Indigenous Heritage and Issues Surrounding Its Safeguarding

Table of Content

  What is ‘Indigenous heritage’ and what are some of the contemporary issues surrounding the safeguarding of this heritage?

I.                    Introduction

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Human societies are slowly beginning to understand the global damage wrought by colonisation. Since the 1960’s the struggle of Indigenous peoples right to control their own heritage has entered the public consciousness. The issue of safeguarding heritage in Australia is today becoming more politicised as the community seeks to define our national identity and undertake reconciliation processes with Australian Indigenous populations.

Safeguarding Indigenous cultural heritage is vital as it ensures Indigenous people the cultural tools to define who they are and where they come from (Smith, 2006). Control of heritage is not only important for maintaining a link with the past but also for creating a coherent future. It is the ability to feel and claim a modern identity in the colonial context.

There are numerous legislative instruments for protecting Indigenous Cultural Heritage today. These include State and Commonwealth Acts and International Conventions. Few of these regimes, however, adequately protect or even recognise the diverse nature of heritage let alone give Indigenous people control, ownership and involvement in the process.

With the impeding force of globalisation threatening Indigenous cultural heritage it is necessary to disengage the Eurocentric lens through which heritage is understood and the imperialistic nature of decision making for any real positive outcomes to be achieved.

II.                  Indigenous cultural heritage

Heritage is most commonly taken to denote that which we, as humans, value or ‘what we wish to pass on to future generations’ (Deacon,  cited in Kearnery, 2007). Heritage belongs to one by reason of birth. The idea of heritage is not a static one, it can be constantly recreated.

The notion of distinguishing heritage into tangible and intangible is an artificial Western construct. It does not adequately account for the ways in which indigenous people perceive the relationships between the land, their cultural practices and place (Clarke, 2003). Deborah Bird Rose in her book ‘Nourishing Terrains’ (1996) describes the inseparability;

Country is not a generalized or undifferentiated type of place… Rather country is a living entity with a yesterday, today and tomorrow, with a consciousness, and a will toward life

For example Uluru, a world heritage listed site, also contains significant and sacred places within and around the surrounding landscape which teach and maintain the fundamentals of life for Anangu people (Clarke, 2003). The tangible and intangible elements of these places are inseparable.

It is however appropriate to outline the distinction as this is the process which has the National and International safeguarding bodies undertake. Tangible heritage is a common concept. It incorporates places, artwork, archaeological sites, objects ect. In Australian Indigenous culture these places may be associated with occupancy, dreaming, spirituality ect. Intangible cultural heritage (ICH) is defined by UNESCO in the Convention for the safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage 2003 as

…the practices, representations, expressions, knowledge, skills… that communities, groups and, in some cases, individuals recognize as part of their cultural heritage. They include; oral traditions and expressions, social practices, rituals, knowledge… (Art. 2)

The inclusion of wider ranging notions of heritage signals a radical broadening of the heritage field. It marks a desire to move beyond Eurocentric understandings of property, heritage and ownership, and highlights the interconnectedness of intangible heritage, knowledge systems and intellectual property (Kearney, 2008). The Permanent Forum on Indigenous People describes traditional knowledge as developed from experience gained over the centuries, adapted to the local culture and environment, and transmitted orally from generation to generation (Davis, 2006).

ICH is not a recent phenomena, it has been engaged for some time but what remains a grey area is how to recognise, legislate and promote the intangible (Kearney, 2008).

In Australian legislation the definition of heritage varies greatly from those which draw on Indigenous heritage values to those which rely on anthropological, archaeological or scientific values (Evatt, 1998).  How heritage is defined causes a contentious issue. If the definition remains in a Eurocentric context it will not adequately be able to safeguard Indigenous heritage. Eurocentric thinkers automatically assume the superiority of their world view and attempt to impose it on others (Battiste, 2000).The Hindmarsh Island case is an example of when Australian law was not adequately able to accommodate for Indigenous beliefs and values. It is necessary is to understand that heritage is different for all groups across the world. Different applications will be necessary in order to achieve a just result.

Importance of Heritage

The preservation of Indigenous heritage is important for the control and maintenance of community cohesion and identity, and in asserting a sense of self-sufficiency and self-worth. Heritage as a discourse is a part of the social process of meaning making (Smith, 2006). It is a process of remembering which helps to underpin identity and the ways in which individuals and groups make sense of their experiences in the present.

Self-determination is the free choice to control one’s own life, it is central to the resistance movement of Indigenous groups in Australia. The AIATSIS social justice commissioner, Michael Dodson, in 1994 described the relationship between identifying ones heritage and self-determination;

At the heart of the violation has been the denial of our control over our identity, and the symbols through which we make and remake our culture and ourselves.

Recognition of a people’s fundamental right to self-determination must include the right to self-definition… and the right to inherit the collective identity of one’s people and to transform that identity according to the self-defined aspirations of one’s people.

Connection to places and knowledge is a manner in which many Indigenous groups perceive and define themselves as meaningful entities (Kearney, 2007). It is the past which informs engagements with the place in the present. If Indigenous people are not given the right to control their own sense of being then there will not be progress to cultural autonomy and self-determination.

The Declaration on the rights of Indigenous People has declared cultural heritage as a human right;

Indigenous people have the right to revitalise, use, develop and transmit to future generations, their histories, languages, oral traditions, philosophies, writing systems and literatures, and to designate and retain their own names for communities, places and persons.

Therefore the safeguarding of cultural heritage is not only desirable; it is a right.

