Professor Eleanor Bourke and Rodney Carter, Victorian Aboriginal Heritage Council members, 18 March 2016
ELEANOR BOURKE: Thank you. I’d also like to acknowledge the Ngunnawal people, on whose land we are standing today. I’d also like to acknowledge other elders here, friends and acquaintances from the past, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people who’ve worked in this area and who’ve made a contribution to our wellbeing.
My long story just got rather short, so I’m doing a bit of editing as I go along. I’ll speak fairly quickly as well as, I hope, keep my coherence with my story.
‘They were used for scientific purposes, hidden away in cold steel cabinets, shoe boxes, wooden boxes, in sheds, out of sight. We need to bring them back home.’ This was written by Jim Berg, a fellow council member on the Victorian Aboriginal Council.
It’s one verse out of a poem he wrote whilst we were dealing with the issue of what to do about different situations that were put before us at the Victorian Aboriginal Heritage Council in respect of returning ancestral remains to the right places.
It is a long story. It’s the same story in different places. I would’ve said a little bit more about the thousand pieces of legislation that exist in this country that prescribed our movement in the past, created different kinds of identities for us, and generally denigrated us as a people
The bureaucratic record is very clear in black and white about what happened to Aboriginal people in Australia because of this legislation. It’s a story that is quite surprising, but it’s not as attractive or easy to digest as perhaps the previous presentation where you’ve got art and the story.
Even though it’s a sad and similar story, it has a happy ending in that way. I’d just like to put, by way of contrast, as a reflection, the papers on Wednesday, by Patsy [Cameron] and Greg Lehman, where they referred to the [John Skinner Prout] portrait of Methinna and the landscapes by John Glover. John Glover [was] painting quite beautiful landscapes, but painting Aboriginal people out.
Methinna’s portrait [is] hauntingly beautiful, but, in her short life, the total story of what has happened to Aboriginal people in this country in just those 17 years. Strangely, or conversely, in Victoria, around the 1850s, an Austrian artist, Eugene von Guérard, painted, also, beautiful landscapes in which he put Aboriginal people who weren’t there, as tableaus.
I don’t understand this sort of juxtaposition, but it’s just curious because it’s also part of that story of who we are, whether we still exist. I was going to talk a little bit about some milestones along the way, over the past few years, that were important in connection to my being here as a member of the Victorian Aboriginal Heritage Council in terms of the conflicts, the difference, and so on.
I’ll just do that very quickly now. The first one is about Australia Day, which started, I think, in the 1920s. In 1938, the first public demonstration by a New South Wales group of Aboriginal people, called the Aborigines Progress Association, held a Day of Mourning on the 26th of January for the first time and had a lot of publicity for that.
We’ve had protests ever since, and right up until the current day. People from overseas may not be aware that the 26th of January is the day that the first fleet of British colonists arrived. We have this conflict that will not go away.
My second milestone was the 1967 referendum, which reversed the situation with the Australian Constitution, which was created in 1901, where Aboriginal people were excluded from the constitution. In 1967, the Commonwealth was given the power by the Australian people, 92 per cent of whom voted to give the Commonwealth the responsibility to include us back in the census and to make laws for us.
Hence, more and more legislation happening. Another important point in time was the 1991 Royal Commission report into Aboriginal deaths in custody, which, as one of its recommendations, recommended a decade of reconciliation and that recommendation led to yet another piece of legislation establishing the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation. Note, it was the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation.
However, it created the space and the time for an ongoing dialogue between all Australians about things of common interest, and it has resulted in significant changes along the way. However, once the decade was over, that program was finished and states and territories were intended to take up that space.
As is the flavour of state and territory governments, they responded variously in different places. Some states did not continue with reconciliation activities, but Victoria has had support for reconciliation ongoing from the end of the Commonwealth activity.
