As they say: Always was, always will be Aboriginal land. 2015 NAIDOC Person of the Year Aunty Rosalie Kunoth-Monks brought the week to a perfect end by calling for a treaty to formally recognise the fact.
But if only that fact was recognised in Western Australia.
Back in 2015, two University of Western Australia archaeologists released a report suggesting that 3,207 Aboriginal heritage sites were de-registered between 2008 and 2015, that is, since the Barnett Government took control in WA’s state house up near King’s Park in Perth.
In their 2015 Site Watch report, Dr Joe Dortch and Tom Sapienza said the WA Department of Aboriginal Affairs had downgraded or deregistered the locations and that included some 69 mythological and 14 ceremonial sites.
According to the researchers, in 2015 the Department of Aboriginal Affairs rejected 86 percent of new sites submitted for assessment. Compare that with five years previously when only 10 percent were ruled out as registered sites.
In Western Australia sacred does not mean what it used to. The 2015 NAIDOC theme could just as easily have been, “We are stamping on sacred ground, generally trashing it with little care for sanctity, mythology, culture, history or tradition”.
In 2013, this vandalism picked up speed when the WA government created a new set of guidelines to decide what should form the register of Aboriginal Heritage sites.
"The 2015 NAIDOC theme could just as easily have been, 'We are stamping on sacred ground, generally trashing it with little care for sanctity, mythology, culture, history or tradition'."
This radical interpretation of Section 5 of the Aboriginal Heritage Act appeared, on the surface, to come from nowhere. The modified rules dramatically redefined what was sacred and sites had to be “devoted to religious use” and not determined by mythological belief.
Documents and correspondence released under freedom of information to the ABC’s radio program Background Briefing show oil and gas producer Woodside had an intense interest in and dialogue with the Department of Aboriginal Affairs over what was happening at James Price Point, north of Broome, the site of the company’s controversial $45 billion gas plant.
Eventually, under the new rules, James Price Point’s status was overturned and declared not sacred nor an Aboriginal Heritage site. A week later Woodside officially applied to build its LNG plant there. The company told Background Briefing that it was not involved with the review or drafting of the new Section 5 guidelines.
"In just two and a half years, 1,262 claims for heritage status were rejected and around 35 deregistered under the supercharged Section 5 of the Aboriginal Heritage Act"
WA Greens upper house member Robin Chapple asked questions in parliament and was told that 35 previously listed heritage sites were deemed not sacred under the new Section 5 guidelines.
He told the ABC that, “Every single one of those sites had a development application pending against it.”
So in just two and a half years, 1,262 claims for heritage status were rejected and around 35 deregistered under the supercharged Section 5 of the Aboriginal Heritage Act.
Perhaps the most heinous interpretation of Section 5 refers to the Burrup Peninsula in the Pilbara.
Carved into the rock are more than a million pieces of art or petroglyphs, the world’s largest array of such treasures, and at 30,000 years old, the planet’s most ancient rendition of the human form.
You would think this was worth preserving but definitely not sacred under the revised Section 5. No matter how old and special they are unless there is proof of regular religious activity, they cannot be deemed “sacred”.
This is rather like not protecting Machu Picchu (about 1,600 years old) because the local Quechua people no longer practise human sacrifice there, or crushing the Great Pyramid at Giza (less than 5,000 years old) to make roads because there is not a pharaoh to be seen.
In 1965 industrial development arrived at the Burrup in the form of the Hamersley Iron port well before the WA Aboriginal Heritage Act in 1972.
"No matter how old and special they are unless there is proof of regular religious activity, they cannot be deemed sacred"
Twenty years later some of the first surveys were done for the Karratha gas development. Professor Ken Mulvaney recorded 9,500 engravings, 1,700 were moved to a compound, and between 4,000-5,000 were destroyed. But “development” is ongoing and so is the destruction.
WA’s shadow Treasurer and spokesperson on Aboriginal Affairs, Ben Wyatt, told the ABC that from January 2008 to June 2013, 646 applications were made to disturb or destroy sites on the Aboriginal Heritage list and that were “protected”.
Those applications were refused only once, only on one occasion out of 646. Stamping on sacred ground indeed.
When ISIS smashes ancient Assyrian sculptures in Iraq or Roman ruins in Syria’s Palmyra, they are barbarians destroying the world’s patrimony.
When a crawler tractor crushes a petroglyph on the Burrup, it is just another work day in the Pilbara.
Connection to Country tells the story of mining industries threatening the the sacred sites and ancient rock art of majestic Pilbra region. Part of NITV & SBS' #YouAreHere series airing on Sunday, 6 August at 8.30pm on NITV Ch. 34