Sacred sites and objects

Protecting sacred sites

We apply our sacred site protection regime thoroughly many, many times each year to prevent the damage and the distress that would surely occur without it.

Aboriginal sacred sites are commonly parts of the natural landscape such as hills, rock outcrops, trees, springs, creeks and offshore reefs – places that are not always spectacular or even interesting to the unenlightened non-Aboriginal eye. 

Frequently they are significant because they mark a particular act of a creation being in Aboriginal mythology. They also include burial grounds, sites where particular ceremonies are or were held, where sacred objects are or were stored and hidden rock art sites. Sacred sites are often linked, occurring in succession in creation beings’ travels according to stories and songs passed down many, many generations. As such, they can link groups of Aboriginal people associated with the sites, songs and stories across vast areas of the continent.

Many sacred sites are considered very powerful places and violation of their sanctity is deemed dangerous both to the people who transgress their laws and to the custodians of the site. In some cases, simply identifying or talking about a site may be a violation.

Custodians have particular traditional responsibilities to protect and maintain sacred sites, including holding the ceremonies, visiting the sites with appropriate people only and singing the songs associated with them.

In the Northern Territory there are few areas of land that are beyond the influence of Aboriginal law, but the influence and thus the responsibilities are concentrated on sacred sites.

In short, sacred sites are places of deep spiritual significance in Aboriginal culture. They are in fact central to Aboriginal traditional ownership under the Aboriginal Land Rights (NT) Act 1976 (Land Rights Act).

Protecting these places helps maintain that culture and connection to land and the associated Aboriginal identities, while protecting the environment that constitutes the sites.

We have a legal responsibility to help Aboriginal people to protect sacred sites.

A key way is through our sacred site clearance certificates.

A CLC sacred site clearance certificate in fact serves two purposes.

First, it helps to prevent damage to, and interference with, Aboriginal sacred sites by setting out conditions of work on the land the certificate covers, the subject land. When accepting a certificate, an applicant agrees to be bound by its conditions.

Second, the certificate also protects the applicant against prosecution for entering, damaging, or interfering with sacred sites under both the NT Aboriginal Sacred Sites Act and the Land Rights Act. 

It achieves this purpose by providing the applicant with documentary evidence that the traditional Aboriginal owners of the subject land have been consulted and consent to the applicant’s proposed works under the conditions of the certificate. Provided these conditions are met, the works will not breach these laws.

The certificate is required for works on Aboriginal land that involve but are not necessarily limited to: new building works or those to change the footprint of an existing building, utility works, new roads and widening existing roads, resource exploration, mining, pipelines and some telecommunications works. In summary, works that disturb ground not already heavily impacted, or remove or damage mature trees or their branches.

Here is more information about the sacred site clearance certificate process.


Returning Flynn’s grave rock to Karlu Karlu

In 1953 a boulder was removed from Karlu Karlu (the Devils Marbles), south of Tennant Creek and transported 400 kilometres to Alice Springs to mark and protect the grave of Dr John Flynn. It was a sign of respect on the one hand, and deep disrespect on the other.

In 1949 aged 70, Reverend John Flynn, founder of the Royal Flying Doctor Service, climbed Mount Gillen and declared it was where he would like to be buried. Following his death in May 1951, Flynn’s family and friends located a burial place at the foot of Mount Gillen, 15 kilometres west of Alice Springs, in accordance with his wishes.

His wife, Jean Flynn, was inspired by the biblical story of the crucifixion, in which a large rock was rolled across the entrance to Christ’s tombe. A meeting of community and church groups agreed that a similar action be taken to protect John Flynn’s ashes and mark his grave.

Following an unsuccessful search for an appropriate rock in the nearby MacDonnell Ranges, one suitable to the family and these stakeholders was located at Karlu Karlu and transported to Flynn’s grave site by the Northern Territory Public Works Department – without consulting the relevant traditional owners. The eight-tonne rock was finally placed in August 1953, more than two years after Flynn’s death. 

Karlu Karlu holds deep spiritual and cultural meaning for both Aboriginal men and women. Its traditional owners consider the iconic outcrop of massive rounded boulders to have extraordinary powers, with life threatening consequences – for them – if damaged. In 1998, these concerns warranted the re-routing of the Alice Springs to Darwin railway eight kilometres to the west.

Damage comparable to the Flynn’s grave rock removal occurred in the early 1980s when a rock was removed from an important sacred site north of Tennant Creek called Kunjarra, or Devils Pebbles.

Again without traditional owner consultation, this rock was removed and placed in a park in the centre of Tennant Creek to enhance the town’s tourist appeal. It caused such distress to the local Warumungu people that the rock was returned in July 1981, but only after 15 months of controversy and the tragic loss of an Aboriginal elder involved in its return.

This event heightened the concerns of the traditional owners of Karlu Karlu, and the Arrernte traditional owners of Flynn’s grave site, about the Karlu Karlu boulder on the grave.

