Australia has begun employing the Web as a major tool in gathering, preserving and sharing the cultural traditions of its native peoples. The religious, personal and individual stories of Australia’s native peoples, their visual art and worldviews are globally acknowledged to have a powerful presence. However, as with most now-minority peoples around the world, the forces of centralization and modernization have taken their toll.

Now, Web technologies are allowing the peoples in question to dynamically capture and pass on the wisdom and experiences of their culture as a whole and those of their elders in particular. Here are two particularly exciting examples of how technology has been used in Australia to achieve these goals.

For the record, the term “aboriginal” as a noun describing the native peoples of the continent has fallen out of failure. Aside from being tarred with racist attitudes, it is also impossibly reductive. In much the same way that the “Indians” of the United States are very different from one another, the dozen-plus major cultural groups of native Australians are equally distinct. “Aboriginal Australians” and similar phrases are now favored.

The Ara Irititja Project.

This project is maintained by the Anangu of Central Australia. Its name means “stories from a long time ago” in the language of that people.

“The aim of Ara Irititja is to bring back home materials of cultural and historical significance to Anangu. These include photographs, films, sound recordings and documents. Ara Irititja has designed a purpose-built computer archive that digitally stores repatriated materials and other contemporary items.”

It’s a deep indicator of the importance of both culture and the technology that has been brought to bear in its service that the focus of the project is in building a cultural database accessible by all via the Web. The Anangu approach to melding the two is eye-opening.

“Anangu have managed complex cultural information systems for thousands of years, restricting access to some knowledge on the basis of seniority and gender. Ara Irititja has integrated these cultural priorities into the design of its digital archive.”

What the Anangu are doing is so complex and multifarious that proper coverage of their efforts could easily fill a book. Chapters might include physical archiving, language preservation and teaching, gathering living voices, culturally-based software development, helping other groups make the transition to the Web, creating multimedia expressions of cultural concerns, exhibition creation and developing protocols for the sharing of information with outsiders. Of particular interest, I think, is the way the Anangu inflect their use of communications technologies to reflect their cultural values. In other words, technology remains a tool in their hands, not vice versa.

Sponsored by the Australian Broadcasting Company, this project “was developed from a sense that many Australians have not had the opportunity to learn about the history and cultures of Indigenous people in this country. The most appropriate way for this history to be shared is through stories, oral history, the way that our history has been passed down through the generations for thousands upon thousands of years.”

Mission Voices.

These oral histories were gathered in conjunction with the Koorie Heritage Trust. The Koorie are a people of New South Wales and Victoria, in the southeast of the country. The emphasis is information from and about “missions and reserves,” the rough equivalent of “Indian reservations” in the United States. These reserves include Ebenezer, Lake Tyers, Coranderrk, Cummeragunja, Framlingham and Lake Condah.

According to the website, the human emphasis was on Australian Aboriginal elders.

“Elders were invited from across Victoria to be a part of the project. There are many more Elders across this state and country that have an important contribution to make with the telling of their story. This site is only representative of a section of the history of missions and reserves in Victoria and only some of the voices.”

Readers can navigate the site by reserve or by subjects, such as spirituality, justice and living culture; or by, as the site itself puts it, “the land and the theme.” From this context-building information, including video presentations, the visitor can drill down to individual voices, such as Uncle Jack, a Wotjobaluk and World War II vet.

Do your people use the Web to preserve and pass on their culture? Do you work on such a project? Or is there simply a project of that description from which you gained something by interacting? If so, please share it with us and your fellow readers in the comments.

Top photo from Ara Irititja | other illustrations and photos from Mission Voices | special thanks to @debrockstroh