I mention that because with the work that we as the Victorian Aboriginal Heritage Council do in Victoria with the reconciliation activities, it does engage people in local places who are interested in what we’re doing – artists, local government people, some business people – and it’s a space where different people come together still, and it is supported by the current government.
The final piece of legislation I want to mention, of course, is the native title legislation, which was created in 1993 at the federal level. This was in response to the land rights movement and it also saw Aboriginal people aspiring to make claims for their land.
Even though the politicians were saying this will only apply to approximately five per cent of the Aboriginal population in the northern parts of Australia, Aboriginal people didn’t have any concept of that as a barrier.
In Victoria, this raft of legislation that I mentioned has been added to by recent legislation from a former Labor government – the Victorian Aboriginal Heritage Act 2006, which created the council that Rodney [Carter] and I are on.
I also like to acknowledge our chairperson Mick Harding. He’s somewhere in the audience. I think I can see him over there. Mick. Also, an Act called the Traditional Owner Settlement Act was enacted in 2010. That Act enables the Victorian Government to make agreements of recognition and settlement with traditional owners.
That Victorian Government’s state response to a way of dealing with land justice issues that seem to be interminable in terms of having to go through the native title process, go to Federal Court; and many people have given their lives in terms of taking ten, 20 years, and who knows way back, numbers of people who fought in that space.
The Victorian Aboriginal Heritage Council … before I go on, I should just mention a couple of things. The period that I was going to talk about in terms of the background and the timeline and legislation spans the lives of my family here.
[starts slideshow of photos] My great grandmother, on the left, went to a mission.
I’m not sure of her age. We don’t know the date of her birth, but she was a young girl, possibly a teenager, and she’s pictured standing outside a hut at the Ebenezer Mission, which is in the Wimmera in Victoria, near a town called Dimboola.
In the middle, is her daughter, my grandmother, who was born on that mission and who wasn’t unhappy in her growing up under the Moravian missionaries. She was happy that she had a good education, and she was able to pass that desire for education on to her children.
Finally, that’s my mother, in the final photograph, when she was milking cows at a little town outside of a place called Lake Boga, but it was on either the Mystic Park or Tresco. It was her first job that she went to when she was 16 years old, working as a milker.
Where some of the men in our family aspired to land, pieces of land for security and to have some land back. My mother’s aspiration was to have a dairy farm [laughs] and she got it, but it wasn’t good luck for her in the end.
So, to the Victorian Aboriginal Heritage Council. The Victorian Aboriginal Heritage Council has the responsibility for appointing, among other things, traditional owner groups to manage the cultural heritage matters on their own land. This is achieved through the appointment of what were called Registered Aboriginal Parties under the legislation that I mentioned earlier.
The groups have to provide evidence that they are traditional owners in the regions and have the right to make decisions about land issues relating to cultural heritage protection and management. The Council is comprised of 11 traditional owners, three of us here today, appointed by the Minister. All are resident in Victoria.
The purpose beyond some of the listed things under the Act is to ensure that all Victorians are able to work for the betterment, protection and enjoyment of Aboriginal cultural heritage. This involves working with a range of agencies and other peak bodies with the appointment of the Registered Aboriginal Parties [RAPs].
Rodney is going to speak after me, as a CEO of Dja Dja Wurrung, a Registered Aboriginal Party, about how his people work on the ground with managing their cultural heritage. I’d just like to point out a couple of things that we’re required to do under the Act and direct our responsibilities towards the appointment and monitoring of RAPs.
The responsibility for Aboriginal places and the location and transfer of our ancestral remains, sacred and secret objects, cultural management plans, involves dealing with councils and developers, and the appointment of inspectors in the field, managing a Victorian Aboriginal Register which lists the sites that people need to know exist, and in advising the Minister.
As a council of traditional owners, we clearly have an issue of conflict of interest to deal with. And if you look at the map where RAPs have been appointed, you’ll see that every boundary has gaps around the area that’s been approved as a RAP. This is because it is disputed area.
