Australian Indigenous people. Sustaining cultural diversity through the protection of indigenous cultural heritage

Mr Michael Williams (MA in Heritage Management) is a cultural heritage expert currently working at George Bourne Associates in the state of Queensland, Australia. Michael’s role is to identify and protect cultural heritage values including Indigenous Cultural Heritage.


According to UNESCO, 22% of global land is occupied and used by indigenous people representing a great part of the world’s cultural diversity. Many indigenous people face marginalisation, poverty and, unfortunately, various kinds of human rights violations. The recognition of their crucial role means sustaining and respecting the cultural and biological diversity of the world. Indigenous people live in serval countries of the world, one of which is Australia. Australia is a federation of six States, two internal Territories and seven external Territories. The Australian Constitution gives State governments primary responsibility for land management. The Commonwealth, States and Territories have all developed their own laws and policies with respect to cultural heritage. In Australia, considerable progress has recently been made in cultural heritage in both legislation, and policies particularly in practices finalised to preserve Indigenous cultural heritage (see Rowland, Ulm and Reid 2014). In fact, Indigenous cultural heritage is present in both the lands and waters of Australia and many aspects of the landscape may be important to these people as a part of their heritage (Australian Heritage Commission 2002). This interview discusses how cultural values and Indigenous people are respected and preserved.


1 Who are the Indigenous Australians? Are they a homogenous social group?

Indigenous Australians live in everyday Australian society and possess Australian citizenship just like the non-indigenous population, however they identify with their Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander identity when filling out formal documentation. Some Indigenous Australians still practice traditional law and uses of land in their home regions, and some communities are managed by Indigenous people albeit under the laws and methodologies of a Western government system.

There are many different Native Title areas that Indigenous groups identify with throughout Australia, hence Indigenous Australians are not a homogenous social group, while language, culture, and traditional land management vary based on region and/or environment.

2 What are their main differences and what do they have in common?

The main differences are language and land occupation. Indigenous Artwork, Dreamtime Stories, and hunting practices are also varied from region to region, the latter of which is primarily based on the type of land that is occupied, e.g. coastal, inland, highlands, etc.

3 Where do Indigenous people live?

Indigenous people live everywhere around Australia, including metropolitan, suburban, and regional/remote areas.

4 What are the criteria for determining whether a person is Indigenous according to the government?

Having an ancestor with Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander DNA.

5 How do Indigenous people define themselves?

Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander, and then with their Native Title group/clan. For example, someone who was born in Winton, QLD by parents who had an ancestor from that specific Indigenous locality (one of which is Koa), would identify themselves as Aboriginal, and specifically as a Koa man/woman. If they have ancestors from multiple regions, then they can identify with those as well. Indigenous Australians also define themselves by other aspects such as their totem animal, which may be an emu, kangaroo, lizard, etc.

 6 How is Indigenous heritage categorised exactly?

Indigenous heritage is categorised by Cultural Heritage practitioners as Indigenous Cultural Heritage (CH) Values. Some types of CH Values are as follows: (see Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Act 2003 Duty of Care Guidelines, Section 6.1)

Ceremonial places: The material remains of past Aboriginal ceremonial activities come in the form of earthen arrangements or bora grounds and their associated connecting pathways, and stone circles, arrangements and mounds. Indigenous people used these places for ceremonies, including initiation and inter-group gatherings.

Scarred or carved trees: Scars found on large mature trees often indicate the removal of bark by Indigenous people to make material items like canoes, containers, shields and boomerangs. Carved trees generally feature larger areas of bark that has been removed and carved lines deeply etched into the timber. Carvings include geometric or linear patterns, human figures, animals and birds.

-Burials: Pre-contact Aboriginal burials are commonly found in caves and rock shelters, midden deposits and sand dunes. Burial sites are sensitive places of great significance to Indigenous people.

-Rock art: Queensland has a rich and diverse rock art heritage. Rock art sites can include engravings, paintings, stencils and drawings. Paintings, stencils and drawings may have been done for everyday purposes, but are often used for ceremonial and sacred functions. Engravings include designs scratched, pecked or abraded into a rock surface.

-Fish traps and weirs: Fish traps and weirs are stone or wooden constructions designed to capture aquatic animals, predominantly fish. Traps are considered as structures made Duty of Care Guidelines Department of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Partnerships 12 predominantly from stone to form a type of pen or enclosure. Weirs are constructions designed to block the natural flow of water in creeks, streams and other watercourses.

Occupation sites: These are places where the material remains of human occupation are found. Such sites contain discarded stone tools, food remains, ochre, charcoal, stone and clay hearths or ovens, shell middens and shell scatters, including deposits found in rock shelters and caves. These deposits may be buried. Other evidence of occupation sites includes the remains of Aboriginal dwellings or “gunyahs”.

