Cultural guardian

12 Nov 2012

Author: Brad Howarth

Photography: Pierre Toussaint

Video:

No-one knows how much of the oral traditions of Australia’s Indigenous peoples have been lost since the arrival of European settlers. But it is true that stories, place and animal names, and even entire languages have faded from memory with the passing of generations.
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Tyson Mowarin wants to put a stop to the forgetting. It is his dream to use digital technology to capture the knowledge of Aboriginal people and ensure it is available for future generations.

Born of the Ngarluma people of the Pilbara region of Western Australia, Mowarin retains strong links to the traditional lands of his tribe. It is a bond that he fears is missing for many Indigenous people.

“It’s extremely important, because knowledge is power, and knowledge is identity as well,” Mowarin says. “If Aboriginal people don’t know who they are or where they are from, then they are lost. You can call yourself Aboriginal, but you won’t feel whole without your knowledge.”

Mowarin’s elders are the last of his people to have lived out on the lands, and to have shared their stories around the campfire. This is how knowledge has been traditionally passed on through Aboriginal people, and it is something that Mowarin has been fortunate to experience.

“If a city person drives through our country, all they will see is hills, trees and rivers,” Mowarin says. “But if you come for a ride with me, I can name those hills, I can tell you where people were born, I can tell you whose families lived on which stations and I can tell you the Indigenous names for the animal that just ran, hopped or flew past.”

Now he wants to capture and share that experience through an online social media initiative called The Digital Dreamtime Project. This is comprised of a series of multimedia projects whose goal is to use digital technologies to identify, document and preserve Australian Indigenous culture.

The hub of the Project is iCampfire.tv, which Mowarin describes as a place to broadcast, share and preserve Australian Indigenous culture.

“It has grown and evolved,” Mowarin says. “It’s more of what I like to call a living, breathing archive of culture and history, as opposed to a sleeping archive like a library.”

Mowarin grew up in the Pilbara, but as a teenager his love of music prompted a move to Perth to continue his music studies. The following years were spent playing in bands in Perth and working on the land with his father in Queensland. When the mining boom started he returned to the Pilbara to work as a scaffolder and labourer.

Around the same time a local Aboriginal corporation received funding for a documentary video.

“Because of my interest and knowledge and skills in sound, I was recruited to work with those guys as the sound guy,” Mowarin says.

That project turned into a traineeship with the Ngarluma Aboriginal Corporation, where Mowarin produced newsletters, and created and edited videos. This gave him the skills and confidence to start his own projects, and in 2008 he formed his own multimedia production company, Weerianna Street Media.

In the same year he made his first short film, Mabuji, as part of the Deadly Yarns series. Mabuji was based on a story told to Mowarin by his uncles of an old fella who died near Nickel River, and whose spirit would continue to ride with the musterers of the present day.

It was his quest to promote Mabuji that saw Mowarin investigate digital media as a platform for storytelling. His first idea was to create a pay-per-view online video channel.

“I thought it might have been a good way to get my film up, and also other Indigenous people’s films,” Mowarin says. “But then I realised that nobody wants to pay for anything online.”

He did, however, secure a grant through Aboriginal Economic Development to further his research, which led in turn to securing funding from the Woodside Rock Art Foundation and the creation of The Digital Dreamtime Project.

Perth-based digital communication strategist Simon te Brinke is one of many who have collaborated with Mowarin through the development of the project.

“Australian Indigenous culture is endangered,” te Brinke says. “Tyson is acutely aware of this and wants to enact change using technology.”

Another project that Mowarin is developing is a “Welcome to Country” smartphone application that would tell users about the Indigenous people of their immediate location, and could be used to acknowledge traditional owners in the welcome messages of conferences and other events.

This was one of the projects that Mowarin took to the annual X Media Lab series in Perth in 2011. X Media Lab co-founder Megan Elliott describes him as a pioneer in the application of digital technologies to the preservation, celebration and participation in Indigenous cultures, languages, lands and storytelling. 

“Apart from his own projects, Tyson is an unstinting and generous mentor and a titanic force in increasing digital literacy and participation among the people of his own communities,” Elliott says.