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Indigenous Knowledges Research

Indigenous Cultural and Intellectual Property

“Indigenous knowledge… is increasingly viewed as a commodity— something that can be utilised, transferred to other contexts, developed, innovated, integrated, extracted, and patented.”  

Martin Nakata, Alex Byrne, Vicky Nakata & Gabrielle Gardiner (2005) Libraries, Indigenous Australians and a Developing Protocols Strategy for the Library and Information Sector, Australian Academic & Research Libraries, 36:2, 185-199, DOI: 10.1080/00048623.2005.10721259

Copyright and other intellectual property rights protect scholarly and creative works generally, but these protections have emerged from a Western idea of ‘knowledge outputs’ and are inadequate for protecting Indigenous knowledge. For example, cultural skills and practices are not covered by copyright, and Indigenous knowledge has been frequently misappropriated and inappropriately commercialised.

Recognition of specific rights and protocols apply when seeking to engage ethically with Indigenous knowledge. At the heart of these protocols and protections are the principles of respect, consent, reciprocity, and shared opportunity. If you are engaging with Indigenous knowledges in your research you should respect and uphold Indigenous cultural and intellectual property rights.
You can read more about protecting Indigenous knowledge and intellectual property by Wuthathi/ Meriam lawyer Dr Terri Janke. The video below gives a concise introduction to these issues.


You should seek to ensure your research follows the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies’ (AIATSIS) Code of Ethics and, where relevant, the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) Ethical Guidelines for Research with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples. The Indigenous Knowledge Institute’s Charter for Research with Indigenous Knowledge Holders also offers guidance for working ethically and equitably with Indigenous knowledge holders, as does CSIRO's Our Knowledge Our Way guidelines. If your research involves Indigenous knowledge you will need to explain how your research meets these guidelines when you make your ethics application. 

A commitment to ethical research with Indigenous communities should extend beyond formal compliance requirements. Rather, it should be motivated by deep respect and reciprocity with Indigenous communities. In addition to the guidelines listed above, consider undertaking professional development opportunities that further your understanding of ethical research practices. Ultimately, good relationships are central to ethical engagements with Indigenous knowledge systems. They require a commitment to working in enduring partnerships with Indigenous knowledge holders for the benefit of their communities.

Palyku scholar, Ambelin Kwaymullina recommends three threshold questions for non-Indigenous researchers to consider before engaging in Indigenous research:

  1. Should you do the research at all?
  2.  How does your positionality affect the research?
  3. Are you following ethical research processes?

Some other reflective questions to consider are:

  • Does my project enable Indigenous people to speak for themselves? Does it enable Indigenous people to lead?
  • Have I spoken with community to understand their priorities and interests? Does my project further those priorities?
  • Does the project confer a benefit to Indigenous people/ communities? If so, how? 
  • Does my project factor in adequate time for engagement/ collaboration? 
  • Does my project factor in remuneration for the specialist expertise and time of Indigenous knowledge holders? Note: The Melbourne Social Equity Institute provides guidelines on ethical remuneration for community research participants
  • Will Indigenous knowledge holders be recognised as co-authors/ co-researchers in the project?

Reflecting on your research methods

"The purpose of any ceremony is to build stronger relationship or bridge the distance between our cosmos and us. The research that we do as Indigenous people is a ceremony that allows us a raised level of consciousness and insight into our world."

Wilson, Shawn. Research Is Ceremony: Indigenous Research Methods. Black Point, N.S: Fernwood Pub, 2008.

It is important to think critically about the “how” of your research and the ways in which your research methods have been shaped by your worldview and experiences. The way you approach research may have been shaped by learning on Country, and the sharing of knowledge by your elders. Alternatively, it may have been shaped by 15 years in a Western education system. A great place to start reflecting on your formative ideas about research is to read Disciplining the Savages, Savaging the Disciplines by Torres Strait Islander scholar, Martin Nakata,  Decolonising Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples by Māori scholar, Linda Tuhiwai Smith, and Research is Ceremony: Indigenous Research Methods by Opaskwayak Cree scholar, Shawn Wilson.