Before It's Too Late: A call to secure Australia's Indigenous heritage


My first duty is to acknowledge the traditional owners of these lands and pay my respects to their elders past & present. I also pay my respects to other elders present here today.

And I extend a very warm welcome to all here today.

My address is set in the context of the fiftieth anniversary of a unique Australian national institution. Already this institution has survived longer than many government agencies. It even predates Commonwealth administration in Indigenous affairs.

I'm speaking of course of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies. I am proud to be the Chair of the Institute’s governing Council.

I am joined here today by members of the AIATSIS Council:

By our Deputy Chair, Emeritus Professor Bob Tonkinson.

By June Oscar AO, a Bunuba woman from Fitzroy Crossing who was recently appointed as an Officer in the Order of Australia.

By Professor John Maynard, a Worrimi man from the Port Stephen’s region and Chair of Aboriginal History at the University of Newcastle.

By Associate Professor Mark Wenitong from the Kabi Kabi tribal group of South Queensland and the School of public health at James Cook University.

By Neva Collings, a specialist environmental lawyer from NSW, who grew up in a fishing village on the Hawkesbury River.'By Dana Ober from Saibai Island in the western Torres Strait who speaks three Australian languages I’m sure you all know well - Kalaw Kawaw Ya, Yumplatok and English! And by Robynne Quiggin, a Wiradjuri woman, and inaugural CEO of the Australian Indigenous Governance Institute based in Sydney.

Ladies and gentlemen:

Long after each of us in this room have passed on, what we leave our children, and their children, in fact what we leave as our contribution to the Australian nation, will be measured by the legacy we build, or fail to build, now.

For the past fifty years, the Commonwealth has had a national institution dedicated to the role of capturing one of the world’s most significant legacies to humanity. That is the history, culture, languages, knowledge, songs and dances of the Indigenous peoples of Australia. Of capturing the past and present of the longest continuous culture in the world we know.

That's a mere fifty years to capture 50,000 years - and counting. By any standards, that is a huge task!

When the Institute began, in 1964, the mission of what was then known as the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies was to rescue knowledge about Australia’s Indigenous cultures before being lost forever. It was thought then, even by the best minds, that we were a ‘primitive’ and dying race.

W. C. Wentworth MP, in writing to Prime Minister Menzies in 1959 underscored the urgency and gravity of the task of preserving knowledge about Indigenous cultures by remarking that:

If we do not undertake it now, humanity will lose something of permanent value and we Australians, will lay ourselves to perpetual reproach.

Wentworth made a final point that also resonates today, but for a different reason.

Summing up why the government should create the Institute he said:

The project is important, The project is urgent, The project is cheap!

The Institute took shape, formally coming into being in March 1964. This was our first incarnation.

For its first fifteen years or more, its leadership and membership was primarily comprised of Australia’s leading anthropologists, archaeologists and linguists. It was a veritable who’s-who of non-Indigenous academics who worked with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and it included WC Wentworth, and the renowned anthropologists William Stanner, Ronald and Catherine Behrndt, DJ Mulvaney and our deputy Chair, Robert Tonkinson.

Over the next twenty-five years, as well as recording, rescuing and beginning the task of preserving ancient knowledge and materials, two important things happened:

First: it became quite clear that we were not dying out!

And second, we Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders began knocking on, and sometimes knocking down, the doors of previously closed institutions. We moved into elite academic roles, into government and public policy, into business, and we took greater control over capturing and storing our heritage and telling our stories.

The Institute grew and changed from being an organisation managed by capable but well-meaning non-Indigenous academics, to one whose new and revised legislation of 1989 provided for a majority Indigenous leadership of its governing Council and correctly and specifically included Torres Strait Islanders peoples in its name and activities.

This was our second incarnation and it was born in the wake of the political and social confluence of the 1967 referendum, of land rights championed by Lingiari and Whitlam, of the Freedom Rides, the Tent Embassy and from reforms promoting equal pay and anti-discrimination on the grounds of race.

The Institute has benefited from association with many of Australia’s best-known Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community leaders and academics – Australian leaders.

So where are we today, fifty years on?

According to the experts, the Australian Institute for Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Studies now holds the most extensive and best contextualized collection of Indigenous Australia in the world. It is a site of pilgrimage. (That’s a quote from Significance International in 2014). The Institute’s Australian languages collection is included on the UNESCO Memory of the World Register, along with, for example, the Gutenberg Bible and the Magna Carta.

