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 knowledge about Australia's heritage (continued)
Sacred place, all over our Aboriginal land was sacred,
but we see now they have made a map and cut it up into six states.
The number of nominations for Indigenous heritage places was low for the current reporting period. The rate of Register of the National Estate registration of Indigenous places declined from the 1990-1995 period (14.5% increase) to 1995-2000 (7% increase). This was largely caused by a change in the process of nomination for Indigenous heritage places which is described below. Sources of information for this knowledge were Commonwealth, State and Territory registers.
There were 913 Indigenous places listed on the Register of the National Estate and 110 428 Indigenous places listed in State and Territory inventories in 2000.
The Register of the National Estate had an increase of 61 places (7%) over the 1995 figure (see Table 1). While this is tiny in relation to the overall number of known sites, it does provide more detail and refinement in terms of assessed values. Figure 8 shows the distribution of all Indigenous places listed in the Register of the National Estate at the end of 2000, by Australian Government Region. Registered places might also include within them many hundreds of individual sites, as the Cubbitch Barta case study.
Figure 8: Distribution of all Indigenous heritage places listed in the Register of the National Estate at the end of 2000 (by Australian Government Regions).
Source: Environment Australia, Register of the National Estate Data Base
The decrease in the rate of Indigenous place listings reflects the increased adoption by the Australian Heritage Commission of consultation processes with Indigenous communities, which has extended the time available for the assessment of nominations. Mandatory consultation with owners of places proposed for listing commenced in 1991, and has been constantly refined since. Because of this process, very few places of Indigenous significance are listed now unless the nomination has been made by an Indigenous community, and those sites which were previously listed without Indigenous consultation are not listed on the Internet and information regarding them is not available to researchers. Australian Heritage Commission resources have also gone to other forms of Indigenous heritage support, such as the National Indigenous Heritage Art Award, which helps educate the wider community about Indigenous cultures. The Commission has also undertaken other activities, such as the creation of the National Indigenous Cultural Heritage Officers network (NICHO) and the biannual publication of its newsletter, Feedback.
In many instances, Indigenous communities do not wish to have information about archaeological sites and other cultural features of the landscape held in any central Register. In addition, Indigenous groups have problems with some of the heritage place categories, such as 'wilderness' which denies their occupation of, and impact on, those places over time. Consequently the reliance on register listings as a measure of increased knowledge of Indigenous places nationally presents major problems which are further discussed below.
On the other hand, some of the new listings nominated by or supported by Indigenous groups over the reporting period have brought to public attention a range of sites which reflect a neglected part of Australian history. The sites are certainly of importance to many in the Indigenous community and of undoubted importance to the history of Australia, and tell of significant events in the post-contact history of Indigenous people. Three examples are: the Aboriginal Tent Embassy within the Parliamentary Triangle in the ACT; areas of Wave Hill Pastoral Station in the Northern Territory, the site of the Gurindji strike and 'Walk Off' and subsequently the first successful land claim; and the Cyprus Hellene Club in Sydney, site of meetings associated with the first Aboriginal 'Day of Mourning' in 1938. Nomination and listing of both the Aboriginal Tent Embassy and the Cyprus Hellene Club were controversial and well-publicised processes.
There have also been several recent nominations of Indigenous places that have involved an integrated assessment of a landscape, rather than being based on the presence of specific archaeological sites. Some examples are the Arafura Wetlands, Uluru - Kata Tjuta and Cubbitch Barta (see box).
Cubbitch Barta National Estate Area
Cubbitch Barta National Estate Area (or Holsworthy Military Training Area), 30 kilometres south-west of Sydney, comprises a substantial part of the Georges River Basin immediately adjacent to dense urban development. In 1996 the area underwent an Environmental Impact Assessment as one of the potential locations for the Second Sydney Airport. Investigations revealed that the landscape was a unique reservoir of historical, Indigenous and natural heritage. As a military training area it was protected from development. Cubbitch Barta has considerable significance to the Tharawal Local Aboriginal Council and the Dharawal people, who value the qualities of the landscape, the rock-paintings and engravings, and the many camping sites which attest to continuous occupation over a considerable time. Surveys revealed some 530 Aboriginal sites including rock-paintings and engravings which represent a 'significant collection of Aboriginal imagery'. Historical records document the Indigenous use of the locale during the first half of the 19th century.
