Indigenous heritage

About Indigenous Heritage

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander heritage is an important part of Australian heritage. Evidence of the occupation of Australia by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people dates back more than 60,000 years. As well as historically important, Indigenous heritage is of continuing significance, creating and maintaining continuous links with the people and the land.

Places that hold great meaning and significance to Indigenous people include:

  • places associated with Dreaming stories depicting the laws of the land and how people should behave
  • places that are associated with their spirituality
  • places where other cultures came into contact with Indigenous people
  • places that are significant for more contemporary uses.

Identifying Indigenous heritage places

The Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act) establishes the National Heritage List, which includes natural, Indigenous and historic places that are of outstanding heritage value to the nation. The Act also establishes the Commonwealth Heritage List, which comprises natural, Indigenous and historic places on Commonwealth lands and waters or under Australian Government control, and identified by the Minister for the Environment (the Minister) as having Commonwealth Heritage values.

The Australian Heritage Council (the Council) is the Australian Government's expert advisory body on heritage matters. It includes Indigenous experts, who must be Indigenous people with appropriate heritage experience or expertise, at least one of whom represents the interests of Indigenous people on the Council.

Seeking Indigenous views on listings

When a place is nominated for inclusion in the National or Commonwealth Heritage lists, and the Council considers that it may have Indigenous heritage values, the Council must endeavour to identify the Indigenous people with rights and interests in the place. It must then invite their views on whether the place should be included in the list. The Minister takes those submissions into account when making a decision about listing the place.

Protecting Indigenous heritage places

Australian governments have a range of laws to protect Indigenous heritage, including the EPBC Act, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act 1984 and the Protection of Movable Cultural Heritage Act 1986.

Under the EPBC Act, there are penalties for anyone who takes an action that has or will have a significant impact on the national heritage values of a place.

The Indigenous Advisory Committee advises the Minister on the operation of the EPBC Act taking into account their knowledge of the land, conservation and use of biodiversity.

Australia's state and territory governments have broad responsibilities for recognising and protecting Australia's Indigenous heritage, including archaeological sites.

The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act 1984 enables the Australian Government to respond to requests to protect important Indigenous areas and objects that are under threat, if it appears that state or territory laws have not provided effective protection.

The Australian Government can make special orders, called declarations, to protect traditional areas and objects of particular significance to Aboriginals in accordance with Aboriginal tradition from threats of injury or desecration. However the government cannot make a declaration unless an Indigenous person (or a person representing an Indigenous person) has requested it. The power to make declarations is meant to be used as a last resort, after the relevant processes of the state or territory have been exhausted.

The Australian Government is proposing major reforms to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act 1984 with the aim of improving the protection of the traditional heritage of Indigenous Australians in all states and territories.

Managing Indigenous heritage places

Indigenous Australians are involved in developing management plans for places with Indigenous heritage significance on the National or Commonwealth Heritage lists. National heritage places on Indigenous land can be managed through conservation agreements, which operate in the same way as Indigenous Protected Areas.

Where the Minister considers that the heritage values of a place in the National or Commonwealth Heritage Lists could be significantly damaged by the disclosure of some information, the Minister may decide to make publicly available only a general description of the place, its location or its national heritage values.

National Heritage Listing and native title rights

Entry on the National or Commonwealth Heritage lists does not affect native title rights. Section 8 of the EPBC Act specifically states that nothing within the Act will affect the operation of section 211 of the Native Title Act 1993.