University of Melbourne’s Return to Country program celebrates the genius of Indigenous engineering: ABC News

ABC Western Plains / By Jess McGuire and Jenaya Gibbs-Muir

The Brewarrina fish traps were added to the National Heritage List in 2005.(Supplied: NSW government)

For thousands of years, carefully placed rocks in rivers and creeks have created fish and eel traps that have fed generations of Indigenous families all over Australia. 

Some examples of such early Indigenous engineering still exist today and have been recognised nationally and globally as protected heritage sites.

When engineer Joseph West, a Murawarri man, looks at the heritage-listed Brewarrina fish traps (Baiame’s Ngunnhu) in north-west New South Wales, he sees more than just a few rocks in a river.

He sees ancient ingenuity that could help solve problems in rural and remote Indigenous communities today.

And he sees a way to inspire a new generation of Indigenous engineers and STEM experts, as part of a Return to Country program at the University of Melbourne that aims to help Aboriginal students stay connected to their communities.

man and woman standing alongside river looking over the ponds
Dr Joseph West took students to the Brewarrina fish traps as part of the Return to Country program.(Supplied: University of Melbourne)

Dr West, the university’s Associate Dean (Indigenous) with the Faculty of Engineering and Information Technology, hopes taking students onto country to see traditional structures like the Brewarrina fish traps will also motivate them to create innovative projects to benefit regional and rural communities.

“[The fish trap] is really an amazing engineering structure, which has stood the test of time,” he said.

“As an engineer myself, I could only dream of creating something that lasts thousands and thousands of years, even to the point where early last year, people were still catching fish from those fish traps.”

A man wearing spectacles and a scarf stands outside a sandstone building.
Joseph West says Indigenous thinking should be part of the engineering curriculum.(Supplied)

Dr West’s own journey towards engineering started by chance when, as a teenager in Bourke in western NSW, he saw an army truck parked across the road from Bourke High School and wandered over to have a chat.

That conversation led to him joining the army.

“Since that day, I got my engineering degree while serving in the army and did my PhD after leaving regular service,” Dr West said.

Recently, Dr West returned to his old high school to launch the Return to Country program, and took engineering students to view the fish traps, which are believed to be at least 3,000 years old and were heritage-listed in 2005.

“For engineers who are Indigenous, it provides a massive opportunity for them to bring their community challenges, issues and futures into the modern technology space, and bring those modern technologies back,” Dr West said. 

“Who better to design a new solution for a local issue to deal with water, or resources or energy than an Indigenous person from that community?” he said.

A wide river with weaving rock formations visable on the surface and trees on the embankment.
The Brewarriana fish traps are believed to be at least 3,000 years old.(Four Corners: Dylan Anderson)

Inspiration for all outback kids 

Dr West said the Return to Country program gave students the chance to return to First Nations communities and show how STEM subjects could bring new opportunities to children in the outback.

“I’m talking about everyone in the remote rural communities, not just Indigenous people,” he said.

Gundungurra woman Tully Mahr, who is studying a Master of Engineering at the University of Melbourne, jumped at the chance to participate in the program and said it was a great way to engage communities in the world of STEM, particularly minority groups.

A smiling woman with long, curly brown hair.
Tully Mahr is studying a Master of Engineering at the University of Melbourne. (Supplied)

“It’s something I’ve been advocating for, for quite a few years … for minorities in STEM, and particularly … Indigenous peoples and STEM,” she said.

She hopes the Return to Country program can be a starting point for more diverse representation in STEM.

“My hope is for young children in those communities, Indigenous or not, to believe that they do have a space in this field,” Ms Mahr said.

A meeting place, a sharing place

Brewarrina Aboriginal Cultural Museum tour guide Bradley Hardy said archaeologists and scientists who had visited the site over the years “all have different opinions about the ages of the fish traps”. 

However, they all agree that the fish traps “are one of the oldest man-made structures in the world”.

A man with a white shirt and cap stands in front of a river.
Bradley Hardy says the fish traps were a meeting place for Indigenous tribes. (ABC Western Plains: Gary-Jon Lysaght)

Mr Hardy said it was believed the traps were constructed by several tribes from the surrounding region, which could indicate they were also a meeting place for tribes to come together.

“In the beginning, it was a meeting place, gathering place, sharing place,” Mr Hardy said.

“In this new time, it’s still a meeting place, gathering place, sharing place, a place where we share rivers, that brought the community together, and still brings the community together.

“Our whole people had a difference of an opinion, but they still came together to build the traps for a purpose and they’re still here today even after the destruction [by floods].”

Another example of early Indigenous engineering is the Budj Bim eel traps, in south-western Victoria, that are believed to be at least 6,000 years old and became Australia’s 20th site on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2019. 

People walk down a path in front of a lake.
Budj Bim in Victoria is home to one the oldest known aquaculture systems in the world.(ABC News: Natalie Whiting)

Engineering roots in ‘Indigenous knowledge’

Dr West said engineering students from all backgrounds could learn a lot from how Indigenous knowledge could be used to design and develop projects that were long-lasting and impactful.

“I think there’s a whole bunch of benefits, not just for Indigenous people, but also for non-Indigenous engineers,” he said.

“The Indigenous way of thinking and developing and designing products is a really good exemplar of the origins of where engineering came from.

“So, we stand to benefit a lot from just having Indigenous knowledge in our engineering curriculum.”

Dr West said there was still work to be done for universities to create a seamless pathway for regional and rural First Nations kids to be able pursue further studies in these areas.

He hopes a program like this will open the door for universities to think more about initiatives that will allow students to study while also staying connected to their communities.

“It’s hard when you come from rural and regional areas to stay connected to your country, when you go away and do university and study,” he said.

“We wanted to get our members back into the community, to reconnect, and to also show how good engineering is as an option for a career choice.”

A man giving speech to people from community in a conference room.
Joseph West has met with local elders to showcase the benefits of communities participating in STEM.(Supplied: University of Melbourne)

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