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Cultural Heritage in Conservation and Territorial Identity

Cultural Heritage in Conservation and Territorial Identity

This research theme focuses on the ongoing crisis of cultural heritage destruction and degradation propelled by the rapid acceleration of industrial resource extraction and the historically entrenched progressivist and utilitarian political rationales of settler-colonist publics. We seek the direction of indigenous communities to ontologically frame what cultural heritage is in their Traditional Territories, and through the pursuit of their life projects, to establish the conservation, management and research priorities with which we may work collectively to achieve their goals and political autonomy in matters of cultural heritage. Our research seeks the preservation of cultural heritage through Indigenous community directed research and strategies of knowledge co-production that bridge Indigenous knowledge, methods and epistemologies with those of the social and natural sciences.

Heritage Matters

Our concern with cultural heritage extends to a wide range of the tangible and intangible products of situated knowledge and creative activity that include places, objects, practices, performances and stories. The contemporary meaningfulness of cultural heritage is rooted in the past and is inherited and engaged with in order to construct a present, and critically in need of preservation for the future (Watkins and Beaver 2008). Heritage is ontologically relational and often a site of conflict within and between publics and communities which may have different histories of experience, perception and imagination of one in the same places, objects and practices.

In many regions the production of heritage knowledge and the preservation of heritage sites, materials and practices operates within a field of contemporary colonial relations of power. Sites of struggle and conflict over competing narratives about the existence or value of cultural heritage may engage publics that are sympathetic to Indigenous knowledge and practice, yet encumbered by competing economic interests and political rationales. The interpretation and representation of Indigenous cultural heritage have significant consequences for Indigenous communities, especially those of territorial identity, rights and tenure and are thus best placed first with Indigenous communities themselves.

Heritage Sovereignty

At the heart of today’s crisis in cultural heritage conservation is the diminished autonomy of decision making for Indigenous communities on issues of heritage management and stewardship during an era of escalating threat to Indigenous Heritage sites, objects and practices from industrial resource extraction practices, antiquities markets, intellectual property rights violations and the legacies and contemporary manifestations of state policies of assimilation. The legislative authority of nation states and the practical status quo of management practices in many regions favours the decision making of non-Indigenous professional archaeologists, museum curators, heritage professionals and civil servants with much smaller roles for Indigenous descent communities.

There is an urgency to reframe the production of heritage knowledge and conservation practices in ways that return the direction and control of heritage research and management to the Indigenous communities whose presents and futures rely on the interpretation and representation of cultural heritage assemblages. While a diversity of stakeholders may exist in cultural heritage contexts, a precedence of interests should not be placed with ‘higher order concerns’ of settler-colonist publics – e.g., science, government, economy or even academic interests. Instead, stakeholder precedence of interest and crucially of decision making should begin with Indigenous communities and from this position, may build towards negotiated co-management with others as needed. Our research seeks to address this imbalance in the decision making in heritage conservation, and also in the intellectual framing of heritage research, by foregrounding Indigenous knowledge, epistemologies and methodology in an effort to decolonize heritage studies in fields such as archaeology, museology and culture resource management (CRM).

Heritage Conservation Research: Objectives and Questions

The theme’s researchers seek to:

  • Decolonize heritage research and management practices and combat systemic epistemic violence in cultural heritage management and academic disciplines.
  • Establish and maintain equality between Indigenous and academic experts and recognize that their respective knowledge is essential for cultural heritage research and management and governance practices.
  • To work with and for indigenous partner communities on community based participatory research (CBPR) projects and to instill CBPR agendas and framings into practices of culture resource management (CRM), museology, archaeology and history.
  • Foster indigenous strategies for heritage management and conservation as a counterbalance to those of capital driven logics of continuous or exponential economic growth.
  • Ensure that cultural security for indigenous communities is maintained prior to the transmission of cultural heritage knowledge and research results.

Research questions relevant to this theme include:

  • How do we support the co-production of heritage knowledge and conservation strategies that are a product of Indigenous and non-Indigenous epistemologies, while foregrounding Indigenous community direction and values, and respecting Indigenous community proscriptions and concerns?
  • How does the analysis of differing and conflicting ontological framings of cultural heritage —places, practices and objects— lead us towards translation, explanation and sharing to ultimately transform sites of rupture and conflict into environments of empathy, respect and care?
  • How can the co-production of knowledge of the past, constructed from the study of heritage sites and practices address a range of contemporary problems in this time of environmental crisis?
  • Indigenous heritage conservation research and management must work towards reconciliation through full and equal participation of Indigenous communities and academic partners from the outset of any project. Indigenous and academic stakeholders must participate as equals through every step of the research from its formulation and design through implementation and dissemination.

Theme Leaders: Andre Costopoulos, Peter Johansen, Elisabeth Kaine.

Centre for Indigenous Conservation and Development Alternatives