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ICOMOS General Assembly and Scientific Symposium GA2023

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice

Jalangurru lanygu balangarri - good afternoon everyone. Yaningi warangira ngindaji yuwa muwayi ingirranggu, Gadigal yani U. Balangarri wadjirragali jarra ningi – gamali ngindaji yau muwayi nyirrami ngarri thangani. Yaningi miya ngindaji Muwayi ingga winyira ngirranggu thangani.  Yathawarra, wilalawarra jalangurru ngarri guda.

For those of you who do not know me, my name is June Oscar. I am Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner based at the Australian Human Rights Commission.

I have been speaking to you in my first language Bunuba which is from the Country or lands I come from, in the central Kimberley, a region in far north Western Australia.

To the traditional owners of this land—the Gadigal People of the Eora Nation— please accept my respectful acknowledgment of you, your ancestors, the descendants, wherever they may be, and your future generations.

Before I begin, I would like to extend my thanks to the International Council on Monuments and Sites—the world’s peak body of cultural heritage professionals and an official Advisory Body to the UNESCO World Heritage Committee—and Scientific Symposium Co-Chairs, Dr Steve Brown and Dr Ona Vileikis, for inviting me to speak today.

I would also like to acknowledge Her Royal Highness Princess Dana Firas and other distinguished speakers from Australia and around the world who are presenting at this event.

Heritage changes. The concept of heritage is a mirror reflecting our journey through history. It shifts, transforms, and expands, bearing witness to what we as a society value most.

It is, I have no doubt you will all agree, critically important that we preserve our heritage. To understand ourselves and the world around us in the present and meet the challenges of the future, we must have a firm grasp of what has come before us and has shaped the landscape, and the social, political, cultural and economic structures we live within. In this sense, there should be no tension between preserving our past and adapting to new challenges.

Nonetheless, it is without a doubt that we live at a moment in history—amongst climate crises, pandemic, growing inequality, political polarisation and desecration of sacred sites—where long-held power dynamics, priorities, and positions are being challenged and re-evaluated in an unprecedented way.

This has, I think, accelerated the expansion of heritage as a concept beyond what it once was, allowing it to embrace diverse perspectives and marginalised voices. As the narrowness of the colonial narrative becomes more and more evident, we are witnessing a shift away from people identifying with histories and aspects of only the built environment, so much of which has been built to silence the histories of others and to promote the superiority of one dominant Western colonial society over other peoples and their living heritages. These histories are being challenged—and rightly so.

In this referendum year, the first in this century, to give our First Nations peoples a permanent Voice in the birth certificate of this nation, we are challenging these narratives and giving life to the wisdom of our ancestors and the rich knowledges contained across all our communities. We are at a moment in history with unprecedented challenges, but before us we have one of the greatest opportunities to change the future for the betterment of everyone.  

Soon after I commenced my term as Commissioner in 2017, I launched the Wiyi Yani U Thangani (Women’s Voices) Project. Other than the work of the Aboriginal Women’s Taskforce in 1986, nothing like this had ever been undertaken specifically focused on the rights of First Nations women and girls as a national collective.

My team and I travelled Australia, talking to well over 2,000 women and girls in urban, regional and remote areas in every state and territory. We allowed women and girls to speak about all facets of their lives and to represent themselves as all of who they are.

In 2020, the landmark Wiyi Yani U Thangani Report was tabled in the Federal Parliament. The Report goes far beyond siloed issues and delivers a striking message: that we will reach a meaningful point in our journey of political agreement-making in Australia when we seriously begin the shared work of transforming our systems, across all sectors and parts of life, from siloed, punitive, top-down, and short-term to holistic, healing-orientated, culturally and community-grounded and sustainable.

The Report also highlights how vitally important our women’s knowledges and ways of living are to driving this transformation. It is through women’s ways of knowing and doing that we can see more equitable and sustainable ways of organising society around care for children, family and Country and how to restore the connections between people and place to renew our environments to full health and wellbeing.

It is so critical that these knowledges and ways of working are shared and valued because, in the same breath, women also spoke extensively to the global and domestic forces that are leading to the ruination of country and destruction of sacred sites, as we saw with Juukan Gorge. They told me of extreme weather changes—seasonal harvests thrown out of centuries-old patterns, and the worsening of floods and bush fires.

Women offered a vision of how to confront and overcome these challenges and create a healthy and thriving society. From their collective voices we captured the following vision for a future where:

Our children are born surrounded by family, wrapped in community and kinship supports. From our earliest years, we are immersed in our languages and educated in our knowledges in balance with Western learnings, and we can choose to live on, access and have control over our homelands, developing and engaging in culture-based institutions and economies.

Our knowledges, songlines and ceremonies are recognised for their worth and importance and our Laws are upheld, respected, intergenerationally transferred and embedded within local, regional and national governance and decision-making.