AIATSIS holds over 6 million feet of film which if placed end to end would stretch, from the top to the bottom of Australia. It includes collections as diverse as: The Geoffrey Bardon collection of more than 100 cans of film recording aspects of life at Papunya in the 1970s and the establishment of the Papunya Tula art movement of the Western Desert.

While it also includes the Rachel Perkins’ collection, 20 years of materials comprising completed programs, film rushes, video and sound, costume items and props, multiple drafts of scripts, diaries, press materials and stills.

The vaults also contain over - 40,000 hours of unique audio recordings - which would take one person listening over a working week, 5,472 days or just over 15 years to get through. It includes:

The recording of senior Aboriginal men from the Milingimbi mission in Arnhem Land - which was selected for the golden record representing human cultural evolution, and launched into the interstellar system with the space probe Voyager 1 in 1977. Yes folks – for all we know, we could be the longest continuing culture on planet earth and beyond!

The collection includes the only recorded sound of many languages of Queensland, South Australia, Victoria and New South Wales, and;

It contains a recording of my grandfather, Paddy Djaiween telling Yawuru stories and singing ancient Yawuru songs, and on a different note again, it also includes Recordings of sessions from a land rights ‘teach-in’ held at Sydney University in 1979, featuring a number of prominent Indigenous land rights activists, including Joe McGuinness, Mick Miller, Marcia Langton, Pat O’Shane and Steven Albert.

We have over - 12,800 unpublished manuscripts and record series - Including the handwritten field notes, genealogies, letters and drawings gathered by anthropologist Phyllis Kaberry during her work with Aboriginal groups in Australia’s remote Kimberley region in 1933 –35

We have over - 653,000 still images, including five black and white glass plate negatives of Tasmanian Aboriginal people at Oyster Cove from 1858–1900; and the Francis Birtles Collection of photographs dating back to the early 1920s taken during his expeditions across Australia, first by bicycle and then by motor vehicle.

Over 120,000 print and published items in a wide variety of formats including 3,000 rare books, such as a copy of James Wallis’ An Historical Account of the Colony of New South Wales and its Dependent Settlements. Published in London in 1821, the work includes the first image of a corroboree. The ‘corroboree’ depicted in the book celebrated the visit of Governor Macquarie to Newcastle in 1818.

And we have educational kits, maps and posters, language materials, government reports, microfilm and fiche, serials and art catalogues and ephemera.

(How did we get these materials?) This amazing Collection was built from the ground up. Some was gathered in the rescue research of the early years.

Much has been built up from our native title work with communities where we research culture, heritage, kinship, and trade, economy, medicine, natural resources and more.

It has come from the likely and the unlikely places. ….. A phone call to come and pick it up if you want it, resulted in our retrieving a painting of immense importance to the people of Wadeye, that had wound up in the garage of Miss Ellestan Dusting, a former personal Assistant to Sir Paul Hasluck,

But mostly, we have been able to record, document, investigate, analyse and receive materials because we have built trust with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and their descendants.

What is this Collection used for?

Just as the social and political changes of the past fifty years are reflected in the way the Institute exists and works, so have they also brought new meaning to the value and use of the Collection.

At the beginning, in what we could call the Before It’s Too Late Mark 1 stage, our research and the collections were gathered to preserve the retrievable aspects of rapidly disappearing intact ‘primitive cultures’. This would be research and collections for Australia and for the world.

It was hoped this focus would also create interest in studying the Indigenous tribes of Australia in Australian universities - which was then almost non-existent. To overcome local intransigence and a gap in capacity, the early work drew on the skills and work of international academics.

While Indigenous Studies is now widespread in Australian tertiary institutions, still more benefits of the Collection have emerged out of the changes of the past 50 years.

In what we could call Before It’s too late Mark 2, our research and collections have gathered the stories and the evidence of early and ongoing colonial interaction. The records of missions and reserves, of so-called native protective officers, of government policies and so on. These records have proved immensely helpful to reconnect generations with their culture and find lost family, and assist traditional owners, mining companies and pastoralists, draft and settle native title claims.

Which brings me back to where are we today?

