Australia’s Indigenous Heritage: Report on Forum

by | 6 Dec, 2020

David Purnell, Canberra Regional Meeting


There have been ongoing examples of Indigenous heritage sites being damaged or disturbed by development, urbanisation and adverse use of land. This has occurred sometimes as a result of deliberate government policies, sometimes by insensitive and ignorant intrusion by corporations and councils, and sometimes by accident. There is a strong sense of exploitation and despair among First People for the loss of significant sites and disruption of cultural practices. Indigenous heritage is a vital part of Australia’s heritage and needs to be valued more fully.

The Committee on Racial Equality (CORE), based with Canberra Quakers, joined with the Quaker national First Nations Peoples Concerns Committee (FNPCC) to host a Forum on-line for about two hours on Thursday 15 October 2020. The Forum was attended by around 70 people from across Australia, including people from government and NGO agencies. The Forum was facilitated by David Purnell from the CORE group.

(Note – Professor Dr Jakelin Troy (Ngarigu Woman from Snowy Mountains, Director of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Research at University of Sydney) was invited to speak but unable to attend).

The Welcome to Country was provided by Shane Mortimer (Ngambri Elder Mingku), and this was followed by a video of the Juukan Gorge traditional owners showing the destruction from the Rio Tinto blast of the Aboriginal site.

Notes on Speakers’ Contributions

 Dave Johnston (ANU Archaeologist, from Queensland Indigenous background, Founder of Indigenous Australian Archaeologists Association).

  • What happened in WA is a tragedy, but it’s nothing new, especially as all the structures enabling Aboriginal voices to be heard have been ‘dumbed-down’ or removed and not replaced. Government is not in synch with how Australians in general feel about Aboriginal heritage – it’s something for everyone to have pride in. Maintaining heritage sites – tangible and intangible – through people, symbols, traditions, landscapes, locations, customary law and current practices all have importance and value.
  • Guidelines to heritage ethics and legislation are being ignored at all levels of government. The Commonwealth Government needs to take responsibility –  for some time it has been devolving decisions/responsibility to the states. Respectful heritage law and management reform is needed. Australia is a signatory to international agreements which are not being enacted in domestic law. Indigenous heritage should be understood and appreciated by everyone.
  • There is a lot of pressure on the Government, around the COVID recovery, to be a good citizen and reflect how we want to be and live as Australians. This can provide opportunities to become more aware of Aboriginal issues, including heritage destruction – not just sites, but Aboriginal ways of life which are tied to our culture. Non-Indigenous lawyers and archaeologists have to ask themselves if they have been complicit with government and corporate destruction of heritage. More Indigenous people in these roles will make a difference. We need to ask about the role of the Minerals Council of Australia and the Northern Hub development program – we need to work together.
  • The some 7,000 artefacts held in storage by Rio Tinto should be included in agreements with Aboriginal owners. Whether or not the items are being truly protected is another question. There are some 700 applications for heritage protection under the CW Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act (1984). This backlog is finally being dealt with, in part because of what happened. The federal government has often indicated that it will work with the WA government to “lift its game” on heritage protection, but it hasn’t happened.
  • We are a lucky country, but at a fork in the road. COVID is making us stop and think – we have a moral obligation to listen to Indigenous people about protecting the earth. We need to work together.

Shane Mortimer (Ngambri Elder Mingku, Canberra, who is campaigning with Canberra residents to preserve the Ainslie volcanic site where an ancient petroglyph has been found).

