Heritage and the Aboriginal philosophy of country

The past few years has seen a proliferation in the breadth and scope of academic literature surrounding theory and method in heritage studies. In this post, I want to consider some of the similarities in recent approaches to the idea of heritage in relation to Aboriginal notions of country. It’s possibly an overly ambitious idea for what is my first contribution to the Four Stone Hearth blog carnival, but challenges are what make life interesting. In some ways this is also a continuation on from an earlier post about natural versus cultural heritage. Consider it all part of an idea in progress.

What is cultural heritage?

There is a lot of specialist literature around on both issues so what follows is certainly not exhaustive nor particularly authoritative. However, we need to start somewhere.

The idea of cultural heritage hinges on the idea of value: Schofield (2008:18) has recently defined it as something that is “valued by society, by specific groups within a society, and by individuals”, and goes on to refer to ‘value’ as something that serves as the basis for an emotional relationship or commitment to a ‘thing’. Here, I’m interested in heritage places, or places that are valued largely on a personal, emotional basis: they trigger an emotional response, for an individual, a social or ethnic group, or a whole community. Contemporary understandings of heritage do not require that such places have an archaeological component: for example, places of historical interest (“Prof. Bloggs the explorer, died here”), with no tangible evidence of past activity, are justifiably part of our cultural heritage.

And what about country?

Again, something worth pinning down a little because there are all sorts of wild ideas thrown around in the media about just what country is to Aboriginal Australians. It is not, for example, the whole of Australia (in the western sense at least), and nor is it the same as western ideas of property, something owned, something that is used. It’s much, much  more complicated than that. It’s fundamentally cultural, which is why it’s complex.

Bird-Rose (1996) has published a decent book on what country is and what it means to many Aboriginal Australians. The key point, I think, is that country is often viewed as being sentient: it has a history, a present, and a future; it is something that people engage with, and which engages with them. Bird-Rose (1996:7) explains it better:

People talk about country the same way that they would talk about a person: they speak to country, sing to country, visit country, worry about country, feel sorry for country, and long for country. People say that country knows, hears, smells, takes notice, takes care, is sorry or happy

There is a holistic dimension to country: it’s various elements (soil, plants, animals, waters, winds, etc) are considered to be interlinked or perhaps interwoven. The philosophy of ‘caring for country’ (also a widely misused term) reflects a desire to keep country healthy by keeping these elements in balance; indeed, the ideal is balance in that one particular element should not disadvantage or be given priority over others. This is why large scale development, such as mining, can sometimes be very confronting; it’s an act of violent un-balancing.

Weipa Strip mining
Violent 'un-balancing'

There are many countries across Australia and each managed by groups of people who inherit rights to that country, as well as responsibilities for management, usually through older kin. Most individuals tend to have strong relationships with one or two particular countries, and the basis for these relationships, these inherited rights, relate back to the actions of ancestral spirits though in contemporary Aboriginal societies political, historical or other factors are also cited as the basis for these rights (Sutton 2003: 21). It’s a complex philosophy, one that I’m frankly only beginning to understand, but it’s important and I think that heritage practitioners in Australia need to pay more attention to.

Heritage; a poor cousin?

I’m not an Indigenous Australian however if you flick around the pages of my humble blog you might notice that my understanding of the history of Indigenous Australia is rooted in ongoing, long-term research in north eastern Australia, most notably with people whose countries are in the Weipa region. There are a few examples from my fieldwork in this area that make me think that the entire idea of ‘heritage’ management is in some ways redundant in relation to Aboriginal philosophy of country, and caring for country, at least in Australia. Well, perhaps not redundant but certainly a poor cousin.

I think it goes without saying that for Aboriginal people, in a very simplistic sense, country is a heritage place. Country is valued in its entirety, and as Bird-Rose notes, the whole is so much more than the elements that comprise it. I’ve written before my thoughts on  natural and cultural heritage within an Aboriginal context (but  see also Pannel 2006) and others too have noted the constellations of connections that many Aboriginal people reflect on when considering management of places. If anything, contemporary Aboriginal peoples’ philosophical views about country are perhaps more nuanced and even more sophisticated than academic perspectives. There is a certain harmony between ideas such as a two way inter-relationships with place, or  balance equating to health, and the idea that value is about emotive inter-relationships with place.

Heritage is about the values that people associate with a place or thing. Work by Holtorf, Harrison, Byrne, Schofield and I’m sure many others demonstrate the increasingly broad approaches to heritage studies that, in many ways, are pushing theoretical debates about what heritage is. A  place doesn’t need to be ‘old’, it doesn’t need to be valued widely, and it doesn’t need to have a material (archaeological) component to be significant. Furthermore, the ways people engage with a place also change as can the nature of the place itself shift in relation to these engagements (witness the example of Aboriginal repainting of rock art). Such ideas are also common in my own experiences working on projects involving management of heritage places. Understandings of places change, as do the ways people engage with them and so does country itself. For Aboriginal people, country is alive, and as such, it does knowingly change or act. For example, during one field trip recording shell mounds (mounded middens) a few years ago, one elder said to me (and I’m paraphrasing from fieldnotes):

These mounds are growing up. When I visited this place as a girl, they were only little but look at them now, they’re bigger than the trees!

She then went on to explain why, when these places are damaged, her family becomes ill. When she gets sick, she drinks water or eats bush food from her country to make her well again. Such is the nature of her relationship with her country.

So what’s my point? That one of the most interesting areas of research in the field of Indigenous heritage management in Australia relates to exploring ways that Aboriginal people understand country and the implications of these understandings for moving forward our ideas about both what heritage is, and further, how we manage heritage. I think academic ideas about heritage are perhaps only catching up with Aboriginal philosophies of country, and  the discipline as a whole stands to benefit from reflexively engaging with these kinds of philosophies. That, to my mind, is a step towards de-colonising heritage studies.


Bird Rose, D., 1996. Nourishing Terrains: Australian Aboriginal Views of Landscape and Wilderness, Canberra: Australian Heritage Commission.

Byrne, D., 2008. Heritage as social action. In G. Fairclough et al., eds. The Heritage Reader. London: Routledge, pp. 149-173.

Harrison, R., 2000. Challenging the ‘authenticity’ of antiquity: contact archaeology and native title in Australia. In I. Lilley, ed. Native title and the transformation of archaeology in the postcolonial world. Sydney: University of Sydney.

Holtorf, C., 2008. Is the past a non-renewable resource? In G. Fairclough et al., eds. The Heritage Reader. London: Routledge, pp. 125-133.

Pannell, S., 2006. Reconciling Nature and Culture in a Global Context? Lessons from the world heritage list, Cairns: Cooperative Research Centre for Tropical Rainforest Ecology and Management. Available at: [Accessed March 2, 2010].

Schofield, J., 2008. Heritage management, theory and practice. In G. Fairclough et al., eds. The Heritage Reader. London: Routledge, pp. 15-30.

Sutton, P., 2003. Native Title in Australia: An Ethnographic Perspective, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 

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