Other pressures on Indigenous heritage

Indigenous heritage is at risk from the same pressures as other heritage, including:

  • resource extraction
  • land development
  • poorly managed tourism
  • inadequate management and protection
  • natural weathering and erosion
  • climate change impacts
  • bushfires and other uncontrolled burning.

Indigenous heritage remains at risk from a multitude of pressures that relate primarily to the lack of control by Indigenous Australians over the management of Indigenous heritage sites across Australia.

Effects of colonisation

Indigenous heritage is threatened through the many ongoing effects of colonisation that continue to deny the rights of Indigenous Australians, and impact Indigenous communities and their ability to engage with and protect their heritage. Important sites have been damaged and destroyed through the ongoing repetitive process of decisions made by non-Indigenous peoples, which are mostly irreversible in relation to physical sites, and cause devastation and deep loss to Traditional Custodians.

When things are blown up you’re losing history, it’s losing sixty thousand years of ceremony in certain areas … It creates huge sense of loss and it’s loss that can then generate further trauma, particularly if there is that close spiritual connection to the place. SoE Indigenous workshop participant (Murawin 2021a)

Some aspects of Indigenous heritage are more resilient because they revolve around cultural knowledge that is held within communities. This resilience is demonstrated by the rich wealth of traditional cultural knowledge still held and passed down after more than 200 years of colonial interference, land dispossession and attempted cultural dispossession.

Our communities have not lost all of the traditional knowledge like some like to believe to justify not taking Traditional Aboriginal cultural knowledge seriously. Our knowledge is science – it’s been tried, tested and proven for thousands of generations and also recorded through practice and cultural learning. SoE Indigenous workshop participant (Murawin 2021c)

First Nations people in Australia have survived and thrived despite invasion, land dispossession, introduced diseases and the removal of children. This is at the heart of First Nations identities – continuity against all odds. And what has empowered First Nations peoples to endure? Connection. Connection to Country, connection to mob and connection to ancestors. This continuing connection to land, family and heritage has great influence over First Nations health, happiness and empowerment. (Pol 2021)

Since the beginning of colonisation, the continuation of Indigenous cultural practices and responsibilities as custodians of Country has been extremely challenged. Dispossession of land, policies of assimilation, European land management and development practices (e.g. agriculture, mining), and lack of recognition for Indigenous rights to water are some of the factors that have placed significant pressures on all aspects of Indigenous heritage. A continued lack of access to Country and sites also has devastating impacts on continued cultural practice and knowledge. Knowledge transmission often relies on access to Country and the ability to undertake intergenerational learning, especially through traditional cultural activities. The ongoing circumstance of colonisation affects the continued and devastating absence of free, prior and informed consent for Indigenous communities in managing all aspects of their heritage (HCOANZ 2020).

Ongoing pressures on Indigenous heritage

An online survey of Indigenous stakeholders conducted for this report (Murawin 2021c) found that the most significant pressures for Indigenous heritage were:

  • protecting cultural sites – 72%
  • Indigenous knowledge not being protected – 68.54%
  • inadequate heritage laws – 59.55%
  • urban development – 52.81%
  • governance/lack of decision-making – 52.81%
  • industry/commercialisation (including tourism) – 46.07%
  • climate change – 42.7%.

However, it must be understood that, despite significant challenges and impediments over time, Indigenous cultures remain strong. The ability of Australia’s Indigenous peoples to adapt to change has been core to their survival over many millennia and continues to produce powerful outcomes today. Communities work tirelessly to keep their heritage and culture strong, despite the ongoing challenges faced (Woodward et al. 2020).

Many aspects of Indigenous heritage that have been threatened have high potential for recovery, but reinvigoration requires the recognition of the rights of Indigenous communities to speak for, and make decisions about, Country, and to access lands and seas to perform traditional practices and pass knowledge on within their communities. Indigenous heritage is resilient when Indigenous people and communities are empowered to manage and protect it. The diverse Indigenous peoples of Australia have continuously adapted over time – a living culture that is constantly evolving and not finite, meaning that Indigenous heritage is also living and not fixed or merely stuck in the past.

