The man who shifted stones that were placed in the shape of an eel by Aboriginal people more than 1500 years ago in western Victoria has apologised for his actions.
Lake Bolac resident Adrian, whose family owns one of the properties the stone arrangement sits on, said he didn’t realise the stones he moved with a loader over the Easter weekend were culturally significant.
“I made a huge mistake and I’m really sorry for upsetting a lot of people,” he said.
“It wasn’t our intention.”
Adrian, who did not want his surname used, said since his father’s death three years ago, he had been trying to take care of the property.
He said the grass had grown too long as a result of substantial rainfall in recent months.
“We put sheep in the paddock to eat it all down so we could see it,” he said.
“Now we’re trying to control the thistles in the paddock so it’s controllable and doesn’t get out of hand and become a safety issue for fire.”
The large basalt stones from a 60-metre section of the eel were removed by Adrian in an effort to ensure a boom spray to tackle weeds could safely move into the paddock and be placed in a pile.
He said he knew there were some culturally significant stones, but wasn’t sure which area they were in.
“There was never a clear boundary marked between the eel and the rest of the stones, and a generational change over decades has meant the original discussions caused confusion over which stones were in the eel formation,” Adrian said.
He said he hoped the stones could be restored to their original spots with the help of traditional owners.
‘Horrible’ conversations as traditional owners process loss
On Tuesday, Aboriginal Victoria travelled out to the site to begin an investigation into the damage to the structure, which is known as the Kuyang Stone Arrangement.
The stones were shaped like an eel in honour of the animal’s role as an important food source in the region, and the structure served as a gathering place.
The Eastern Maar Aboriginal Corporation’s John Clarke described the area as “eel country”.
He said he did not know enough about the state the stones were in to work out whether they would be able to be restored.
“I called a number of elders and had these conversations with them and they were horrible conversations,” Mr Clarke said.
He said it would take time for the community to process what had happened.
“We do need to have a bit of a process that’s going to enable us to consider the impacts that this will have on us socially and culturally,” he said.
“It will take time.
“If there’s a lesson in this it’s that we value these things and we believe everybody can value them.”
Victoria’s Minister for Aboriginal Affairs Gabrielle Williams said any unauthorised damage to Aboriginal cultural heritage was “reprehensible”.
She said it was important to let Aboriginal Victoria’s investigation “run its proper course”.
Calls for more education so people can’t ‘plead the ignorant card’
When National Native Title Council CEO Jamie Lowe heard about the latest damage to an Aboriginal heritage site, he felt a depressing familiarity with the situation.
“We just think ‘not again’, and when are laws in this country at a state and Commonwealth level actually going to protect Aboriginal heritage,” he said.
“There’s sorrow within the community. You’re losing something that your ancestors, your old people have created.
“They tell us stories. They connect us to country.”
Mr Lowe said more physical protection was needed to prevent important sites from being damaged by people ignorant of their value.
“Incidents like this, it’s left up to people telling people, you know, this person telling that person … we know with the looseness of that, destruction occurs,” he said.
“Heritage is being destroyed because people plead the ignorant card, they don’t know about it.”
He said broader community education on Aboriginal heritage was also needed, something he hoped Victoria’s truth-telling commission would bring about when it begins later this year.
Mr Lowe is a member of the First Peoples’ Assembly, which is driving treaty talks in Victoria.
The assembly said it was “distressed and outraged to hear about the destruction of precious cultural heritage”.
“We understand Aboriginal Victoria are investigating the situation and insist the culprits are met with the full force of the law,” a spokesperson said in a statement.
“Traditional owners should be responsible for their own precious cultural heritage – not private land owners. This will ensure sites like the Kuyang Stone Arrangement are managed with the dignity and respect they deserve.”