The time when we were innocent sorcerers
Opposition grows to deep sea mining threat

The many complexities of Aboriginal heritage

Advocating for the protection of Indigenous heritage almost always takes place in a politically charged environment. Such endeavours are not for the faint hearted and can be a minefield for the uninitiated

Pipalyatjara in the Tomkinson Ranges
Pipalyatjara in the Tomkinson Ranges, South Australia


Fitz - Full Circle coverFull Circle: A Personal History of the South Australian Aboriginal Heritage Branch 1974-1994 by Philip Fitzpatrick, Independently Published, November 2022, 264 pages. ISBN-13: 979-8361714131. Paperback $14.39, Kindle $1.00. Available here from Amazon Books

Phil Fitzpatrick's Introduction to Full Circle

When I arrived back in Australia in late 1973 after completing a six-year contract working as a Patrol Officer in Papua New Guinea I decided that I had three options for the future.

The first was to accept an offer to renew my contract and go back to Papua New Guinea, the second was to complete the degree I had started by correspondence the year before by going to university full time and the third was to look around for a job.

I’d pretty much decided upon the second option and had signed up with the University of Adelaide to begin study the following year when an advertisement in the job section of the ‘Adelaide Advertiser’ caught my attention.

The South Australian Museum was looking for someone to work with Aboriginal people in the remote Northwest Aboriginal Reserve recording their sacred sites.

I assumed they wanted a qualified anthropologist but my interest was piqued and I sent off an application anyway. Then I got on with organising my attendance at university.

To cut a long story short and to my great surprise I was offered the job at the Museum.

Anthropologists were in short supply in Australia in the 1970s and they figured that because I had worked with Papua New Guineans I could work with Aborigines.

Nothing could be further from the truth but I didn’t know that at the time and after some procrastination I reverted back to part time study and took the job.

The next 20 years turned out to be one hell of a rollercoaster ride which I enjoyed right up to the final couple of years.

The early years working with the desert nomads travelling through their remote mountains and across their mulga clad plains involved a learning curve that was remarkably steep.

I quickly learned that the only similarity between desert Aborigines and Papua New Guineans was the colour of their skin.

As a European I had more in common with Papua New Guineans that I could ever have with tribalised Aborigines.

Ours was a material culture but the people out in the desert lived almost entirely in their heads.

Apart from a spear and woomera, or a digging stick if you were a woman, they owned nothing. Their intellectual world, on the other hand, was one of incredible richness.

Here is an extract to give you an idea of what I was doing:

Strawbridge Springs  Tomkinson Ranges  1903
Strawbridge Springs ,Tomkinson Ranges,  1903

On another field trip we visited an isolated engraving site in the Tomkinson Ranges.

The engravings extended over about a hectare of flat ground on sheets of low lying flat stone, something after the fashion of the engravings at Panaramittee, near Yunta.

The deeply incised engravings were part of a ngintaka, or perentie, increase centre.

Ceremonies were held there to ensure a plentiful supply of the big lizards. It was actually just over the border in Western Australia but I didn’t realise that until I later checked my maps, not that that meant anything to the men with me.

After respectfully consulting the tjurunga or carved sacred wooden boards extracted from their hiding place nearby we were led from engraving to engraving by the ritual manager of the site in a kind of conga line with me tagging along behind the younger initiates at the very end.

Every site had a ritual manager and an owner or boss of the song line in which it occurred.

Our progress resembled the Stations of the Cross conducted by the Catholic Church but that was as far as the analogy went. Otherwise it was a kind of literal stepping into episodes of a spiritual epic.

At each cluster of engravings the ritual manager explained what was going on and how it fitted into the larger song line.

It was the first time I had seen a practical demonstration of the detailed knowledge of ancient rock art sites still held by Aboriginal people.

I didn’t take any photographs or notes or ask whether I could do so. Neither did I formally report visiting the site. I had no right to do that and the engravings would surely endure for another thousand years or so without my interference.”

Those desert nomads taught me a lot about what is important in life and what is unnecessary baggage. For that I am eternally grateful.

As the years went by, however, I inevitably expanded my experience until I was working throughout South Australia and involved in all the politics and bureaucratic wrangling involved in administering legislation designed to protect Aboriginal heritage.

Aboriginal heritage is a very difficult area in which to work because it inevitably clashes with many vested interests, particularly mining and development.

Advocating for the protection of Aboriginal heritage almost always takes place in a politically charged environment.

Such endeavours are not for the faint hearted and can be a minefield for the uninitiated. Even for the most progressively minded it can be anxiety inducing.

That twenty years wore me down and I eventually quit and set myself up as a consultant working in both Australia and Papua New Guinea doing what is loosely called social mapping.

In writing the memoir, I have attempted to use my own story to describe how the staff of the Aboriginal Heritage Branch, strived to carry out that difficult role in South Australia between 1974 and 1994.

The account documents where we succeeded and where we failed.

If you are interested in buying Full Circle, you can link to it on Amazon here


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Paul Oates

The essence of the problem starts with understanding. I believe you have 'pinged' or highlighted the issue, Phil.

Having worked with a royal commission (the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody) where the clash between two cultures was constantly brought to light, the problem starts with those responsible for enacting changes in government policy to understand what will work and what won't.

Government policies are by necessity, fabricated around the periods between elections and hinge on available funds and limited times. Often there's very limited education and imagination by governments who want to buy a political quick fix.

Can there be an effective integration between what on one side is an extremely ephemeral culture and, on the other, officially enacted and enforceable legislation?

Can throwing large sums of money extinguish and airbrush out the faults and griefs of history? Can throwing money at a problem very few understand fix the future?

Many of our fraternity have experienced being caught in the middle of a culture clash and have some understanding of the complexities involved.

It's a sure bet that those who have no such practical experience are usually the ones to first offer opinions about how to fix the problems.

Philip Fitzpatrick

This article might also interest readers interested in the desert nomads.

Garrett Roche

Phil, you write “the only similarity between desert Aborigines and Papua New Guineans was the colour of their skin.”

I remember one year someone from Australia brought a group of young Australian Aboriginal people to a cultural event in PNG. (I think it was the Hagen Show).

The group of young Aborigines seemed to be overwhelmed by the presence of so many Highlanders and initially kept to themselves in a tight circle.

Bill Brown

Phil, I have just finished reading Chapter 1 of your tome. Congratulations. It is inspiring.

I will go back to the beginning, read it slowly and dwell on every word. Thank you.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been saved. Comments are moderated and will not appear until approved by the author. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Comments are moderated, and will not appear until the author has approved them.

Your Information

(Name and email address are required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)