The landscape is our heritage

Aboriginal cultural heritage expert and Dharawal and Yuin man, Paul Knight, says that "Country is the boss and we’re just the custodians looking after that place." Paul talked to the National Trust (NSW) about his views on the importance of landscape in Aboriginal culture, and how we can all start thinking differently about the meaning of heritage.

This article was originally published in the January 2024 issue of the National Trust (NSW) member magazine.


When we talk about preserving heritage, the first thing many people think of is objects or buildings. What does heritage mean to you?

Heritage to me is all about stories – the stories of place, the stories of people, the way we interact with that and the identities that are formed around it. It’s not about the objects, it’s about the relationship that we have with a place.

In your speech at the National Trust forum, you spoke about the relationality between heritage sites and how the significance of an individual site lies in its connection with other sites around it. Can you explain what you mean by this?

In Aboriginal cultural heritage, we usually look at specific objects, and it’s very much from an archeological perspective. This actually loses the more important context of landscape, the values that sit across it and the relationship we have with those places.

The relationship we have with the place tells us who we are and where we’re from. Country is what determines who we are, we are beholden to Country. Country, if you like, is the boss and we’re just the custodians looking after that place. This then gives us the obligations that we have in looking after Country.

Inevitably, what we do is to look at Aboriginal cultural heritage in specific locations rather than taking in the full landscape. However we evaluate a site, we must think about its connection to all the other sites around it.

One story in one part of a place is almost always connected to another part, so if you destroy the connection between those places, you actually destroy the whole landscape. You can’t just remove one bit, once you’ve done that, you’ve destroyed that connectivity. Once you transform an area by putting, for example, a massive residential subdivision over the top of it, you’ve changed that context.

Field Survey
Researchers and heritage experts studying Aboriginal heritage in Sydney’s Woollahra area. In 2021, Woollahra Council engaged Coast History & Heritage in consultation with La Perouse Local Aboriginal Land Council to undertake a detailed study of the Woollahra LGA to identify places of Aboriginal heritage significance. The study won a 2022 National Trust Heritage Award.

Can you share an example of a heritage-rich Australian landscape that has been lost in this way?

The reality is there are many, because wherever a development takes place, you are effectively destroying an Aboriginal connection to that place because you’re overlaying that landscape with a different story. While you still may be able to interpret the story in the changed landscape, the context has been destroyed.

In a similar way, if you relocate a heritage building, you take it out of its context and it doesn’t make sense. Everywhere you look, that’s basically happened to Aboriginal cultural heritage because as soon as you change the landform, you change the story. As soon as you clear the landscape, you actually remove that relationship to the land through the vegetation that existed and the biodiversity, because that’s all part of the story and place.

As a broader community, how can we start to think about heritage in different terms?

It’s a very good question and I’ve just started working on a new framework to do that, one I’ve borrowed from environmental impact policy.

There are four key areas: living in, living with, living from and living as. ‘Living in’ considers the place you’re living in and how that’s framed. ‘Living with’ is the relationship you have with that place. How does it form your identity? How does it build that relationship and that connection for you, which is usually spiritual in many respects.

It’s that feeling of, “oh yeah, I’m home”. ‘Living from’ refers to the sustenance you gain from living in a place and the way the place you’re in enables you to survive in the way you want to. It could be that the food you get from a particular area becomes part of the relationship you have with that place.

Lastly, and most importantly for me is ‘living as’. That’s really about having a broader recognition of the other biodiversity, if you like, that’s in the landscape with you and the relationship that you have, not only with the physical place but also the other living organisms within that area.

If you can think about landscape in that context, it actually gives you a very different view of how to look at the value of a place and what it means to us all as human beings. If you remove any one of those four key areas, it’s not the same story.

The reality is you can’t remove Aboriginal cultural heritage from landscape. It’s one and the same and it goes back to the fact that we’re custodians of Country and therefore our culture and our connection to a place. The real culture is Country, it’s not ours.

How might you apply this approach to a specific area or site?

For me, one way of doing this would be to talk to Aboriginal people about the values and the important context of landscape for them in a particular area. In many cases, some of the stories may be lost, but what are the things that they want to bring back? What are the things that they want all people living in that area to consider as they walk through the landscape? We can then look at ways to build triggers back into that landscape to say, these are the values and the behaviours we expect.

A particular mountain will tell us we need to behave in a certain way; a creek will tell us we need to behave in a different way. It would start by considering what needs to be protected to ensure that the stories, the understanding and the values from Country have a wider significance to us all as people living in that space, regardless of whether you’re Aboriginal or not.

Advocating for heritage reform

The former chief executive of the Illawarra Shoalhaven LALC, Paul Knight is a Member of the NSW Heritage Council, and has appeared as a witness for the Federal Parliamentary Inquiry into the destruction of Aboriginal heritage at Juukan Gorge and NSW Parliamentary Inquiries into Aboriginal cultural heritage law reform. Paul is a passionate advocate for Aboriginal cultural heritage reform and Aboriginal-led identification and protection of cultural heritage.

Find out more

The National Trust of Australia (NSW) mission is to advocate for the conservation of built, cultural and natural heritage. For more than 75 years, we have been at the centre of the state’s most important heritage campaigns. Explore more of our advocacy work.



NSW Editor


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