Lightning Strikes Twice: Conflicts in Perception of Painted Images

By Mulvaney, Ken; Jones, Jerry | Australian Aboriginal Studies, Fall 2002 | Go to article overview

Lightning Strikes Twice: Conflicts in Perception of Painted Images


Mulvaney, Ken, Jones, Jerry, Australian Aboriginal Studies


Abstract: Indigenous Australian cultural heritage places, especially those containing rock-paintings and carvings, increasingly are the subject of cultural tourism. While tourism operators and those responsible for site management have tended to view such sites purely as artworks available to be viewed by outsiders, in the Northern Territory most such places are spiritually significant to local Indigenous communities. The authors discuss a case study concerning a 'Lightning Brothers' rock-art site, involving a situation of a conflict of interests and its resolution as an example that will be useful as Indigenous heritage tourism increases. Our concerns in this article lie in the display and use of certain rock-art motifs, rather than in use of the sacred sites themselves.

Tourist operators and site managers have often regarded Indigenous Australian places containing rock-paintings and carvings as sites to be viewed as purely artworks, and where consideration of development is to enhance the enjoyment of the place while not restricting the aesthetics of the setting. In the Northern Territory, as in other parts of Australia, there is an Indigenous spirituality ascribed to these places and the symbols within. All aspects of site management and any tourism activities at such Indigenous cultural heritage places will have an effect on this spirituality and have the potential to produce repercussions within the relevant Indigenous population.

This article was first presented (1) as a plea from Ngaliwurru and other Traditional Owners of the Victoria River District of the Northern Territory. Their concern was for greater awareness by all those involved in Indigenous sites as heritage resources, to take Indigenous sociocultural realities about sites and rock-art into consideration. To some extent, the intervening years have seen some restitution and better understanding, especially by the informed touring public and management agencies of cultural heritage.

For a long time it had only been a few museums, the nowAustralian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, the thenAustralian National Parks and Wildlife Service managing Kakadu and Uluru parks, and individual researchers who were cognisant of Indigenous wishes and cultural requirements, and had been concerned with the process of consultation and recognition of cultural control. Over the last few decades there has emerged an awareness, and increasing acceptance, of Indigenous cultural custodianship of Indigenous cultural heritage places (for example the development of codes of ethics within professional associations). This has accompanied an increasing consideration and acceptance by governments and the public alike of Indigenous rights and the importance of these rights in self-determination.

However, with increasing Government involvement in Indigenous cultural heritage, political interests rather than cultural respect came to be emphasised. There have been instances where politics has been largely responsible in determining what is done with skeletal remains and whether sites of traditional significance are disturbed. The return and reburial of the Kow swamp skeletal material (Victoria), the protracted investigations into mining at Coronation Hill (Northern Territory) and the relatively recent case of the Hindmarsh Island bridge development (South Australia) are examples of such political determination. These situations have often involved the enforcement of federal legislation when inadequacies in state or territory laws and conflicting Indigenous community interests have emerged.

Along with the public embrace of Indigenous identity there developed a growing interest in learning about and experiencing Indigenous cultures, whether passively or actively. In the early 1990s, the Northern Territory government was quick to see the potential for economic advantage, and encouraged and assisted the development of this market. …

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