Everything Relates, or a
Holistic Approach to Aboriginal Indigenous Cultural Heritage

Robyne Bancroft
Australian National University

As a Goori (Aboriginal) Australian woman, from a strong matrilineal line, I begin according to the protocol in my communities and in my country. Firstly, I introduce the Indigenous people to whom I am related. I am Gumbaingerri born of Bundjalung/Thungutti descent. My people come from the northeast coast of New South Wales, a state in Australia. Secondly, I wish to acknowledge the Lenape/Delaware, the original Indian owners of the land on which this conference is being held. As a cultural heritage practitioner, I am honored to be invited to participate in this very important conference. I wish to thank Mr. Mounir Bouchenaki, Madam Noriko Aikawa, and UNESCO staff as well as Dr. Anthony Seeger and Smithsonian staff for the opportunity to participate in this conference on Indigenous cultural heritage.

Before I commence my paper, I should also explain its title, “Everything Relates,” by noting where we are coming from, where we are now, and where we are going. I have given much thought to the presentation of my paper, finally deciding to approach it as Indigenous oral transmission, by talking to you from the heart, with passion and feeling for things that are a part of my being, my cultural identity.


Australian Indigenous peoples (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island) number less than a quarter of a million. We live side by side with approximately eighteen million non-Aboriginal people in a country the size of the United States of America. Information dissemination may sometimes be slow in so large a country. Under the auspices of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island Commission, one government body speaks for many Aboriginal people. Other government organizations, nongovernmental organizations, and independent Indigenous heritage practitioners specialize in particular issues while maintaining a holistic approach.

At colonization, Australia had over 250 Indigenous languages. This great diversity of peoples is still active today. The first attempts at genocide were massacres, poisonings, and introduced diseases which all but decimated Aboriginal peoples. Even today, much of this history is hidden. Our history of over 60,000 years makes us the oldest living culture on this planet. All peoples of the world should be proud of this. Sadly, this feat of survival and adaptation has been largely ignored and unappreciated. Today as we approach the new millennium, we Aboriginal people continue to struggle to survive. Our life expectancy is approximately twenty years less than that of non-Aboriginal people, which increases the pressure and stress on a few Elders to maintain our cultural heritage. Also, many of our people live in cities and urban situations, a circumstance that may isolate them from taking part in revitalizing our cultural heritage.

Indigenous Australia is both historically and culturally diverse. The growing effects of dispossession have created another level of diversity within Aboriginal Australia. Successive Australian governments continue to develop and apply policies with minimum consultation with Aboriginal people, resulting in ineffective and inappropriate programs that hinder rather than support cultural maintenance and revival. Aboriginal people seek international support through the development of appropriate instruments or conventions that provide guidance for the Australian government in developing culturally appropriate policies. Inclusion of Aboriginal people with cultural knowledge and experience would result in a more holistic approach to the development of policy with greater benefit to Aboriginal Australians.

Background: A Brief Overview on Land

Land is the overriding issue to Aboriginal people. The importance of land and all that is involved with the land should never be underestimated. Most Indigenous people know intimately the flora and fauna of the landscape within their boundaries and those that border them. Custodians of their ancestral lands, most Indigenous groups take their responsibilities seriously. In this decade, we have seen the historic Torres Strait court decision that non-Indigenous Australia's continual reference to the country as "Terra Nullius" is not valid. It is ironic that after we have occupied the continent for more than 60,000 years, it took clarification under English law, the laws of the colonizers, to confirm that the land actually was occupied by our ancestors.

Now we have what is called Native Title. If we can prove the accuracy of our genealogies back to the arrival of the first White settlers in our area, and prove we know and are still continuing our cultural heritage, then we may get to become official “custodians” of our lands. The socioeconomic contribution of and advantage to groups of land custodians needs much more consultation and discussion. My question is, who really benefits? I believe, at this stage, the Act continues to create confusion and mistrust and threatens further to divide Aboriginal groups.

Royal Commission of Inquiry into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody

This Commission was established as a result of many public demonstrations and much political lobbying by Aboriginal people. It investigated the high proportion (a ratio of thirty to one) of Aboriginal deaths in police and prison custody over many years. For Aboriginal people, only two percent of the Australian population, this situation was and is clearly unacceptable. The Commission made 330 recommendations for change to take into “serious” account the basic human rights of prisoners. Monitoring officers were employed to assist states and territories in the implementation of these recommendations. However, I believe, many of the recommendations are yet to be fully addressed. It was obvious to readers of the report and to Indigenous people involved with deaths in custody that the Commission had little or no understanding of Aboriginal cultural identity and heritage. The Commission’s last recommendation called for a national reconciliation program.


A Reconciliation Council was established with Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal members and coordinators in every state and territory. The Council’s vision -- "a united Australia which respects this land of ours, values the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander heritage and provides justice and equity for all" -- has met with mixed reactions from the general population. In order to address its vision, the Council produced a brochure that included issues such as 1) understanding our country, 2) sharing histories, 3) working together. Many people of good will in Australian communities are working hard at promoting and understanding reconciliation.

Another report concerned the “Stolen Generations” -- babies and children taken from their parents under government policy. Most of the time there was nowhere to run or hide when the police and welfare officers came for the children. At puberty, the boys and girls were sent to work, generally as an unpaid work force for settlers, squatters, and others who required free labor. The country was built on the “backs of the Blacks” and many non-Indigenous Australians established pastoral dynasties by appropriating and controlling Aboriginal people and their lands.

