

Julia Torpey

Julia Torpey is doing a PhD in history at the University of Sydney. She has worked on the Deepening Histories of Place project at the Australian National University. As Paul Arthur, Professor of Digital Humanities at the University of Western Sydney has observed, this is a digital history project that has done ground breaking work in the area of Indigenous Cultural Intellectual Property Rights management.

Torpey shared her experience of indigenous digital storytelling. With the collaboration of Aboriginal Elders, artists and community members in the Sydney and Blue Mountains region, she has recently completed an enhanced ebook, At the Heart of It: Place stories across Darug and Gundungurra lands(This would be a good book to review for the Australian Women Writers Challenge)

Torpey captures stories of lived lives that she says are not regarded as important enough to be regarded as history. She talked about the importance of trust to encourage storytelling by Aboriginal people and said there was a need for more projects and exchange between researchers and indigenous people over the long-term.

This reminded me of the problem of too many good academic projects which receive funding for less than five years. A lot of good work can be done but then the project just sits on the web, losing the vitality needed to attract interest, gradually losing relevancy and falling into a state of disrepair.

Torpey talked about the genuine partnership needed between the researcher and the Aboriginal story-teller. She emphasised the importance of sharing the original recording with the storyteller and having clear research protocols in place.

Professor Peter Read

Professor Peter Read

The final presenter in this session was, Professor Peter Read, the convenor of the panel and the only speaker who is not Aboriginal. He was part of a team of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people who created A History of Aboriginal Sydney website. He urged us to use our imagination and do something meaningful with the technology at our disposal. He also urged us to see a place from everyone’s perspective. Read used the example of the meeting place of Aboriginal people on what is now the site of the Sports Academy at Narrabeen on Sydney Northern Beaches. He asked, what did the non-indigenous person see? Even though that meeting site was used by Aborigines until the 1950s he observed that non-indigenous people did not see them from the Wakehurst Parkway road which ran close to this site. To the non-indigenous person this site was empty and unused, to the Aboriginal person who saw these meetings, this site was an important place. Read also urged us to incorporate the emotional point of view in our visualisations he said. How did people feel in place?

During the panel we heard that Ted Strehlow’s memoir, Journey to Horseshoe Bend, is to be republished online. Strehlow was a researcher of the Arrente Aboriginal people in the twentieth century and amassed a significant collection of recordings, artefacts etc. A symposium is being organised in October to coincide with the public launch of the work. For the time being you can have a look at the project’s website.

The Indigenous Digital Knowledge panel was invigorating because it demonstrated the fact that technology operates through culture and is of culture. This became abundantly clear because the discussion was in the terms of a culture that differed to that of most people in the conference.

This was an international conference and thus needed to manage the variety of different cultural and language backgrounds of participants. As the discussion by this panel progressed some of the Australians in the audience became aware that even the native English speakers in the audience would probably be having some difficulty following the colloquial Australian English and Aboriginal English that the speakers on stage were using. We started to tweet explanations of these terms. I wonder how the non-native English speakers in the audience managed to follow the discussion?

Conference BannerThis highlights the difficulties of organising an international conference. How do the organisers make the proceedings accessible to everyone? The difficulties are not just about language. I noticed the impact of different cultures on the style used to present various papers. The favoured culture of digital humanists tends to be borrowed from the open access, technology culture online. It is informal, humorous at times, while still discussing deep issues and complex problems. It is difficult for a person from a more formal culture or a non-English speaking background to gain rapport with an audience which generally favours an informal tone. There was also a need to provide working microphones in the conference rooms as a quietly spoken person with a heavy accent is difficult to hear.

It is only when we have international visitors that we realise how our culture is developing and differs to others. A common question throughout the conference was from international participants wanting to know more about the Welcome to Country and Acknowledgement of Country protocols which are now standard at public events in Australia. This reminder that we are on land that Aboriginal people have cared for over the millenia is important. I recall seeing a tweet from a participant from another country suggesting that their country should adopt this protocol. We have a long way to go to develop a respectful relationship with the First Nations of Australia, but I feel that we have taken a good step by adopting these practices.

A feature of the digital humanities community is how they have embraced Twitter. Throughout this panel and every other session you could hear the soft tapping of numerous keyboards. A large proportion of the audience was tweeting about the proceedings for people listening in around the world using the #dh2015 hashtag. Twitter is a great communal note-taking and reporting service. The more people who are tweeting the more comprehensively a conference can be recorded.

Here are a few tweets that convey the general feeling of the audience about the Indigenous Digital Knowledge Panel.

Norwegian digital humanist and Professor of Digital Humanities at the University of Passau, Øyvind Eide, commented:

Australia’s first Professor of Digital Humanities, Paul Arthur observed:

Digital Humanities Librarian at Stanford University, Glenn Worthey, commented on the warning that is given to Aboriginal people before an image of a deceased Aboriginal person is shown or they are named:

Louise Denoon, Senior Curator at the State Library of New South Wales, voiced the thoughts of many during the panel:

I couldn’t agree more with Arianna Ciula, Research Facilitator in the Department of Humanities at Roehampton University:

The Indigenous Digital Knowledge panel was important not only because Aboriginal people dominated the panel, but also because two Aboriginal women were on the panel.

In the first session of the conference participants were dismayed because not one woman was part of the proceedings on stage. This is surprising given that the number of women who are leaders in digital humanities world-wide. Given the embrace of Twitter by this community, there was a lot of tweeting about this issue. On the second day Deb Verhoeven, Professor of Media and Communication at Deakin University, used her position as chair of the keynote session featuring Geraldine Bell of Intel, to eloquently and directly tell men what they could do to help develop a community with more equal participation and leadership by women.

An important issue that I feel we need to focus on is to ensure that women of non-English speaking backgrounds and women of colour are welcomed into this community and given the platform. If we concentrate on this, I feel sure that the ‘women issue’ will then right itself.

In giving centre stage to Aboriginal people and Aboriginal women in particular, I feel the organisers of the conference showed leadership and a willingness to embrace diverse cultures that is not often seen in academic conferences. I would like to see other disciplines make a concerted effort to follow this example.


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