-Quarries and artefact scatters: Quarries are places where raw materials such as stone or ochre were obtained through either surface collection or sub-surface quarrying. Stone collected or extracted from stone quarries was used for the manufacture of stone tools. Ochre, a type of coloured clay, was utilised by Indigenous people in rock art and for body and wooden tool decoration.

-Grinding grooves: Grinding grooves represent the physical evidence of past tool making or food processing activities. They are generally found near water sources. The presence of long thin grooves may indicate where the edges of stone tools were ground. Food processing activities such as seed grinding can leave shallow circular depressions in rock surfaces.

-Contact Sites: The material remains of Indigenous participation in the development of Queensland after the arrival of European settlers. These include former or current Aboriginal missions, native mounted police barracks and historical camping sites.

-Wells: Rock wells are reliable water sources that have been altered by Indigenous people for the storage of water. The presence of wells often indicates the location of routes frequently travelled by Indigenous people in the past.

7 How is your job involved in preserving Indigenous cultural heritage?

George Bourne & Associates practices Civil Engineering works mainly for Local Government Authorities and State assets across Central West Queensland (QLD) including road maintenance/construction, and the design/construction of bridges, town structures, etc. Due to the relatively undisturbed and underdeveloped nature of the Central West QLD region, such Civil Engineering projects often have the potential to cause harm to previously unrecorded CH Values such as those mentioned above in question 6. Therefore, in project areas subject to additional surface disturbances, it is my job to engage the relevant Indigenous people (aka Aboriginal Party) to assess the existence of any CH Values that may exist. If CH Values are found to exist, I will generate a report and provide management recommendations for the project manager to avoid harming the CH Values. In some cases, CH Values can be relocated such as stone artefact finds or scarred trees (if properly preserved), in other cases the CH Values must remain in place and the project has to alter its design. Either way, the Aboriginal Party must approve of the management protocol that is chosen.

8 How might Indigenous cultural heritage be threatened nowadays? Can you describe how this threat is avoided based on your working experience? Do you have any relevant story to be shared?

As explained in question 7 CH Values can be threatened by construction works, but it can also be threatened by: inaccurate/non-existent site recording, ineffective management practice, not following CH recommendations, engaging the wrong Aboriginal Party or not engaging an Aboriginal Party at all, and many other reasons.

This threat is avoided by communicating with all people involved in each project from start to finish, having clear and detailed data/imagery of the proposed site areas, making accurate assessments on the level of additional surface disturbances at each site area, working closely with the CH Duty of Care Guidelines and other CH and Native Title experts in the region/state, and most importantly engaging with the correct and relevant Aboriginal Party Contact Person and traditional knowledge holders.

When a CH Site is identified at a project site area, the location is recorded on a handheld GPS, the survey team will record detail of the findings via fieldnotes, voice recordings, photos, sketches, etc. In some areas around Australia – particularly in suburban/metropolitan areas – a team of archaeologists and Traditional Owners will visit the site following the initial field survey to conduct excavations in order to identify the full extent of the CH site (in particular stone artefacts, hearths, shell middens, bone, etc), and also to identify other aspects like stone tool technology and the date of occupation.

Another way of avoiding threat is to abandon and/or close a site. For example, while I was surveying a gravel pit (a stone resource area used to extract road construction material) one day, the Traditional Owners (TO) immediately started panicking as soon as we stepped out the car, as they knew we had entered an important CH Site, which ended up being a stone artefact quarry with hundreds of artefacts on top of a lookout with a 360 degree view of the land that would have been used for people to gather, teach knowledge, and locate wildlife for hunting. Our action was to immediately get back in the car, leave the site, and allow them to discuss how they would like to proceed. We all had a meeting following this and it was decided to close the site permanently from any future project works, and have the CH Site recorded on the QLD State’s online Indigenous heritage register, providing strong heritage protection and penalties if it were to be disturbed in the future.

9 How is Indigenous cultural intangible heritage preserved?

Not very well. Many Indigenous languages have been lost since the Australian Continent began to be occupied by Europeans in the 18th Century. Since this time, most Indigenous populations and culture have been eliminated by disease, massacres, and/or displacement, leaving the surviving Indigenous Population to adopt western ways, Christianity, and the English language. Intangible heritage is mainly preserved only through academic ventures, papers, and recordings commissioned by the Australian government and media, and sometimes by Universities.

Due to the nature of Intangible Heritage being the possession of the Indigenous elders, a lot of the language and culture dies with them unless there are enthusiastic and committed family members willing to engage and learn from their elders. In some areas this is done with great enthusiasm and with the support of well-run Aboriginal Body Corporates that assist the continual practice of language, dance, art, and site management. When such resources are not available however the intangible heritage is mostly lost, which is a harsh reality for the state of Indigenous Australian heritage today, and most likely worldwide.