I will note in passing two issues that cause much concern and distress to Aboriginal people: 1) amendments to the Commonwealth Heritage Act and 2) government cuts of bilingual programs. These are very important issues and need much more consultation and negotiation with Indigenous people.

I would like to discuss at greater length two issues of interest to me personally with which I am involved: 1) women's business, and 2) repatriation of Indigenous ancestral human remains.

Women’s Business

Many years ago, anthropologists, White men, came to collect information about us. They spoke to the men, and the men gave them information on their stories. We waited for them to come to us, but they never returned. We want our stories recorded so the young women will be able to continue and keep our information alive -- not let it die. We want this for our jarjums (young children) to come. We have already lost so much of our language, we do not want our stories to go (disappear).

So in the 1960s, spoke my grandmother, who was fluent in three dialects. She was born in 1905.

Now, they come to ask us our stories -- now, when most of us have forgotten so much. We have been so caught up in living day to day, and now there are very few of us left. Look who's here -- only three or four of us left. It's time for you to come home my girl, keep our stories going, and take over doing what I do -- talking to everyone about Goori people and our heritage.

So spoke my mother, born in the third decade of this century, who remembers her mother’s tongue but has no one to speak it to.

I am in the fourth generation of women on my matrilineal side since colonization who continue our genealogies and oral traditions. I continue to practice cultural heritage maintenance through revitalization of stories and language. From the day they were born, my children have been told of stories about our community and its use of our language, and now my daughter continues this tradition to her children. I am on several cultural heritage committees, and I am the Aboriginal Representative on the International Council of Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS). ICOMOS members in Australia actively lobby the government on unfair legislation and other practices regarding Indigenous heritage issues.

It saddens me to hear of Indigenous women's struggle to maintain their cultural identity. In this decade, Aboriginal women from South Australia went through many judicial proceedings known collectively as the Hindmarsh Bridge case, trying to stop development on a sacred site for women only. The behavior of government in this case was unbelievable.


Repatriation of ancestral human remains is a great concern. Some overseas countries have repatriated remains only because of a concerted campaign by Aboriginal people. Many institutions have yet to comply with requests for repatriation. I believe this can be done through negotiation and consultation, without acrimony among those involved. I have worked in the sensitive area of classifying and reorganizing ancestral remains after they have been repatriated. This work has been undertaken with community support. The geographical origin of many repatriated ancestral remains has not been identified. Some Aboriginal groups have offered to rebury these unprovinced ancestral remains, but other groups do not agree because they feel, “What if these are our ancestors’ remains? Then they should be reburied in our country, not in someone else's country.”

In Australia, many Aboriginal groups do not have land for reburial. Thus, ancestral remains are left, by agreement of both parties, in museums and other institutions while Aboriginal people come to terms with the issues involved. One solution would be for the government to acquire land especially for such reburial. For the last five years I have been asking, “What do we do with unprovinced ancestral remains? Are they to remain in museums and other institutions, or do we have other options? Should we plan something similar to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and where would the resources for it come from?”

An interesting related point is that Aboriginal people are now asking for more physical information about their ancestral remains before reburial takes place. How old was the person? Was the person male or female, child or adult? What can be known about his or her lifestyle? In other words, ancestral remains can speak to us about many things. The date of 60,000 years that we Aboriginal people use has come from scientific investigations. Some communities agree to further information-gathering, and some communities do not.

A few years ago, human remains were found protruding from a farm riverbank after a period of heavy rains. The farmer who owned the property contacted the police, who in turn contacted government archaeologists. The local Aboriginal groups wished to know more about the remains and agreed that investigations should be carried out. What emerged was a history of an older woman and a younger man who died some 7,000 years ago, and were buried with grave goods. A beautiful double-strand necklace made from hundreds of kangaroo teeth has been reassembled. This necklace, along with some stone tools, is kept by the Aboriginal people, who use them as teaching tools for Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal children and adults. In a gesture of reconciliation, the non-Indigenous farmer offered a site on his property for reburial, and this was accepted by the people.

In conclusion, I have attempted to inform you very briefly about where we have come from, where we are now, and where we hope to go. Recommendations for a holistic approach include: a code of ethics; biological diversity; printed as well as interactive media for information storage and dissemination; resources for other agencies besides government; gender issues; repatriation of human remains; intellectual property rights; spirituality; terminology and language used. Our values, beliefs, and cosmologies retold through diverse oral traditions relate to our identity. I am aware of many other related issues and hope to take part in forums where these will be discussed in more detail.

Let me reiterate what I said at the beginning of this paper: what Aboriginal people seek is international support through the development of appropriate instruments or conventions that will provide guidance for the Australian government in developing culturally appropriate policies. Inclusion of Aboriginal people with cultural knowledge and experience would result in a more holistic approach to the development of policy, with greater benefit to Aboriginal Australians.

Appendix: Aspects of Australian Heritage Policy

 As the above indicates, Australia has contributed to Indigenous heritage policy through many reports and inquiries. It is critically important that these reports and inquiries be implemented. They should not to be ignored or thrown in the “too-hard” or “impractical” basket.