Biodiversity is high within the plateau, gullies and rocky creek valleys, and includes substantial remnants of the Cumberland Plain Woodland. Only 6% of the original expanse of this ecological community survives today. The Aboriginal sites exist in the context of these important natural values. The military activity and the topography of the area have contributed to the conservation of sensitive areas and the protection of Aboriginal sites of significance. The military area has natural protected buffer zones to the south, east and the west. Continuing use by the military and the new knowledge of heritage values of the area will contribute to the ongoing conservation of these values.
Source: Jane Lennon and University of Canberra (1999, p.41).
As noted earlier, four of Australia's World Heritage properties were inscribed for their Indigenous cultural World Heritage values, in addition to their natural values. Other World Heritage areas, including The Greater Blue Mountains Area, Shark Bay, the Wet Tropics of Queensland, the Central Eastern Rainforest Reserves and the Great Barrier Reef have Indigenous cultural values which have been acknowledged in their management plans or regimes.
Of the 690 properties on the World Heritage List at January 2001, in the 122 nations that are signatories to the World Heritage Convention, only 23 were inscribed as 'mixed' sites (according to the World Heritage Convention); that is, they were inscribed for both their cultural and natural World Heritage values. Only seven of the places are listed for Indigenous values. Australia, having four such 'mixed' properties, clearly represents its World Heritage differently from most other countries.
These 'mixed' site listings require the integrated management of both the cultural and natural values. In Australia this has meant the close involvement of the local Indigenous community, and the traditional owners have been essential partners in management decisions on the protection and conservation of both cultural and natural values within the properties. As a dispute in the Kakadu area between the Mirrar people and the Commonwealth Government over the development of a uranium mine in 1998-2000 shows, even with joint management perceptions of what is necessary to conserve heritage values may differ from group to group and over time.
Strong claims can be made that other Australian World Heritage properties have cultural World Heritage values, for example the Wet Tropics of Queensland. Indigenous groups and communities have been seeking such recognition of the cultural values and also a greater involvement in the management of the properties to ensure an improvement in the overall management of all the heritage values of the properties.
Table 5 shows the number and distribution of Indigenous places identified in State and Territory inventories in 2000. The actual number of sites represented in inventories is known to be much larger than this, as single inventory entries are sometimes large complexes including hundreds of individual sites. The vast majority of sites have not been formally assessed in any way, because the protective legislation in most States and Territories automatically offers legal protection for Indigenous sites, without there having to be an assessment process until the site is threatened or comes under some sort of official notice. Given the relatively low level of publicly available information held about most Indigenous places, the quantitative monitoring of trends through inventory numbers will be limited to geographic analysis of knowledge of distribution generally and by site type.
|State or Territory||Number of places|
A Includes interim registered sites.
B This is the number of sites registered in the Central Archives.
Source: Relevant State and Territory agencies.
The prevalence of material repositories of knowledge about Indigenous places, as held by Indigenous community organisations, varies greatly. A preliminary survey of 10 organisations indicated that in some cases Indigenous organisations maintain their own databases, receive funding for cultural heritage research and are involved in educational programs for the young (Knowles 2000).1 But this follows no clear pattern across those surveyed and would appear to depend on the approach adopted by a community or organisation towards the retention of cultural heritage knowledge.
Within communities, education is a crucial factor in handing on knowledge from one generation to the next. Where Indigenous people are dislocated from their country, funding can become a major issue for the education of the young. While the elders of communities transmit cultural knowledge to the young through stories, songs, dances and oral tradition, for some communities being able to take the young people 'back to country' is an essential part of learning about one's culture and cultural heritage. For these people, making frequent trips back to country with the young people provides an experiential connection to the community's cultural heritage that enhances their oral understanding. Journeys back to country help maintain a full range of cultural knowledge for these communities. But the journeys can only be made if the resources are available.
Among many Indigenous groups there is a suspicion about the reasons why State and Territory agencies maintain records such as the site registers or lists. Some communities do not tell government agencies when they find sites because they are concerned about how the information will be used. In some cases - for example in Queensland during the reporting period - Indigenous groups along with the general public have been denied access to Indigenous site data already in the State site register system, apparently due to fears over breach of intellectual property rights and how such data might be used against the State in Native Title claims. In the Regional Forest Assessment work in Victoria, many places of significance to Indigenous people were identified, but there was strong resistance to listing these places as some Indigenous people feel that listing highly significant places would be detrimental to other places that required protection.
