WA Government Deregisters World's Oldest Rock Art Collection As Sacred Site


The world’s oldest and largest collection of rock art – the Burrup Peninsula, or Murujuga, on the Dampier Archipelago – has been deregistered as a sacred site under new guidelines to the Western Australia’s weak Aboriginal heritage laws, which state there must be evidence of religious activity to qualify it as a ‘sacred site’.

The change has led to questions about whether the art will be reinstated to the cultural heritage register following a successful Supreme Court decision that ruled against the WA government’s definition of a ‘sacred site’.

Last week, WA Indigenous affairs minister Peter Collier produced a list of the 21 sites that were deregistered as a ‘sacred site’ under new guidelines to section 5 (b) of the state Aboriginal Heritage Act, produced by the state Aboriginal Cultural Materials Committee (ACMC).

The guidelines were based on advice given by the State Solicitor’s Office (SSO) and adopted by the ACMC in 2013.

The revelations followed questions in state Parliament from Greens MLA Robin Chappelle following a recent decision by the Supreme Court that quashed new definitions of a ‘sacred site’, adopted by the ACMC in July 2013.

The guidelines, produced by the ACMC, specified that a sacred site needed to be “devoted to a religious use rather than a place subject to mythological story, song or belief”.

Justice John Chaney quashed the ACMC’s definition of a ‘sacred site’ after Marapikurrinya traditional owners challenged the committee’s de-registration of a spiritually significant waterway which takes in the harbour and numerous creeks adjoining it – Marapikurrinya Yintha. Marapikurrinya Yintha is associated with the Warlu, or rainbow serpent.

Justice Chaney found the new guidelines were inconsistent with the Aboriginal Heritage Act, and the historic interpretation of ‘sacred site’.

“To suggest, however, that for a place to be a sacred site, specific rituals or ceremonies are required to be associated with it is to deny the expression ‘sacred site’ any specific meaning,” Justice Chaney said in his judgement.

“There is no justification for treating the word ‘sacred’ as conveying no meaning beyond ritual or ceremonial.”

The landmark ruling led to the Indigenous Affairs Minister Peter Collier acknowledging 21 other sites had been deregistered under the guidelines.

One of these sites is the culturally, and spiritually significant Burrup Peninsula – which holds a museum of some of the world’s oldest and most significant, but sadly endangered, rock art.

The site had previously been registered by the ACMC nearly a decade ago, but the news that it had been taken off the register is shocking to Greens MLA Robin Chappell who calls it the “largest concentration of rock art in the world… an extraordinary cultural landscape telling the story of ancient Aboriginal occupation over the past 30,000 years or more.”

The fact the Supreme Court ruled against the ACMC’s definition of a ‘sacred site’, and overturned the SSO advice, means the WA government must now look at placing the Burrup Peninsula back on the state Aboriginal heritage register, he says.

“We are now saying if that advice has been overturned by the Supreme Court, the government needs to immediately reinstate those 23 sites, and the Burrup is one of them,” Mr Chappell told New Matilda.

He says if the Greens hadn’t asked the question, the status of the Burrup could have gone unreported.

“That’s the nature of the department. They have been to a large degree doing the bidding of the state government, who really wants to be able to fast track development in a number of areas. It’s been acquiescing to the direction the state government wants to go in. If we hadn’t asked the question, we may never have known,” Mr Chappell told New Matilda. 

Mr Chappell says he will now be asking questions about when the department will be reviewing and reinstating the 22 sites.

In the case of Port Hedland, the ruling doesn’t actually stop development, as agreements between traditional owners and the Port Hedland Harbour Authority have already been established.

The weak provisions of the state Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972 do not overrule development on Aboriginal sites. Amendments to the act which will go before Parliament later this year, and which weaken the act even further, have been almost unanimously condemned by Aboriginal groups.

As academics Thor Kerr and Shaphan Cox wrote in the Conversation recently  “The Act has a poor record of protecting Aboriginal heritage. Only in rare cases has a determined group of Aboriginal people been able to use it to prevent damage to their heritage. With the proposed legislative change, even such slim hope may be lost.”

But Mr Chappell says changing the definition of a ‘sacred site’, and deregistering sites, speeds up development.

“I think they want to make things quicker and easier, faster. The act has been weakly presented over the last 20 years in my view and it doesn’t do anything to stop development. It’s a quicker, easier process. This was one of the ways of getting rid of an impediment,” he says.

“That’s particularly the case of the Port Hedland Port Authority…. They already had an agreement in relation to the site. It was only in passing reference that Traditional Owners found out it was no longer a sacred site.”

In the case of the Burrup, Mr Chappell believes it would be “naïve” to think the department would still not consult with traditional owners given the international concern over the vulnerability of the priceless rock art.

“In many cases, when you come to the Burrup, it would be naïve to think government would not engage with the TOs. But this is one of those instances where it would make life easier. When you’re dealing with 6000 registered sites (on the Burrup), that’s the main obvious site over the parcel of land so even though there are sites in that area that are unregistered, it would have made it easier for companies moving to develop in that area.”

But he says it’s time for Mr Collier to reinstate and review the sites and place them back on the register.

Mr Chappell says it shows it is part of the history of humanity.

“We have to remember Indigenous people were developing stone tools way before we as Europeans did it. They started rudimentary farming and all these sorts of things. Aboriginal civilisation was far more advanced than we had in Europe or Africa or anywhere else. They developed a method of working on land, recorded culture that no one else had.”

He said recently in a statement, the news that the Burrup had been deregistered had left him “deeply ashamed”.

“It is without question one of the most important heritage locations in Australia and arguably the world; an ancient cultural and historical record of our nation’s first peoples.

“Irrelevant of the department’s interpretation of the heritage act, the Burrup Peninsula is a sacred site and deserves to be treated as such.”

Amy McQuire

A Darumbul woman from central Queensland, Amy McQuire is the former editor of the National Indigenous Times and Tracker magazine.