Sacred Sites in the Northern Territory

Sacred sites may be parts of the natural landscape such as hills, rocks, trees, springs and offshore reefs – places that are not always spectacular or interesting to the non-Aboriginal eye.

They may be places that are significant because they mark a particular act of a creation being. They also include burial grounds and places where particular ceremonies have been held. Sacred sites are often linked by the stories of a travelling ancestor being and as such they can link groups of Aboriginal people across vast areas of the continent.

Many sacred sites are powerful places and violation of their sanctity may be dangerous both to the people who transgress the law and to the custodians of the site. In some cases the act of identifying or talking about a site may in itself be a violation.

Custodians have particular responsibilities to protect and maintain sacred sites. This may be done in various ways including holding ceremonies, visiting the places and singing the songs associated with them.

There are no areas of land which are beyond the influence of Aboriginal law but aspects of the law may be focused on particular places.

Non-Aboriginal law recognises sacred sites as bounded entities, a useful tool if they are to be protected, but for Aboriginal people all of the country is important and valuable.

The CLC Policy on Sacred Objects

The Aboriginal custodians remain the rightful owners of secret and sacred objects and they have the right to decide who shall hold these objects and how and where objects will be held according to Aboriginal Law.

Where the custodians for sacred obects can be identified and located, and they wish to have their objects returned, these objects, must be returned as soon as possible. If custodians do not wish to have their objects returned, their wishes as to the future care, storage, and access to their objects must be respected and observed.

Where custodians cannot be located, sacred objects should be treated in a way, which is consisistent with Aboriginal Law; they must not be displayed to the public or viewed by women and children. Photographs or descriptions of the objects must not be displayed or published. The objects must remain available for identification and return to custodians when and if that is possible. Sacred objects must not be sold or transferred to private or overseas parties because this prevents adequate control over how such objects are stored and handled.

Commercial trade in sacred objects is offensive to Aboriginal people and the Central Land Council calls on the Commonwealth, State and Territory Governments to do all in their power to ensure that sacred objects are returned to the control of custodians.

Sacred object repatriation

Non-Aborigines began removing sacred objects from Central Australia more than a hundred years ago. Some were taken as trophies or curios; many were gathered in the name of science or given to non Aboriginal people for safe-keeping in the face of rapid change and encroahing settlement.

Through time, literally thousands of sacred objects from the Centre came to reside in private and public collections in Australia and overseas. The loss of such objects has resulted in a profound and ongoing sense of sorrow for those robbed of their heritage.

The objects are an integral part of Aboriginal people's relationship to their land.

The CLC's position on the objects and their ownership is simple: they derive from Aboriginal tradition; the objects are the property of the descendants of the people from whom they were taken; and they must be returned as quickly as possible.

The CLC is often approached by people wanting to return sacred objects in their possession. This signals a growing understanding and appreciation of Aboriginal culture and, in particular, of the significance of secret/sacred objects to Central Australian Aboriginal people.

An example of this is the return of the Karlu Karlu boulder from Flynn's Grave in Alice Springs to its Kaytetye, Warumungu and Alyawarr traditional owners.

The boulder was replaced by an Arrernte sacred stone. Wherever and whenever possible, the Central Land Council facilitates the repatriation process through its Centre for the Return of Cultural Property, a secure area, where objects are temporarily held pending owner identification. Many items have been returned to traditional custodians.

  • Flynns Grave
  • Strehlow
  • The Alice Springs Dam Saga