Today we are facing challenges, both new - and old or recurring (funds!) that require some clever thinking and a new national commitment.

AIATSIS is not able to adequately protect its current Collection and nor are we able to go out to communities, and to recover materials held in private- in biscuit tins and shoe boxes -that are perishing. We’re not able to find and protect items of unique significance that contain the stories of past and more recent generations. Our 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 twenty-five years. For example, those cattlemen and women who were the backbone of the pastoral industry, but for whom the promise of equal pay resulted in unemployment. Or of the men, women and children who chose to hide their Aboriginality for fear of having their children removed or fear of racial discrimination. Or for that matter, the stories of love that lead to lives lived with Australians from many backgrounds and cultures other than their own.

These are the stories that have shaped and continue to shape the very soul of the Australian nation. They speak to its past, to the survival of Indigenous cultures against all odds, and that in so doing, have rescued our nation from what would have been certain ignominy for all time.

As a nation we must now gather and cherish these materials, before it is too late.

So where to from here?

With good will, intelligent design and funding, there’s no reason why the Institute and the Australian nation cannot do much, much better.
What is needed, and here I agree with Noel Pearson, is a plan. A Before It’s Too Late Mark 3 Plan. A comprehensive and urgent plan to identify, gather, safe-keep and share, the Indigenous heritage of this nation.

To that end, I am moving to create the BITL Mk3 Steering Group - a small group which will include notable Australians both Indigenous and non-Indigenous that we can call upon to help put the meat on the bones of this plan.

We want to encourage young researchers, archivists, film and audio students, editorial and publishing and creative digital types to join this project as part of their studies programs.

We will develop the comprehensive strategy, provide critical advice to government and seek broad community support for its actions.
As we enter our next 50 years, we too will change again – the Institute will continue to grow and adapt to ensure it has the best minds from across the country and around the world to help it further develop, protect and showcase this unique Collection.

Part of this includes recognizing the changing expectations of government towards organisations such as ours. It is recognizing that while our needs are ever increasing, and as our vision and our mission expands, government support has not, and likely will not, keep pace with that need. This is not to say that governments do not have a responsibility to resource core activities that are carried out by its agencies on behalf of the nation.

But resources are scarce. Politics is politics. In some political cycles our mission will receive greater support and attention than at other times. The support of Menzies and his Cabinet got us going – for the sake of the heritage of our nation we cannot stop, and we cannot fail.

So, in addition to the core business of the BITL Mk3 strategy, we will be launching a charitable Foundation – yet to be named - with the enhanced objective of giving all Australians, the opportunity to learn in much greater depth of the cultural legacy, historic grandeur, and contemporary culture of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians.

The Council is thrilled that the Governor General his Excellency Sir Peter Cosgrove has offered to launch the Foundation, and we are aiming to do that in early 2015. The Foundation will focus on

  • Partnering with technological innovators to import and develop futuristic engagements with our Collection;
  • Making possible traveling exhibitions throughout the nation;
  • Creating opportunities for Indigenous students to train in the professional skills required to maintain the collection, and very significantly and most especially;
  • Raising support and funds for the establishment, in the not too distant future, of an internationally iconic building in Canberra to showcase, with substance, symbolism and significance, the world’s oldest continuing cultures.

Many of you will know of the iconic National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI), which stands proudly at the head of the Smithsonian Institutions in Washington DC, directly across from the Congress Building. That institution was created by legislation in 1989 – a full quarter of a century after the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies – and that marvelous, central and symbolic building was built through a public private partnership that garnered community support and sufficient government, corporate and philanthropic funds, over a period of five years.

We will be working hard to develop new partnerships with Australian and international corporations, governments and individuals who can contribute to the realization of this, our grand design - a facility to rival the NMAI in Canberra.

It will be for all Australians, and for the tens of thousands of international visitors, who want to know and understand more about the world’s longest continuous civilization and how we Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have been fundamental to the development and fabric of this great nation.

The symbolism of the NMAI is unambiguous, as will be ours!

Finally ladies & gentlemen; The current situation presents a grave risk and a great challenge. But I hope that the plan I have outlined will ensure that in 2064, in another fifty years, AIATSIS is an institution that Menzies, Stanner and Wentworth, as well all of us here today could be proud of – as will those who will be young Australians in 2064.

Thank you