The Battle To Save Heritage From The Oldest Surviving Culture On Earth


Last year,  the Voyager space craft left our solar system. If alien civilisations ever make contact with humans, it will most likely be through this island of our knowledge currently hurtling through outer space.

And if they come in contact with that spacecraft, they will hear the voices of the world’s peoples, selected by a committee headed by the late great astronomer Carl Sagan.

That recording – called the Voyager Golden Record, includes the voices of senior Aboriginal men Djawa, Mudpo and Walipuru who sang their traditional ancient songs to anthropologist Sandra Le Brun Holmes on a night on Milingimbi mission in Arnhem Land in 1962.

As chair of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AISTSIS) Mick Dodson, told the National Press Club yesterday “For all we know, (Aboriginal) culture could be the longest continuing culture, not just on planet earth, but beyond.”

That precious recording also sits within the archives of AIATSIS, along with eight million feet of film, 40,000 hours of unique audio recordings, 12,800 unpublished manuscripts and 653,000 still images of Aboriginal people – including five black and white glass plate negatives of Tasmanian Aboriginal people at Oyster Cove.

This has been collected over the 50 years AIATSIS has been in existence. It’s a priceless body of knowledge accumulated on the world’s oldest continuing culture, representing survival against a backdrop of attacks on Aboriginal culture and heritage.

Not only that, the collection contains important material on past political gatherings. It holds recordings of significant meetings on land rights in the 70s, preserving the voices of warriors who have since passed away.

Prof Dodson said in his address at the press club that AIATSIS was “dedicated to capturing one of the world’s most significant legacies to humanity”.

“I’m talking about the history, the cultures, languages, knowledge, songs, and dances of the Indigenous people of Australia… capturing the past and present of the longest living culture continuous culture this world knows.

“We had a mere 50 years to capture 50,000 years.”

But AIATSIS is struggling to survive and save perishing material, with Prof Dodson estimating the organisation would need another $45-50 million on top of their current funding.

“We are facing challenges, both new and old and recurring, particularly funding.

“These challenges will require special thinking and a new national commitment. At present, the institute is not able to adequately protect our current collection, nor are we able to go out to communities and recover materials that are held in private, perhaps in shoe boxes, perhaps in biscuit tins, tucked away somewhere in a garage.

“And this material is perishing. Analogue film and audio recordings that speak of our nation’s heritage are disintegrating.

“Nor can we gather the stories of those who have lived through the massive changes of the past 25 years.”

Professor Dodson told the press club that soundtracks on some of those films had an expiry date of 2025.

“We are not digitising fast enough. The present rate and the volume of the film we’ve got… it’s going to take us 60 years to do it all and we’ve only got 10 or 11 years,” he said.

He told the press club that AIATSIS staff, a large number of them Aboriginal employees, are the second-lowest paid in the Commonwealth public service. The lowest paid were the staff from another Aboriginal organisation – Aboriginal Hostels Limited.

Prof Dodson said there needed to be a “comprehensive and urgent plan” put in place “to identify, gather, safe keep and share the Indigenous heritage of this nation”.

The organisation is hoping to create a small group of notable non-Indigenous and Indigenous Australians to promote and help put “some meat on the bones of this plan”.

Part of that plan involves an Indigenous museum that would act like the National Museum of American Indians at the Smithsonian in Washington.

He says that the next 50 years of the organisation will involve the institute growing and adapting, which includes finding new ways to resource and preserve Indigenous heritage, noting that “politics is politics”.

“It is recognising that while our needs are ever increasing and as our vision and mission expands government support has not and likely will not keep pace with that need.

“That’s not to let the government off the hook,  that is not to say government doesn’t have a responsibility to resource core activities carried out by agencies on its behalf of the nation… but resources are scarce and politics is politics.”

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