We have always known this way of being is possible—our ancestors lived it.

If we are to make First Nations women’s vision a reality, we need a fundamental shift in the way First Nations people, knowledge, and heritage is understood in Australia.

The elements of this vision—self-determination, shared decision-making, governance over our land, institutions and economies and the right to respect for and protection of culture, are all enshrined in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Together these rights form the foundation of our health and well-being.

To realise these rights in full—which we must—we have to appreciate that our living heritage embodies the essence of our existence—the 65,000 years and counting of our civilisaton.

So you have an understanding of what I mean, let me take you back over millennia. We have existed as the human element of complex interconnected ecosystems. We have important roles and responsibilities to maintain ecosystem balance and health and have fulfilled this through our cultural customs and laws—singing, dancing, hunting, fishing, gathering, burning, planting, harvesting and coming together with neighbours to interact socially and economically and to take part in shared ceremonies.

We are and always have been sophisticated civilisations. Our stone formations and fish weirs, our knowledge of the skies, lands and waters, the intricacy of our social systems and the careful governance processes we put in place have been developed over thousands of years and have supported thriving communities and ecologies.

My ancestors and country’s interconnection to and between each other and all things – the birds, rocks, water sites, spears and coolamons, barks and plants. It is a system of exchange and reciprocity—which in the Kimberley we call Wunan—enabling a intricately woven web of sharing, giving and learning. The rituals of exchange in material objects and gatherings of ceremony and song network our entire existence into clear protocols of interaction defining our language and behaviours in those instances of meeting.

Our complex kinship and familial structures ensure our intergenerational responsibilities as custodians are maintained. For my Bunuba people, this relationship law and knowledge carried within our language was decided at a very important location on Bunuba country at a place called Jawiy by two men – jirringgin – who is now an owlet night-jar, and wadawiy who has become the spotted nightjar. When we see them today we acknowledge that they are our relations.

So, our words are not empty! By the act of speaking everything is connected to everyone who has walked the land before us, and who will come.

Colonisation has been a devastating disruptor to this system as it has been for many other First Nations the world over—across the Americas, Africa, Asia and the Pacific.

On this continent, 1788 marked the beginning of the British not just transporting human cargo, but transplanting its entire economic, governmental and judicial system onto our lands, which has threatened to eradicate the structures, values and knowledge base of our First Nations civilisation—the foundations upon which we rely in order to thrive in every aspect of life.

My Bunuba ancestors were not engulfed by the tidal wave of first British settlement. Except for a few whispers of an advancing danger, we had no prior knowledge that our countries connected to this vast continent had been pronounced terra nullius, a vacant land belonging to no-one.

Instead, we felt the violent wash of frontier wars in the late nineteenth century.

From the beginning of the onslaught, known as the ‘killing times’ where I come from, we have been thrown into a war of ideas and worldviews. The first incarnations of the frontier laid down the battlelines between one system of knowing and another. Sometimes, but rarely, did this evolve into an interchange of understanding and ideas that we could incorporate into our system of Wunan.

Encounters all too frequently resulted in bursts of brutality. Our breadth and depth of knowledge of the land vanished beneath a conception of our people and the objects of our civilisation as flora and fauna ripe for domination.

In Australia, heritage institutions were constructed out of a narrative of Western civilisations sweeping advancement across the globe and emerged as the grand collectors and collators of the British Empire’s colonial plunder. In this sense, heritage institutions— whether they were museums, libraries, scientific foundations and historical societies—were a distinct part of a colonial web of power, domination and conquest.

To achieve domination, the British had to tell a story of conquest, and so when my ancestor Jandamarra—a Bunuba resistance fighter against colonial oppression—was killed, what was thought to be his skull was put on show at the Museum of Western Australia as a symbol of a new world order. Visitors paid to see the final resting place of this rebellious chief from a vanishing world.

But that world did not vanish—it lived on in our people. My grandmother was a young girl during the turbulent period of the nineteenth century. She lived with my great-grandmother and our extended family on our country moving from one living site to another in what the white settlers of the time termed native camps. These camps would have contained all that was necessary to live.

I remember as a child how remarkable my grandmother was. She knew exactly where the water was located in our dramatic country of tall grasses spreading out across the endless plains, spiky spinifex and boabs that seem to lap at the feet of towering cliff faces and grow across the facades of the ranges hiding the networks of caves deep within. She knew every animal, rock and plant. She understood the interacting behaviours of the seasons and all creatures, small to big, on that land. She performed ceremonies to bring on the rain. She taught me how Country bears witness to each of us carrying out our responsibilities.

