Aboriginal archaeology group created
WHEN DAVE JOHNSTON GRADUATED from university in 1989, he was one of only a few indigenous Australians qualified to work as an archaeologist. Two decades later, the Queensland-born scientist has every reason to celebrate.
At a national conference last week, the first-ever Australian Indigenous Archaeologists’ Association was launched at Batemans Bay on the NSW south coast. Where once only a single indigenous archaeologist worked to preserve the unique history of Aboriginal Australia, now more than 20 will make up the new association – with more expected to follow.
“Now that we have a structured organisation, we hope to double and triple our numbers over the next few years,” says Dave, a research fellow with the Canberra-based Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS).
The association was officially launched on Friday by the AIATSIS chairman, Mick Dodson. Professor Dodson, a prominent Aboriginal leader and academic at the Australian National University’s College of Law who was named Australian of the Year in 2009, called the initiative a “milestone”.
The new organisation would see a strong Aboriginal voice in the management of indigenous heritage, which includes ancient archaeological sites dating back tens of thousands of years. “The emphasis is that we’re having Australia’s heritage being taught by indigenous people, and having an indigenous perspective in archaeology,” says Mick. “[It’s] ensuring that we, as indigenous Australians, have our hands firmly on the wheel of our heritage.”
One of the key aims of the association, Dave says, is to develop the field of indigenous archaeology at Australian academic institutions, and one day see a permanent staff member on the board of an archaeological department. “It’s something that the students will benefit from … learning about why these sites are important to our people, and hearing it first hand from the people whose heritage it is,” he says.
Preserving ancient sites and recording the history of one of the world’s oldest people also has benefits beyond the cultural or academic spheres, he adds.
In the many years Dave has spent working on indigenous archaeological sites around remote communities, elders had repeatedly expressed a desire to share their history with others as a way of developing sustainable tourism. “[Indigenous archaeological sites] are something we want to share with all Australians,” he says. “I think overseas visitors and Australians would love to know more about Australian heritage, but they would also like to see it being spoken and taught by indigenous Australians.
“The commonwealth government and the international tourism market have been crying for sustainable and functional indigenous tourism ventures that the Australian tourism industry is lacking at the moment. Who better to do that than our own mob focusing on the heritage angle.”
Dave stressed that while the association would not deal with issues of native title, the work of indigenous archaeologists would help to strengthen evidence that Australian Aborigines were the original occupiers of this land.
“The work that archaeologists do concerning the antiquity or uniqueness of these sites is also proving that Aboriginal people have been in this country a long time,” he says. “Custodians of that country are delighted to know that their ancient heritage and association to that country is ratified by the dating, say, of these sites, [and] that it proves many thousands of years of occupation in those areas.”