Development at any price? The case of Australia’s Indigenous heritage

This is the first of a series of three posts addressing issues surrounding Australia’s indigenous heritage. The content is based on the 2012  John West Oration to the Launceston Historical Society given by the author.

Part 1:  Why should we protect our heritage?

In the broadest sense our heritage is what we inherit; it’s what we value of that inheritance and what we decide to keep and protect for future generations. Heritage is both global enough encompass our shock at the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan and as local as our own sepia tinted family photographs.  Everything which our predecessors have bequeathed, both tangible and intangible, may be called heritage – landscapes, structures, objects, traditions, stories and language.

This inheritance shapes and expresses who we are; it gives meaning and depth to our lives, whether we are aware of it or not. Each of us has both a unique as well as a shared heritage; and some of that heritage will be directly experienced, understood and incorporated into our sense of ourselves (like my Irish ancestry); some of it only dimly apprehended, requiring a respectful recognition and willingness to learn – like Australia’s Indigenous heritage to most Australians.

It is no accident that one of the first targets of those engaged in genocide is the obliteration of heritage – and through that, identity. The destruction of important civic buildings and places of worship is often part of so-called “ethnic cleansing” in violent conflicts. The victors systematically seek to remove the traces of the vanquished community in order to establish control over them. As Milan Kundera (1981) put it in “The Book of Laughter and Forgetting”: ‘the first step in liquidating a people is to erase its memory. Destroy its books, its culture, its history’ (p 159).

In Australia, those who took the aboriginal children to try to turn them into domestic servants and farm labourers explicitly prohibited the children from speaking their own languages and taking part in cultural practices. The Bringing them Home Report[1] documented these effects in considerable detail, finding that principal effect of the removal policies was the severe erosion of cultural links. This was, of course, the aim of these policies. It was said at the time that the children were to be “prevented from acquiring the habits and customs of the Aborigines” (South Australian Protector of Aborigines in 1909). Clearly, the intended outcome of the removals was to prevent Indigenous children from developing Indigenous cultural identity as part of their sense of themselves. As the Bringing Them Home Report made clear, while Indigenous cultures were not destroyed by these policies, and continue to exist, many were profoundly changed.

But the destruction of heritage need not necessarily be the result of such traumatic and cataclysmic events. We are constantly making judgments about what is worth protecting and passing on – as well as about what we would prefer to forget. Not all of these judgments are carefully considered – or even conscious – and many are hotly contested. In struggles to preserve our heritage, economic goals, in particular, generally take precedence over what is really precious to us. Circumstances, of course, may also conspire to erase the traces of our past – we feel for the people of Christchurch.

Whether we are aware of it or not, we are connected to and influenced by our social and physical environments, our cultural landscape. Most people have strong emotional bonds to particular places and the communities in them. There is a now a great deal of evidence too that our well-being depends in large measure on our relationship with our environment, broadly conceived – the relationships we have with the people around us and the natural and built environment we inhabit[2]; if this cultural environment is destroyed or degraded or if people are prevented from enjoying it, their health and well-being are compromised.

For example, research in Western Australia has shown that the happiest and healthiest Indigenous Australians, with low arrest rates and good educational attainment, are those who have been able to retain a strong attachment to their culture and have a strong aboriginal identity.[3]  Conversely, the psychologically adverse consequences of destruction of people’s familiar environment have been well documented. For example, interviews with people living in the Hunter Valley of New South Wales found that “the transformation of the environment from mining and power station activities was associated with significant expressions of distress linked to negative changes to interviewees’ sense of place, well-being, and control” (p 47)[4], a phenomenon philosopher Glen Albrecht[5] has described as “solastalgia”, a loss of a sense of place.

Even though we may only dimly apprehend the deeper human loss which ensues from the destruction of our heritage, the effects are, nonetheless real and lasting. This alone is reason enough to take heritage protection very seriously.

[1] Bringing them Home: Report of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families, April 1997

[2] Lewicka, M. (2011) Place attachment: How far have we come in the last 40 years? Journal of Environmental Psychology, 31, 207-230.

[3] West Australian Aboriginal Child Health Survey, Kalinga Research Network Report, 2004.

[4] Connor, L., Albrecht, G., Higginbotham, N., Freeman, S., Smith, W. (2004) ‘Environmental change and Human health in Upper Hunter communities of New South Wales, Australia’, EcoHealth, 1, 47-58.

[5] Albrecht, G., Sartore, G., Connor, L., Higginbotham, N., Freeman, S., Kelly, B., Stain, H., Tonna, A. and Pollard, G. (2007) “Solastalgia: The distress caused by environmental change”. Proceedings of the RANZCP Social and Cultural Psychiatry Creating Futures Conference, Australasian Psychiatry, 15 (Supplement): S95-8.