The Hunter is blessed with an enormous depth of Aboriginal heritage, culture and history.
The rich soils of the Hunter Valley, the abundant estuaries on the coast, the sandstone escarpments of the mountains and the fertile river flats have been home to Aboriginal people for well over 20,000 years.
Rock carvings, scar trees, sharpening grooves, birth caves, song lines, cave paintings and sacred sites cover the Hunter.
Yet all of this is up for sale as mining companies and developers run roughshod over traditional owners and custodians to price, and then destroy, this irreplaceable culture and record.
Newcastle is situated on an incredibly rich substratum of Aboriginal artefacts. Traditional connections stretching from Nobbys Head to Sugarloaf Mountain, and well beyond to Gloucester, unite the Hunter in a web of Aboriginal culture.
For many, the most obvious case of disrespect of Aboriginal heritage in Newcastle occurred about four years ago, with the destruction of nearly 7000 years of Aboriginal history for the construction of a KFC outlet on Hunter Street, Newcastle West. Before the site was excavated thousands of Aboriginal artefacts were discovered and removed from two small excavation pits on the site. An untold number of artefacts on the balance of the site were destroyed.
The wholesale destruction of Aboriginal heritage in the Hunter is particularly damning when the richness of local heritage items and sites is considered. One such site is a large rock formation in the south-west of the Hunter known locally as Tiddalik the frog. Tiddalik features heavily in dreaming stories on the east coast of Australia, meaning this single site alone is of substantial cultural heritage significance.
It is surely our obligation to endeavour to understand and appreciate Aboriginal heritage, not destroy it. Essential work is being done in this regard by the Coal River Working Group at Newcastle University. For more than a decade this group has combined expertise in engineering and archaeology, history and arts with knowledge from the local Aboriginal community to inform and engage people. Despite their work, a significant knowledge gap remains.
While so few are watching, the destruction continues apace.
In the middle of last year, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission commenced an investigation into alleged price fixing and cartel behaviour by mining companies in the Hunter. This investigation concerned the closed shop and fixed-price arrangements many mining companies have with ‘‘registered Aboriginal parties’’ to conduct field surveys and manage or salvage artefacts affected by mining development. There is significant concern that these arrangements can see Aboriginal people from outside the Hunter dominating the decision-making in which heritage is routinely destroyed. Payments are made for the advice and consultation, and the holes keep getting bigger.
In the last few months we have seen hundreds of thousands of dollars from the Aboriginal Heritage Trust, a public fund set aside from payments from miners, being distributed to government bureaucrats and a non-Hunter business. This was money that was earmarked for the protection and identification of Aboriginal heritage. Once again the money has gone anywhere but to the local Aboriginal people with recognised long-standing connections to the land. This was all done without even the pretence of notice.
Aboriginal heritage in the Hunter needs to be in the hands of traditional owners and custodians from the Hunter, not bureaucrats or outsiders.
Aboriginal people are too often caught between mendacious miners and meddling bureaucrats. They receive little help from laws that seem to be designed to cause division and distrust among claimants. It is this politics of divide and conquer that has seen so much heritage destroyed.
Studies of Aboriginal heritage in the Hunter suggest that, in the heart of the coal belt, less than 10per cent of the identified Aboriginal heritage may be left undamaged from mining, clearing and development.
So it is heartening to see growing calls for real protection coming from within the Hunter’s Aboriginal community.
The recent registering of the native title claim by the Plains Clan of the Wonnarua Nation is one very positive step in this direction. This group’s repeated public statements, if matched by action, suggest that there may be no price they are willing to put on their remaining heritage.
But they are not alone. We are seeing more pressure being brought from lands councils and Aboriginal groups across the Hunter who want their culture protected, not destroyed for a one-off fee.
It is surely time we handed over control of our first people’s history and heritage from bureaucrats and miners to genuinely representative Aboriginal custodians.
This opinion piece was originally published in the Newcastle Herald.