III.                Safeguarding Indigenous Cultural Heritage in Australia

Although many of the processes of old-style colonisation have waned in the new millennium, a new threatening transformation has emerged, ‘Globalisation’.  With its cognitive imperialism it is the modern force that is taking indigenous heritages, knowledge and creativity (Battiste, 2000). Rapid economic developments guided by Eurocentric laws do not provide sufficient protection for Indigenous heritage. The ease with which people and ideas can move poses a serious challenge to ethnic minorities who languages, customs, and ideas are easily drowned out by majority interests.

There are numerous examples whereby current Western practices are endangering Indigenous heritage. For example, mining companies encroach on Indigenous land and sacred sites, Western media and education push Indigenous languages to the background, tourism may exploit cultural ceremonies and many more.

As a result there is a push today to legislate to protect Indigenous Heritage. Legislation would enable Indigenous heritage to be protected and controlled and would allow an avenue for legal recourse if any companies were to impede on the heritage. It also provides a step towards reconciliation; since colonisation there has been ongoing contest and resistance over the physical rights surrounding places, giving Indigenous people control over their heritage is one step towards reconciling this long-term contest. Further to this it would provide for the development and implementation of programs that offer education, awareness and information.

Safeguarding cultural heritage is defined in the 2003 UNESCO convention as measures aimed at ensuring the viability of that heritage including the identification, documentation, research, preservation, protection, promotion, enhancement and transmission.

There are currently numerous Acts in Australia which preserve tangible cultural heritage. The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act 1984 is the Commonwealth jurisdiction protecting tangible heritage. There also exists legislation in every State. Further to this there are numerous International declarations, Heritage trusts, management plans and grants all designed to protect heritage and specifically Indigenous heritage.Although this is a significant step there are still numerous deficiencies with the law which are discussed later in the essay.

Safeguarding intangible heritage does not exist in hard law in Australia. The UNESCO Convention for the safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage 2003 is the most appropriate source to protect Intangible heritage, however Australia is not party to the Convention. The most recent advancement is an enquiry into whether Australia should sign the convention in line with the current Labor government reconciliation efforts.

IV.                Issues with safeguarding cultural heritage

The diverse elements of an indigenous people’s heritage can only be fully learned or understood by means of the pedagogy traditionally employed by these people themselves

(Daes, 1994)

The current process of safeguarding Cultural Heritage is not effective. There are numerous examples where the Heritage Protection Acts have failed to protect sacred areas, such as in the Hindmarsh Island case.

For the vast majority of Indigenous peoples, existing legal arrangements concerning their heritage remain under the control and definitional power of the State, rather than the distinct Indigenous Nations that own, enact and assert these heritages (Kearney, 2007). Ownership of cultural heritage includes both representation in decision making and control over outcomes. Decisions of what is heritage and how it should be preserved need to come from within the community who enacts that heritage. It cannot be solely driven by an outside force. The capacity to control the heritage process is an integral element of the process itself. Without control over this process, or a sense of active agency in it, individuals and communities become subjected to received notions and ideas about who they are or should be (Smith, 2006). All forms of cultural heritage are necessarily owned by human groups, distinct cultural entities that politically, socially and economically assert the very right to create and know this heritage, State parties, if not the owners of such heritage, should not be overwhelmingly empowered to determine the process by which cultural heritage is defined, categorised and safeguarded (Smith, 2006).

The ability to control heritage is not only about being able to control community identity, it is also about being able to control political identity, the capacity to control symbolically important heritage is a political act in the negotiating of legitimacy (Smith, 2006). Control is also an element of self-determination which is particularly important in many Indigenous communities in Australia who are dealing with traumas of colonial dispossession, challenges of received perceptions about history and culture, legitimacy of claims to land and economic resources.

It is Aboriginal people themselves who should have the major responsibility for determining the significance of an area or object. A number of regimes in Australia establish bodies with minority or majority Indigenous membership that serves various functions from consultation to actual assessments of significant areas and objects. The Northern Territory and Victoria have committees with Aboriginal membership established by law. South Australia and Western Australia require committees to be set up, but Aboriginal membership is not legally prescribed. Apart from the Northern Territory Aboriginal Areas Protection Authority, few committees have the legislative independence or the resources to carry out their responsibilities comprehensively. Queensland, New South Wales, Tasmania and the Australian Capital Territory have no legal provision for Aboriginal heritage bodies to be established.

Another aspect of control and ownership is recognising that one overriding body may not be the solution. As already discussed there is no one pan-Aboriginality. Acknowledging ‘cultural rights as culture specific’ is a resounding theme throughout the text of the convention, however, state party members of UNESCO maintain control with no specific mandate to formally or legally recognise Indigenous rights to exclusive ownership and control (UNESCO, 2003).

Further to this ownership may result in the exclusive ownership by small communities. Australian law protects heritage of ‘National’ significance and is not capable of recognising some heritage areas as specific and exclusive to certain communities. Acknowledging exclusive cultural ownership is an act of acknowledging cultural autonomy and hence further supporting Indigenous self-determination.

V.                  Conclusion

Preserving Indigenous heritage is a necessary step in the achievement of self-determination for Indigenous people. The State should be involved in ensuring this occurs and helping to move Australia towards reconciliation. However it is important to understand the issues which surround legislating and safeguarding heritage. The issues of Eurocentric prejudice and influence will greatly affect decision making if Indigenous people are not greatly involved in the entire process. Further to this the control over heritage needs to come from within the community which enacts the heritage and not from anywhere else. Undertaking a process which understands these limits will ensure we can adequately preserves Indigneous cultural heritage and work towards self-determination and cultural autonomy. Self-determination and cultural heritage are humans rights and Australia should be taking every step possible in the near future to ensure we promote these human rights.


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