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Two laws protecting Kimberley rock art

On the role of law in preserving sacred sites in the Kimberley
 

Rosita Holmes and Rona Charles | Feature

Beryl Charles visiting a rock art site on her ancestral country during a Rock Wallaby Survey as part of the Wilinggin Healthy Country Plan, Wilinggin Country,
Beryl Charles visiting a rock art site on her ancestral country during a Rock Wallaby Survey as part of the Wilinggin Healthy Country Plan, Wilinggin Country, north-west KImberley, 2015. Photo: Katherine Mitchell, Wilinggin Healthy Country Coordinator. Image courtesy Kimberley Land Council

Recent changes to the Western Australian Heritage Act undermine the connection between people and country, placing thousands of rock art galleries at risk. Since the introduction of the cattle industry to the Kimberley region during the early 20th century and the subsequent forced removal of Aboriginal people from their traditional homelands, negative impacts on Aboriginal communities have been well documented. The impact on country, when its people are removed, is equally dire according to Ngarinyin/Nyikina[1] artist, cultural leader and land management professional Rona Charles: “You can’t take people, objects, Junba [song and dance] away from Country and think nothing will happen. Because water, plant, song, animal, people – they all depend on each other. People, for their identity and social wellbeing, and country for ecology.”

Rona and her Wanjina-Wunggurr-Wilinggin[2] community use the land management model Healthy Country Planning (HCP) to integrate traditional cultural conservation systems with current technology and science-based methods. HCP recognises that people, and their expression – painting and Junba (song and dance) – are part of the ecology of their country. Rona explains that caring for country and cultural practice cannot be separated: “When I go out to Country to work; fire burning, monitoring water quality and biodiversity … I’m not there to paint, but when I get home that’s when the stories start to come to me. Country opens itself to me and tells me what to paint, what songs we need to sing. Country can look after us if we look after it.”

Rona and Kastina Charles during aerial burning operations prescribed as part of the Willinggin Healthy Country Plan. These operations replicate the way Aboriginal people have cared for country for thousands of years
Rona and Kastina Charles during aerial burning operations prescribed as part of the Wilinggin Healthy Country Plan. These operations replicate the way Aboriginal people have cared for country for thousands of years through small, cool burns which prevent destructive bush  fires that damage rock art sites, flora and fauna. Photo: Anna Pickworth. Image courtesy Kimberley Land Council

The recent changes to the WA Heritage Act marks a return to early-colonial “lawful” acts of dispossession. This move undermines the efforts of partnerships that Rona and other traditional owners have developed with industry specialists (including anthropologists, linguists, art historians, land conservationists, and ethnomusicologists) to ensure the wellbeing of land and people.

One such partnership centres around the Frobenius Collection in the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University, Frankfurt, consisting of a large collection of Ngarinyin, Worrorra and Wunumbal[3] artefacts and documentary material collected in the late 1930s. This partnership supported a number of long-term outcomes, including an exhibition at the Martin-Gropius-Bau in Berlin earlier this year. Art From Prehistoric Times includes commissioned paintings by copyists from the early-20th century that document ancient rock art from all over the world, including imagery belonging to Rona’s ancestral country in the far north-west Kimberley. These rock art sites are at risk of being removed from WA’s Heritage Act under the new legislation.

Agnus S. Schultz. Watercolour
Agnus S. Schultz, North-west Australian expedition, watercolour on paper, 1938. Copyright: Frobenius-Institut, Frankfurt am Main. Rona Charles is a traditional owner of the country that this imagery originates from. Rona's daughter Mary Lou Divilli refers to this site in her artworks.

Rona describes the process of working with industry specialists as positive: “We feel like we’re not alone. We’ve got people here that want to preserve and help and make sure that we are having a say.” She attributes the success of these partnerships to the collaborators’ 
ability to listen and be guided by Aboriginal law and cultural governance: highlighting that Indigenous people have to navigate “two-ways”, in response to Australian law and Aboriginal law. Rona emphasises that Australia’s cultural heritage needs to be protected by both laws. 

“Our way never changes, our law never changes. It is sacred. When we do it our way we are doing it the way our ancestors did. Gardia (non-Indigenous) law changes all the time but our law never changes.”

Footnotes

  1. ^ Rona identifies as both Ngarinyin and Nyikina. “Ngarinyin” refers to both the language and nation of Ngarinyin people. Ngarinyin Country (Homelands) are located along the Gibb River Road region of the west Kimberley in Western Australia. Similarly, “Nyikina” refers to both the language and nation of Nyikina people. Nyikina Country (Homelands) are located in the west Kimberley region, east of Derby, WA
  2. ^ Wanjina-Wunggurr-Wilinggin refers to the collective of Ngarinyin people that fought for Native Title rights over their traditional Homelands. The Wanjina-Wunggurr-Wilinggin Native Title Claim was the first of the three Wanjina-Wunggurr claims to be successful. The Wanjina-Wunggurr is one group of people, consisting of three language groups (Ngarinyin, Wunumbal and Worrorra) who share a law and custom associated with Wanjina and Wunggurr.
  3. ^ Ngarinyin, Worrorra and Wunumbal are the three language groups that make up Wanjina-Wunggurr and share a distinct law and custom.  

Rona Charles is a Ngarinyin/Nyikina women living at Yumurlun (Pandanus Park) Community in the far-west Kimberley region of Western Australia. Rona is an artist, working with the Mowanjum Art and Culture Centre, a land care consultant with the Wilinggin Aboriginal Corporation, and a research assistant at Melbourne University.

Rosita Holmes is an Art Development Coordinator. She has worked with artists in their communities and homelands in the Kimberley region of Western Australia since 2011. She work’s collaboratively with elders, linguists and educators to design and deliver cultural revitalisation and art development projects.