Exile in the Kingdom: The Struggle for Cultural Heritage in the Pilbara

From the Series: The Pilbara Crisis: Resource Frontiers in Western Australia

Photo by David Caloren, licensed under CC BY NC.

Western Australia has had Aboriginal heritage protection legislation in place for over forty years in the form of the Western Australia Aboriginal Heritage Act of 1972–1980. While this law seeks to protect sites and places from unauthorized impacts, most commentators believe it has had limited success, citing only two successful prosecutions despite scores of alleged site impacts over the last several decades (Ritter 2003). In this context we are currently witnessing ever-fiercer criticism of the Western Australia Aboriginal Heritage Amendment Bill of 2014. This bill seeks to amend the Heritage Act by increasing the threshold for site significance and creating a more expedient compliance framework. Yet it does not mention native title and has no appellant mechanisms for Indigenous parties or heritage experts. The Kimberley Land Council is currently lodging formal complaints with the United Nations under the provisions of the Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous People, to which Australia is a signatory. I have penned a number of opinion pieces in the Australian national media (e.g., Veth 2014) calling for the coexistence of new economies and Indigenous heritage in modern Australia. What remains to be seen is whether our legislators and policymakers can eschew existing practices and move from a paradigm that reifies Indigenous heritage as a commodity to one that acknowledges it as governed by rights.

In 1993 Frank Rijavec and Noelene Harrison produced a powerful two-part film entitled Exile in the Kingdom. It was cowritten with Roger Solomon (Yirra-Bindiri), a Pilbara Aboriginal man from the coastal town of Roebourne. Solomon was both a lawman and Indigenous heritage officer, and contributed enormously to the protection of cultural heritage in the Pilbara. Soon after the film’s release he died tragically from mesothelioma, having grown up playing on the asbestos mullock heaps of a now-banned extractive mining industry. While the film profiled the long history of removal of Aboriginal people into coastal ghettos from the mid-nineteenth century onward, it also celebrated the rich cultural heritage on which the peoples’ law is based.

Here I offer an autoethnography (see Hamilakis and Anagnistopoulos 2009) that sketches my own engagements with cultural heritage in the Pilbara over the last thirty-five years in order to provide a portrait of heritage dynamics within the region. These engagements began in 1980, when I joined fifteen other heritage workers with the Western Australian Museum to carry out mitigation work on the rock art and archaeology of the Burrup Peninsula for the Woodside Rankin gas project, under the leadership of the renowned South African rock art researcher, Dr. Patricia Vinnicombe. The work involved detailed and exhaustive rock art recording and excavation which lasted for over a year. The recording occurred just ahead of D10 bulldozers and was often conducted in greater than 40°C heat. During this work program hundreds of boulders with engravings were removed; last year, after thirty-four years of “incarceration,” the traditional owners finally repatriated these engraved boulders into an undisturbed landscape. I completed my undergraduate thesis on some of this work in 1982, and it remains one of the few substantive writings on the landscape archaeology and occupational history of the Burrup Peninsula.

Ten years later, in 1991, the government floated the Pilbara 21 Plan as a “blueprint” for industry, heritage, and recreation coexistence in the Pilbara, which was based on a planning scheme for the Burrup Peninsula. On review the mapping of heritage sites on the Burrup was deemed entirely deficient. Partially in response, a major survey of the entire northern portion of the Burrup was carried out with twenty-five traditional owners and a team of six archaeologists, historians, and anthropologists under the aegis of the Australian Heritage Commission and the Department of Conservation and Land Management. Some five hundred sites were recorded during that half-year project, which I coordinated, making this sample one of the richest heritage landscapes yet recorded in Australia (Veth et al. 1993). The government subsequently dropped the Pilbara 21 Plan.

The following year, the mining company Conzinc Rio Tinto sought to expedite clearances for the Marandoo mine site using twenty-year-old coarse-grained ethnographic and archaeological surveys. Following an injunction and emergency survey by the Western Australian Museum, the presence of Pleistocene-aged sites and numerous other heritage values were established by a team including Peter Hiscock, Philip Hughes, myself, and numerous traditional owners. The Western Australian media reported on this dispute for months. In a defensive response, the Western Australian Parliament passed the 1992 Aboriginal Heritage (Marandoo) Act that excised these lands from any relevant heritage protection, noting under Section 3: “The Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972 does not apply to any place that is on [these] lands . . .”

