Transition and capacity of Council

Council’s relationship with government

Council members are leaders in their communities with responsibilities to Culture and community wellbeing. It is significant that Council therefore has both a community responsibility to advocate for protection of Cultural Heritage and a statutory one.

As a full Council, or through representation of the Chair or Deputy Chair, Council has met with the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, both the Hon. Gavin Jennings and the Hon. Gabrielle Williams, six times during the reporting period. Council’s direct relationship with the Minister in an advisory capacity ensures that the Victorian Government enacts its commitment to self-determination in hearing the voice of Traditional Owners. One on one meetings with the Minister are an important contribution to Council’s broader advocacy for the protection of Cultural Heritage and acknowledgement of the complex responsibilities of Traditional Owners in Victoria. Additionally, Council also talks to government through Secretaries, Deputy Secretaries, and in an educative role with other arms of government and ministerial portfolios.

During the reporting period, Council has discussed its Taking Control of Our Heritage: Discussion Paper on legislative reform of the Aboriginal Heritage Act 2006, with the Minister and looks forward to progressing this work with the Victorian Government. Regarding formal advice or recommendations made to the Minister during this period however, Council have made neither regarding:

  • the cultural heritage significance of any Aboriginal Ancestral Remains or Aboriginal place or object
  • measures for the effective protection and management of Aboriginal Cultural Heritage in Victoria, including the management of culturally sensitive information relating to that Heritage
  • the standards of knowledge, experience, conduct and practice required of persons engaged in research into Aboriginal Cultural Heritage
  • the application of interim or ongoing protection declarations
  • a proposal by the Minister to require a CHMP to be prepared
  • whether a cultural heritage audit is necessary
  • whether the compulsory acquisition of land is appropriate in any case

A formal recommendation to the Secretary of the Department of Premier and Cabinet has been made by Council regarding the Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Fund. Management of the Fund is the responsibility of Council however this responsibility is currently inappropriately managed by the Department of Treasury and Finance.

Council’s Custodianship of Ancestral Remains and Secret (or Sacred) Objects

Returning our Ancestors

Central to Council’s educative work is that focus on the return and repatriation of Ancestors. In March 2020, Council was pleased to complete its documentary film, Returning our Ancestors, for both the Traditional Owner and broader Victorian communities. The film explores how Aboriginal Peoples’ burial places have been desecrated in the name of curiosity, science and research and Ancestors stolen from their land, where they had been placed with care and ceremony, to be housed in metal boxes as specimens or ornaments of curiosity by individuals, families and institutions.

Whilst the 1980s saw Aboriginal Ancestors start to return to rest on Country, the journey is by no means complete and there are many more of our Ancestors still to come home. The film asks everyone in the community to walk together and help in this essential work.

Unfortunately, as Council prepared to launch the film, restrictions on public gathering were implemented under the coronavirus (COVID-19) Stage 3 Stay at Home pandemic response. Given the new restrictive viewing environment, Council made the difficult decision to delay the launch whilst the community were isolated and the broader support networks needed to consider the film was limited.

Council anticipates that, with the easing of restrictions, we will be able to watch the film safely and together at the start of 2021.

Ancestral Remains Policy and Repatriation Support Committee and Victorian Aboriginal Heritage Register Advisory Committees

Council’s responsibility to return Ancestors to Country and Secret (or Sacred) Objects to community is profound on both personal and professional levels. Council has established an Ancestral Remains Policy and Repatriation Support Committee to strategically manage, and develop policy, regarding this work. With representation from RAPs and Council members, the Committee ensures transparency in these responsibilities.

The Committee is charged by Council to undertake the following work:

  • Review and provide advice to Council on the effectiveness and progress of research dealing with the repatriation of Ancestral Remains and Secret (or Sacred) Objects under the management of Council.
  • Provide advice to Council in regarding the development of relations with inter-state organisations that may expedite the interstate repatriation of Ancestral Remains and Secret (or Sacred) Objects under the management of Council.
  • Provide advice to Council on the development of a program of consultation with Victorian Traditional Owners regarding the long-term management of Ancestral Remains under the management of Council that it appears will not be able to be provenanced.

During the reporting period, Council’s Victorian Aboriginal Heritage Register Advisory Committees have not nominated information about Ancestral Remains, Secret (or Sacred) Objects or Aboriginal Places and Objects to be restricted information on the Register.

Care for Ancestors

When Council takes custodianship of Ancestral Remains or Secret (or Sacred) Objects, a case file is opened, and all information is confidentially filed there. Currently, Council has approximately 2,000 cases and each of these cases may include more than one individual or object.

Council has opened 70 new cases of Ancestral Remains during the reporting period, inclusive of a significant number of in-situ Ancestors that were on Country and remain in the care of their Traditional Owners. Ten cases of ex-situ Ancestral Remains have been returned by an organisation or a private entity and repatriated to a Traditional Owner group. However, most cases in Council’s care are those transferred from Museums Victoria under the Amendments to the Act. Each case must be appropriately investigated so that it can be returned to its correct Traditional Owners. The time required to thoroughly research in order to accurately provenance and ultimately repatriate varies greatly.

Council’s Ancestral Remains Unit continues to work with communities in researching cases but have been unable to repatriate any Ancestors currently held at the Museum during the reporting period.

Care for Secret (or Sacred) Objects

Council continues to support enforcement of Traditional Ownership of Secret (or Sacred) Objects on a legal level. During the reporting period, Council has taken ten Secret (or Sacred) Objects cases into its custody and is working towards repatriation back to their Traditional Owners to continue their cultural care and use on Country. Whilst some artefacts were repatriated, no Secret (or Sacred) Objects have been returned to Traditional Ownership in this period. The imposition of coronavirus (COVID-19) Stages 3 & 4 Stay at Home restrictions have impacted significantly on this.