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Protecting heritage is a human right

September 9, 2018
The Conversation

Technological advancements in archaeology in recent decades have produced amazing insights into the lives of ancient peoples. These range from uncovering lost Mayan cites in Guatemala to identifying Neandertal-Denisovan offspring to recovering early Native American DNA.

Discoveries continue to reveal unexpected details about our shared human past. But the new information also brings new responsibilities and concerns about the political, ethical and social dimensions of archaeological research and heritage management. This is especially true for Indigenous peoples for whom heritage is about more than objects of scientific study or items to preserve in museum displays.

Western ways of thinking about heritage seek universal truths about human behaviour and tend to focus on the material manifestations of the past. Indigenous conceptions of heritage, in contrast, are inclusive and include not only objects and places, but also customs, practices, relationships, stories, songs and designs. These are passed between generations and contribute to a person’s or group’s identity, history, worldview and well-being.

One Yukon elder defined heritage this way: “It is everything that makes us who we are.

Indigenous perspectives of heritage have become widely known over the past 30 years, and are being integrated into research projects and management practices. In some cases, divisive relationships between Indigenous and Native American communities and archaeologists, (sometimes labelled grave robbers), have been transformed into collaborative, mutually beneficial relationships.

More importantly, a growing number of Indigenous archaeologists and anthropologists are discovering, interpreting and protecting their own ancestral sites. And there is a growing recognition of the legitimacy of Indigenous traditional knowledge. For example, the Nyungar Cultural Rangers program in Western Australia is a community-driven program, in which Indigenous men and women train others in the traditional ways of caring for their own lands.

Despite these incremental changes, Indigenous peoples continue to press for meaningful engagement with those controlling their heritage. Current policies in settler countries like Australia, Canada and the United States still provide only limited room for Indigenous input into decision-making on issues of heritage.

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