Frequently Asked Questions

About the Aboriginal Heritage Office

Who funds the AHO

The AHO is a partnership of Councils funded by those partner Councils.  Additional funds have, at times, been received from the former NSW Heritage Branch, the Federal Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities, the NSW National Parks and the Sydney Harbour Federation Trust, and NSW Heritage Near Me for particular projects.

When did the AHO start?

An Aboriginal Heritage Officer was first employed by North Sydney Council in 1999 to help improve its Aboriginal heritage management and develop a position that could be shared by several Councils. In 2000 Lane Cove, North Sydney, Warringah, and Willoughby Councils signed an agreement and employed the first Aboriginal Heritage Officer at local government for an initial period of five years. The position was upgraded to Aboriginal Heritage Manager in recognition of the complexities involved. As the number of staff and consultants grew, the Aboriginal Heritage Office became more of a distinct entity.  Manly joined the partnership in 2005, followed by Ku-ring-gai in 2006, Pittwater in 2007, Armidale Dumaresq in 2008 for a 2 year project-based arrangement and Ryde for a five year period (2010 to 2015). Strathfield council joined the partnership in 2017. The AHO currently has a partnership with six local councils, following the merger of 3 councils.

Read about how it all started in our 21st anniversary Newsletter Yarnupings edition.

What area does the AHO cover?

The AHO works in the areas of the partner Councils. The AHO does not operate within state or federal government land, such as National Parks, unless specially requested and subject to staff availability.

About AHO Services

Does the AHO provide guided walks?

Presentations, talks and guided walks of all kinds are catered for by AHO staff in the partner Councils area. Whether it is an Aboriginal site tour, a bush tucker walk or a women only event, the AHO can assist.  Check the ‘What’s On’ section to find out what’s coming up near you soon.

What does the AHO do?

The AHO’s projects and activities are based on three main areas: Site Management, Council Support and Education. Each area of concern complements the other areas.

Site Management
The AHO provides assistance to partner Councils and residents in efforts to protect Aboriginal sites in the area. Site management plans, potential area reports, site inspections, site conservation works and monitoring are some of the activities carried out by the AHO.

Council Support
In the field of Council Support the AHO provides assistance to partner Councils to help protect Aboriginal sites in the area. This includes strategic planning issues, development referrals, Council staff training as well as other advice.

The AHO provides free presentations, walks, talks and other activities for the local community as well as local schools within a partner Council boundary, subject to staff availability. The program is designed to inform people about the Aboriginal history and heritage of the local area and how to view the local landscape from an Indigenous perspective. The AHO hosts a museum and education centre with Aboriginal artefacts and historical displays covering pre-colonial times to the modern day. Find out more.

How much does the AHO charge for the offered activities?

The AHO does not charge for activities within the partner Councils for standard community activities. The AHO can provide presenters and/or guides for your group, depending on staff availability.

Can we confirm Aboriginality? No

The Aboriginal Heritage Office cannot confirm a person’s Aboriginality.

The AIATSIS website has useful information on this issue and how to look for a relevant agency.

Can the AHO help us with our RAP?

What is a RAP? It can be two things:

  • Reconciliation Action Plan
  • Registered Aboriginal Party

Regarding Reconciliation Action Plans, the AHO is unable to help with this. You could try the Narragunnawali website for assistance. Of course there would be many Aboriginal people who would suggest a Reconciliation Action Plan should come after a Treaty.

If you need to find a Registered Aboriginal Party for a project, in NSW you should contact the NSW Government for its list of registered parties.

About Aboriginal Heritage

What is Aboriginal heritage?

Aboriginal heritage is anything that is an Aboriginal area, an Aboriginal object or archaeological evidence of Aboriginal occupation of an area. It also includes non-physical elements, such as family stories, song lines, Dreamtime stories. We inherit Aboriginal heritage from the past and pass this on to future generations to use, learn and be inspired by. In the northern Sydney region due to the impacts of the invasion, much ‘traditional’ knowledge has not survived.  While more Aboriginal history will emerge, the AHO’s main focus is on the archaeological remains that have survived but which are fragile and easily damaged. If a site is destroyed it is lost forever.

Is Aboriginal heritage protected?