Council under the legislation appoints RAPs over land that is not disputed, over what we call core country. We require and ask the RAP groups to negotiate with each other, among neighbours, about the disputes.
That, of course, is easier said than done and it is also one of the things that drags out the native title hearings. We are also required to liaise with the Museum of Victoria with respect to the care of the sacred objects and skeletal remains or ancestral remains. This is now enshrined in our legislation.
I just want to go to a couple of examples of what has taken up our time and been very emotional for us and has also helped us get on a pathway to work out how we can improve on what was not looked after in the past.
The first situation was when there’s a council, we sat meeting and an item came across asking from our Department, Aboriginal Affairs Victoria. I think they’re called Aboriginal Victoria as of today. Is that right?
I’ll just do these quickly. Because this is important. Council was asked for advice about what to do with the nine boxes of Victorian ancestral remains held in a shed over the river in New South Wales. What could we advise?
Well, after we got over the shock and the horror about this, the revelation led to the fact that there were other remains in many different places, uncatalogued. Nobody knew how many and where they came from and all that sort of thing.
Council asked for an audit of ancestral remains and we’re in a situation where every quarter we have reports about tracking where things are going that are on that list. Anything new that happens or comes forth gets added to the list.
The second scenario was one where an academic in a Victorian university had held a significant collection of remains in his university office for many, many years. He left them in his office when he retired. This case went to court as a breach of the Victorian Aboriginal Heritage Act.
The person was found to have breached the law. No penalty was imposed, other than a finding of guilt being made against him. The magistrate’s remarks in sentencing him included some apparent sympathy for the now elderly academic. This individual was affronted by the action that we took as a council against the fact that he’d held these remains in that office and just walked away and left them.
The final example that I want to use before I hand over to Rodney is about anonymous postings. Now that the council is in existence more and more people are finding out things, but people still don’t know what to do sometimes.
We’ve got individuals posting remains of Aboriginal people in the mail to the museum or ringing people that work in this area, Aboriginal Affairs, asking what to do. It’’ quite distressing in some situations because it’s so unexpected.
That’s some of what the council is engaged with at the moment. I would just like to get Rodney to come up. I just reiterate that the council has been under a parliamentary inquiry about its appointment of RAPs, which ended in a very positive report for us.
We’ve just come through a five year review, which will give us greater responsibility about some of these things that I’ve mentioned and greater responsibility to the reps on the ground, which is the traditional owners in the place that these things are happening.
One of the things that we are so concerned about is that ensuring that our ancestors are returned in a respectful manner and that their resting places are cared for properly. We will not be well until this is done.
RODNEY CARTER: I’ve been known to talk really fast, but I can’t talk that fast that you can’t understand what I’m saying.
[speaks in Indigenous language]
We haven’t got any slides. We’ve got a movie to show. I think I’ve got about five or ten minutes. I wanted to follow on in terms of the context of what Aunty Eleanor’s been talking about. I don’t think we can disassociate the idea of her objects and materials. Apology, I haven’t been able to be here for the last couple of days.
For the few conversations that I have had with people today – around all the ideas of these conversations that you’ve been having – strongly evident is the importance of the connection of how, as a people, the creators of our objects, I was lucky to be invited by Johnathon Jones and give a paper, ‘Walking in the Footsteps of the Ancestors’ and I propose that we should be comfortable, no matter how long ago our objects were created by our ancestors, that the time and distance that separates us – I think somebody mentioned that in one of the other talks – is irrelevant in terms of our cultural connection to those objects; who we are as beings.
That should be comfortable for us, I think, as traditional owners, as traditional people because we need to base those sort of views on their values, not the imposed values of those that are looking outwards upon us and want to analyse us and study us. That stuff’s really important.
What you’ve seen from the first part of our presentation is the example of the participatory nature of our people being engaged. I think that’s really important in terms of pain and suffering that I’ve seen at the session before lunch, whether they’re young people or not, whether they’re old people.
