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For over 25,000 years, the land around Ballarat, Geelong and the Bellarine Peninsula has been inhabited by the Wathaurung people. Traditionally, important cultural knowledge was passed down the generations through word of mouth. Today, a simple yet groundbreaking piece of mapping software is allowing the Wathaurung to pinpoint and record sites of importance in order to manage and preserve them for future generations.

Sue Marshall is the director of the Sir Zelman Cowen Centre at Victoria University. She says the university decided to get involved after a piece of research identified the lack of independence Traditional Owners had in mapping and managing their cultural heritage.

She says after gaining a William Buckland Foundation grant, the university partnered with technology company Iconix to develop a mapping database system – or geographic information system – that would let indigenous people take control of those significant sites.

“We worked with the Wathaurung to really refine the software to the needs of a community, including permissions for different people to have access to the information, the kind of maps that could be produced and the kind of cultural artefacts that could be recorded.

“And at the same time, the reason a university is involved is because it was about training people in skills that they could use in so many different ways.”

Sue says the project has been a success and the Wathaurung no longer need the assistance of the university. She says the program – that can be used on a tablet device – has won two awards, including a City of Ballarat and National Trust of Australia heritage award.

“From our research, it’s really the first time that a work to preserve cultural heritage has won what we would call a mainstream heritage award, where the word ‘heritage’ is now defined as something that extends beyond settlement of white people in Australia.”

Sean Fagan is a Wathaurung Traditional Owner and cultural heritage projects officer with the Wathaurung Aboriginal Corporation.

He says the technology – called CrestSX – is enabling the Wathaurung to map their country, control their own information and encrypt it so only certain people – for example, male or female elders – can access that information.

“Not only sites that were pre-contact with Europeans but sites that are happening now and events that are happening now, so it’s a work in progress, and we’d like to include more things like oral histories and things into it.”

He says this will allow them to let land managers – such as Parks Victoria and catchment management authorities – know what’s out there and how to manage it.

There are cultural heritage sites scattered all over the area, some more obvious than others. A towering red gum erupts from the the middle of a bushy residential street in Buninyong. The tree is hundreds of years old and was a gathering place for the Wathaurung – or Wada wurrung – people.

Sean says it was a corroboree tree, where things like dances and trade may have taken place.

The tree is showing its age in places, so Sean is not only using the mapping software to identify the site, but to track its condition and management by recording its details and taking photos.

Sean says there’s been interest from all Traditional Owner groups in Victoria in the technology, as well as from further afield.
“I recently went up to the World Indigenous Network Conference in Darwin and compared it with some of the other systems that were being used across Australia and the world, and there’s nothing out there anything like this.”

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