10 Do Indigenous people play an active role in conservation management practices? How do they participate in decision making? How are they actively engaged?

Technically yes. Aboriginal Parties must be engaged with to collaborate towards conservation management practices on Indigenous CH Sites. Traditional Owners are always involved in University or consulting driven research and site recording. Mostly however Indigenous peoples’ involvement is an afterthought, and conservation management is presented to them at the end, and they are told how sites are to be managed, giving them a chance to merely agree, disagree, or add a suggestion.

Indigenous People are engaged through communication channels that have been put in place by State Government CH contact lists, which are formed through communication with the relevant Aboriginal Party that is responsible for CH management of the particular Native Title Claim area.

11 How do the Australian community interact with the Indigenous community? Are there specific and targeted programmes at schools?

As said above, Indigenous Australians live in all Australian communities throughout the country, and they are interacted with like every other person. Most schools around Australia teach Indigenous songs, artwork, dance, stories, and other forms of cultural heritage, and select Universities teach courses built around Indigenous Australian Cultural Heritage Management, Archaeology, and Anthropology.

12 Why is protecting Indigenous cultural heritage important for all Australians and for future generations?

Indigenous Australians are one of the longest surviving/practising Indigenous cultures in human history. They provide important insights into effective land management practices, adaptive living techniques in a changing climate, traditional hunter gatherer societies, seafaring technology and methodologies, stone tool technology, and many other unique aspects of Indigenous culture. Protecting cultural heritage will also provide a secure identity for future generations of Indigenous People in Australia and around the world to connect with when their family and elders have passed on. Lastly, it sends a message to all society today and tomorrow that Indigenous Culture is important and should be protected for the good of all humanity.

13 What kind of progress should be still done in the future to better protect Indigenous cultural heritage?

In recent years, Indigenous Australians have requested having a voice in the Australian Parliament, which would basically provide a chance to be informed and have a say in relation to the management of Indigenous Australian affairs. This has been rejected multiple times by the Australian Government as the government believes this would form a third chamber that would severely restrict its ability to form policy, but the Indigenous leaders have continued campaigning nonetheless while attempting to explain they just want a chance to be heard, acknowledged, and be involved in the conversation about matters concerning their wellbeing.

Such a position in the Australian government system would provide better infrastructure and resources for Indigenous People to develop management practices for the recording, practising, and preservation of tangible and intangible CH Values. More funding for Universities and private archaeological consulting practices would also greatly assist the recording of unknown CH Sites, the preservation of known CH Sites, and ultimately the chance for Indigenous Australians to visit, interact, and learn from CH Sites, as well as learn and pass on intangible heritage to future generations.


The Heritage Call warmly thanks the specialist Mr Michael Williams for his cooperation and for the interesting information reported.

Through his direct and professional experience, it emerges that Australian Indigenous people are an important socio-cultural resource for the country and play an active role in their own preservation. The recognition of their importance has led in time to strategically planned improvements of preservation, the realisation of many other successful tactics aimed at their safeguarding, as well as the progress of many others. Although a considerable portion of Aboriginal intangible heritage is lost, fortunately, some Aboriginal organisations are trying to keep these traditions alive in order for their transmission into the future to be possible. Similarly, the role of universities is also relevant for the correct comprehension and dissemination of Aboriginal culture.

The pandemic of 2020 is clearly showing how fragile Indigenous people in Australia can be, particularly those who live in remote areas according to the Australian government. Generally, this period of global crisis is also displaying a high risk of losing Indigenous people and their culture around the world.

Protecting Indigenous cultural heritage means, on the one hand, sustaining cultural diversity because these communities possess unique cultural characteristics, as well as specific and knowledge (e.g. territory). On the other hand, their preservation contributes to considerably foster a respectful intercultural dialogue not only among the current communities but also among future generations. The act of preserving and respecting indigenous people means constructing a better world based on tolerance and peace.


-Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Act 2003.

-Australian Heritage Commission (2002). Ask First. A guide to respecting Indigenous heritage places and values. National Capital Printing, Canberra.

-Rowland, M. J., Ulm, J. and Reid, J. (2014). Compliance with Indigenous cultural heritage legislation in Queensland: perceptions realities and prospects, Environmental and Planning Law Journal, 31, 329-351.

Websites justice/indigenous-international-rights

Interview directed by Barbara Morda & Nikki Petropoulos

Cover ph. courtesy of my_australia_downunder

Michael’s feedback on the initiative The Heritage Call: The Heritage Call provides a great opportunity to hear from professionals around the world who are actively involved with managing heritage in their region. This will give all stakeholders insight into how it is practised elsewhere, what issues are being encountered, and what methodologies/practices could be adopted to improve the effectiveness of their own role.


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