For us, as warrior women or warrior men to be able to let go of that baggage, set it aside and utilise those learnings to take us forward in a strong fashion and to be inside the house, be inside the institutions is really important for us as a people.
As much as I think people were pained in previous sessions, people have mentioned from the other presentations we’ve had over the last few days that I’ve been absent from, that they’ve really struggled emotionally to be able to deal with that.
I think that’s, for want of a better description, I don’t like using the idea of the space that we’re in but the idea of that space or the way we’re being exposed to that, is what will, I believe, as a person growing old and my own life experience, and seeing my oldest experiences, and what will define us with our collective identity as a nation; we’re just so young, over the last 200 years.
I’m probably telling you what you would already, hopefully, believe as a nation. We’re just learning to crawl and learn to walk. It was heartening to hear what’s happened with your people over the last 500 years and how you have struggled on, and we can see the benefit of that.
I was always asked to talk a little bit about the barks, I’m a Dja Dja Wurrung person. We’re lucky too … I say lucky because I think the difficulties around us engaging with institutions and having my cultural materials brought here from overseas.
As much as I can cry in the closed exhibition, cry behind closed doors, I was very closely involved with a watershed moment in Australian history where I was lucky to be nominated by my people to act as an authorised officer for the state of Victoria as a Commonwealth inspector where, at the time, our people – and we still do – had a really good relationship with Museum Victoria.
I’ll say, I’ll qualify it, it’s a difficult relationship. Relationships are really, as we’d all know through our own immediate connections with people emotionally and that difficult relationships potentially are the most entertaining in our lives, the most rewarding, the most fulfilling.
We shouldn’t shirk from being, I think, a moderate person respecting our culture and our people and having those conversations. The time with Museum Victoria was approached … had a really good relationship … my people did, Victorian traditional owners did.
To use my powers as an inspector, to issue what was called an emergency declaration at the time. It’s an unusual power that we had because there was no due process for anyone else to qualify. I was utilising my powers, so I try to use those appropriately.
I put it to the older, the wiser people in my group – that I can go out on my own belief on what I should do – I said, ‘But, I’d really put it to you as a people: I think the important thing that you do is to think about what you would want with these objects.’ That stimulated conversation with our people about wanting to have those barks, to take the barks off the British Museum.
We could’ve done that at the time. If we used the extent of our powers that we had at the time, we could’ve chosen to remove it from the physical possession of Melbourne Museum and then ultimately the ownership of the British Museum, but my people decided, ‘No, we’ll be moderate. We’ll be reasonable. We’ll be humble.’ Fantastic, brilliant qualities as a people.
Long story short, you can Google Museums Board v. Carter and [laughs] see the transcripts of that sort of stuff. Ultimately, I think the positive nature of my people being moderate, being reasonable, was to set an example … to have that high cultural moral ground about how they wanted to apply non traditional powers through legislation … was not theirs.
Today that conversation’s still continuing behind closed doors with my people, with the British Museum, and ten years on I don’t think the end game’s ultimately about having an object or material in our possession. It’s the dynamics of the whole conversation that we see that perhaps an object in isolation might stimulate.
I think that’s the important thing, because that will hold us in our greatest stead to the future. I don’t know if I need to cover any more about that. We wanted to …
[partly inaudible request from audience member to outline the legal process]
RODNEY CARTER: Yes. It’s a prescribed form under legislation. The Commonwealth Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Act has a specific section, part 2a, that had a schedule associated with it that listed a number of organisations. Through those organisations, I was involved and then nominated to be trained to be an inspector, to have powers, and to issue emergency declaration.
It was really about, ‘Did you believe that your materials were under the threat immediately or potentially in the future for desecration?’ In its simplest form, it’s very easy, culturally or from a compliance, legal point of view, to turn your mind to that thought.
It’s really important to do that when you use those types of powers. It was about my people understanding that, turning their thought to what was desecration. Put simply, it was the idea of the conservative treatment of those materials. Without our engagement as a people, that’s inappropriate. That’s desecration of materials.
