Culture and heritage

Heritage

Thematic Listings Program 2009-2010: Aboriginal

What is Aboriginal heritage?

Aboriginal heritage includes places with physical evidence of past Aboriginal occupation of an area, such as Aboriginal sites, as well as places of spiritual or cultural importance with no obvious associated physical remains. It includes places that are older than the first European contact of that region, places associated with the first contact, and places of more recent times. Aboriginal heritage is inextricably linked to Aboriginal communities of today and their living culture. It is considered that Aboriginal people are the descendents of the oldest continuous living culture in the world.

Diversity of heritage

Many people often underestimate the breadth and depth of Australia's rich Aboriginal heritage and consider it to be limited to pre-contact 'traditional' sites only. While the thousands of years of pre-colonial heritage are important, the heritage places associated with the first contact between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people are also very significant, as are those places that have become important to Aboriginal communities subsequently. For example, a rock shelter site with hand stencils connects people today with those people of perhaps a thousand years before. Likewise, a place where Aboriginal people were massacred is an important story place to explain the journey of an Aboriginal community from the past to the present. Finally, an Aboriginal mission or meeting place associated with more recent historical events explains how Aboriginal people of today have survived and how individuals and communities have worked to maintain and enhance their families, communities and Australia.

Rock art of boomerang

Rock art of boomerang

Rock engraving, waterhole and grinding grooves

Rock engraving, waterhole and grinding grooves

Confidentiality

In Aboriginal culture there are some places that are restricted to certain people or individuals and unauthorised people are not supposed to go there. For example, some places are gender specific - perhaps a place is known as a 'woman's site' and men are discouraged from visiting. Other sites may be visited only by initiated men. Places are confidential in this way to ensure that the features of the site or the activities that are subject to strict Aboriginal cultural lore are not violated. Also, the location of many important sites may have to be kept confidential due to the ongoing threat of vandalism.

Burra Bee Dee Mission

Burra Bee Dee Mission

Day of Mourning and Protest site, Sydney

Day of Mourning and Protest site, Sydney

One continent, many countries, but what is Country?

Prior to 1788 there were over 400 different languages in Australia and a similarly large number of tribal areas - also referred to as nations or countries. However, this isn't what Aboriginal people refer to as 'country'. 'Country' refers to much more than a tribal area or a piece of land. It refers to an intimate connection to land that represents all that is important. Country supports the plants and animals and it carries the water essential for survival. It is where one comes from at birth and where one returns to at death. Country is the physical expression of the Dreaming and the scene of present experience.

Aboriginal heritage without Aboriginal people?

In the past Aboriginal people were often not consulted on matters of Aboriginal heritage. This is no longer acceptable practice and it is recognised by governments, professional bodies and the wider community that Aboriginal people must be consulted and involved in issues of Aboriginal heritage. It is also recognised that Aboriginal culture is a living, evolving culture where people are working to keep those traditions continuing.

Examples of Aboriginal heritage

Places already listed on the State Heritage Register include the:

Other places of importance that are protected within National Parks or National Heritage listing include Mt Grenfell, Mutawinji, Lake Mungo (oldest Australian human remains), Mumbulla Mountain and the Myall Creek Massacre site.

Brewarrina Fish Traps

Brewarrina Fish Traps

Brewarrina Fish Traps

Brewarrina Fish Traps

Why list on the State Heritage Register?

A listing on the State Heritage Register provides greater legal protection for a place, as well as raising awareness about the place and its story. As Aboriginal heritage encompasses a holistic approach to the landscape all Aboriginal sites in NSW are either automatically protected or able to be protected by various legislation such as the National Parks and Wildlife Act 1974, Heritage Act 1977, the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act 1979, the NSW Aboriginal Land Rights Act 1983 as well as the Commonwealth Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999.

Assessing a place's significance

For Aboriginal heritage an assessment of significance usually examines the following criteria:

  • Cultural or Social Significance
  • Archaeological Significance
  • Educational Significance
  • Aesthetic Significance

Useful links related to Aboriginal heritage protection and conservation

Page last updated: 01 September 2012