Following meetings in 1980 and 1981 between the Uniting Church and Aboriginal representatives, the search for a replacement rock commenced. Yet now controversy arose over the plans to swap the rock on Flynn’s grave, stopping negotiations. It wasn’t until 1996 that negotiations recommenced, involving the Central Land Council, the Uniting Church’s Reverend Fred McKay, the Aboriginal Areas Protection Authority and the NT Parks and Wildlife Commission. These resulted in agreement in October that year that the original rock be returned to Karlu Karlu.

In early 1997, Arrernte traditional owners of the grave site and areas beyond resumed the search for a replacement, a very generous gesture in the true spirit of reconciliation. After considerable effort and input by all parties, a suitable substitute rock was identified in late 1998.

This boulder was selected from a registered sacred site in Alice Springs associated with the yeperenye (caterpillar) dreaming. It was taken from this site in accordance with an Aboriginal Areas Protection Authority (AAPA) certificate authorising the move under the NT Aboriginal Sacred Sites Act 1989.

Community Aid Abroad financed the rock exchange.

For nearly 20 years, we worked hard for and with Aboriginal people to return the Karlu Karlu boulder to its rightful home.

Many meetings were held to no avail. Public opinion about the rock’s replacement didn’t acknowledge traditional owner concerns until the mid-1990s. We liaised thoroughly with all parties towards an appropriate outcome: the AAPA, the NT Parks and Wildlife Commission, Community Aid Abroad, the Uniting Church, the Royal Flying Doctor Service and contractors, as well as traditional owners of both Karlu Karlu and the Flynn’s grave site. Foremost was the need to respect traditional owner wishes, but clearly there were other sensitivities we had to respect.

We liaised with the authority for certified approval to in fact move both rocks involved: the replacement rock from the Alice Springs sacred site and the original rock from Karlu Karlu, each registered sacred sites requiring such approval for any works within them.

We organised the contractor to conduct the works under the guidance of traditional owners, CLC and AAPA staff. The traditional owners performed a ceremony during the works to safely bring the rock back to Karlu Karlu.

The desecration of sacred sites and the distress it causes to Aboriginal people continues today, unbeknown to and/or not understood by most Australians. 

The widely reported 2017 desecration of Karlu Karlu by a group of men who shared a video of one of their party defecating on a boulder is but one recent incident that has been spiritually devastating to its traditional owners. 

We investigated the desecration of the sacred site and informed the AAPA that the traditional owners wanted those ‘shitting on our culture’ to be punished. The AAPA CEO promised the CLC delegates in May 2017 to do what he could to bring those responsible to justice under the NT’s Sacred Sites Act. However, three years later, the men were yet to face prosecution. 

It is soul-destroying for Aboriginal people to have such vital spiritual links to country severed. That the links could be repaired in the earlier case, to the satisfaction also of the non-Aboriginal people central to the saga, was a feat of reconciliation of the highest order.

Our 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 they will be held according to Aboriginal law.

Where the custodians for sacred objects 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 consistent with Aboriginal law; they must not be displayed to the public or viewed by women and children (almost all such objects are men’s objects, and if in doubt we assume they are). Photographs or descriptions of the objects must not be displayed or published. The objects must remain available for the necessary 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.

In any case, commercial trade in sacred objects is offensive to Aboriginal people and the CLC calls on the Commonwealth, state and territory governments to do all in their power to stop such trade and ensure that sacred objects are returned to the control of custodians.

Sacred object repatriation

Non-Aboriginal people began removing sacred objects from Central Australia more than 100 years ago. Some were taken as trophies or curios; many were gathered in the name of science or given to non-Aboriginal people for safekeeping in the face of rapid social change and white settlement.

Literally thousands of such objects ended up in private and public collections in Australia and overseas. The loss of such objects has resulted in a profound and ongoing sorrow for those robbed of this heritage.

The objects are an important part of Aboriginal people’s relationship with land.

Our position on the objects and their ownership is simple: they derive from Aboriginal tradition; they are the property of the descendants of the people from whom they were taken; and they must be returned as quickly, yet carefully, as possible.

We are sometimes approached by people, and occasionally institutions, wanting to return sacred objects in their possession. This signals a growing understanding and appreciation of Aboriginal culture and, specifically, the significance of secret/sacred objects to central Australian Aboriginal people.

The return of the boulder marking Flynn’s grave in Alice Springs to Karlu Karlu, near Tennant Creek, points to this increasing appreciation and the significance of cultural property repatriation.

Wherever and whenever possible, we facilitate the repatriation process through our facility for the return of cultural property, a secure area where objects in our care are temporarily held pending owner identification. Many items have been returned from it to their custodians.

Many years before Aboriginal people in Central Australia started to assert their land rights anthropologist Ted Strehlow, who grew up at the Hermannsburg Mission at Ntaria, amassed a large collection of sacred objects that were the cultural and intellectual property of Arrernte custodians.

When the custodians entrusted Strehlow with their safe keeping could they have known that their act of trust would lead to one of the most bitter controversies about the return of sacred objects to their rightful owners?

Delve into anthropologist John Morton’s tale of the Strehlow collection of sacred objects to find out.