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Four ways Western Australia can improve Aboriginal heritage management

There are some simple principles that would strengthen Aboriginal heritage protection. Monkey Mia, Shark Bay in Western Australia. Grant Matthews, CC BY-NC-SA

Four ways Western Australia can improve Aboriginal heritage management

More than 50,000 years of Aboriginal habitation is Australia’s most unique cultural resource and point of connection across cultures and worldviews.

But for too long indigenous heritage in Australia has been treated as a liability or a problem for land managers and owners.

The Western Australian government decided last Friday to proceed with controversial changes to Aboriginal heritage management.

Aboriginal heritage sites in WA are managed through different channels to non-Indigenous cultural sites, to their detriment. While non-Indigenous heritage is managed by a network of professionals across all levels of government, Aboriginal heritage is managed by a section in the Department of Aboriginal Affairs.

The new changes will see decisions over heritage listings rest almost entirely with the CEO of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs, which the Law Society of Western Australia has argued gives too much power to one person.

We need a system of cultural heritage management that is able to cope with the recognition that Aboriginal connection and heritage is living, ongoing, and constantly around us. We propose four principles that imagine a new engagement with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander heritage, based on the principle of “ask first” in order to respect the guidance and wishes of Indigenous peoples .

We are coming from the position of non-Aboriginal professionals who have worked on heritage and cultural issues with Aboriginal people, and see some possibilities for imagining a different set of relations with Aboriginal heritage. The traditional custodians of Australia, both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders will decide the ultimate process of recognising and sharing their heritage.

Echidna Chasm in Purnululu National Park, is World Heritage listed. BRJ INC, CC BY-NC-SA

Principles for change

Many parts of the Australian landscape continue to be important to a particular Indigenous language group, and are part of their living heritage. These landscape components are essential and central to customary law, purpose and practices.

Relationships between families and groups, ownership of resources, knowledge, and Aboriginal spirituality and mythology are inseparable in an Aboriginal worldview. Effective recognition and conservation of cultural heritage sites is essential for sustaining these connected language groups.

Principle 1: Aboriginal heritage is just as important as, but different to, non-Aboriginal heritage

There is no “dog on the tuckerbox” in Aboriginal cultural heritage. Aboriginal heritage is not about protecting and conserving a set of monuments or ensuring houses keep a particular set of characteristics no matter who owns them.

The conservation of important places, such as Yawuru Country, in and around Broome, requires an ongoing relationship with a specific set of people who are empowered to maintain their relationships with that place and each other.

The continued existence of these systems and people is what makes Aboriginal heritage special. This set of relations and knowledge is what needs to be at the heart of an improved system of Aboriginal cultural heritage management.

Principle 2: We need a single system of cultural heritage management

Local government routinely pushes developments that impact Aboriginal heritage back to land managers and developers to sort out with the relevant state department.

Aboriginal cultural heritage management needs to be integrated more effectively and equitably with local government planning. The solution should include integrating Aboriginal heritage and non-Aboriginal heritage management in a single organisation (most likely under heritage) and establishing a statutory framework through which the two can be managed in an integrated manner.

One simple, immediate step local governments can take is including Aboriginal heritage on their heritage inventories.

Principle 3: Aboriginal heritage protection requires local level agreements

Aboriginal heritage is a cultural landscape that is understood very well by a small group of people, and is under threat by new land management systems and users who are unaware of its presence and significance. Mapping and understanding this landscape is crucial to effective Aboriginal cultural heritage management.

Meaningful engagement by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples with local government on cultural heritage values is central to imagining a shared future. These values need to become part of the local government planning process through being included in local government planning frameworks. Many WA language groups such as the Yawuru People of Broome have moved to develop a relationship with their local government to recognise cultural heritage values.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander engagement in the local strategic planning framework should be made mandatory. All local language groups should be empowered, with advice and oversight from a sympathetic central body, to provide culturally appropriate collective knowledge.

Stromatolites at Shark Bay, a World Heritage Site in the Gascoyne region of Western Australia. sunphlo, CC BY-NC-SA

Principle 4: Aboriginal heritage should be celebrated as Australian heritage

The tragedy of the current arrangements is that local Aboriginal cultural heritage is largely unknown within non-Aboriginal Australia. While there are small initiatives to communicate Aboriginal heritage, such as the Perth initiative Karla Yarning: Stories of the home fires, these are piecemeal and generally one-off projects.

Reform of Aboriginal cultural heritage management needs to integrate interpretation of Aboriginal heritage to a largely non-Aboriginal public.

The Yawuru Traditional Custodians of Broome have developed a Cultural Management Plan that establishes the characteristics and parameters of this landscape and communicates them to non-Aboriginal people.

But, as a living system of relations, not all Aboriginal heritage should be interpreted for non-Aboriginal people. Some spiritual practises shouldn’t be presented to a general audience as a tourist curiosity, but accorded the same respect as other religious behaviour.

There needs to be a system of checks in place to ensure that information is appropriate for a general audience before it is included in signs, brochures or books.

An effective system of Aboriginal cultural heritage management will create opportunities for it to be understood in parallel with other land uses. It should be the basis of conversations and dialogue that lead to new opportunities.

It will cost more in the short term, but we will all benefit in the longer term through the resources it preserves for the future.

We appeal to both equity and self-interest in our principles for Aboriginal cultural heritage management. But the most important element is the new relationships that we can establish with the country, plants and creatures that we live with when we engage with Aboriginal heritage.

If we accept that our current rate of resource use in Western Australia is unviable, then understanding Aboriginal cultural heritage that is already adapted to the Australian environment presents an exciting possibility.

Understanding the Aboriginal cultural landscape can assist us to shift our values towards land use and development appropriate for the 21st century.


This article was co-authored by Greg Grabasch, Principal Director of UDLA.