A kangaroo on a dirt road

"Of no cultural significance": The science of understanding Country

22 January 2021
Are archaeological surveys and reports enough to protect Aboriginal cultures?
Aboriginal people’s connections to Country are complex and intertwined with all the other aspects of their lives. Working with local custodians, archaeologists can provide a tool for the protection of Country and culture.

One of the most distressing stories of 2020 (and let’s face it, it was a big year!) was Rio Tinto’s wilful destruction of a 46,000 year-old sacred rock art site of the Puutu, Kunti, Kurrama and Pinikura peoples at Juukan Gorge in Western Australia. Rio Tinto were fully aware of the sacred site and its significance but chose to destroy it anyway despite there being several other less destructive options available to them. This story has brought to light the complete and utter inadequacy of the systems in place to protect Aboriginal culture and heritage, most of which hinges on the Western science of archaeology.

Image of Kaieemagh (Georges River) and the sacred Dahl’wah (casuarina glauca) courtesy of Shannon Foster

Image of Kaieemagh (Georges River) and the sacred Dahl’wah (casuarina glauca) courtesy of Shannon Foster

Juukan Gorge is a powerful example of archaeologists and local Traditional Owners working together to uncover and document important culturally significant information. Through intensive archaeological investigation, the ancient artwork located in Juukan Gorge was classified as of the highest archaeological significance in Australia yet still, the processes that are supposed to protect it could not prevent it from being destroyed. A parliamentary committee established to investigate the destruction stated in their interim report that ''The evidence before the committee demonstrates severe deficiencies in the company’s heritage management practices”. Archeological reports detailed the importance of the site but Rio Tinto chose to ignore them and destroy it anyway, and on Sorry Day, no less.

Here in the middle of Sydney, we have our own problems. As a registered Traditional Owner/Custodian of the Sydney region, I have recently had to review numerous Aboriginal archaeological and heritage reports compiled from areas of Country across Sydney. I have been left speechless and utterly horrified at the lack of engagement with local Traditional Owners. Archaeological reports have been compiled by non-Indigenous consultants looking for very specific, physical, tangible evidence of ‘Aboriginal occupation’ in a given area like “a scatter of stones on a creek line”. This process involves little or no engagement with local custodians and there is a distinct lack of understanding about what it means to connect to local, on Country, people here in Sydney so that the most comprehensive information can be sourced and recorded.

An Aboriginal person “on Country” is living on their family’s Ancestral lands and should have deep and enduring connections to the stories and knowledges of Country. Unfortunately, non-Indigenous consultants, often latch on to the most easily accessible Aboriginal person, regardless of whether they are on Country or not. By engaging with people who are not on their Ancestral Country means that a lot of local, on Country, cultural information is erased and misrepresented in official reports, and consequently, in our physical spaces too.

For Aboriginal peoples on Country, our connections to Country are complex and intertwined with all the other aspects of our lives. Many of our stories, memories and Songlines cannot always be seen or held (or represented in reports), so they are wiped out in the consultation process. For us, Country is not just the earth we walk on; Country is the sky, water, air, rocks, creatures and all living and non-living aspects. Country holds all of our lore and ceremony and it has to be understood also that going “on Country” is not just about being out in the bush. We are always on Country. It doesn’t matter how much you develop the land, Country is still here and it is still vitally important to us and the future of our cultures.

In any given area of Country, there is also more than just one Aboriginal community or group as is evidenced by the communities of Jukkan Gorge – with the Puutu, Kunti, Kurrama and Pinikura peoples all connected to the same Country – yet, especially in heavily colonised areas like Sydney, people insist on acknowledging one people, one place, one language, for example the Cadigal people of the Eora nation as the only people of vast areas of Sydney. To insist upon acknowledging just one group of people is minimising and racist and completely goes against who we are and how we have lived our lives, sustainably, for millennia.

Our kinship systems are as complex and diverse as the Country we are connected to. In Sydney, I acknowledge our family the D’harawal people and also my wider family and those in our kinship system including (but not limited to) the Dharug, Gundangara, Gai-maragal, Guringai and Eora peoples as the other communities with Ancestral connections to Country here. Anything less than this would be to succumb to the inherently racist, colonial impositions on our cultures and continue the erasure and silencing of our peoples.

For the Puutu, Kunti, Kurrama and Pinikura peoples, no amount of archaeological reports, Aboriginal heritage listing or government laws and acts could protect their precious Country, though there have been some positive outcomes from this devastating act. The 2021 NAIDOC Committee has just announced that this year’s NAIDOC theme, Heal Country, has been inspired by the destruction at Juukan Gorge. Heal Country urges everyone to stop and reconsider outdated processes and establish new procedures to protect Country with Aboriginal peoples. The NAIDOC theme is vital in bringing light to these conversations as it is asking for “substantive institutional, structural, and collaborative reform” and archaeologists have an important role to play in this space.

Working with local custodians, archaeologists can learn that for us, Country is our Mother (she is ours but we do not own her); Country gives us the air we breathe, the food we eat and the water we drink and Country is vital to our survival not only as Indigenous people but as human beings. Working with this understanding, archaeologists have the power to provide a vital tool for the protection of Country and culture today, and long into the future.

Written by Shannon Foster

D'harawal Knowledge Keeper