What is First Nations Cultural Heritage?
“Sixty-five thousand years of uninterrupted heritage, demonstrated by archaeological evidence, makes our continent unique in the world… Australia’s landscape, waters, and seas, collectively referred to as ‘country’, are alive with a profusion of heritage places. Imbued with the essence of ancestral beings that created them, it is through these places that family descent and kinship connections flow.” Dhawura Ngilan: A Vision for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage in Australia
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander heritage, both contemporary and ancient, is celebrated nationally and on the global stage as one of the world’s longest continuously enduring human civilisations. Archaeological investigations that led to the discovery of human remains from the late 1960s onwards in the region of Willandra Lakes of southwest NSW, virtually rewrote the world’s ‘pre-history’ period of humanity. Today we have First Nations authors and academics celebrating their cultural heritage with titles such as Loving Country: A guide to sacred Australia or Welcome to Country: A travel Guide to Indigenous Australia.
In Welcome to Country, Marcia Langton has written something of a Lonely Planet guidebook to First Nations Australia. It covers pre-colonial history, cultural landscapes and artifacts, and takes us on a joyful contemporary journey to locations in each state and territory across this ancient continent.
[Image: Daisy Walkabout at a burn of country near Katiti Waterhole from Welcome to Country. Photo: Jessica Bolton.]
Langton reflects that perhaps the greatest legacy of the pre history peoples is to be found in the vegetation patterns and other evidence of tens of thousands of years of continent-wide land management regimes as discussed in Bill Gammage’s The Biggest Estate on Earth and more recently in Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu.
However, this degree of appreciation and celebration of First Nations’ cultures has not always been the case.
History of Cultural Heritage awareness in Australia
The first one hundred years of European colonisation was a period of intentional silence about the very presence of the First Nations peoples of Australia. The heart of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture – a sacred person-land-ancestral-interrelationship – was wantonly destroyed and communities marginalised.
[Image: Sacred Birthing Trees The destruction of a sacred tree on Djab Wurrung country, Victoria. Photo: Sean Paris]
The ’Timeline’ below shows the slow evolution from that silence to a growing awareness and more recently positive pathways towards conservation and appreciation for First Nations cultural heritage, and its great value for all Australians.
The destruction of Juukan Gorge and what is happening to protect our Cultural Heritage
On 24 May 2020, a sacred rock shelter in the Pilbara region of Western Australia was legally blasted by mining company Rio Tinto. An archaeology report had stated that it was of the highest archaeological significance in Australia containing a cultural sequence spanning over 40,000 years, with a high frequency of flaked stone artefacts, rare abundance of faunal remains, unique stone tools, preserved human hair and with sediment containing a pollen record charting thousands of years of environmental changes.
[Juukan Gorge in WA’s Pilbara Region before and after the 2020 destruction by Rio Tinto]
The grief, shock and outrage has reverberated globally.
As Terri Janke notes in Our Culture: Our Future, Australia and the world lost access to ‘intangible and tangible aspects of the whole body of cultural practices, resources and knowledge systems’ of human life going back 46,000 years.
In a brutally honest and thorough analysis of the long history of relationships between First Nations ownership and mining rights across Australia, Clare Wright a Professor of history says that ‘Juukan represents the pinnacle of the colonial mining project’. It demonstrated the almost total disregard of traditional owners as stakeholders when it comes to negotiating mining backed by government interests across Australia. She says:
“In a matter of minutes, eight million tonnes of ore were ripped from the earth, and with them, 46,000 years of cultural heritage destroyed… For this hefty price we all paid, Rio Tinto lawfully gained access to $135 million dollars of high-grade iron ore.”
Distinguished academics in the department of Law Reform and Social Justice at the Australian National University conducted a webinar panel discussion, ‘Destruction of Juukan Gorge, Law, Mining and the Protection of Aborginal Heritage’ in November 2020. They discussed how all levels of government legislation failed to protect such an invaluable site, how Traditional Owners are locked out of the process and they identify principles and strategies to inform updated legislation. Dr Virginia Marshall stated ‘‘We are burning our libraries” while archeology Professor Peter Veth warned that:
“We have seen the end of a long and conflicted era…. in this tragedy… We are at a critical point in recognition of Indigenous primacy in heritage in this country.”
Why and how did it happen?
The Puutu Kunti Kurrama Pinikura (PKKP) people “were let down by Rio Tinto, the Western Australian Government, the Australian Government, their own lawyers, and Native Title Law”.
Rio Tinto had acted within the legal requirements. Widespread backlash has turned the spotlight onto Australia’s outdated, severely inadequate and poorly coordinated cultural heritage legislation across Federal and State governments. Over time, amendments have been made to the processes for application to preserve a site. However, Traditional Owners continue to be marginalised in the process and the significant power of ministerial discretion to override the limited protections is used far too often. In the Juukan case, the Commonwealth, with its Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Act, of 1984, and Western Australia with its Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972 were responsible for this failure.
[Image: Ningura Napurrula, Untitled, 2008. Archaeological evidence links these famous contemporary track-and-circle paintings marking out a cultural landscape of Central Australia to rock art formations of the Pleistocene era.]
What is being done?
Responding to the wide backlash following the destruction of Juukan Gorge in 2020, the following responses have been initiated to date:
- A bill seeking to amend the Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972 (WA) began in September 2020. As of March 2021, the new Minister for Aboriginal Affairs in a newly re-elected WA Labor government vows to get the job done after acknowledging considerable criticism following the release of a widely critised draft circulated November 2020.
- A Federal Senate Enquiry has delivered an Interim Report, Never Again in December 2020, with a final report due at the end 2021.
- The First Nations Heritage Protection Alliance, set up immediately after Juukan Gorge, is working strategically at many levels across Australia to lift the protections for cultural heritage.