Police work with First Nations people to protect cultural heritage

The vast Paroo Shire, with the township of Cunnamulla at its heart, is rich in cultural sites and artefacts, and the Queensland Police Service (QPS) is working with First Nations people to help protect this precious cultural heritage.

Working alongside community Elders, Queensland Health and the Department of Seniors, Disability Services and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island Partnerships (DSDSATSIP), the QPS produced a booklet titled Protecting Aboriginal Cultural Heritage in the Paroo Shire last year.

The booklet is available for free from tourist information centers, post offices, caravan parks and hostels throughout the shire.

The project has come to fruition thanks to the vision and enthusiasm of one of our First Nations police officers, Acting Senior Constable Laurie Bateman, who hopes to see the idea spread to many other parts of the state.

Acting Senior Constable Bateman is a Kamilaroi man from Bollon, 180km east of Cunnamulla.

A third-generation sheep shearer, he discovered a passion for helping his community and joined the QPS as a Police Liaison Officer in 2014, going on to become a police officer in 2018.

Acting Senior Constable Bateman said he was inspired to take steps to ensure the cultural heritage was protected after he noticed items being sold through online auction sites.

“I’m a keen collector of old stuff, and I started to notice cultural artefacts being put up for auction,” Acting Senior Constable Bateman said.

“I wondered if it was legal to be selling them, so I did some research and found that it wasn’t.

“Now, if I had to go and spend time researching the legislation, then it’s understandable that your average collector or visitor to the area wouldn’t know about it either.”

Acting Senior Constable Bateman decided he wanted to do something to make it easy for people to know what the rules were around cultural sites, art, and artefacts, and what to do if they came across them.

After gaining approval from his Officer-in-Charge at Cunnamulla and the support of the QPS First Nations and Multicultural Unit, Acting Senior Constable Bateman teamed up with Miriam Avery from Queensland Health’s HOPE program, who regularly visits Charleville and Cunnamulla.

Aboriginal police officer and Aboriginal Elder
Acting Senior Constable Laurie Bateman worked with First Nations community members including Kooma Traditional Owner Uncle Bill Speedy

The first step was to identify the traditional owners of the country and enlist the support of the Elders.

Paroo Shire takes in the townships of Cunnamulla, Eulo, Wyandra and Yowah, and is home to several First Nations language groups.

Although Acting Senior Constable Bateman is a First Nations man, acceptance for his idea was not automatic.

“I had to earn the respect and trust of the Elders through a number of visits and honest conversations about our intentions, which are to help protect First Nations culture,” Acting Senior Constable Bateman said.

“Eventually, they agreed and led us to the sites and allowed our police photographer to take photos.”

Acting Senior Constable Bateman said while some of these photos appear in the booklet, they do not identify the locations of the sites.

“Our aim is to show the thousands of travelers who camp beside the waterways and the billabongs in the area what a cultural site might look like and what to do if they come across one.

“We want them to be able to recognize these sites, so they can respect and enjoy them and not inadvertently cause any damage.”

The booklet includes contact details so anyone coming across a cultural site that may be at risk can go directly to the right department.

In an incident at Eulo recently, a group of local residents noticed signs indicative of a cultural site near where a grader was working on the road.

They asked the driver of the grader to stop immediately and consulted the booklet to contact members of DSDATSIP’s Cultural Heritage Unit, who conducted an investigation.

While it was deemed not to be a cultural site, it demonstrated the community’s growing awareness and appreciation of the rich heritage embedded throughout the landscape.

Since the booklet was published, Acting Senior Constable Bateman has commenced work at Charleville Police Station in the Murweh Shire, immediately to the north of the Shire Parish.

Leveraging off the success of the Paroo Shire booklet, he set about engaging with local First Nations Elders and businesses with a view to producing another booklet, this time specific to Murweh Shire.

He said he was met with an enthusiastic response.

“The people I spoke with had seen the Paroo Shire booklet and they were all for it,” Acting Senior Constable Bateman said.

“Every area has unique sites specific to the traditional people of that country, and having the QPS backing is seen as giving legitimacy to the project.”

The booklet titled Protecting Aboriginal Cultural Heritage in the Murweh Shire has been published to coincide with NAIDOC Week 2022.

It was produced again in partnership with DSDSATSIP and the HOPE Program, with printing and production costs funded by Southern Queensland Rural Health.

The Murweh booklet includes a QR code offering quick access to further information.

Acting Senior Constable Bateman would eventually like to see similar information booklets covering other areas throughout the state.

“We are out west here; a cultural site up north or on the coast would look completely different, so there is the opportunity for police to engage with their local communities all over Queensland, ”he said.

“We’ve done the hard yards and have developed a template of how to gain support and produce the booklet.

“I think one of the great things is that we have seen a closing of the gap between First Nations peoples and police in Paroo Shire.

“We’ve shown our community that police really do value and want to help preserve our cultural heritage, and that is helping to strengthen relationships,” he said.

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