To teach our young ones about their cultural responsibilities; it’s very difficult to show someone how to do a painting if you don’t have a canvas ... for me Country is that canvas. SoE Indigenous workshop participant (Murawin 2021a)

Disempowerment

Systems and structures around Indigenous heritage are not currently amenable to self-determination in either principle or practice. An overwhelming majority (92%) of respondents to an online survey of Indigenous stakeholders conducted for this report did not believe that Indigenous heritage is adequately protected by Australian laws, with around 60% believing that inadequate heritage laws are the most significant pressure on Indigenous heritage (Murawin 2021c).(Murawin 2021c) More respondents considered that more Indigenous people do not have a say in heritage issues than do (36.8% versus 24.14%), and more than half (53%) did not believe that they are empowered to manage their Indigenous heritage. Experiences with planning authorities were negative, and described as slow, disingenuous and disempowering.

Concerns were expressed with various aspects of disempowerment, including:

  • limited understanding of Indigenous cultures and communities on the part of authorities
  • lack of respect for Indigenous people and knowledge
  • disorganisation or lack of resources within authorities
  • tokenistic involvement, including no involvement of Indigenous people except at decision-making stages
  • lack of influence on outcomes, including consultation undertaken but Indigenous heritage issues and concerns being dismissed.

The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples says that ‘caring for heritage, places, sites – both sacred and significant, is a fundamental right of Indigenous peoples’ (United Nations 2007).

Cultural heritage is the legacy we inherited from our ancestors. And it includes responsibilities to protect both the physical aspects – land, water, flora, fauna and today, archaeology; and the intangible aspects – our story, language, mythology and lore. Our ancestors understood that caring for Country allowed Country to care for them. Dan Turnbull, Bunurong man, Traditional Owner and member of the Victorian Aboriginal Heritage Council (VAHC 2020b)

Some jurisdictions are improving Indigenous management of heritage through changes to legislation (e.g. Northern Territory, South Australia, Victoria), which was reflected in the survey as a positive experience:

I am working in Victoria where legislation is enlightened about the importance of Traditional Owners managing cultural heritage. Government departments have been consistently respectful and inclusive of Indigenous perspectives around urban development and protection of found or potential Aboriginal Cultural Heritage. SoE Indigenous workshop participant (Murawin 2021c)

There is a growing need for non-Indigenous people to understand Indigenous cultural values when dealing with heritage sites. The guide Engage early: guidance for proponents on best-practice Indigenous engagement for environmental assessments under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act) (DOE 2016) provides advice proponents to be more proactive in dealing with Indigenous heritage.

Disconnection from Country

Many Indigenous people and communities have experienced an increasing disconnection from Country for a multitude of reasons, largely because of dispossession. Impediments such as national park legislation restrictions, restrictive land tenure, private ownership and disruptions to the return of Country to Indigenous people limit access to Country, heritage places and traditional resources (Murawin 2021a).

The lack of recognition of heritage rights and lack of self-determination also seriously impact the connection Indigenous people have with their Country. A lack of rights to Country and the management of Country has significantly impacted cultural identity and preservation of knowledge (Woodward et al. 2020). For example, walking Country has been integral to Indigenous communities’ ability to engage with Country, hold connection to Country, practise and protect culture, and promote intergenerational learning. Access to Country is access to knowledge and culture, and many Indigenous communities across Australia, largely through limited opportunities for self-determination, do not have adequate access to Country (see the Indigenous chapter).

Ranger programs are starting to support people to get back on Country, but much more needs to be done. Where this hasn’t been possible, there is a level of guilt and confusion around not being able to be on Country, maintain the environment and practice culture. SoE Indigenous workshop participant (Murawin 2021a)

Some groups, especially across south-eastern Australia, have benefited greatly in recent years from being able to reconnect with Country through the many reinvigorations of cultural fire practice, which is being powerfully led by many and varied Indigenous groups and organisations (Cultural Burning Knowledge Hub 2021) (see the Indigenous and Extreme events chapters).