It is important to be aware of the fact that all Aboriginal sites in NSW are protected and it is an offence to damage or destroy them (this includes collecting artefacts) without prior written permission of the NSW Government. The two pieces of legislation that most protect Aboriginal heritage management in NSW are:

  • National Parks and Wildlife Act 1974
  • Environmental Planning and Assessment Act 1979

Penalties for harming an Aboriginal site (which could include graffiti) are up to $275,000 and one year’s imprisonment for individuals and $1.1 million for corporations.

For more detailed information see our Legislation section.

What happens if I have an Aboriginal site on my land?

You are lucky! The sites are hundreds and often thousands of years old and a direct link between the ancient past and the present. The sites are proof that people have lived in this area and conquered every environmental and climatic challenge thrown at them over millennia. If a site has survived on your property until now, in most cases it can be protected where it is and it won’t cause a constraint on the use of your land as a home. You can contact us for further information or the NSW Government.

Are there Aboriginal sites nearby that I can visit?

In northern Sydney there are literally thousands of sites, but most are not suitable for public visitation. There are a number of sites that Aboriginal custodians and land managers have agreed can be shown to groups and individuals and which are on established walking tracks. These are largely in National Parks, but also in Council reserves and parks. Due to data licensing restrictions and due to the risk of malicious vandalism the AHO does not publish the exact locations of sites to the public.

To visit a site that has been authorised for public access be sure to check the information source. A personal blog or webpage showing the location of sites does not mean it is appropriate to visit that site. If people visit a site that is not being managed for the public it can cause unintended damage and the visit may go against cultural protocols.

Information about sites that may be appropriate to visit in northern Sydney can be found via:

  • NSW National Parks
  • Metropolitan Local Aboriginal Land Council
  • the book Sydney’s Aboriginal Past by Val Attenbrow
Can rock climbing damage Aboriginal heritage?

Even though rock climbing is a relatively low impact sport, some of the methods used can be damaging to Aboriginal heritage. Check out our rock climbing page for more information.

Can rock engravings be re-grooved?

There is no management technique that involves physical contact to engraved figures that is permissible without a permit from the NSW State Government. Currently the only permissible technique to make the grooves more visible would be ‘highlighting’, which involves trained site conservators with a permit. It requires a lot of preparation (even specialist night recording) to ensure only the correct engraved lines are done. It is a non-harm technique that does not damage or disfigure the rock in any way.

Regrooving or re-engraving is not considered appropriate as 1) the majority of Aboriginal people including heritage managers in this area consider they do not have the traditional knowledge or permission to regroove (culturally you need to know why, how and when to re-groove or re-paint something, which requires instruction by the Elder/s who have that particular knowledge. There are no known descendants with that knowledge in northern Sydney), 2) it destroys the underlying original groove and is very difficult to keep to the original outline, and 3) it is illegal (with fines up to $275, 000 and prison terms).

Poor attempts to ‘save’ engravings by illegal and inappropriate re-grooving have lead to permanent damage to some sites.

Is coastal erosion affecting Aboriginal sites?

Yes. The AHO has been carrying out research into the effects of coastal erosion on foreshore sites. It has found around a third of sites are experiencing significant coastal erosion. See the coastal erosion page for more information.

About Aboriginal Culture

What is a Welcome to Country?*

Traditional owners, normally elders, welcome people to their land via a small ceremony. It is a very meaningful recognition and is made through a formal process. However, the elder can decide how to carry out the ceremony. Furthermore it depends on the location of the event and the practice of the particular Aboriginal community, which can differ according to the area. A ‘Welcome to Country’ can be a simple speech or a performance like a song, a traditional dance, a didgeridoo piece or a combination of these different forms of art. ‘Welcome to Country’ should always occur at the start of an event, if possible at the very opening.

What is an Acknowledgement of Country?*

While it is generally only traditional owners who do a welcome, anyone can do an acknowledgement. This means that an ‘Ackowldgement of Country’ is a way in which all people can show respect for Aboriginal heritage and culture. An acknowldgement is a way of showing respect dedicated to the traditional custodians of the land or sea where the event takes place.

An example of an acknowledgement would be:

“I wish to acknowledge the traditional custodians of these lands on which we gather and show my respect to the Elders past and present and other Aboriginal people here today”.

What is the local Aboriginal Clan of my area?

