It’s hoped the return of an Aboriginal ancestral burial uncovered during water main replacement works in the state’s Riverland can help demonstrate the importance of respecting culture and Country of the Traditional Owners.
Following discovery of the site in Berri several weeks ago, SA Water’s contractors immediately stopped work and SA Water contacted the South Australian Police, as per standard protocol, to help with identification. SA Water then worked together with the First Peoples of the River Murray and Mallee Region to plan a way forward.
SA Water’s Aboriginal Heritage Engagement Advisor Ben Denison said the recent work involved the recovery of remains by hand and careful reburial at a deeper depth by machinery.
“A protective layer of sediment and concrete was also placed overhead, and the site was recorded on the official state register to ensure any future works by any party don’t cause any further disturbance,” Ben said.
“This decision and process was very much driven by the local Aboriginal community, and we just made it happen.”
Chairperson of the River Murray and Mallee Aboriginal Corporation Sheryl Johnson said when an ancestral burial is uncovered, it can be quite painful for the community, so making sure their Old People are either returned to their original resting place or moved to another location of their community’s choosing is a vital step in the healing process.
“We believe that when our people are buried, they shouldn’t be disturbed, so obviously we would prefer if discoveries like this one at Berri didn’t occur,” Sheryl said.
“However when they do, it’s what organisations like SA Water do next that we turn our focus to. In this instance, it was the right thing.
“SA Water supported us in this repatriation, and a Smoking Ceremony occurred as a sign of respect and cleansing of all involved, as well as to promote the wellbeing of our people and guests on our Country.
“Especially for the non-Aboriginal community, I think it’s easy to just see buildings and roads when you look around our state, but for my people, there’s a deeper embedded history, and this needs to be respected.
“A good relationship with the SA Water crew as well as an understanding of privacy from local Berri residents meant we were able to work together, to heal together through this important process.”
For all of its major site works, SA Water carries out a rigorous heritage assessment with relevant Aboriginal communities and heritage experts to identify the level of risk of encountering any objects of cultural significance. This is based on proximity to known sites or landscape features such as sand dunes or water sources, and general history of the area.
“This informs a management plan, which may result in changes to project design or having heritage monitors on site during works to make sure our activities are managed in a culturally-appropriate and sensitive manner.” Ben said.
“Sometimes though, even the best laid plans can’t predict what’s below the ground and where it is. In my experience at SA Water, this is an extremely rare occurrence, but unfortunately our water main works on this occasion did impact local Aboriginal heritage.
“As an Aboriginal man, I recognise the importance of respecting our ancestors, so I apologise to the custodians of the land.
“Respect is a key focus of our Reconciliation Action Plan and we’re committed to delivering on this in all areas of our business and ongoing work with Aboriginal communities.
“It’s encouraging that the repatriation of Aboriginal remains has recently moved more into public consciousness, with the commitment from the South Australian Museum to return more than 4600 Old People to Country, but I think we still have a way to go as a community in improving awareness and understanding in this space in particular.”
SA Water’s water main replacement works in Berri will resume later this month, and as a precaution, heritage monitors will be present throughout construction.
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