Uluru, or Ayers Rock as it is known to the western world, holds significance for Australians both of Aboriginal and European descent. Located at the heart of the Australian continent and measuring 10 km around and 348 ft high, it dominates the surrounding landscape. Know as Uluru to Aborigines, it is a central component of their sacred narrative, which is know as the Dreamtime. The Dreamtime refers both to an era before time during which the present was formed, and to a constant other reality where palimpsests of the living exist eternally. During the creation it is believed that several mythical beings created the world through various actions and adventures. Aboriginal Australians canonize these creation stories through a series of songs. The songs contain instructions for daily life and details of the journeys that the creators took in forming the Earth. These song lines reference real places on the Australian continent and contribute to the sacrality of these places. Since landforms are direct results of creators’ actions “they are visible evidence that the ancestral beings still exist” (Prevos 3). This is undoubtedly the case with Uluru, which is said to have been formed by two young boys playing in the mud.
Uluru also has a place in the hearts of white Australians. Discovered in the late 19th century by William Gosse, Uluru was renamed Ayers Rock. It soon became a symbol of the Australian people and a popular travel destination. Many early white Australians forged a life for themselves in the backcountry, often centered on ranching. The idea of the rough and ready cowboy has greatly influenced the Australian cultural identity. Ayers Rock represents an “attachment to the bush, a country mindedness, a white identity with strong rural roots, and a romanticizing of the Outback”(Whittaker 313) and has become a symbol of this identity. Much opposition was met in the case of Uluru because of its economic and symbolic significance to white Australians. Since its founding, tourism from the rock has provided a steady source of income for residents of the Northern Territory. The chief officer of the Northern Territory at the time of the transfer, Paul Everingham, was quoted saying that “the ‘majority of Australians’ would have their ‘spirit’ crushed and would ‘feel cursed’ when the rock is handed over”(Whittaker 317).
The differences in the aboriginal and white Australian view of Uluru should be noted. In their article, Figueroa and Waitt introduce the concept of anthropocentric v. non-anthropocentric worldviews. In the case of Uluru, the anthropocentric view considers the rock to be an important symbol for the Australian people. Without the appreciation of humans, it would merely be another inanimate object. This is the view of nature held by most in the western tradition. The aboriginal people, as well as many other indigenous peoples around the world, have a non-anthropocentric view. They feel that the rock has its own identity and is therefore innately sacred. These varying viewpoints become evident in the issue of land rights and management. Someone with a non-anthropocentric view is likely to want to preserve a site for its own sake, rather than for the enjoyment of humans.
The movement to return Uluru to its aboriginal keepers marked a shift in post-colonial thought. Western governments stopped trying to assimilate indigenous peoples into the mainstream culture in the mid 1960s. For Aborigines the 1960s also marked the recognition of their civil rights by the Australian government. The Aborigines argued that “land values and environmental heritage are, for them, inseparable from political autonomy and self-determination”(Figueora and Waitt 2). The acceptance of this belief allowed them to advocate for the return of their sacred lands and contributed to the creation of the Aboriginal Land Rights Act of 1976. This act enabled aboriginal peoples to file claims for land based on their traditional occupation of that land. Despite the breakthrough in political rights, many of the initial claims were not successful. This act did pave the way for the successful Aboriginal Land Rights Amendment Act of 1985. This gave the land rights for Uluru back to the Aborigines.
The Aborigines have since leased Uluru back to the park service for a period of 99 years. They currently maintain a joint management system with the park service and have created numerous restrictions to preserve the integrity of the site. Since interactions of both Australians and tourists with the site were seen by the aboriginal peoples as disrespectful, restrictions were also put on other sacred sites near Uluru to protect them from similar disruption.
The case of Uluru is one of compromise. Because of its immense importance to both Aboriginal people and Australians, a more or less effective compromise was reached. The return of Uluru to Aboriginal ownership showed respect on behalf of the Australian government for indigenous traditions and beliefs. The joint management allows controlled, respectful tourism to generate interest and income based on the sacred site. Despite efforts on all sides to respect the site the situation is still not ideal. Tourists continue to flood the site while tribal elders are only able to conduct ceremonies at certain times of the year. The dispute over Uluru/ Ayers Rock reminds us that even in the most seemingly balanced cases, the issue of sacred lands is not simple. If current opinions toward indigenous spirituality stay the way they are, usage of sacred sites will continue to be a source of conflict between indigenous and modern societies.
- Elle Beckett