In a landmark piece of legislation, the Victorian Aboriginal Heritage Council (Council) was created through the Aboriginal Heritage Act 2006 (Act), as the only statutory authority composed entirely of Victorian Traditional Owners. Then, as now, the significance of Councils representation is a positive step towards empowerment. The Minister for Aboriginal Affairs in 2006, the Hon. Gavin Jennings, supported the policy shift towards self-determination in that “the Council will ensure Aboriginal people throughout Victoria play a central role in protecting and managing their heritage and that this role is widely acknowledged and respected in the broader community”.
Today, some 15 years later, a seismic change has happened in the way that Traditional Owners’ rights, responsibilities, knowledge and voice is considered and appreciated in the broader community. As a Council, we are true to our values and provide leadership that is constructive, visionary and forward thinking. Government’s own policies of self-determination for Victorian Traditional Owners are reflective of this change but it is time that they are implemented in legislation as, whilst the Act is good, it can be better. The time has come for Traditional Owners to do more than play a part, they must realise their rights to control their Cultural Heritage through the law that governs the protection and management of that Cultural Heritage, we do this is not only for us but for all Victorians.
In 2007, the United Nations General Assembly (Assembly) adopted the significant Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (Declaration). Even then they recognised “the urgent need to respect and promote the inherent rights of indigenous peoples which derive from their political, economic and social structures and from their cultures, spiritual traditions, histories and philosophies, especially their rights to their lands, territories and resources.” It is with great sadness, that as First Peoples, as members of the broader Victorian community and as those with responsibilities for Victoria’s Cultural Heritage legislation, we must acknowledge the Assembly’s call for action has fallen on deaf ears. Through strong leadership and constructive conversations we will help others better understand that the positive contributions we put forward are not only just, for self-determination, but are what is needed to ensure the uniqueness of Victoria’s Aboriginal Cultural Heritage is not further eroded. together we can ensure that our Cultural Heritage will be seen as the treasure it is, built upon origins of our Culture, celebrated as soon as tomorrow if we protect it and nurture it as a living Culture.
What do we mean by Aboriginal Cultural Heritage? Aboriginal Cultural Heritage refers to the knowledge and lore, practices and people, objects and places that are valued, culturally meaningful and connected to identity and Country. It shapes identity and is a lived spirituality fundamental to the wellbeing of communities through connectedness across generations. Our Cultural Heritage has been passed from the Ancestors to future generations through today’s Traditional Owners, whose responsibilities are profound and lifelong.
As we reflect on a decade and a half of implementation of the Act in Victoria, I am proud of the strength of our Cultures and the many ways Victorian Traditional Owners express and promote their Cultural Values. The health and wellbeing of our communities is underpinned by strong Culture and a strong sense of connection with it. Working together, within the inclusive and representative community-based structures that we have always been part of, we can effect great change for our People.
Council works towards appointment of inclusive, representative Traditional Owner corporations to speak for all Country. Through 100% Registered Aboriginal Party (RAP) appointment for Victoria, we can be sure that the right People speak for their Country, for their Culture and their communities. Enshrined in the Act with statutory responsibilities, our People must be further supported, continuously supported, through changes to the Act, to protect and effectively manage Country.
Currently, RAPs represent almost 4,000 Victorian Traditional Owners across the Country through their inclusive representative structures. This engaged membership base is double the voters who participated in electing the First Peoples’ Assembly of Victoria, making them a powerful voice for Traditional Owners in Victoria. Their concerns and comments have been heard in these proposals because it is fundamentally important that in management of our Cultural Heritage, our Peoples are listened to and heard. Our Culture and in fact, all Cultures in all its forms, is what makes us uniquely individual and brings us together through the respect of one another.
Together, across generations, we are the protectors of Cultural Heritage through imposed legislation and community cultural expectations. It is in our children’s lifetimes that our ambitions to be accorded the rights outlined in the Declaration will be realised. This Declaration enshrines the rights of our People and affi rms that Indigenous Peoples are equal to all other peoples, while recognising the right of all peoples to be different, to consider themselves different, and to be respected as such. And as equals, and respectfully treated so, we would want to be afforded the responsibilities of leadership and to take all on this journey to protect and build on our significant and ancient heritage.
The Act and Declaration, together, provide some of the greatest protections for Traditional Owners in the country. However, there is still much to be done in realising a fundamentally self-determined and tangible ownership of our Culture, Heritage, History and Country. Council’s consideration of the Act that regulates our Heritage was undertaken to enshrine self-determination at every level of the government of our People and their Culture. Council is pleased that such a broad range of people, businesses and organisations responded to its Taking Control of Our Heritage, discussion paper on legislative reform of the Aboriginal Heritage Act 2006 (Discussion Paper). Each submission was thoughtful and made a valuable contribution to our work, we thank all those who participated for their engagement.
Whilst Council appreciates the diversity of perspectives in the submissions, it has grave concerns at the underlying racism in many of the submissions. Discrimination can take many forms and, at its worst, is applied wrongfully when it is based on forms of prejudices. My People are resilient, as we understand the beauty of our Culture, but we are judged on who we are and by unhealthy values. However, the good values that most communities have, if not aspire too, is what the majority of us agree on and have in our hearts. Overall, the responses are considered and appropriate but, across some sectors, the overwhelming considerations are that Aboriginal Peoples cannot responsibly undertake the function of the Act. It is our ancestry, our genetic makeup, our connection to Culture that makes us resilient, informed and consultative Peoples. These are the same things that some consider render us unable to manage the functions of the Act that are often in the hands of bureaucrats, non-Traditional Owners and other entities whose Culture it isn’t.
It is essential that, as a society, we truly understand that Traditional Owners are the only comprehensive knowledge holders of their Cultural Heritage. Once we understand that one, fundamental truth, then the changes recommended for their management of that Cultural Heritage are clear and purposeful. We do this for you, we do this so as not to further lose what we have, we do this to reverse the destruction that began not so long ago and to now build and create together.
Our Cultural Heritage is best understood through demonstrating respect for Traditional Owners – our knowledge, our skills, our appreciation of our Heritage. The practising of our Culture and Traditions makes us stronger and this strength offers all Victorians opportunities to value, understand and celebrate the unique Cultural Heritage we care for on behalf of all of us. We all have a part to play in ensuring our Peoples’ rights to self-determination, our Culture and Country.
Walk beside us to ensure that the statutory protections our Peoples have for their Culture is commensurate to over 40,000 years of connection to Country.
Chairperson, Victorian Aboriginal Heritage Council