Evolving access solutions – repatriation of records to indigenous communities

Helen Onopko[i], Records & Archive Services


The western view of records tends to see the records of aboriginal Australia as static, as something that can be used as legal and historical proof. The indigenous people of Australia did not keep ‘archives’; they had no need to prove their culture through documentation. Instead they rely on a complex system of oral transmission and customary law. This clash of views leaves indigenous people caught in a dilemma. Stuck between a traditional view of fluidity of culture and heritage, an oral, living history; and the need to validate their views by maintaining a static collection of documents and records of their history and culture.

We in the recordkeeping community need to review our understandings of the role of archives, to evaluate how best our collections can be structured so that they are not depositories of the past, but are also living places which are shaped by the nature of the culture they document.


Issues that I would like to cover include the following:

      · Indigenous ways of understanding “archive” and the problematic relationships between oral cultures and eurocentric notions of the archive, which privilege written pasts

      ·   Intellectual and cultural property rights in black law

      ·   Examples where records are being repatriated to the communities


What we must consider in recognizing indigenous understandings of “archive” are:

§         location of communities in relation to location of the records

§         financial resources of researchers in getting to archives

§         the intimidating alien environment of archives

§         research skills of people looking for information

§         language barrier - complex subject specific terms and formats utilised by professionals such as anthropologists, governments, archaeologists

§         publications & catalogues of records that are available, and the availability of these indexes - if you don’t know what's there, how can you know what to ask for

§         the damaging nature of many records - not wanting to make public things they did in the past or opinions that were held in the past …… this fear can lad to 'conspiracy theories', where in actual fact it is often just disorganisation and lack of funds or time which make records inaccessible.


The late Fabian Hutchinson, said of central Australian records:

"The argument has been used that central Australia is one vast dustbowl where all archives would automatically be 'at risk' as a 'reason' for perpetuating 'centralised' control over records of research or policy value. This negative outlook denies the actuality of local research requirements for records, and fails to consider community values"


Intellectual property and indigenous heritage

Celine McInerney is an intellectual property lawyer for South Australian legal firm, Norman Waterhouse.  She has done considerable work on Indigenous Heritage Rights in the context of Intellectual Property under white Australian law and I have consulted her knowledge for this paper.

The concept of ‘Ownership’ is a key issue in clarifying the different ways that indigenous and non-indigenous communities view the role of records and archives. In changing our view of the role of archives, we need to give up the concept of ownership, and of superiority in the correct use and interpretation and our collections.

Indigenous Heritage includes:

§         All items of moveable cultural property including burial    artefacts

§         Indigenous ancestral remains

§         Indigenous human genetic material (including DNA and tissues)

§         Documentation of Indigenous peoples heritage in all forms of media (including scientific, ethnographic research reports, papers and books, films, sound recordings).

§         Under Indigenous Law:

§         Cultural heritage is collectively owned by the relevant clan, through individual custodians of the stories, the dreams and so on;

§         Notions of ownership, in the sense white people think of them, don’t apply;

§         The result of this is that white laws don’t recognise many rights indigenous people believe are important for the continuation of their culture.

Richard Robins pointed out in a 1996 discussion paper on the changing role of Museums in Aboriginal Cultural Management :

Museums need to recognise Aboriginal interests in their culture and that they have primary rights over that cultural material.  …It may also require the museums to acknowledge that relationships, not objects, have primacy.


Existing archives legislation does not stipulate who can access a particular institution’s records. This lack of enforced regulation gives no protection to records which may contain personal and culturally sensitive information. In addition to this, Museum legislation tends to focus on anthropological and scientific issues, and not on the cultural and spiritual value to Indigenous peoples of institutions’ collections. We are still in a situation where Indigenous cultural material can be destroyed or willfully distorted with no recourse. Cultural material can be misrepresented, and sacred and secret materials can be accessed and used by anyone the current legal 'owners' of these items see fit.


On the one hand free accessibility to this heritage is needed so that Aboriginal people can trace their genealogies, find their tribal identity, their ancestral lands, and trace their relatives. On the other hand 'free' access can go against traditional methods of control over the flow of cultural sacred information. As recordkeeping professionals we can appreciate that here is a special circumstance where context is as important as content.  


In July 1978, photographs by a powerful collector of aboriginal records were printed in Stern Magazine showing sacred sites and secret rites of indigenous groups.  He was very upset when the photographs were then sold to People Magazine.  Stern subsequently apologised. The whole controversy about whether the photographs should or should not have been published caused a great deal of moral anguish.  He said that he had every right to permit use of the photographs because the subjects in the photographs had passed away.  


In some Aboriginal communities, seeing the names and photographs of the deceased may cause sadness and distress, particularly to relatives of those people.


It is admittedly very difficult to write history without including such names. On the Ara Irititja  website, cautions are provided to users, so that choices can be made prior to record access.


This was placed at the beginning of the website and the warning has to be accepted by all users to enter the site.


