A dispute in Australia about a potential gold mine at Coronation Hill in the Northern Territory brought together three key icons in the discourse of development: Aboriginal sacred sites, conservation, and mining development. The paper outlines the history of the debate, which came to a head in May 1991. It then reviews both arguments proposed by those who sought to discredit or defend certain Aboriginal claims, and some counter-arguments. Sacred sites legislation and the like construct a frame of recognition in which the consequences of beliefs are binding on people who do not subscribe to them. Such a frame tends to reify beliefs as traditional attributes of a social category. An insistence on unchanging tradition in this particular debate aimed to contain potentially binding forms of belief within strict limits, to prevent the extension of cosmological principles to new conditions and hence to forestall the possibility of the consequences of those extensions being binding on others. This insistence has also guarded against the possibility of giving Aboriginal people a degree of control unacceptable to currently controlling interests. Yet it is within the logic of Aboriginal beliefs to interpret newly discovered aspects of the world in terms of ancestral traces and powers.

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