The exploitation of Indigenous people leads to the diminishment of our culture

In my line of work I see time and time again how Indigenous culture is treated with disrespect

Lowanna Gibson: ‘I wondered why on earth people would want to walk all over such a significant and spiritual place’. Photograph: Lukas Coch/AAP

In previous months there was much debate regarding the banning of people trekking Uluru. Like many of the public, I took great interest in such debate. I wondered why on earth people would want to walk all over such a significant and spiritual place and what exactly it would achieve? After all there are plenty of other places that are much higher to trek and will give you more of a sense of accomplishment unless, I guess, that accomplishment arises from disrespecting Indigenous people and their culture. The likes of proclaimed Indigenous woman Aunty Pauline Hanson of the “Whitefella nation” have argued that Uluru is a place which is for all Australians and should not be closed down. However, her not fully understanding Uluru’s cultural significance is particularly problematic.

Hanson’s comments really irked me, but they did not shock me. As someone who works in the Aboriginal cultural heritage industry, I see time and time again non-Indigenous archaeologists determining what they think is culturally significant. Consequently, their determinations often contribute to the idea of the “true Aborigine” and thus, the dynamicity of culture is neglected. The archaeological reports I come across in the course of my work are marred with colonial interpretations of Indigenous people. There is usually no presence of Indigenous perspective, and the reports are heavily tone-policed. For instance, violent colonisation is usually cloaked by the word “contact”, or the onus of such violent colonisation is incorrectly placed equally upon colonialists and Indigenous people.

In the course of my work, it has become apparent that archaeologists, anthropologists and historians have a considerable task on their hands in interpreting the histories of Indigenous people. They are also the people who are making a profit from doing such work. Following the National Parks and Wildlife Act 1974 and Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Consultation Requirements for Proponents 2010, consultation must be undertaken with the Indigenous community when the director general is considering whether to award a heritage impact permit. Pursuant to the Act, archaeologists must consult with Indigenous community members in order to gain their perspectives; however, this often leads to exploitation.

In order to explain how such exploitation flourishes and thus results in the diminishment of Indigenous culture, I must first describe what my job description entails. In the course of my work, I often consult with archaeological firms on projects. For instance, a construction company must contract an archaeological firm to complete an Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Assessment (ACHA) before commencing construction. The archaeological firm will then send out EOI’s to interested Indigenous parties (Registered Aboriginal Parties – RAPs). The extent of consultation varies on each project. Sometimes there may be excavation, other times there may be site visits and report perusal. For as long as I have been in this industry, excavation and on occasion time at meetings are paid; however, other tasks such as perusal and comment of lengthy reports – anywhere between 100 to 800 pages – go unpaid.

Thus such laborious activities, which in my opinion fall under the actual and real occupation of editing, are instead referred to as consultation in order to avoid payment of Indigenous people. This expectation exists because the archaeologists cannot complete an ACHA without any Indigenous input. Ultimately, RAPs must guide archaeologists to ensure they are correctly interpreting Indigenous cultural heritage, and it equates to Indigenous consultants working for free.

In my opinion the ACHA is the most important part of the project, as it is often a source of reference for projects by other archaeologists, so the colonial interpretations are repeated. When I first started in this industry, I would read these reports extensively. In almost every instance, when I provided my critical analysis as an Indigenous woman, I was met with silence. I have been told that my concerns are not the objective of the report. Basically, I am told I am wrong about my own culture and the terrible events which happened to my ancestors because some dead (probably racist) anthropologist/historian/archaeologist said otherwise.

Had culturally appropriate process been followed in the past, reports that depict Governor Macquarie’s establishment of the Native Institution as a humanitarian act (contrary to child removal and assimilation), would never have made it into the public sphere – deeply hurtful interpretations of history that misrepresent the truth.

I no longer read such documents. Instead I skim them, frequently find the same issues and send off an email stating that I will not edit this for no fee. I find my objections to non-payment ignored, probably because archaeologists and proponents have this entrenched idea that Indigenous people are noble savages and forget that we participate in a capitalist society.

Exploitation is not limited to the cultural heritage industry but I have seen it blatantly within this industry. We need to have conversations that centre respect for our knowledge, time and expertise. We are not mere “rubber stamps”.

I can see why Hanson doesn’t fully understand the cultural significance of Uluru. It is because firstly, Indigenous culture is treated with disrespect. Secondly, archaeologists’ half-baked work goes unchecked because they are unwilling to compensate Indigenous consultants for their labour. This is when misrepresentations of history make it into the public sphere and we have such a fight on our hands when we try to set it straight.

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