Example of an initial access page (interface) within the Archive

(Images courtesy- John Dallwitz, Ara Irititja Archive Project Manager)


The closest we have come to providing indigenous Australia protection of their cultural heritage is the ATSI Protocols for Libraries, archives and information services established in 1994 / 1995.


Remember, these collections may include sensitive material which must be respected and treated specially.  In order to respond appropriately, organisations should make reference to the published protocols.


Protocol 4:  Description and classification of materials  

What must we do?  We must

§         Develop, implement and use a national thesaurus for describing documentation relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and issues.

§         Develop and use subject headings and guidelines for archival description which are sensitive to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and which promote effective retrieval.


Mick Dodson in 1993 said:

We have been referred to and catalogued as 'savages' or 'primitive' while Western industrial peoples are referred to as advanced and complex.


Protocol 11:  Copying and Repatriation of Records to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Communities.  Archives and libraries often hold original records which were created by, or about, or with the input of particular Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. Some records may have been taken from the control of the community or created by theft or deception.

What must we do?  We must  

§     Respond sympathetically and cooperatively to any request from an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community for copies of records of specific relevance to the community for its use and retention.

§     to the repatriation of original records to Aboriginal and Islander communities when it can be established that the records have been taken from the control of the community or created by theft or deception. ;

§     Seek permission to hold copies of repatriated records but refrain from copying such records should permission be denied.

§     Assist Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities in planning, providing and maintaining suitable keeping places for repatriated records


Keeping places

Libraries, archives, central filing places, museums and galleries are usually given distinct and separate roles. One approach to the situation where a community wants to reclaim its history, is for items from all of these places to be brought together in one place of reference. In addition to this it is important that such places are close to the communities whose people are the subjects of the records. Issues of access can be made more difficult by the fact that records are often housed in locations which are great distances from the communities.

In Indigenous communities in Australia the term ‘keeping place’ has begun to be used to refer to these multipurpose places.

 ‘Keeping places’ are:

§     libraries, in that they house information which is a resource for the community

§     archives in that they file, protect and maintain precious records,

§     museums and galleries in that they hold items of archaeological and anthropological interest and often have exhibits demonstrating the context from which these items were created.

§     retail outlets and businesses running cultural tours or art classes.


Current repatriation projects


Following the ATSI protocol, many communities and archival institutions are cooperating to establish repatriation arrangements.  There will always be resistance through interpretation.  The common statement we have encountered is 

We do not have any records created by indigenous communities, only those about them, so there are no issues of repatriation for us to consider.


§     So, what is happening around Australia.  A sample – but certainly not an exhaustive list -  of repatriation projects follows:

§     Karratha Library

§     The Victorian Koorie Records Taskforce

§     Tibooburra Keeping Place, NSW

§     Djomi Museum (Bawinga Aboriginal Corporation, Maningrida, NT)

§     Quirindi and District Historical Society, NSW

§     State Library - SA

§     NT Archives

§     Lutheran Archives - SA

§     Kimberly Communities

§     Ara Irititja Archival Project, South Australia 


Karratha Library

The Library & Information Services Division, Western Australia contacted the Karratha Library to advise that records on microfilm in their collection were being heavily accessed by researchers from that area looking for family history information. They suggested that the Karratha Library purchase a copy of the microfilm, making the records immediately available to the community (along with a reader!)


The Victorian Koorie Records Taskforce

The Victorian Koorie Records Taskforce has released its report of the “Finding Your Story Community Forums 2002”.  The purpose of the forums is to inform the community about what records are kept and how they can be accessed.  It is also an opportunity for the community to raise any issues they may have about access to their records.


Tibooburra Keeping Place, NSW

Opened this year by the Local Aboriginal Land Council, the Tibooburra Keeping Place contains a collection of artefacts found in the local area. The Australian Museum assisted in the creation of the keeping place, supplying support, skills and knowledge. The impetus behind the creation of the keeping place was the wish to preserve and protect those relics and artefacts unique to the Tibooburra area.


Djomi Museum (Bawinga Aboriginal Corporation, Maningrida, NT)

The Djomi Museum serves as a community keeping place. The museum’s collection includes  about 1000 photographs.  In 1995 the Bawinga Aboriginal Corporation was awarded a community heritage grant from the National Library of Australia to digitise the photographic collection.


Quirindi and District Historical Society, NSW

Quirindi and District Historical Society has established a keeping place which includes an archives, a newspaper microfilm collection, and artefacts from the local indigenous community as well as the local non-indigenous community. The McLean Phillips Collection contains aboriginal artefacts, artworks, photographs, ceremonial items.


State Library - SA

The State Library in South Australia is taking a pro-active approach to making their records accessible to the community. Repatriation of items is not considered to be of high importance as the records at the library give reference to aboriginal communities, but are not the actual records of those communities. Our Library adheres to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Protocols for Libraries, Archives and Information Services. As such they are attempting to make their collection as accessible as possible to Indigenous people.


NT Archives

Northern Territory Archives have a Protocol for Access to NT Government Records by Aboriginal People Researching their Families and the National Archives, Territory Office, has a similar Memorandum of Understanding.  These formal agreements include commitments by the Government Archives to provide storage for aboriginal community records and to repatriate copies of records to communities.  


