“Mapping country” again: the Muluridji heritage project, Mareeba

We had a little positive media coverage in north Queensland last week after our community based heritage research project at Mareeba was picked up by the local Tablelands Advertiser and the Cairns Post. It ran front page which was wonderful because media coverage of Aboriginal history and heritage issues on the Tablelands has historically been fairly limited. In any case, I thought that a short blog post to supplement the story would be worthwhile.

The project began early last year when Carol Chong, a Muluridji woman and anthropology student contacted me about trying to obtain some funds to begin recording Muluridji history and heritage places. We applied to the Australian Government’s Indigenous Heritage Program and the rest is history; we were funded and recently began fieldwork on the project. Carol and I are coordinating the project which we aim to finish by mid 2012. Dr Darlene McNaughton (anthropologist) is also involved focusing on the oral history and historical research.

The project is focussed on community based heritage research. At one level, we’re identifying and recording  places associated with Muluridji history and culture that are valued by Muluridji people and developing plans for their protection into the future. So in that sense, it’s fairly conventional cultural heritage management work. This involves going well beyond archaeological places and documenting what others have termed geobiographies’ or the places that are revealed through oral history or cultural mapping work such as ceremonial grounds, resource sites, remembered settlements or recreational areas, or sites of colonial violence.

Cleared for cattle

Area of Muluridji country cleared for cattle grazing in the past few decades.

Although we’re setting out to do heritage management work, it is actually heavily driven by research objectives because Muluridji people want to find out more about their history. Of course, Elders have a tremendous amount of knowledge about the community’s history and places of importance however there are many aspects of Muluridji history that are not well understood or that people want to find out more about. As outsiders, it will take me time to listen to enough people to understand what the common themes or questions are but two themes that seem to be emerging relate to Muluridji history prior to the arrival of Europeans and the histories associated with the initial phase of colonialism. Both are fascinating topics that are very similar to some of my previous and ongoing research further north at Weipa. We should be able to develop some more substantive questions by the end of this year.

During our recent trip we managed to carry out quite a lot of heritage survey work despite the many ‘private property’ and ‘keep out’ signs that abound on Muluridji country. We identified a number of sites such as police camps and massacre sites, ceremonial places, scarred trees and artefact scatters. With a further 4-6 weeks of field survey later this year we should be able to identify quite a large number of similar places and record many oral histories that add so much to understanding the importance of these places and the history of Muluridji people.

I think the broader benefit of the project also relates to increased recognition in the local community; Muluridji people are expecting a consent determination on their Native Title applications later this year and are looking to highlight through heritage work their history and the fact that despite everything that has happened in the local area in terms of race relations, Muluridji people are still on their country.

There still seems great deal of racism in the local community. On my last day in Mareeba, one Muluridji woman asked a local non-Indigenous woman and property owner if we could access private property to visit a known heritage place. She responded:

I’m sorry, but your are mistaken. My family has been here for 100 years and before that there were only the Chinese. You must be from somewhere else.

I was astounded and as you might imagine she went on and refused the request. Private property and the attitudes of local landowner may be our biggest constraint on this project. I hope this is simply an overly-vocal minority.

Anyway, enough of that. You can read the short story that appeared in the local media here:

Hunt on for history of Tablelands Indigenous group (Cairns Online)