This is not as easy to answer as you would think! There are many different language maps showing different boundaries and even different names.

Clan names which can be found on most maps for the northern Sydney region of the AHO partner Councils are the following: Gayamaygal, Gamaragal, Garigal, Darramurragal, Wallumedegal and many more. For Strathfield it is the Wangal. If you are interested in this subject you always have to be critical and try to find out if the sources are reliable for your research.

See our Clans of Sydney page for more detail and a map. Remember, the boundaries and even the names are open to question. Acknowledging the reasons why this is so can be the first step in appreciating how things are today.

Can you tell us about the Aboriginal culture of the area?

The AHO can provide information on the Aboriginal sites of the area, some of the history and some of the heritage and culture. For other information, it is best to contact an Aboriginal community, group or individual such as the Metropolitan Local Aboriginal Land Council.

What is cultural burning?

Here is a quote that we think sums it up quite well:

The key dimensions of fire management encompass customary law, economies, social relations, ecology and diverse technologies, such as seasonal indicators…, as well as culturally embedded mediating and explanatory factors. These mediating factors include signals that are received from country when it is the right time for burning, such as the flowering of trees; the kinship relationships that determine who can light fires for country; the knowledge of cultural sites and cultural resources that influence the pathways of fire at a very fine scale across the landscape; and the economies that benefit from certain fire regimes, including tourism economies, which benefit from burning designed to protect assets such as picnic tables and camping grounds. For this reason, it is important to document and understand the wider context in which Indigenous fire management takes place. 1

For a thorough introduction to the potential of cultural burning, read Fire Country, by Victor Steffensen.

You can also read our Issue 1 March 2020 Yarnupings which has some articles on cultural burning.

Cultural burning has been highlighted in two 2020 inquiries:

The Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements Report 

Recommendation 18.1 Indigenous land and fire management and natural disaster resilience 

Australian, state, territory and local governments should engage further with Traditional Owners to explore the relationship between Indigenous land and fire management and natural disaster resilience.

Recommendation 18.2 Indigenous land and fire management and public land management 

Australian, state, territory and local governments should explore further opportunities to leverage Indigenous land and fire management insights, in the development, planning and execution of public land management activities.

and the

Final Report of the NSW Bushfire Inquiry 

Recommendation 25 That Government adopt the principle that cultural burning is one component of a broader practice of traditional Aboriginal land management and is an important cultural practice, not simply another technique of hazard reduction burning. 

Recommendation 26 That, in order to increase the respectful, collaborative and effective use of Aboriginal land management practices in planning and preparing for bush fire, Government commit to pursuing greater application of Aboriginal land management, including cultural burning, through a program to be coordinated by Aboriginal Affairs and Department of Planning, Industry and Environment working in partnership with Aboriginal communities. This should be accompanied by a program of evaluation alongside the scaled-up application of these techniques.

One of the most important things to remember is that cultural burning is an Indigenous land management practice and the intellectual and cultural ownership and control needs to be recognised and respected.

When to use ‘aboriginal’ or ‘Aboriginal’, ‘indigenous’ or ‘Indigenous’?

We suggest it’s best to use capitals for Aboriginal and Indigenous when referring to people.

While there are formal stylistic and grammatical rules that allow for a small letter in certain circumstances, many people feel that this is still a form of cultural bias and disrespect. For example, all the English diaspora around the world aren’t english people, yet a general group of First Nations peoples can be called indigenous.

Australians, Greeks, Americans of all persuasions, Africans, Lithuanians, Europeans, and even long vanished societies like the Phoenicians get one. Queenslanders, Canberrans (Ken Behrens?) and Kangaroo Islanders get one too. If you are Wiradjuri, Kuku Yalanji, Cadigal, Inuit or Navaho you are entitled, but if you’re Indigenous in any kind of group, you can lose it. It is an English language stylistic rule that is quite rightly under review for its relevance in today’s world.

* Welcomes and Acknowledgements should be done out of respect and after careful consideration of their use at an event. It should not be used as a mere formality or in a ‘tokenistic’ way. Just because other events have one, doesn’t mean yours should. Just because your event hasn’t had one in the past, doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be beneficial now. Whatever the decision, be mindful that plenty of lead time may be required to invite a suitable Aboriginal representative to your event and costs may vary.