Currently, the NT Library & Information Service is sponsoring a strategy of creating knowledge centres in Aboriginal communities.  Part of this strategy is to include in the knowledge centre a place for keeping the records/archives/memories.  


Lutheran Archives- SA

The South Australian Lutheran Archives gained a Government grant from the Cultural Ministers Council to write a guide to the indigenous records in their archives. The grant was made possible as part of the governments response to the ‘Bringing them Home’ report.

The guide, published in 1999, is an index of names of people mentioned in the archives. It acts as an initial place for people to search. Once records have been found, people are permitted to photocopy the information, such as entries in books. Unfortunately most people in the photographs which date back to the 1880’s are not identified.


Kimberly Communities

The community in the Kimberly has begun their repatriation process, mostly of material images, historical documents and paintings. Theirs is a very different view of an archive. The land is an archive. They are very concerned about heritage protection of objects on land that they have recently reoccupied. 


             [See slide presentation: slide #11]

The community has also started organising and indexing for storage, and working out presentation and some access issues. At the end of last year (2001) their archivist Jenny Bolton began developing a classification system and with a consultant, a database.

Currently Jenny is waiting on approval to get a server which will link up the Land Council’s five regional offices to the database. The Land Council is also investing in the training of an indigenous library trainee, who will be able to maintain the collection into the future.


Ara Irititja Archival Project, South Australia

The Ara Irititja Archival Project identifies, copies and electronically records historical materials about Anangu (Pitjantjatjara/Yankunytjatjara people). A private community project, the Ara Irititja Archives were conceived by and are now managed by the Pitjantjatjara Council.  The SA Museum hosts the project, supplying a place for the ‘hardcopies’ and ‘originals’ of the materials to be safely housed.  This material was previously held in museums, libraries and private collections. John Dallwitz, Manager of the Project, explained that once people knew their records would be safe and secure, they were happy to lend them.


The software utilized by the project is culturally sensitive in that it regulates access to private, sensitive and offensive materials. Added to this is the capacity for Anangu to utilize a dynamic database such that when viewing records they can add, expand, or correct data and historical details. Anangu people who are in remote communities are encouraged to access the project through mobile workstations equipped with computer, projector, printer and an uninterruptible power supply.



 [See slide presentation: slide #12]


These workstations are brought to remote communities and have also been installed in several central locations such as Alice Springs and Adelaide. These stations run the archive as a self contained unit. As such they don’t rely on telephone lines or an outside power source (each unit has a 240v battery backup).


Since its establishment in 1994, the archive has accumulated over 26,000 records. The focus of the project on retrieving and securing records for the benefit of Anangu and the broader Australian community means that the collection will continue to grow.







[See slide presentation: slide #13] Granddaughter and grandmother check existing archival records (Images courtesy- John Dallwitz, Ara Irititja Archive Project Manager)


Many indigenous communities and individuals have contacted the Ara Irititja project team regarding setting up their own such archives. However most are unable to access the funds required.


 [See slide presentation: slide #14] Students print out photographic records on the printer located inside the mobile workstation (Images courtesy- John Dallwitz, Ara Irititja Archive Project Manager)


One success story is the Sisters of St John of God in Broome, who have purchased the projects software to begin a project of digitising their collection of around 7000 photographs.



It is a cruel twist of fate for many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people that the records generated by the Government regime that tore their lives apart are now in many cases the key to rebuilding their lives and identities.

Our dilemmas:

Power of destiny –v- unintended disclosure

Physical access –v- intellectual access

White interpretations –v- black knowledge

In conclusion, there are differing views as to the merits of returning records to indigenous communities. On the one hand people have argued that "an informed aboriginal population will have a much greater feeling of power over its own destiny". On the other hand, people have argued that in handing over records there is a high possibility that the wrong people will be given information. In such a situation, an existing oral tradition could be destroyed.


Handing the records over may increase physical access, but what about intellectual access. Indigenous communities will still be dependent on specialists (often non-aboriginal) in the interpretation of these records.  In the past, we have described the records for our purposes, not theirs. This might undermine their roles as history-tellers.

And what about observations which researchers recorded. In most cases these researchers were not aboriginal. They may have mixed with communities for up to several decades, yet they are still outsiders. Their view is always going to be based on this.

In short, G K Chesterton summed it up well:

The culture of the conquered can be injured and extinguished simply because it can be explained by the conqueror.


[i] Helen Onopko is a consultant to Government, community organisations, private enterprise, and to Australian aid projects in the South Pacific Region and lectures to the University of South Australia’s undergraduate and post-graduate courses in recordkeeping. She has practised recordkeeping since 1980, consulting since 1988.  She has the MA (Archives & Records) from Monash University. She has held several positions on the Records Management Association of Australia, including State and Federal Councillor and has represented the RMAA on the State Records Council, a Ministerial appointment since 1998, and currently till 2004. This paper was originally presented at the RMAA 2002 National Convention in Adelaide, Australia, 17 September 2002.