Indigenous knowledge is helping solve complex problems at Bandalang Studio, a new engineering design space at ANU.

A welded composition of springs, saws and levers, the sculpture is industrial. It’s also beautiful—made of metal burnished in places and inscribed with markings of deep cultural significance. It holds the stories and knowledge of Patrick Green, a Pintupi and Ngaanyatjarra artist, boilermaker and camelier.

Green’s sculpture ‘We Were Free Before’ speaks to narratives of land rights, colonisation, dreaming, water and engineering. It represents the water pumps installed by his grandfather, Anatjari Tjakamarra, in the early 1990s, deep in sacred Ngaanyajtarra Country.

This Country covers about 250,000 square kilometres of land, an area roughly 10 per cent larger than Victoria, spanning over Western Australia, South Australia and the Northern Territory. Tjakamarra’s people were the last Indigenous tribe to be contacted by Western culture in Australia. Contact was made in 1984, close to where Green and his family now live.

Patrick Green with his sculpture ‘We Were Free Before’, on display at the ANU Birch Building. Photo: Eric Byler/ANU

The installation of the water pumps enabled continued access to Kulkurta—one of the most culturally significant sites for Tjakamarra’s Pintupi clan. The Kulkurta site is the birthplace of the Tingarri people, the dreamtime people. Access to Kulkurta has sustained knowledge transfer from generation to generation, ensuring the ongoing caretaking of Country by Green and his people.

The bores sunk by his grandfather in the 1990s are still reliable sources of water in incredibly remote places. When Green started working to clear feral camels off Country back in 2015, he fast recognised these water sources were also going to be vital to his operation when he set up a business of his own.

“I’m a camelier, I catch and remove feral camels for a living,” Green says. “Those handpumps are so valuable, they are hidden in the bush all over the place.”

First introduced into Australia in the 1840s to assist with inland exploration, we now have more than one million feral camels and the population is growing rapidly. They are doing serious damage to important food plants and fragile salt lake ecosystems used by Aboriginal people, and destroying waterholes critical to environmental health.

Feral camels are damaging to fragile ecosystems. Photo: Vekidd/stock.adobe.com

“I adapt these old handpumps to new technology by taking the old handpump out and replacing it with a solar submergible pump,” Green explains. “Then I set up tank systems that I connect to a trough, the camels smell that water from miles off and come to drink at the troughs. From here I can remove the feral animals off Aboriginal land.”

Green transports the animals to a holding pen, from where he sells them.

“The best thing about running my own business is that I can provide culturally appropriate employment for my community. If any of my employees need to go off for a cultural responsibility like a funeral or ceremony, they can and they’ll have a job here when they get back.”

From Ngaanyatjarra to Ngunnawal and Ngambri Country

Green lives with his family in Kintore, one of Australia’s most remote communities located in the Northern Territory about 530 km west of Alice Springs. He had only just started his feral camel management business, Pintupi Livestock, when he travelled to Canberra to commence the inaugural residency at Bandalang Studio in late 2022.

Established by The Australian National University (ANU) School of Engineering, the studio is a meeting, collaboration and design space for students, researchers and practitioners whose work is anchored in Indigenous ways of thinking, knowing and doing in engineering, technology and design.

‘Bandalang’ is a Wiradyuri language name that means ‘joining’ or ‘junction’ and symbolises the spirit of connection and collaboration that is integral to the mission of the ANU studio.

“Going home to Kurlkurta, I can reconnect with my past. I feel free.”

Patrick Green

As Australia continues to experience ecological catastrophes caused, in part, by post-colonial land management practices, the ANU School of Engineering recognised it was high time to start listening to First Nations people. Practitioners such as Green, whose people have been thriving on this land for some 80,000 years without depleting its resources, are drawing on traditional knowledge to devise modern solutions.

Bandalang Studio is putting Indigenous knowledge at the fore, not just for environmental sustainability, but for the health of people and community. Fundamental to Indigenous knowledge systems is a transdisciplinary way of operating, underpinned by a philosophy that a whole system must be considered to find answers to problems.

In celebration of this philosophy, the studio has opened a series of well-paid, well-resourced and flexible residencies for First Nations people from all disciplines. Residents do not need to hold a degree in engineering, or any degree at all.

As Bandalang’s first resident, Green contributed to the foundations of the studio in profound and unexpected ways. His insights enriched our capabilities and grew our understanding of how to learn from and support Indigenous knowledge in engineering.

Backing people like Green is why the studio has been established. By supporting his work, we’re supporting his community. The health of this community directly correlates to the health of Country. Via these interconnected relationships, we are able to see the power of Indigenous knowledge systems.

When Tjakamarra sunk those bores in the 1990s it was an act of resilience. He knew that access to water was key to access to Country and culture. He used his traditional knowledge of water near sacred sites and made the water available for future generations using Western design and technology. It was a critical moment for his people and Country, and it resonates through his grandson’s work today.

“As the first-born grandson I am a Traditional Owner of this land. Going home to Kurlkurta, I can reconnect with my past. I feel free,” Green says.

‘We Were Free Before’ now stands in the ANU Birch Building, and, like Green’s adaptations of the water pumps on Country using new technology, his piece is a continuation of his grandfather’s legacy.

Bandalang Studio is seeking thinkers, practitioners, academics and people with non-traditional career paths for residencies and other work opportunities. To learn more, visit eng.anu.edu.au/bandalang.

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