Claire Smith is professor in the University of Flinders, Adelaide (Australia). She has been President of the World Archaeological Congress. She has especialized in indigenous archaeology, carrying research with indigenous communities in South Australia. Furthermore, she has taken part in the Australian World Heritage Committee

Dear Claire, first of all we would like to thank you for taking this interview for the blog. As the keynote speaker for the opening of the conference, it will be hard to deal with all the topics in such a few questions, so we will go right to the core of its aim…  From your perspective: who owns the past?

This seems like a simple question but it is actually a very difficult question.  In one sense, we all own the past, as we are all interested in aspects of the past.  This is most clear when we are talking about the very distant past, such as with human evolution.  The question becomes much more complex when we move closer in time, as different groups will have different levels of attachment to cultural material.   A Jewish graveyard, for example, is likely to be of greater importance to Jewish people than it will be for Christians or Muslims, even though Christians or Muslims may also have a sense of ownership in that place.   It becomes more complicated if you bring geography into the equation.  For example, would a Jewish person in the USA have a greater ‘right’ to the Jewish graveyard in Riga, Latvia – or would local Latvian people have a greater right?   As I said, this is not a simple question.

You are a great defender of Aboriginal people’s control over publication. In one article (Smith 2004), you indicate that Australian Aboriginal informants were paid for their contributions and photographs. Is this contributing to incorporating them into the Western socio-economic system? Does this represent another form of colonization?

That is a good question and I can see that people might view payment to Aboriginal people as one way of incorporating them into a capitalist economic system.  However, being paid is an integral part of the Australian Aboriginal system of knowledge dissemination. Knowledge is intellectual property and Aboriginal people have always demanded to be paid when they share their intellectual property.   One traditional example is in ceremonies when the person who ‘owns’ a major ceremony pays the person who has been responsible for the production of that ceremony.  In the past, payment was in form of food, tools and reciprocal responsibilities.

Since we are talking about colonialism… Are non-indigenous, Western media such as museums, journals or even the “World Heritage” label, for example, appropriate to convey indigenous knowledge?

This is a question for Aboriginal people to decide.  While non-Indigenous, Western media is not the traditional means by which knowledge was conveyed, Indigenous cultures, like all cultures, have a right to change and adapt.  Today, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people use this media to convey secular forms of Indigenous knowledge.  However, restricted knowledge has restricted forms of dissemination.

Moreover, is the UN Declaration of Rights of the Indigenous People another way of colonialism, since it was conceived from a Western essentialist idea of universal value?

The United Nation’s Declaration of Rights of the Indigenous People was conceived with input from both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.   While international declarations such as this are embedded in the notion of universal value, this does not mean that they do not recognise differences.   The wording of the Declaration of Rights of the Indigenous People can be a little ambiguous and even contradictory.     For example, the opening statement that advocates ‘control by indigenous people over developments affecting them and their lands, territories and resources’ needs to be set against a preceding statement that ‘the diversity and richness of civilizations and cultures, constitute the common heritage of humankind’.   While the former emphasises the rights of Indigenous groups to control their cultural heritage the latter implies that all humankind has rights in that heritage, so it is a little contradictory.   In addition, we should also remember that the declaration was developed to address some of the historic injustices that Indigenous people have suffered as a result of colonization. 

Globalization may be essential in the process of patrimonialization too. In this context, “authenticity” can play a controversial role for indigenous communities, transforming traditions and culture. Is it possible to draw clear-cut boundaries?

It is always difficult to draw clear-cut boundaries because we live in complex, messy worlds with multiple layers of identity and connection.   Firstly, the notion of what is authentic differs in different parts of the world, not just between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.  When Japanese people restore an ancient building they do not feel that the building is less authentic because an old part has been replaced with a newer part.   From this viewpoint, authenticity is tied to change and on-going renewal.  This is very different to the idea of authenticity being tied to a pristine past.  Secondly, Indigenous people live in the modern world.  Like all cultures, their cultures have changed, and will change.  So, change is an important aspect of being authentic.  From this viewpoint, replicating the actions or activities of a stagnant past could be considered to be not authentic, even though (or because) this produced items that were identical to those produced in the past.   I am being polemical in this example, of course, because I want people to think about authenticity as a living, changing thing.  Clear-cut boundaries are impossible.