Two of the key issues are therefore confidentiality of information and the way in which the information is used. A solution is to entrust an Indigenous organisation, or individuals with the information for safe keeping.
It may therefore be difficult (and insensitive) to collect meaningful quantitative data on Indigenous sites and use it as a way of assessing knowledge of Indigenous cultural heritage. However, collating this data does give an insight into what sites are known by State and Territory governments and how the particular heritage agencies responsible for managing Indigenous sites are looking after these 'known' sites. For example, we can ascertain if site numbers are diminishing over time. While we need to respect those communities for keeping site information to themselves and also respect their intellectual property rights, a general indicator seeking information from communities about whether they are active in seeking site information relevant to their area could help in assessing knowledge of Indigenous cultural heritage. This would negate the need to know whether a community's site data is listed on a government register.
One way in which cultural heritage knowledge may be controlled by Indigenous communities is by the use of facilities such as keeping places, cultural centres and databases. Organisations are willing to share information as long as it does not breach any protocols. The importance of the regional language centre as a model in two-way mediation of academic and community interests should also be noted.
- There was only a 7% increase in Indigenous places listed in the Register of the National Estate during the reporting period, which is about half the rate for the preceding period. This reflects an Australian Heritage Commission decision to no longer accept places for listing unless there is community approval. Places were previously listed without community approval, and in most cases were listed without community knowledge. Processes like these have always made Indigenous people suspicious of central registers.
- The National Indigenous Heritage Art Award has been used as another way of soliciting 'nominations' for places of significance to Indigenous people, with more success (see 'State of community awareness and action'). This points to a change in the way we perceive and record Indigenous heritage, and questions the continued usefulness of registers as a tool in Indigenous heritage protection.
- There is a growing perception among Indigenous communities that listing in heritage registers can be culturally inappropriate, and that it places the control of information in the hands of government agencies whose motives and actions are mistrusted. This may suggest that the use of register numbers as an indicator of caring for, and well-being of, Indigenous heritage places is not meaningful, and that some other measure of the condition of Indigenous places is needed. One approach would be to gather, in a structured way, information from Indigenous community organisations about a range of community activities and programs relating to heritage places, and about the number and nature of interactions with government agencies over the protection of heritage places, as a surrogate for the condition of Indigenous cultural heritage.
- A key related issue is the failure during this period of most of the States to take into account the potential strengthening of Indigenous heritage rights as a result of the Native Title decision by reforming their Aboriginal Sites legislation, which dates from the 1960s or 1970s, except for Queensland where the legislation dates from 1987. Some States, including New South Wales and Queensland, have announced the intention to revise the legislation to strengthen Indigenous people's control and management. But this has not yet happened, and in the interim, and because of the hiatus, there is a view in some quarters that some aspects of Aboriginal site conservation have not been given a high priority.
- The identification of Indigenous places within World Heritage properties has been undertaken by the traditional owners who live in those places, as at Uluru-Kata Tjuta, or jointly with scientists, as at Willandra Lakes.
- Indigenous communities are often ambivalent as to whether cultural knowledge should be made available to the broader community. It is clear that not all groups wish to have this knowledge widely disseminated, and this is particularly important in the case of sacred sites and other sites such as burial sites. In many cases knowledge of cultural heritage may be culturally restricted to a few people.
- Reporting on the extent of knowledge of Indigenous places presents an interesting contrast between the collection of data from Commonwealth, State and Territory instrumentalities and the views of Indigenous land owners and managers. This report is predicated on the view that formally recorded and securely archived knowledge of heritage places is a key to monitoring their condition and continued protection. Indigenous views are often the opposite of this: the continued well-being of many places requires that they not be recorded or generally known. This has implications for future state of environment reporting in terms of finding other approaches to knowledge of Indigenous heritage places which does not depend on register information.
1. The Knowles report is based on a limited questionnaire survey of Indigenous organisations regarding the state of Indigenous cultural heritage in Australia. It is an interim report of work in progress that was produced to ensure actual community-based data could be incorporated into the 2001 State of the Environment Report. The final report from this survey will be available during 2001.