Natural and Cultural Heritage Theme Report

Australia State of the Environment Report 2001 (Theme Report)
Lead Author: Jane Lennon, Jane Lennon and Associates Pty Ltd, Authors
Published by CSIRO on behalf of the Department of the Environment and Heritage, 2001
ISBN 0 643 06752 3

State of community awareness and action

Awareness of Indigenous heritage

  • Use of Indigenous language
  • Use of Indigenous languages in signage
  • Conclusions and implications regarding community awareness of heritage
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    The increased awareness of Indigenous heritage by the general public, and increased efforts by Indigenous communities to maintain their heritage, are discussed as two separate issues. For example, the use of Indigenous languages in local radio programs is related mainly to internal community needs rather than to the general public, in the sense that people who do not speak that language will not listen to the program, although the fact that such programs exist makes a point to the public. However, there is a complex and interesting relationship between the issues of internal and external exposure of Indigenous heritage.

    Transferring knowledge about Indigenous cultural heritage is crucial for its maintenance and preservation, and language is a vital component of that transfer. In order to ensure that this transfer of knowledge takes place, access to country, to cultural items, to language, and to education by the elders is vital. The cultural facilities a community has are an integral part of community awareness. Thus in one sense, the increased efforts by Indigenous communities to maintain their heritage is a prerequisite for the general community in growing awareness of and understanding of this culture.

    Within communities, education is a crucial factor in handing on knowledge from one generation to the next. The degree of access to country is also an essential element for Indigenous people. Where Indigenous people are away from their country, funding can be a major issue for the education of the young. In addition, many property owners restrict Indigenous people's access, even though they have lease conditions which say they should allow them on and through the leased land.

    The Knowles (2000) survey data show that two-thirds of the Indigenous organisations surveyed undertake some form of education program. In many cases these are ad hoc and are undertaken only when requested. Most organisations recognise the importance of education and are limited only by the lack of funds for such work. Indigenous people believe their cultural heritage is undervalued by Australian society. They see a direct link between this lack of knowledge and understanding and the lack of respect shown for the preservation and conservation of their heritage. All the organisations surveyed would like to be doing more to advance the cause of Indigenous heritage by playing a role as educators, but in most cases this is peripheral to their core work.

    Intergenerational Indigenous education

    Education is a crucial factor in the transfer of cultural knowledge. A good example of a program for those not living 'in country' is that organised by the Bamanga Bubu Ngadimunku (Queensland). Over the last couple of years the elders have taken the Mossman Gorge community children on regular culture camps to the Daintree, Cape Tribulation, and around Mossman (Cairns and District Regional Council, ATSIC, Annual Report 1998-99, p. 27). On the camps the children are taught bush craft and about protecting the environment. Over the campfire in the evening the children are told stories of the ancestral beings, taught songs and dances, and learn about kinship and customary law. The aim of the program is to strengthen the children's self-confidence and their cultural identity. At each camp, those who have leadership skills are also identified as potential future camp leaders. Programs like this ensure the transfer of cultural knowledge from one generation to the next.

    Keeping places, cultural centres and community-held databases may provide some indication of information about Indigenous cultural heritage available to non-Indigenous people. (Note that keeping places usually refer to places where Indigenous secret and/or sacred objects are stored, while cultural centres are more generally about showcasing Indigenous cultures, artefacts, and historical and contemporary collections, including databases.) The exact number and distribution nationally of keeping places or cultural centres is not known, but Indigenous involvement in their management is further discussed in the next section.

    There has been an increase in public awareness of Indigenous cultures in Australia, including Indigenous languages, as shown by the number of popular publications and the amount of media coverage. This has been augmented by the focus on land rights, Native Title claims, and regional agreements during the last reporting period. This has had the effect of increasing both people's awareness of the existence of Indigenous cultural heritage throughout Australia and the amount and scope of research in this area. The Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation and its popular movement has gained momentum in the last five years. A recent poll shows that more than 50% of Australians support a treaty with Indigenous people. An important aspect of any treaty would be the recognition of the distinct Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and heritage of Australia. The wide publicity for the 'Stolen Generations' Inquiry Report (HREOC, 1997) also augmented this awareness. In acknowledging that the loss of culture, language and access to heritage places by the affected children was a major factor in their mistreatment, the report drew the public's attention to the reality and importance of this culture and heritage. On the other hand, the government's rejection of many of the findings and recommendations of the report has caused some confusion and disagreement in the wider community concerning some of the facts and findings.

    The globally broadcast Opening Ceremony for the Sydney Olympics in September 2000 presented Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander dance, song and language. International events such as these showcase Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures from a variety of Australian regions. Indigenous art work has a very prestigious international profile, and through it Indigenous people often celebrate and explain their heritage places. Australians are also not averse to being associated with such symbols:

    'Since the late 1980s the most pivotal movement in Australian art has been Indigenous art. One has only to look at the great sense of reconciliation today to understand the contribution culture has made to that - both the visual arts and the performing arts. They have transformed our understanding of Indigenous culture in this country and also who we are as people. That contribution can only grow in importance.' (Frances Lindsay, deputy director, National Gallery of Victoria, in the Age , 21 October 2000, p.16.)

