Culture and heritage

Aboriginal cultural heritage

Aboriginal Places: overview

An Aboriginal Place is defined in the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Act 1974 (NPW Act) as a place that 'is or was of special significance with respect to Aboriginal culture'. The concept of an Aboriginal Place was introduced into the NPW Act in 1974. Prior to that, only Aboriginal 'relics' - the term used for physical remains such as scarred trees, rock art, stone tools, and shell middens - were protected under the Act.

The Aboriginal Place provisions of 1974 extended the Act to give protection to the intangible, social and spiritual heritage of Aboriginal people in NSW. Places that did not contain archaeological remains, but were culturally and socially important to Aboriginal people could now be protected under the legislation. These included sacred sites as well as fringe camps and Aboriginal reserves from the 19th and 20th centuries.

The 1974 provisions acknowledged that Aboriginal culture and heritage was a living thing in NSW, challenging the widely-believed notion that the Aboriginal people of NSW had 'lost' their culture and their connection to sacred sites. It was part of a growing recognition that Aboriginal culture was more than archaeological relics. In the early 1970s, the idea of 'sacred sites' had entered popular discourse through the Aboriginal land rights movement in the Northern Territory in which Aboriginal people described their links to Country in terms of belonging to Dreamtime sacred sites. These sites mostly took the form of natural landscape features such as waterholes and rock outcrops.

The NSW Sites of Significance Survey conducted by NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service between 1973 and 1987 was instrumental in showing that knowledge of, and reverence for, sacred sites also existed in contemporary NSW Aboriginal society. The survey team travelled throughout NSW speaking to and interviewing Aboriginal Elders. They recorded information about the location and significance of sacred sites and other places that were important to Aboriginal people, but had not been protected by the 'relics' provisions of the NPW Act. Several of these sacred and significant sites became the first Aboriginal Places to be gazetted under the new 1974 provisions. These included natural features associated with Dreaming stories, for example, Tooloom Falls and Cocked Hat Rocks. It also included men's ceremonial and initiation sites, such as Casino Bora Ground and Long Gully. The Survey also recorded sites that are of importance to Aboriginal communities because of their post-contact historical value, including former reserves, cemeteries and camps, such as Saltwater.

In 1977, Merriman Island was the first site to be gazetted as an Aboriginal Place. Between then and 1989, 18 of the 19 declared Aboriginal Places were sites recorded by the Sites of Significance Survey. The other - Koonadan - was gazetted after Aboriginal remains were discovered during mining operations. At the end of 2011, 77 Aboriginal Places have been declared across NSW (Figure 1).


Graph of Aboriginal Places declared between 1977 and 2011

Figure 1: Aboriginal Places declared between 1977 and 2011


Sacred sites make up the majority of the declared Aboriginal Places (41 of 77, or 53%) gazetted by the end of 2011 (Figure 2). This reflects the large number of sacred sites recorded in the Sites of Significance Survey. After 2000 there was a diversification in the types of places declared as Aboriginal Places. There was a greater focus on sites of contemporary social and historical significance such as former reserves and camps (referred to here as settlements) and repatriation sites; as well as a continued commitment to protecting natural features and ceremonial sites identified in the Sites of Significance Survey (Figure 3).


Graph Types of Aboriginal Places declared between 1977 and 2011

Figure 2: Types of Aboriginal Places declared between 1977 and 2011

Graph showing Categories of Aboriginal Places declared between 1977 and 2011

Figure 3: Categories of Aboriginal Places declared between 1977 and 2011

Since 2000, the rate of Aboriginal Place gazettals has increased significantly, as shown in Figure 1. There has also been an increasing trend toward protecting places that are of contemporary historical importance to Aboriginal communities. Between 2000 and 2011, 15 burial grounds (many of which are repatriation sites) have been gazetted as Aboriginal Places compared with 2 prior to 2000 (Figure 3). Thirteen settlements, including former reserves and camps such as Inglebagh, Urekebagh Island, and Cubawee, have been gazetted as Aboriginal Places since 2000. These places are important because they represent the history of Aboriginal people after white settlement, and they often have significant personal value for local Aboriginal people who lived there or who have relatives who lived there.

The declaration of Aboriginal Places offers Aboriginal people opportunities to reconnect with their ancestors, community and culture. Monty Stubbings, for whom the Gully Aboriginal Place has great significance, described how, in 2002,

... after the Gully Celebration, I was back in that world, the world of my relatives and ancestors. It was a new awakening to go back into that world. [1]

Aboriginal Place declarations also protect places for future generations, and some are used as places where young Aboriginal people can be taught about their culture and heritage. For example, Cubawee Aboriginal Place, a former reserve, is now a community meeting place. The Ngulingah Local Aboriginal Land Council owns and manages the land, and holds community events and educational programs there. Speaking at the celebration to mark the declaration of Cubawee as an Aboriginal Place, Ms June Gordon, an Aboriginal Elder, said:

In our hearts we are truly grateful that at last our homeland has been given back to us for generations to come.[2]

[1] Monty Stubbings quoted in Diane Johnson, Sacred Waters: the Story of the Blue Mountains Gully Traditional Owners, Broadway NSW: Halstead Press, 2007, p.101.

[2] June Gordon quoted in The Northern Star, 8 July 2010.

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Page last updated: 16 February 2016