There is a cave on my Bunuba country to which my grandmother would take her children. My late mother showed me the place where they slept, where they would drop their digging sticks and tools, where they would make a fire. Standing there I can feel the presence of my grandfather’s return, bringing back with his sons the meat that had been hunted ready to cook. I can hear my grandmother’s voice, taste the sounds and the smells of their life. This is the sensation our country evokes. Layers of time are stripped away and in an instant the tens of thousands of years of our histories washes around us all at once. It can be overwhelming; it is always reaffirming.

I have taken visitors to similar living sites, caves set in the limestone cliffs where smooth spears of rock used for crushing ochre have been left, placed in hollowed out indents on the limestone surface. Etched into the top of table-like rock faces are straight grooves where spear heads would have been sharpened.

I have seen first-hand the sudden upwelling of emotion when people are welcomed to these places. I wonder if they think of the last hand to have crushed ochre here, to have put the rock where it sits now, the legs that stood up and climbed down from the cave, the feet that walked away never to return.

These living sites, unmarked on Western maps, fill the coastal and interior areas of Australia and our covered in traces of former occupation. Today, although people keep them alive and maintain our creation spirits, they have no permanent residence. Still the presence of the past pulsates within them. The history of these places, when exposed, is immense.

These sites are our living heritage—breathing the past into the present for the future. Our grandparents, parents and now us are the connectors to these places, ensuring that the next generation is able to navigate the spatial and temporal plain of our land.

In contrast, until very recently, the Western institutions which collected our heritage objects and knowledges have acted as the gatekeepers of our worldly possessions, itemising and cataloguing our objects as mere relics of the past to sit frozen on shelves, empty of our heritage, dormant, waiting to be reunited with our Indigenous knowledges and stories.

Today it is remarkable that some of the very institutions that were committed to a Western singular interpretation of history have diverged to tell multiple narratives. There is still a long way to go but change is afoot - In spaces where figures such as Jandamarra were trivialised, there is now attempts to tell more truthful histories for the purposes of truth-telling and reconciliation.

But, ultimately, it is still our Countries’ living heritages that tell the most truthful and richest stories. Our Countries hold the markings of a history that was taken away but is still remembered and still provides us with powerful languages and knowledges: the tree that is scarred where the wood was removed to make a coolamon; the quartz spear heads chipped from limestone ranges; the eroded rock platforms that have felt centuries of footsteps as people moved with their belongings from one living site to another.

Our material heritage has not been lost. It is there in plain sight, and we know many of the objects associated with our places on Country—the spear heads, axes, shields, coolamons, items of jewellery, cloaks, blankets and remnants of shelters and houses, animal traps and grain stores, can be used to tell a greater truth about Australia’s big, rich and deep history.

In this way, heritage institutions and practitioners have a vital role to play to bring our stories, histories and worlds into the lives of all Australians. When we can ascribe meaning to the lives of others through a better understanding of their lived reality we can take the necessary steps to eradicate injustice and all forms of discrimination wherever it presents.

But there is still yet a long journey ahead. The colonial system—with its institutions and governance arrangements—is fundamentally still intact. Australia’s long history of structural discrimination—the privileging of British civilisation, its history and its ways of knowing—has created a deep scar across our institutional landscape. If we are to heal this wound, the response must be sustained and comprehensive.

It’s time we speak honestly about the real neglect of First Nations’ knowledges and presence throughout society. We need more Indigenous content not only in our heritage institutions, but in all areas of life—our languages in schools, our native plants in cultivation, our medicines on shelves, our knowledges in universities, our science in climate policy, and our relationship with Country in land management systems.

Take for example the native title system. Native title is now recognised over 40% of the country and, collectively, we now have Indigenous tenure—that is, exclusive possession native title or freehold title—over 26% of Australia’s landmass. We have proven conclusively our foundational place–our tens of thousands of years of existence, occupation, our undeniable connection.

Yet even over the last three decades following the Mabo Decision which overthrew the lie of terra nullius and acknowledged the truth that we have occupied these lands and waters since a time immemorial—even in those moments when we do reclaim our rights to land, language and culture, we are constantly having to negotiate within the conditions and expectations of Western society.

It did not need to be this way. When Paul Keating delivered his historic Redfern speech, he talked about ‘an historic turning point, the basis of a new relationship between indigenous and non-Aboriginal Australians’. He assured Australians that ‘there [was] nothing to fear or to lose in the recognition of historical truth… [only] everything to gain’.

Keating pointed to the potential that was opening-up through key arrangements being put in place around native title—a big agenda of restitution and reconciliation that could lead to a real form of structural settlement. But in the years that followed this big agenda was abandoned—the Social Justice Package would never eventuate, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission was disestablished, and the Howard Government’s 10-Point Plan and the High Court’s decisions in Ward and Wilson v Anderson relegated our rights to our lands to the bottom of the heap.