Intense opposition from Pilbara Aboriginal groups stalled the proposed mine and eventually the company’s siege mentality gave way to a new ethos, whereby Rio Tinto started to create regional agreements that included heritage protections (e.g., Holland-McNair 2006). Of course commentators have noted that such corporate support for Indigenous people is a by-product of business strategy (Ritter 2014). The site now lies within Karijini National Park that is comanaged by traditional owners and the Department of Parks and Wildlife.

By the late 1990s numerous native title claims covered the Pilbara. One of the most fiercely contested was Daniels (Ngarluma-Yindjibarndi), located in West Pilbara and incorporating the forty-two islands of the Dampier Archipelago, including the Burrup Peninsula (or Murujuga, as it is now known). There were over ninety respondents and, as an expert witness in the federal court, I saw firsthand how hotly the claim for the Burrup was contested (Veth 2010). While the larger claim would prove successful, the claim over the archipelago did not, at least partially due to the interruption of Indigenous connection to the islands due to the 1868 Flying Foam Massacre (Gara 1983). Ironically, one of the richest heritage landscapes in Australia was taken off the rolls (but see McDonald 2015).

By 2007 the Dampier Archipelago was included in the National Heritage List in recognition of these heritage values (McDonald and Veth 2009). Four years later a report found that inclusion on the World Heritage List was warranted, as at least two of the criteria had been met (Australian Heritage Council 2011). Neither Woodside nor the Western Australian government currently support listing, although many other industry stakeholders and the federal government are thought to.

Heritage in the Pilbara now sits at a crossroads. There has been a major investment by the mining industry and Aboriginal corporations in cultural heritage management systems developed for the administration of heritage and regional royalty agreements. These agreements are now part of contemporary hybrid economies and reflect faith in the beneficence of the state. Sadly, this trust has been seriously challenged as a raft of amendments have been introduced into Parliament to reduce the costs of heritage compliance and “remove intermediaries” (Collier 2014). The next sitting of Parliament will determine whether cultural heritage can any longer be viewed within a rights-based framework, or will instead sit alongside other inevitable physical impacts of mining. History shows that where such remedial steps have been attempted by the state, they have floundered. It is host communities that exercise their social license to control heritage and their future interests in Land.


Australian Heritage Council. 2011. “The Potential Outstanding Universal Value of the Dampier Archipelago and Threats to that Site.” Report to the Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population, and Communities.

Collier, Peter. 2014. Aboriginal Heritage Newsletter, no. 2: 5. Perth: Department of Aboriginal Affairs.

Gara, Tom. 1983. “The Flying Foam Massacre: An Incident on the North-west Frontier.” InArchaeology at ANZAAS 1983, edited by Moya Smith, 86–94. Perth: Western Australian Museum.

Hamilakis, Yannis, and Aris Anagnostopoulos. 2009. “What is Archaeological Ethnography?Public Archaeology 8, nos. 2–3: 65–87.

Holland-McNair, Lisa. 2006. Breaking New Ground: Stories of Mining and the Aboriginal People in the Pilbara. Melbourne: Rio Tinto.

McDonald, Jo. 2015. “Culture Clash: National Heritage Values, Native Title, and the GDP.” In “The Pilbara Crisis: Resource Frontiers in Western Australia,” edited by Melissa F. Baird and Jane Lydon, Cultural Anthropology website, December 16.

_____, and Peter Veth. 2009. “Dampier Archipelago Petroglyphs: Archaeology, Scientific Values and National Heritage Listing.” Archaeology in Oceania 44, S1: 49–69.

Ritter, David. 2003. “Trashing Heritage: Dilemmas of Rights and Power in the Operation of Western Australia's Aboriginal Heritage Legislation.” Studies in Western Australian History 23: 195–208.

_____. 2014. “Black and Green Revisited: Understanding the Relationship between Indigenous and Environmental Political Formations.” Land Rights, Laws: Issues of Native Title 6, no. 2.

Veth, Peter. 2010. “Australian and International Perspectives on Native Title, Archaeology, and the Law.” In Handbook of Postcolonial Archaeology, edited by Jane Lydon and Uzma Z. Rizvi, 267–84. Walnut Creek, Calif.: Left Coast Press.

_____. 2014. “Take Steps Forward to Protect our Heritage.” The West Australian Newspaper, October 13.