Indigenous Destruction: Considering the Denigration and Destruction of Indigenous Heritage as Violence

Issues/Topics Covered in this Chapter
  • Understanding Violence: The World Health Organization’s Definition and Scope.
  • Cultural Violence: Destruction of Heritage Sites and its Devastating Impact on Indigenous Peoples.
  • Endangered Identities: How the Destruction of Heritage Sites Threatens Indigenous Societies’ Survival.
  • Unseen Wounds: Exploring the Physical and Psychological Harms Resulting from Disturbing Heritage Sites.
  • Legal Battleground: Challenges in Efforts to Protect Heritage Sites and Indigenous Rights.
  • Unfinished Business: The Ongoing Struggle for Repatriation and Reburial of Ancestral Remains Worldwide.


The World Health Organization defines violence as ‘the intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, against oneself, another person, or against a group or community, that either result in or has a high likelihood of resulting in injury, death, psychological harm, maldevelopment, or deprivation’. Without wanting to detract attention from more explicit forms of harm, the loss of access to or, more obviously, the destruction of heritage sites is a form of violence that has significant adverse effects on Indigenous peoples. For them, those sites are considered necessary not only to their historical continuity and worldviews but also to their physical and psychological well-being, as well as their survival as distinct societies. This is articulated well by a First Nations community member in British Columbia:

Ruby Peters believed that the disturbance of the ancient burial ground at Somenos Creek not only offended and disrupted relations with the deceased but also resulted in physical danger for the living. Only by conversing with the deceased and using her ritual knowledge could she at least partially restore the requisite balance of relations between the world of the living and the world of the dead.[1]

When used to describe harms resulting from disturbing heritage sites, ‘violence’ is seldom in the vocabulary of archaeologists, except when it involves (in an abstract way) acts of violence against ‘their’ (shared worldly) heritage, such as the Bamiyan Buddhas[2][3]. Yet by looking at this through the lens of indigeneity, we must acknowledge that real harm occurs to people in these situations. The loss of less spectacular ancestral sites in settler countries occurs largely unnoticed every day.

Even when the threats are known, legal efforts may fail or existing protection be removed, as evidenced in cases such as these:

• On 2 November 2017 the Supreme Court of Canada ruled against the Ktunaxa Nation’s efforts to prevent a ski resort being developed in an area of spiritual importance known as Qat’muk, where the Grizzly Bear Spirit resides. The court concluded that ‘The charter protects the freedom to worship, but does not protect the spiritual focal point of worship’. Yet the Ktunaxa had asked the court to validate not their right to worship, but their right to continue essential traditional practices. They fear the Grizzly Bear Spirit will be driven away, further debilitating their connection to a living landscape.

• On 3 December 2017 Donald Trump signed two proclamations that will greatly reduce the size of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Parks in Utah, opening two million acres of previously protected land to mining, logging and other uses. This move threatens the wellbeing of the Hopi, Navajo, Ute and Zuni peoples by endangering an immense number of heritage sites, burials and sacred places.[4]. While all US federal lands require compliance with the National Historic Preservation Act and the National Environmental Policy Act, the oversight of these acts is not as stringent as the overarching cultural and environmental protection afforded to national monuments. Cultural harms are considered inevitable, including threats to the archaeological record of ancient habitation areas and activities across the landscape. But even more disturbing will be the weakening of protection of places of great historical or spiritual importance fundamental to the beliefs and world-view of the Hopi, Navajo, Ute and Zuni peoples.

• In Western Australia the extensive Murujuga petroglyphs of the Dampier Peninsula (estimated at about one million images), is under threat of destruction by the petrochemical industry, with about one-quarter already lost [5]. Petroglyphs and pictographs are considered animate, the embodiment of the creator beings who formed the land, laws and customs of Aboriginal peoples. The damage comes from unauthorised visits, as well as vandalism and destruction. Efforts are underway to bolster protection, including an application to have Murujuga listed as a World Heritage site, but this would limit the Traditional Owners’ control. In the Kimberley region the Wanjina-Wunggurr people find themselves challenged by the impact of cultural tourism on sacred rock art sites; they thus seek to prevent inappropriate viewing, hearing or reproduction of secret ceremonies, artwork, song cycles and sacred narratives, all of which cause harm[6].

• Worldwide, the slow pace of repatriation and reburial – especially of ancestral remains – continues to be a source of great frustration to Indigenous peoples. While great strides have been made in Australia and Canada, the pace elsewhere has been slower. In Sweden, for example, the return of Sámi heritage and Sámi human remains in collections has progressed little in recent years.[7] In the United States the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act is still the impetus for most repatriations, which means that many ancestral human remains fall outside its legal scope and thus require voluntary, not mandated, return.

Do the types of harms evident in these examples – denigration, destruction, or cultural appropriation of heritage sites – constitute a form of violence? For the Ktunaxa, Qat’muk is not a ‘place’ or ‘spiritual focal point’ but a living presence; for the peoples of the Big Ears National Park, that landscape is literally alive with their history. Such connections to the land, and their importance, are well documented. Yet economics continues to take precedence over heritage values. Today the salvage ethnography of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century colonial Australia, the Americas, and elsewhere has been replaced by heritage management companies seeking to salvage (and sometimes preserve) the material record of past lifeways for posterity – although this is being countered by activist archaeology in aid of protecting the interests of living peoples.


Review Questions

1. How does the World Health Organization define violence, and what are the various forms it can take beyond physical harm?
2. What are some examples of cultural violence, and how does the destruction of heritage sites specifically impact Indigenous communities?
3. In what ways does the destruction of heritage sites threaten the survival of Indigenous societies, beyond just the loss of physical structures?
4. How do disturbing heritage sites lead to both physical and psychological harm for Indigenous peoples, and what are some strategies for addressing these impacts?
5. What are some of the legal challenges faced in efforts to protect heritage sites and uphold Indigenous rights, and how do these legal battles unfold?
6. Why is repatriation and reburial of ancestral remains important to Indigenous communities, and what obstacles exist in achieving these goals on a global scale?

This book chapter by George Nicholas and Claire Smith is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC BY 4.0), except where otherwise noted.

  1. McLay, E., Bannister, K., Joe, L., Thom, B. and Nicholas, G. 2008. ‘A’lhut tu tet Sul’hweentst “Respecting the Ancestors”: Understanding Hul’qumi’num Heritage Laws and Concerns for Protection of Archaeological Heritage’, in C. Bell and V. Napoleon, eds, First Nations Cultural Heritage and Law: Cases Studies, Voices and Perspectives. Vancouver: UBC Press, 158–202
  2. Hamilakis, Y. 2003. ‘Iraq, Stewardship and “The Record”: An Ethical Crisis for Archaeology’, Public Archaeology 3, 104–11.
  3. Lenzerini, F. 2016. ‘Terrorism, Conflicts, and the Responsibility to Protect Cultural Heritage’, The International Spectator 51:2, 70–85
  4. Doelle, W. H. 2017. Bears Ears Archaeological Experts Gathering: Assessing and Looking Ahead. Archaeology Southwest.
  5. Hirini, R. 2018. ‘The world’s largest rock art collection could be destroyed this century’, https://
  6. Graber, C. B. 2009. ‘Aboriginal Self-Determination vs. the Propertisation of Traditional Culture: The Case of sacred Wanjina Sites’, Australian Indigenous Law Review 13:2, 18–34.
  7. Ojala, C.-G. and Nordin, J. M. 2015. ‘Mining Sápmi: Colonial Histories, Sámi Archaeology, and the Exploitation of Natural Resources in Northern Sweden’, Arctic Anthropology 52:2, 6–21


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