In this context, ethics play an important role, both for heritage professionals and bodies. What do you reckon about the creation of a code of ethics to deal with indigenous people? Is this the best way to recognise the “others” rights?

The World Archaeological Congress has several codes of ethics that deal with a wide range of ethical issues involved in working with Indigenous people.  The First Code of Ethics deals exclusively with the rights of Indigenous people. It was adopted in 1990 at WAC-2 in Barquisimeto, Venezuela. The Vermillion Accord on Human Remains was adopted in 1989 at a WAC Inter-Congress in South Dakota, USA and the Code Of Ethics for the Amazon Forest Peoples was adopted in 1994, at WAC-6 in New Delhi, India. The Tamaki Makau-rau Accord on the Display of Human Remains and Sacred Objects was proposed in 2005 at the Second Indigenous Inter-Congress in Auckland, New Zealand and adopted at the WAC Inter-Congress in Osaka, Japan in 2006.  Indigenous peoples initiated these codes and all of them are a result of Indigenous action, in collaboration with non-Indigenous people who support Indigenous rights.

As to this question, there are critics that consider codes of ethics a way to remove the political context of any situation and also the manner to stagnate the debate in future controversies. Where is your on this?

Codes of ethics will not solve all ethical problems, but I do think they are useful.  Codes of ethics are guidelines as to how a group of people agree they should act in particular circumstances.  These codes should be thought of as living documents that may change as new circumstances arise.
However, different codes of ethics emphasise different values.  If you compare the World Archaeological Congress’ First Code of Ethics with the Code of Ethics of the Society for American Archaeology you can see that the former emphasises Indigenous control over Indigenous cultural heritage, while the latter emphasises the role of archaeologists as stewards of the past.  These are very different approaches that will produce very different behaviours in the field.

The argument that ethical decisions can only be decided as part of a process, so we don’t need codes of ethics, seems to be a cop out to me.  Codes of ethics are clear statements concerning the behaviours we consider ethical or non-ethical.  They are not the last word on any particular matter, but they are a useful baseline to refer to when you encounter an ethical dilemma.  When I am in the field I have ethical dilemmas every day.  The way I resolve them is by referring to the teachings that I have received from Aboriginal elders and the relevant codes of ethics.

Up to this point the interview has focused on indigenous communities, but we would like to finish with your opinion about the impact of World Heritage on these “other” communities of the West, where the concept of “indigenous” is not that clear.

There are communities such as gypsies who are not Indigenous in a strict definition but who are marginalised.  While a number of World Heritage sites are associated with gypsies, these sites were not nominated to celebrate the cultural richness of gypsy heritage. Instead, gypsies are included as part of a wider community.  I’m thinking here of places such as Auschwitz Birkenau in Poland and the Albayzin area of Granada in Spain.   The Villages with Fortified Churches in Transylvannia, Romania, is the clearest example of a gypsy-focussed World Heritage listing.

I’m not sure what gypsies would think about the concept of World Heritage because I have not worked with them.  However, I note that even people such as the gypsies who are itinerant have some locations that they designate as special. In France, for example, gypsies and French Gitans undertake a pilgrimage each year to the church of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer.   I have no idea whether they would want such a site listed for World Heritage status, or how this would fit into their cultural and belief systems.   However, it would seem to me that the rules and constraints associated with World Heritage listing could interfere with the way the site is currently used.   Its primary role would become more of a ‘universal’ tourist attraction rather than the cultural and spirtual focus of a specific group. 


- Smith, C. (2004): Current Anthropology. Vol 45 (4): 527-529.

Claire and Phylis
Thomas, his daughter and Claire


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