In its simplest fashion, without over analysing it, they had us being given the courtesy of being asked, ‘Is this appropriate treatment of your significant materials?’ It was quite easy to qualify that. Emergency declaration then has a 30 day period and can only be reissued if the inspector believes that the circumstances have substantially changed.
Then, from a compliance point of view, my challenge was not to orchestrate it and to influence my people – and what I would need to understand, to turn my mind to, what was the desecration of those materials? – but was to explain to them as an expert, how did the situation change? It was organic.
It was changing day to day because of the conversations with the curatorial staff, through executive within the museum, through the perceptions and degrees of understanding of my people. That was just the nature of it.
I could be objective and stand back, even though I’m a traditional owner that could be perceived to have a direct conflict, but I made sure that at least I put the correct thought process into place.
Over a period of a number of months we issued, I think it was five emergency declarations where, as the instrument to issue the emergency declaration, I had to be clear in my thought, and had to be convinced, as a measure, that there was a substantial change.
Substantial change – that’s also then open to individual interpretation. But, because it was around desecration, the significance of desecration to our materials, to us as a people, a very marginal idea of any movement in an individual’s or collective view, I would say is a significant change.
I avoided being served papers to go into court. It was an honorary capacity that I acted within, so I told my mob, ‘I’m gonna go and hide.’ They said, ‘Yeah Rodney, you’re good at that, so you go and hide.’ I told my employer, ‘I think I’m gonna have to work evenings’, because the people who serve notices and that would hang out at the office or local haunts, and say ‘Where’s Rodney?’ and whatnot.
That worked for about a six week period. This type of matter gets heard in the Federal Court, which is a pretty high court in Australia. Eventually, the person serving the notices – I actually knew that person – said, ‘Rodney, look. You really want to front up to court to this because they’ve made an application to hear it in your absence, and it’ll go ahead.’
I thought, ‘Oh, well. It’s time to come out of the shadows,’ and I allowed those papers to be served. I went to the Commonwealth Government and said, ‘I’m Rodney Carter. I’m one of your Commonwealth inspectors. I’ve been using my powers. I need a bit of help,’ and basically the Commonwealth didn’t want to know anything about it.
There was delegated authority to the State Minister – at the time was Gavin Jennings. I gave him a call. I said, ‘Gavin, I think I’m in a bit of trouble. I need a bit of help here,’ and that sort of stuff. Within a reasonable amount of time – and this is where I’m comfortable in Victoria … they came to the party. It was 11th hour.
We were able to contest this matter in the Federal Court, and ultimately – long story short, my people lost. For me, in terms of my integrity and what I’m doing with these powers and functions, at least the finding was I didn’t act inappropriately. I didn’t act irresponsibly. If anything, I applied a really credible thought process, but that’s what you get trained to do.
There’s one of the barks in the Encounters exhibition, if you want to look at it.
If you don’t mind, I just want to quickly end with a video and just reflect on what Aunty Eleanor said. All these conversations, they’re objects and that sort of stuff, there’s something we’ve actually got to do first, and we won’t be well until we deal with our ancestral remains. We can’t stop what we’re doing. I don’t suggest that in the slightest, but it really has to be dealt with. There’s too many people still in boxes, I’m afraid.
Disclaimer and copyright notice
This is an edited transcript typed from an audio recording.
The National Museum of Australia cannot guarantee its complete accuracy. Some older pages on the Museum website contain images and terms now considered outdated and inappropriate. They are a reflection of the time when the material was created and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Museum.
© National Museum of Australia 2007–23. This transcript is copyright and is intended for your general use and information. You may download, display, print and reproduce it in unaltered form only for your personal, non-commercial use or for use within your organisation. Apart from any use as permitted under the Copyright Act 1968 (Cth) all other rights are reserved.
Date published: 01 January 2018