  • Mt Ainslie’s composition of outcropping and boulders is unique in the world. The petroglyph on the site has been identified as authentic, rare and requiring protection. The site itself is also the last remnant of the original flora and fauna. Aboriginal practices, such as spearing kangaroo and farming of yams are part of the landscape’s history – spear tips are abundant on the site.
  • While Australia has not signed the UN Convention on the Rights of Indigenous People (one of four countries which hasn’t signed), it does recognise allodial title. The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, Article II defines genocide as any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group. Australia ratified this treaty in 1948, and yet inflicted such crimes on Aboriginal people. Australia’s Welfare Ordinance 1953 (NT) included arrangements for ‘wardship’ of incompetent (Aboriginal) persons which resulted in a loss of connection to land and removal of children.
  • In Australia, we need peaceful reform. The crown doesn’t have title to land which remains with the traditional owners. The Australian Parliament doesn’t ethnically represent the people of Australia, women are also disenfranchised. There is a need for enormous reform. The government structures we have are inherited from Britain and no longer serve the Australian people. We need a more deliberative process with greater diversity of participation. Perhaps a circle of elders, one male one female, for each language group for final decision making – removing the need for national, state and local governments.
  • There is no ‘us’ and ‘them’. This heritage is yours and my heritage, it is the world’s oldest heritage. We need to get this information out both domestically and internationally.

Pastor Ray Minniecon (Aboriginal pastor in Sydney, with connections to the Kabi Kabi and Gurang-Gurang nations and Ambryn Island).

  • What happened is nothing less that the complete destruction of Aboriginal heritage – it happens to our knowledge and philosophy on a daily basis.
  • James Cook quote: “From what I have said of the Natives of New-Holland they may appear to some to be the most wretched people upon Earth, but in reality they are far happier than we Europeans; being wholly unacquainted not only with the superfluous but the necessary Conveniences so much sought after in Europe, they are happy in not knowing the use of them. They live in a Tranquillity which is not disturb’d by the Inequality of Condition: The Earth and sea of their own accord furnishes them with all things necessary for life, they covet not Magnificent Houses, Household-stuff &c., they live in a warm and fine Climate and enjoy a very wholesome Air. . . . In short they seem’d to set no Value upon any thing we gave them, nor would they ever part with any thing of their own for any one article we could offer them; this in my opinion argues that they think themselves provided with all the necessarys of Life and that they have no superfluities”.
  • The western market economy is a closed system based on notions of scarcity and money exchange. The Aboriginal open economy takes pride in the sharing and giving of resources to others, and in cultivating the food which is provided by the land and sea. The Aboriginal open economy will never be accepted by the western economy which is based on accumulation and the belief that there is a scarcity of what we need to live full lives. Indigenous people, their knowledge and perceptions are treated badly and without respect in this closed system. Concepts of time and space are also different and tend to disadvantage Aboriginal people – “smashing” their knowledge and creating ongoing destruction of Aboriginal heritage and knowledge – as people they aren’t valued.
  • Australia has a constitution written by and for white men. Aboriginal people should not be recognized in the constitution, rather it (the constitution) should be removed, thereby also removing the crown. The two-party system needs to be removed and a Charter of Rights developed. It should be a constitution of the people – other countries had developed one and it’s time for us to do the same. We the People.

Dr Muhamad Hassan Ahmad (Assistant Professor, Faculty of Law, International Islamic University Malaysia, and has a long association with the ANU).

  • How can such destruction happen even though we have protection laws at both the domestic and international levels? Legal permission to destroy heritage sites is procurable through the existing laws.
  • Power imbalances between parties in a contract or other agreement can create a degree of coercion and prevent Aboriginal parties from enjoying/using their legally available rights under federal or state law. There can be conflicts of interest between the corporation, the archaeologists and the Indigenous people.
  • Cultural heritage destruction equals cultural terrorism. No one is talking about possible restoration or compensation – who would make such determinations? It’s not just an issue of Indigenous heritage, there must also be political will.
  • Ministers need the mindset to protect cultural heritage. (Note – he used a power point presentation provided a great deal of details, including suggestions for a way forward in decisions).

The Forum continued with a series of questions put together from participants. It ended with thanks to the speakers and a challenge to all Australians to make known their support for the Aboriginal voices that are speaking out about the heritage legislation and protocols. The CORE and FNPCC committees will do what they can to carry forward the concerns raised.

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