    Use of Indigenous language

    The extent of the use of Indigenous language in broadcast media aimed at both traditional language speakers and a general audience illustrates community awareness of prior occupation of heritage places by Indigenous people and of their connection to their heritage and their country. There is increased awareness of Indigenous languages based on a comparison of the following media over time:

    • The Internet - The Internet presence of Australian Indigenous languages has increased exponentially in the last five years. (The site with the best current links to other sites about Indigenous languages is .)
    • Print media - Indigenous languages have been used in the print media, especially local community-based newsletters in Indigenous languages, since the 1970s in a number of communities. There may have been a decline in these activities in recent years, associated with the cutbacks in bilingual education, but further research is required.
    • Radio and television - There are regular broadcasts in Indigenous languages, mainly on local radio. A number of Indigenous television and radio broadcasters exist around the country, including the following media associations:
      • Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association (CAAMA) (Alice Springs, NT),
      • Warlpiri Media Association (WMA) (Yuendumu, NT),
      • Torres Strait Islands Media Association (TSIMA) (Thursday Island, Torres Strait).

    It is not possible to quantify the use of Indigenous languages in these media, but the examples above show that Indigenous languages are an integral part of the rationale for Indigenous broadcasting.

    Broadcasters with Community Broadcasting Licences are now operating in 80 localities (each with both television and radio). However the Indigenous language broadcast time varies considerably. The program descriptions for one of these services, Radio 5NPY (a station based in the Anangu Pitjantjatjara lands) claims that 10 out of 14 sessions are 'all or part in Pitjantjatjara Language.'

    Indigenous language broadcasting

    The Top End Aboriginal Bush Broadcasting Association (Aboriginal Corporation) (TEABBA), which represented 29 Top End Indigenous communities, proposed to broadcast for 168 hours per week, including Indigenous language and other Indigenous programs, music, news and community notices; 30% of this programming was to be in Indigenous languages.

    TEABBA used 1996 census data to show that there were a large number of speakers of Indigenous languages in the Darwin region who would benefit from broadcasting in Indigenous languages. The Association stated that:

    'the region has a significant Aboriginal population (7.9% of the total population of the licence area), a reasonable number of whom speak an Aboriginal language (1.2% of the total population of the licence area according to the Census but this could be significantly higher if second, third, or fourth languages are taken into account).'

    Source: McConvell and Thieberger (2001).

    There is a great potential for Indigenous languages to be broadcast using existing infrastructure. From the examples above it appears that the use of Indigenous languages depends on having dedicated people willing to undertake the work of speaking and broadcasting in the local language, otherwise the default path is either an end to broadcasting, or using material generated outside of the local area.

    Use of Indigenous languages in signage

    One of the indicators of public awareness about Indigenous languages is their mention in public places. This local use of Indigenous languages can indicate a deeper understanding in the population that Indigenous languages exist.

    The Australian National Placenames Survey advised that the Northern Territory is the only nomenclature authority to have a field 'ethnic origin' in its placenames database.

    Given the lack of official reporting, the change in the number of approvals in the last five years for the use of Indigenous languages in placenames is unable to be ascertained. Clearly some of these issues have come to the forefront of public and media attention in the last few years- a case in point is the issue of the naming of National Parks; in Victoria the official name is the Grampians National Park but many people recognise Gariwerd as the name.

    In Adelaide since 1995, public use of the local Kaurna language has increased in festival signage, plaques and place names, including City Council endorsement of such changes.

    There are many examples in New South Wales of moves to have place and street names in local languages - for example, at Eden, Coffs Harbour and Tamworth - while in Bundjalung country there are signs in Bundjalung and English explaining the importance of the country to its traditional owners. Muurbay Language Centre at Nambucca Heads has recently negotiated with the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service to have a sacred mountain renamed using a Gumbayngirr name (AIATSIS 2000, p.14).

    Conclusions and implications regarding community awareness of heritage

    • Some of the data, especially ABS material, suggest a declining concern about heritage. At best, there seem to be mixed messages, but as some of the data comes from one-off surveys, conclusions about trends are not possible.
    • There is a continuing concern for environmental issues, as well as the broadening of the concept of heritage to include local places as well as international icons like Kakadu. They also illustrate the increasing concern of young people about broad environmental issues. Competitions conducted by the Australian Heritage Commission illustrate how many Australians are passionate about all categories of heritage and places.
    • Membership of peak heritage organisations shows that while there has been a huge increase in the numbers of one national natural heritage advocacy body, a host of community organisations and pressure groups aiming to protect particular places or classes of place have emerged. Groups in the capital cities, such as Save Our Suburbs, are resisting urban redevelopment pressures that threaten to alter the existing heritage values of their areas.
    • There has been increasing public awareness of Indigenous cultures in Australia, including Indigenous languages through popular culture such as the internationally successful Yothu Yindi music group, publications and graphics, and media coverage. There has also been an increase in the use of Indigenous languages in place names and associated signage, in popular music, and on the Internet in the last 10 years.
    • There has been an increase in the number of Indigenous radio and television broadcasts, but it is not currently possible to determine what percentage of the content is in Indigenous languages. There has been an increase in the public use of Indigenous names for places or objects. This is not necessarily always with the agreement of Indigenous people, or to their benefit. In fact, in recent times Indigenous people have increasingly contested the right of others to appropriate their cultural and intellectual property.
    • Community awareness of heritage has expanded over the recent past to include general environmental issues and Indigenous issues as well as concerns about conserving specific heritage places.