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Rose Whitau studied with Professor Sue O’Connor as part of the ARC Linkage project ‘Lifeways of the First Australians’. Rose’s research investigated how people have adapted to climate and vegetation change in Bunaba-Gooniyandi country in the Kimberly over the last 45000 years.
Her study pathway has led her to some incredible places, and she has also followed her passion for netball and Indigenous community off the beaten track of academic achievement. She collaborated with Gooniyandi and Bunuba elders Mervyn Street and his wife (who has recently passed) on a story book in Gooniyandi and English, and has had poems published in Turbine Kapohau. She was recently awarded her PhD, just in time for her next adventure: she is expecting her first child in September.
To answer the question of how had people adapted to climate and vegetation change over the last 45000 years she analysed archaeo-botanical remains – plant remains– that survive in the archaeological record.
“I was mainly looking at wood charcoal from old fires and the archaeological deposit. If you have a reference collection of known woods that you have burned and you compare them under a microscope you can tell what type of plant the wood charcoal has come from, based on the anatomy of the wood structure.”
This shows shifts in the vegetation over time, and by implication the changes in climate.
“In one cave for example I found a change from a Eucalyptus-dominant savannah to a bloodwood-dominant savannah. The bloodwoods are more arid adapted and this vegetation change is synonymous with shifts in climate that we can see in the marine and other terrestrial records. It shows there was a drying in the climate that happened about 37000 years ago,” explains Rose.
Some of the artefacts Rose found in the field helped to shift ideas about the environment and the people who lived there. “I was also looking at how people were using the plants and managing the resources. At Riwi cave there aren’t many wood resources, the vegetation is mostly grass steppe: the trees are small and low. Jane Balme from the University of Western Australia first excavated there in 1999. This time we uncovered lots of things that don’t usually preserve in the harsh Australian environment, but did here because it was so dry.
“We found wood shavings, and a couple of wooden artefacts: the negative end of a fire drill (used for starting fires by using friction) and the other was a fragment of something, possibly a boomerang. These were from the newest layers; using radiocarbon dating we found that the fragments were both around 650 years old.
“In the context of Australian archaeology that’s not very old but it was cool because we used x-ray tomography technology with the assistance of the Applied Mathematics at ANU so that we didn’t have to cut the objects open. We found that the types of woods used to make those artefacts don’t appear in the wood charcoal record, so I could say all kinds of things about how people were managing the resources. In particular it shows that they weren’t using those woods for firewood, but to make things.
“It’s amazing to hold these things and realise what they represent: living culture that has endured there for millennia,” she reflects.
Rose’s fieldwork in Gooniyandi and Bunuba country would not have been possible without relationships with people in those places. These relationships have been nurtured over time by researchers Professor Sue O’Connor and Professor Jane Balme who were the Chief Investigators on the project.
“Another amazing thing we found (with colleague Dorcas Vannieuwenhuyse) was a 35,000 year old Gooniyandi hangi, or oven. When I was out on country Mervyn showed me how to cook a bush turkey Gooniyandi style using the exact same technique,” she says.
The relationships Rose and fellow researcher Tim Maloney developed with Mervyn and his wife led to a storybook project called Minnarjoowa – The Two Snakes and the Old Man which tells the story of the formation of Marrara (Margaret River) and aims to help preserve Gooniyandi language for young speakers. The book will also be sold to tourists by the community as a source of income.
“This project has been so amazing. Tim Maloney and I went and stayed with Mervyn and his wife several times over the last few years, went out on country with them. Most of the time I was filming, taking photos, looking after the old girls getting cups of tea. The stories unfolded over that time. One time you might hear the start of a story, then after a while you’d get a bit more of the story. There is a different concept of time about the place. It’s a massive culture shift that you have to do when you go out there."
Rose loved stories since she was a child and she completed her undergraduate degree in Classics, focussing on Greek and Roman literature. Rose is Māori (Kai Tahu, Kati Mamoe, Waitaha) from her father’s side. She grew up in Christchurch “mostly Pakeha” (NZ European), but being Māori is a big part of her identity.
During her PhD she took some time off to work for Shooting Stars, a program for Indigenous girls which uses sport and other incentives like bush camps to help build future aspirations in attending school and setting goals.
“A Koori friend and I were talking about how awesome it would be if there was an Indigenous netball conference. After that conversation I went home and googled ‘Indigenous women’s netball’ and I found this job and I realised “oh that’s me!’ I got the job and three weeks later I was moving to Carnarvon.
Although it was a big side track during her PhD her supervisors were supportive, and Rose discovered that she really loved community development. Her academic skills really came to the fore in her development of a new methodology for reporting.
“The reporting had to be done in a certain way and it felt a bit ‘tick the box’ so the Shooting Stars leadership team decided that Indigenous methodologies might be a better way to report on what we had achieved. It’s not my background, but I am a researcher, so I researched it. I found that the idea of ‘yarning’ would be a better methodology to capture the outputs and borrowed heavily from the work of Jessa Rogers, a friend and ANU alumna.
“When we yarn, the first thing we do is talk about how we are related to each other, establish connections. It might be through the fact that we are related, it might because you know me because I am your Shooting Stars leader. We talk about how it’s a safe space, we talk about what we’re going to yarn about. A yarn is essentially a conversation but the difference is at the end of it you should reach a group consensus about something.
“We yarn with the girls, the Shooting Stars participants, and the local Shooting Stars steering committees. We use all kinds of Indigenous and non-Indigenous methods. Sometimes we might get the girls to take photos of what they want to yarn about, what they want to improve.
“The Shooting Stars program is about making a difference to the lives of these girls and young women long term by shifting attitude, but this is very difficult to measure. We have come up with a bunch of different activities, which gauge how the girls’ attitudes towards school, their own health and wellbeing and future are changing over time. It’s really empowering for our girls.”
Find out more about the Shooting Stars Program here.