Sydney, Australia – The deep blue Botany Bay lies ahead of Assen Timbery as he walks past rows of homes in a predominantly Aboriginal community in the Sydney suburb of La Perouse.
Across the waters lie the neat lawns at Kurnell, where Captain Cook first stepped ashore and claimed the land for Britain. On this side, shrubs cover the remains of the Aboriginal mission – initially set up to “Christianise” Aboriginal peoples at La Perouse.
The mission was Timbery’s childhood home.
Now 63, he traces his Bidjigal clan’s heritage to Australia’s first Aboriginal resistance fighter, Pemulwuy, who refused to be subjugated by the settlers. He was a thorn in the side of the early colony, leading to a decade-long resistance. When the British finally caught him, his head was shipped to England.
A significant find
Earlier this year, government-hired excavators working to build a stabling yard for an extension to Sydney’s light rail uncovered 22,000 artefacts.
Spear tips, blades, and “marriage stones” were among the haul. Much of the stone used was from hundreds of kilometres away, providing rare evidence of trade links between clans.
According to Scott Franks, one of the Aboriginal heritage consultants the government hired before excavating the land, the find is critical. Although the light rail project is not on his ancestral land, Franks has led opposition to the development of the stabling yard.
“This is the most significant site in Sydney,” he says.
“This proves that we had trade,” Timbery added. “We interacted with other tribes, we moved among ourselves … it actually shoots down the English history that we were just uncivilised people.
“I just can’t describe it,” he says of the site’s value. “It’s a part of you.”
Timbery’s clan, the Bidjigal, do not claim the site as their own – as there were many – sometimes warring – clans in Sydney, and overlapping Nations.
Aboriginal society was so ravaged by European arrival that when it came, years later, to proving land rights, there were often competing claims.
Sometimes, however, a particular clan or family is more willing to stand up to what they see as an encroachment on their shared heritage. Timbery says that his clan is a firm believer in preserving what little Aboriginal culture and history remain in Australia’s largest city.
Divide and conquer
There are currently no plans to protect the site. Those artefacts that can be recovered are being removed, before the stabling yard for light rail carriages is built on top. The government says it is “working on a strategy to manage the items found on site”.
One of the Aboriginal cultural consultant groups hired as part of the project was the La Perouse Aboriginal Land Council. The council is also meant to give a voice to local Aboriginal people on a range of matters.
In the early 1980s, local Aboriginal land councils were set up in New South Wales to represent Aboriginal people within their geographical boundaries. Often – as is the case in the La Perouse – there may be a number of clan groups living within the land council’s borders.
Timbery argues, however, that there are no Bidjigal on the council board or among those representing the council on the light rail project, and by the time the Bidjigal were told of the artefacts, it was too late.
As is standard practice, an archaeological firm, GML, dealt with four paid Registered Aboriginal Parties who serve as cultural consultants for the light rail project.
Gordon Workman, who is one of the Aboriginal consultants, favours keeping the artefacts in the ground.
“We want to preserve how it is – even a museum put on there. Just leave the hole open, put a glass floor on it so everyone can walk through and see what’s in the ground,” he says, adding that he’d prefer anything to burying it beneath the stabling yard.
Two of the largest Bidjigal families in Sydney say they feel disappointed by the public-private consortium conducting the works (led by the state government and Spanish construction firm, Acciona), and the Aboriginal consultants who are supposed to represent them.
The council did not answer questions from Al Jazeera on how many Bidjigal were on the board, but insisted that all of those working on the project did have a connection to the area, by way of other local clan groups.
Stephen Wright, the Aboriginal Land Rights registrar in New South Wales, says the laws concerning who can be paid to work as a cultural consultant are “very broad”, but in this case, all parties had a “right to be there”.
Wright agrees, however, that the legislation is imperfect, as developers are not strictly bound to do what their cultural heritage consultants or the local land council says.
With developers in the dark about who has the “authority to speak” on behalf of Aboriginal peoples, they are free to go on the word of whichever group advises them.
“There is a serious disconnect between finding artefacts and interpreting their significance,” Wright says.
Chris Ingrey, La Perouse Land Council chief executve, defended the excavation and ensuing removal of the artefacts, saying last April: “When [we hear] of Aboriginal artefacts, we immediately think of axe heads, spearheads, scrapers and flakes,” but no such items were found, he says – other than very few artefacts that could be classified broadly as Bondi points – a type of simple spear tip.
This angered other Aboriginal consultants on the project, including Franks, who saw it as benefiting the developers.
The real travesty, according to Franks, is the land council supporting the removal of the artefacts – something he strongly opposes.
In a statement, the land council said engaging in such paid heritage work was “common practice” for a land council.
“It’s a very traditional form of colonial government,” says David Shoebridge, the state Greens MP who is supporting the Bidjigal, “where the colonising authority seeks to divide traditional owners [and] co-opt the voice of the people they’re most comfortable with.”
For many, the importance of the site rests in what the finds represent: Aboriginal peoples did not build roads or two-storey homes, so solid, tangible evidence of their occupation is rare, especially in the centre of Australia’s biggest city.
“What this campaign has done has made people in Sydney sit up and think about Aboriginal heritage and culture,” says Shoebridge. “It has made people confront the reality that Sydney has been constructed over the last two-and-a-quarter centuries on land that has been occupied for thousands and thousands of years by the oldest continuing culture anywhere on the planet.”
Destruction of the site
While the government refused to comment to Al Jazeera, it pointed to a statement saying that the “Aboriginal groups” said they’ would prefer to salvage the remaining artefacts.
Franks denies that this is the case.
The scene had long been set for a dispute. The project was listed as a piece of “state-significant” infrastructure at the start, meaning heritage protection was instantly weakened.
“The very rudimentary protections for Aboriginal heritage under the state laws were quite literally turned off,” Shoebridge says. “It’s a part of our planning laws that allows koala habitat to be destroyed, Aboriginal heritage to be destroyed, colonial heritage to be destroyed if a project – public or private – is considered by the planning minister to be state-significant.”
In New South Wales, the project is the latest in a list of large, controversial developments, and public discontent is growing.
In April, Shoebridge appealed to the federal environment minister’s office for urgent protection of the site under the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act, which is meant to protect places and objects of significance, but was rejected.
Shoebridge tried again, this time claiming that the site was a traditional battleground and “payback” (justice) site for Aboriginal groups – a point the La Perouse Land Council has acknowledged.
The minister is yet to reach a decision regarding the second appeal, but, meanwhile, work continues on the site.
At the other end of the long avenue, along which the tram will one day trundle, Timbery sits in his backyard as parrots screech above.
“If this were France, Rome, Egypt, they’d drop it completely,” he says.
He cheers up as he shares a story about his La Perouse rugby team’s trip to a country town when he was a much younger man.
The team were deep in a clash with another Aboriginal club.
“‘Stick it to this lot, they let Captain Cook in,’ was what they were singing,” he laughs.
But there’s something in there.
“I am willing to stand up for my people and say ‘enough is enough’,” he says.
For Timbery, the fight isn’t over.