Australian Aboriginal traditional knowledge and intellectual creations: an examination of issues and consequences within the heritage system

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For Australian Aboriginal people their culture and tradition, as for many Indigenous cultures, exists as both tangible practices and the connected intangible values. The tangible practices may be undertaken in specific places, often with particular objects at a defined time; whilst the intangible values associated with Aboriginal culture (such as creation, ceremony, performance art, including song and dance) often underpin and define the culture, Country and Aboriginal people themselves.
Within Aboriginal society traditional knowledge can be owned, restricted, created, sold and traded. The right to practice traditional knowledge is also very easily lost or destroyed, particularly by impacts to Country, denial of access of sites or routes of ceremony or Dreaming, or by the absence of passing on traditional knowledge by elders.
The dissemination of traditional knowledge in Aboriginal society is complex and dependent on many circumstances. Today the handing down of knowledge is further complicated by impacts to tradition, a consequence of colonisation, coupled with the prevention of access to some lands. However, most Aboriginal community groups retain a degree of traditional knowledge, which can be restricted and not disseminated beyond specific individuals.
Aboriginal traditional knowledge was, and still is, passed down orally, with only a limited 'written record' (primarily rock art) supplementing the spoken tradition. The ancient Aboriginal oral lineage is thus connected directly to traditional knowledge, the creation, maintenance and management of the material, the rights and ownership of the material and, in today's language, its copyright. This lineage also applies to the creation of new oral traditions, where 'content' created is often owned by an individual.
In Australia, heritage practitioners are often required to investigate assess traditional knowledge and there is government policy in place to guide this assessment. However, two key issues arise during the assessment of traditional knowledge. Firstly, Aboriginal elders often do not want to pass on (or are not permitted to pass on) traditional knowledge to non-Aboriginal people (such as heritage practitioners). Secondly, in instances where Aboriginal people do not hold location specific traditional knowledge, there have been occasions where survey and study on Country (for development projects) has resulted in the re-identification of important places and the re-connection of the associated tradition. The process of re-connection and consequential immediate loss (because of a development impact) can create conflicting feelings, which may greatly impact an Aboriginal community.

This paper investigates the subject of Australian Aboriginal tradition, exploring themes around a number of commonly used terms associated with tradition and the investigation of Aboriginal cultural heritage. Some mechanisms associated with the retention and distribution of traditional knowledge are presented. The place of traditional knowledge within the Australian Commonwealth heritage system is examined to understand how traditional knowledge, and thereby intellectual creation, is treated within a statutory framework. Finally the key issues associated with the assessment and heritage impact management process are discussed, describing how intellectual creation and traditional knowledge naturally create barriers that prevent Aboriginal people protecting their heritage through non-Aboriginal statutory planning systems.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publication2015 International Austronesian Conference
Subtitle of host publicationTerritorial Governance and Cultural Heritage
Number of pages13
Publication statusPublished - 2015


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