The Djenj Project: Two-way knowledge sharing in West Arnhem Land

Frances Deegan, APS Adviser, Governance & Giving, shares her thoughts on the extraordinary Djenj (fish) Project, a community-based project designed to promote two-way knowledge sharing and learning about fish and fishing in West Arnhem Land. Funded by philanthropy through the Kakadu West Arnhem Social Trust (KWAST), the project has created waves of positive affect through the whole community.

Background
The Mirarr are the Traditional Owners of land in the northern area of the NT, with most Mirarr land falling within the World Heritage listed Kakadu National Park. Jabiru is the main township in the park, located roughly three hours east of Darwin by road. Originally built as a closed town in 1982 to house miners to work in the Ranger uranium mine, it’s now home to about 1,000 people.

Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Corporation (GAC) is the Corporation established and controlled by the Mirarr to receive royalties from the mine and to provide services and support for Mirarr members and other Bininj affected by the Ranger mine in line with cultural obligations.  Kakadu West Arnhem Social Trust (KWAST) was established as a result of the renegotiated agreement, with a portion of the royalty payments directed to the Mirarr to be used to benefit Bininj (Aboriginal people) in the wider region of Kakadu West Arnhem.

David Ward, who sits on the KWAST Board with Mirarr and ERA representatives and I have visited the area often over the last five years. In May 2019 we were privileged to hear about the Djenj Project.

Djenj Project
The KWAST Board were approached in late 2018 to support the Djenj Project by GAC. The project is a community-driven collaboration, developed through discussions with GAC’s ranger group, Djurrubu Rangers, and Njanjma ranger group, and staff from the two local schools, with GAC and ERA.

The project aims to teach Bininj children and rangers about fish and scientific water research techniques to improve employment opportunities; for senior Bininj people to share traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) with Bininj children, rangers and researchers, and for everyone to work together to prepare teaching resources so that the project has long-lasting benefits.

Working in partnership with staff at the local schools and the GAC Cultural Heritage Coordinator, otolith (fish ear bone) specialist Dr Morgan Disspain conducts workshops to teach Bininj children and rangers how to collect information from fish such as length and weight, as well as the capture location and the fishing method used. The otoliths that they then work together to extract from the fish can provide valuable information about the fish’s life, such as how old it is, how fast it has grown, and what the conditions of the water it has lived in at different times of its life have been.

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Comparing the otoliths collected from the project to those recovered from archaeological sites in the local area, such as the 65,000-year-old Madjedbebe site, the team are able to study differences in the sizes of fish in the area in modern and ancient times. Local families have been invited to the school to share in cooking the fish left over after their otoliths have been extracted. Local Bininj elders are also coming into the school to teach the children and rangers how to build fish traps using traditional knowledge and environmental officers from the mine are teaching the rangers and students how to test the water where they were catching their fish.

Anecdotal evidence indicated the Djenj Project is proving highly successful already, with components of the project scheduled to run in August and October to include exploring bim (rock art) depicting fish or fishing. The children and rangers will also visit the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory where they will have a behind-the-scenes tour of the fish storage facilities.

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Support from the local schools have been vital to the success of the project. In her June 2019 progress report Dr Lynley Wallis, the project’s manager quotes Kelly Green, Lead Teacher, Gunbalanya School. “I would like to express what a great opportunity this has been for us in connecting curriculum in meaningful ways. Every classroom in the school has been involved in the learning programs linked to the Djenj Project, and the work they have produced shows heightened awareness about caring for the environment we live in.”

Daniel McLaren, Learning on Country Teacher, Gunbalanya School added, “So far, the Djenj Project has been great. The kids here at Gunbalanya School have enjoyed and been highly engaged in the learning activities that Morgan and her co-workers have provided. The project has been a great way to use students’ interest and knowledge of fish and fishing and make links with this to Science, History, Maths and literacy. I and the other teachers involved in this program and the students are all looking forward to the next visit.”

Visiting Jabiru is always one of the highlights of my professional year. The success of the Djenj Project demonstrates for me the power of thoughtful, considered grant-making to support projects that centre and empower the needs, wants and interests of community. The huge contribution of Dr Lynley Wallis, the project manager, and a person of great passion and enthusiasm cannot be overstated.

This project does so many things so well; valuing and bringing together scientific and traditional ecological knowledge through fun, project-based activities, helping Bininj kids to expand their maths, science and literacy skills and exposing local students and their families to both traditional skills like fish trap making and the world of research and science. Particularly noteworthy has been the innovative pedagogical approach taken to working with Bininj students. Bininj students are stepping out of the classroom and developing their literacy and numeracy skills in ways that speak directly to their cultural strengths such that the learning is occurring without them realising it.

I can’t wait to hear what happens next.

Frances Deegan, APS Adviser, Governance & Giving

Thank you to Dr Morgan Disspain and Dr Lynley Wallis for their permission to use tracts of their Djenj Project Progress Report, June 2019, to prepare this article.