Integrating Aboriginal Perspectives Into Engineering Education (Part Two)

All human cultures have unique features, as well as characteristics shared with all other humans. Being human involves a range of physical factors including managing family and group life, engagement in social and individual activities like work and play, and making sustained efforts to provide for basic health and safety needs. How all these elements are enfolded into particular cultures is uniquely shaped by intangible factors called – variously – beliefs, values systems or philosophies. These intangibles are powerfully strong in shaping actions and reactions, yet also very subtle and therefore hard to discern either from ‘inside’ or ‘outside’ their sphere of influence. Those for whom a particular set of beliefs and values are the ‘norm’ find it hard to consider that anything else could be viable, while those for whom it is unfamiliar and even ‘strange’ often have a highly judgmental view of what is unfamiliar, based on their comfort with what they know.

Given this very human condition it is not so surprising that Aboriginal culture and society was not well regarded by Europeans arriving on Australian shores from the 18th century. These new arrivals were used to living in large well-built structures, traveling on surfaced roads using wheeled vehicles, and residing ‘permanently’ in one location while having the capacity to move between cities and smaller towns. They expected to own property including land and houses, and did not understand that they were meeting a culture that had little time, or need, for material possessions and certainly did not ever consider that any one might ‘own’ the land.

Aboriginal culture as it had developed within Australia’s shorelines from around 40,000 thousand years ago, had taken a very different path from that which had evolved in Europe. Its philosophical underpinnings created a different set of actions in regard to land and property and relationships with land and each other.

In Europe, as on other continents, some beliefs are held in common across a wide span of land, while each national grouping, within that space, has its own highly specific characteristics. It was no different on the Australian continent. Aboriginal nations had delineated lands whose boundaries were more or less clearly understood by all involved. Similarly their social and cultural beliefs shared a large body of common knowledge, while there were also highly specific and distinct sets of localised knowledge and beliefs. This fact is not well understood, even in the 21st century, and there continues to be a widespread tendency to assume a complete absence of variation among Aboriginal peoples in Australia.

Localising this Aboriginal Perspective

Accepting that ‘difference’ does not mean ‘less than’ or ‘more than’ requires acknowledging the existence of this diversity of beliefs and cultures. It also means understanding enough about the underpinning differences. Such ‘understanding’ is not expected to extend to unquestioning adoption of specific beliefs and values, however it is essential for sustaining respectful attention to their implications for achieving effective communication.

To achieve this within the constraints of the Engineering Across Cultures project we have drawn on a specific set of beliefs based in the Illawarra region of Australia. While anchored in the wider traditions of Aboriginal Australia, and grounded in the proposition that applications of our model, outside this region, uses of this perspective must be calibrated with perspectives of the region where it is to be used. As far as possible we have formulated this perspective to align with the broader framework of Aboriginal beliefs as we understand them. However it is vital for users of the model to establish for themselves the local perspectives of the region where they will be working.

An Aboriginal Perspective

The five items are listed in this order to indicate their cumulative impact on the behaviours and relationships among Aboriginal people. While they are presented in sequence here, even a superficial inspection will show that they are in fact a cycle wherein each one leads to the next, and back to the beginning. Connectedness leads back to country and country points in the direction of inter-connectedness. From this perspective there are no singularities.

  • Country – refers to ones connection to place. The intimate relationship one has with the surroundings, one’s nature.
  • Kinship – one’s connection to people (family, kin, people of significance). There are roles and responsibilities/obligations that evolve with these relationships, over time shaping how they bind you to ‘your’ place.
  • Culture – there is a core understanding that culture is a lived day-to-day expression of who had how to be. This culture is a reflection of the history (story) experienced within a place (country) and is particular and specific to that place and people.
  • Journey – one’s lived experiences (these can be shared, and regularly are). They are one’s lived and experienced connections over time to place, people and day-to-day happenings.
  • Connectedness – All things are inter-connected! There are inter-relationships among all things, and the harmonisation of concepts creates one’s true sense of belongingness

Keeping these five elements in mind means that non-Aboriginal parties involved in negotiations, shared learning experiences or other collaborative activities can become more adept at appreciating how Aboriginal participants engage with both people and the land.

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