Calls for major reforms to the system have been largely ignored. One of these calls is that there should be a ‘presumption of continuity of acknowledgement and observance of traditional laws and customs’. Under the current system, the onus is on us to prove our unbroken connection to Country to Western standards of evidence. Our oral histories and oral testimony of cultural knowledge and connection to country are not given the same weight as written records by Europeans who observed First Nations peoples in the earlier years of colonial contact.

The extent to which we are able to recover our rights is also greatly impacted by the overlapping discriminations to which we have been subjected. Through my focused work with First Nations women, I have heard about the ongoing impacts stemming from the privileging of colonial men’s knowledge.

Assumptions were made about First Nations’ women’s roles on the basis of observations by colonists, historians and anthropologists who brought with them their own cultural and gendered biases and who were never privy to matriarchal lawwomen’s knowledge of Country. The cumulative result over the years has been the exclusion of women’s cultural knowledge from the native title sphere and from the written record.

Anthropologists have noted that this has contributed to the way that the anthropological work in native title has tended to be divided between women doing the genealogies and men doing the ‘real stuff’, like going out on country. This has, in turn, exacerbated the perceived gender divide and the implications for women being written out of roles regarding knowledge of country and land management.

It has also led to women’s sacred sites being excluded from lists of key sites in native title claims, and therefore not being included as considerations in post-determination negotiations. The flow-on effect has been the destruction of many of these sites and a loss of access to country for women to practice and pass on culture.

There is a critical need of reform to the native title system across the board. The issue that I have raised is but one in the cluster of problems stemming from a system-design fundamentally incapable of delivering our rights. But there are things we can be doing.

Even in recent times the majority of the anthropologists and archaeologists involved in the native title sector have been male. There are many female anthropologists but they struggle to be viewed with the same credibility and seniority; and they face the rolling layers of discrimination and assumptions based on the western patriarchal foundations of anthropology in native title.

That is, that if you hire a woman, you might miss out on men’s knowledge (which is of course considered the most important knowledge). Protocol has forbidden that men be taken out on country to be shown women’s sites; often the men will never even be told about the sites they cannot visit. The more women and, in particular, First Nations women we can bring into the field, the more scope there is for our voices to be heard, our knowledge valued and our sites protected.

What is clear is that whether it be museums, schools or native title bodies, we must build truly inclusive institutions. These places need to be ours too and reflect who we are and what we know and our long history on this continent before British occupation.

Full community involvement is the cornerstone of effective heritage preservation. By fostering partnerships within and beyond our communities, we can create networks of support that amplify our voices. Cultural heritage and truth-telling must go hand in hand.

Throughout the colonial process, neglectful and short-sighted land management practices took hold through the introduction of invasive species and extractive industries in an effort to build and terraform a new Britain on foreign shores. These threats are still with us.

To all of you in this room today and wherever you might be listening, we need you there alongside us to support mechanisms to uphold our rights to culture and to free, prior and informed consent.

There is no doubt in my mind that a Voice for our peoples enshrined in the Constitution would form a progressive agenda to protect and maintain our living heritage across this nation, so as to never allow an event like Juukan Gorge to happen again. But to also go further than protection and to look at heritage through the lens of environmental restoration and the support of thriving ecosystems so we can withstand and survive the severe threat of climate change.

As a society we need to support the reintroduction of traditional knowledge and practice and to re-assess the value of the natural environment as an indispensable resource unto itself.

In Australia governments have a tendency to backflip on heritage measures which uphold our cultural rights and we can too easily slide back into the colonial mythology I have been describing that our heritage is static and gets in the way of Western economic progress. First Nations Peoples are not standing in the way of the future. The “progress” we are standing in the way of is a dead end.

Traditional knowledges are valuable technologies, ignored and neglected while the world’s policy-makers have been blinded by a fantasy of infinite resources and endless growth. We need recognition of the ancient knowledges we and other First Nations peoples hold and have finessed over time which have kept diverse habitats and eco-systems in balance for millennia. We want to preserve this knowledge and places for eternity so we can all benefit from a healthy continent. If we don’t then the cost is unfathomable for all of us.

Even after more than two centuries of colonisation, our knowledge of the animals and plants around us still exceed that of Western science. I know that me and my mob are constantly surprised when researchers come to our Country and discover another new thing that we’ve always known was there.

Governments, the heritage sector and the broader community can all play an important role in valuing the participation of people with this knowledge. This includes our women – for it is the very knowledges and lives that are most marginalised that we need the most to resolve our current challenges and drive transformative change to form a more caring and sustainable world for all.

Together, we must put in place policies and mechanisms to invest in, revive and protect our lands, languages, cultures, knowledges and ceremonies through a national framework that above all recognises and values living heritage and supports First Nations Peoples to exercise our rights and responsibilities on Country.


Thank you.

Commission logo

Ms June Oscar AO, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice