Mining and its relationship with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders has a long and complex history. Aboriginal people have been mining, then trading ochre and flint since time immemorial. Both resources were a necessary element in art and religious practices, as well as in the creation of stone implements and artefacts for use in hunting and gathering to ceremony and ritual. The more superior the quality of the deposits, the more highly they were prized by trading tribes. Indeed, it is fair to say, Aboriginal people are the true originators of the Australian mining industry.
The history of Aboriginal mining
Mine ownership was by clans with a specialist group of miners within each group charged to collect the best from these tribal quarries. Mining techniques were predominantly open cut as evidenced in the Wilgie Mia Mine in Western Australia. But there are some examples of underground practices including Koonalda Cave in South Australia where there is evidence of flint mining extending about 75 metres below the surface. Gender roles were differentiated and differed between various groups with Aboriginal women recorded as the specialist miners of the prized ochre near Mount Rowland in Tasmania. Epic histories of trade appear in oral histories and Western archives. There are accounts of tribes in the Northern Territory carrying 25 kg blocks of the Yarrakina ochre over distances of 1000 km on their return to country. There are other accounts where deposits of ochre from the West have been found along the eastern seaboard.
In the 1800s and 1900s First Australians were actively pursuing their own mining interests. In October 1908 the discovery of tin ore by Alngindabu resulted in the tenement known as the Lucy Mine and in Yuendumu in the 1970s an Aboriginal-run copper mine was operated. Whilst these have been loosely documented in the annals of history, they are largely overshadowed by the master narratives of the colonial era. Also, the role of the Torres Strait Islander community in the mining industry cannot be underestimated. This can be traced as far back as 1894 when gold was discovered on Horn Island and 6,000 ounces extracted, to the re-opening of mining operations over a 2-year period from 1988. Most significantly, Islanders were lured to the mainland where they contributed to building the artery and veins of regional mining interests to shipping ports and domestic carriers throughout Far North Queensland and WA. This back-breaking work was also of world importance. On 8 May 1968 in Mount Newman in WA, a TSI railway crew completed 4.35 miles (approximately 7 kilometres) of track, breaking the previous world record of 2.88 miles (4.6 kilometres) set in the United States in 1962.
History of conflict
A record of conflict that was predominant in the early 1900s came initially not through mining, but through the pastoral industry. Aboriginal workers who were often only paid in rations formed over half the pastoral labour force and were the backbone of the industry. By 1951 agriculture was one of Australia's dominant sectors and accounted for just over 30 per cent of Australia’s GDP with mining barely worthy of a mention. But in the 1950s individuals such as Lang Hancock who “discovered” the world’s largest iron ore deposit in 1952 were responsible for a monumental shift. This moment marks the beginning of Australia’s agricultural barbarianism, one where the frontier mentality of its relationship with the Aboriginal community began a transition of sorts. Indeed Hancock, coming from one of WA’s oldest land-owning squatter families to the mining sector, was part of this transition. The notorious nature of figures such as Hancock and more recently Andrew ‘Twiggy’ Forrest have left an indelible stain on relations. This is evident in the fact that the Aboriginal children he has sired have been denied any entitlement to his estate. But the extent of the depth of the damage is evident in his self-incriminatory statement made in a television interview in 1984:
“the ones that are no good to themselves and who can’t accept things, the half-castes” – to collect their welfare cheques from a central location – “And when they had gravitated there, I would dope the water up so that they were sterile and would breed themselves out in the future, and that would solve the problem."
The great land grab and boom steadily came to a head as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders began affirming their land rights and entitlements at the same time as the true intentions of the mining giants were revealed. In 1978 it was discovered that the land around Noonkanbah in WA was subject to 497 mining leases and an oil exploration permit. A court that heard their protest ruled that the Mining Act must be upheld citing:
In coming to Australia, the white man brought this form of law. That law stands and cannot be over-ridden by moral or spiritual arguments.
The Noonkanbah community saw their rights as being protected by the State’s Aboriginal Heritage Act; with the perspective of two laws, they took steps in 1979 to affirm these rights. In 1980 the pro-mining Premier Sir Charles Court renewed his government’s campaign to let the miners drill wherever they were entitled by non-Aboriginal law. Using non-union labour, a 50-truck convoy of drillers set out for Noonkanbah in August 1980, escorted by 25 police. They were met by a blockade of Aborigines, clerics and other supporters. The Court government found enough workers to push through the blockades and commence explorations. While the results yielded no substantial outcome, the whiteman’s law was upheld and cultural rights diminished.
Mining confrontations with Aboriginal communities have continued to the present day as the demands for mineral-rich onshore and offshore deposits have reached monumental heights and the technologies advanced to epic proportions. These “advances” have included hydraulic fracturing, compulsory land acquisition in WA and proposals to dump nuclear waste in Muckaty NT. Confrontations have also come to a head in the Northern Rivers (NSW), Price Point and most famously in the Pilbara region of WA, where ‘Twiggy” was caught on camera bussing in a breakaway group to vote in favour of his mining interests and vote against the Yindjibarndi. Whilst the courts have ruled in February 2013 that Yindjibarndi Aboriginal Corporation has won the right to be the sole representative of traditional owners in a legal dispute with Fortescue Metals Group (FMG), the buying power of the legal footprint of FMG sets the stage for a David and Goliath battle between an industry plagued by bullies and predatory behaviours.
Disrupting sacred sites
The problematic relationship between Land Rights and the whiteman’s law is exacerbated by the impact of mining on spiritual lore and Aboriginal sites of significance. Nationally there are over 100,000 rock art sites that are threatened by the aspirations and expansion of the mining industry. On the Burrup Peninsula in the Pilbara region of WA it is recorded that thousands of carvings have been lost to iron-ore and gas development.
On Quinkan Country, in the Cape York Peninsula of Queensland, cave drawings of significance remain under threat when it was revealed the State Government had already granted some mineral and coal exploration permits in areas meant to be protected as special Aboriginal places. Uranium interests in Arnhem Land loom over the cave drawings of the Wellington Ranges, of which one rock art ‘gallery’ alone, Djulirri, has 3,000 images.
In New South Wales a coalmine planned for Sydney’s south-western outskirts will damage the city’s natural desalination plant comprised of more than 50 swamps in the little-known Dharawal State Conservation Area. Mine owner, BHP Billiton, admits that the process is likely to crack the bedrock and drain swamps; Aboriginal rock art above the mine site is also at risk.
What price culture?
Today, there are currently over 400 operating mines throughout Australia. Many represent multi-national and off-shore interests. Agriculture, once the giant of the economy, now pales in comparison representing just 2.6 per cent of GDP in 2011; well below the 9 per cent attributed to the mining sector. What has widely been promoted as a boon for the economy and offering jobs for Australians, remains a hot-bed of antagonisms and ethical dilemmas for community.
A growing perception of the ‘divide and conquer’ mentality of these operations, backed by a growing understanding of the cultural and rights violations involved, together with the realisation that such operations are often supported by government, has created an undeniably fraught relationship with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Community.
Mining companies are employing and training Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people alongside their Aboriginal employment strategies and reconciliation action plans. “Generation One” and the “Aboriginal Employment Covenant” with the now defunct web link loudly proclaiming “fifty thousand jobs” are some of the key interfaces courting the community. We cannot deny that our people are working the mines nor can we deny that this has driven divisions between communities and families, young people against elders, tribes against tribes and urban against remote communities. Mining and its relationship with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders is the poisoned chalice of Westernisation and modernity.
Real people are really hurting, while high profile Aboriginal spokespersons engage in what many believe to be deal - making in ventures aimed at diverting some of the economic windfall back into their vested interests, often under the guise of community. Resignation and resentment, compromise and contradiction continues to bind Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. It is the elephant in the room and it stands accused of a legacy of intergenerational trauma and cultural decimation. Each and every one of us is faced with the question “what price culture?” How we answer, rationalise and respond to this is subjective and will never form a national consensus.
Dancing the Triple Bottom Line
Yet this tumultuous relationship with the mining sector has also been a theme within the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander arts and cultural sector. From the social-historical retelling of the great achievements of the Torres Strait Islander Railway workers in a musical theatre production titled Dancing the Line to the powerful anti-mining theatre production Swine River by David Milroy, to songs that include Enough is Enough by Benny Walker, Nothing I Would Rather Be by Jimmy Chi; to visual arts collections including depictions of mining and culture by Charmaine Green, our reflections on the impacts of mining on country and our peoples are ongoing.
But by far the biggest impact of mining in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander arts comes through the area of corporate sponsorship. This comes under the “triple bottom line” social responsibility mandate and is widely celebrated as an award-winning sponsorship success. Names such as Chevron Australia, Woodside Energy, Santos, CITIC Pacific Mining, Peabody Energy, BHP Billiton Mitsubishi Alliance, Wesfarmers Resources and Inpex litter the spectrum of arts support. Their logo verification is all over various print collateral, merchandise and websites. They’ve become principal supporters and even gained naming rights as sponsors of Aboriginal communities. As a result our people and organisations become propagandist billboards for brand alignment providing these companies with the ability to write in annual reports how they’ve supported First Australians. Yirra Yaakin, one of two Aboriginal theatre companies in Australia, is now significantly reliant on WA’s mining sector with BHP Billiton, Woodside Energy, BC Iron Ltd and Chevron Australia amongst their financiers.
The mining sector has stepped in where arts funding has failed in its process of static funding. It’s as if they’ve offered pots of gold for forgetting while the deeper discourses around stolen wages and diversionary tales of economic theft, such as Section 70 in the Western Australian Constitution Act 1889, mean that our communities continue to operate in risk and our arts continue to be shackled to production fuelled by little more than the smell of an oily rag.
The Dreaming: Australia’s International Indigenous Festival in part owes its demise to the decision to take money from Santos. It was a predicament that came when Federal arts funding withdrew its support and Santos stepped in with a significant multi-year contribution. At the time there were deep consultations with local stakeholders and Santos were vetted then approved, based on what appeared to be more ethical engagements with the Aboriginal community and for having an “acceptable death ratio” of nil. Prior to this, the festival had received funds from mining companies since its inception, including the Rio Tinto Futures Fund. A campaign was mounted against the Dreaming and the Woodford Folk Festival by what was in actuality not more than 5 key individual land-owners in New South Wales and Queensland.
A major social media wave of negative campaigning was launched and the true ugliness of the environmentalist movement underbelly appeared, when videos and posts attacking elders and the Aboriginal community were produced. When further researched and the five key individuals unearthed, it became clear that this assault had little to do with the core environmental issues of hydraulic fracturing and coal seam gas and more to do with said individuals not wanting their personal interests and land asset potentially impacted. It was difficult to not draw the conclusion that a social media campaign run through a laptop was used to keep the status quo comfortable. Importantly, this irony is deepened with the realisation that the fences around these properties and the land tracts being defended were themselves built on unceded lands and Aboriginal sites.
From an Aboriginal worldview the current situation continues to be tainted and flawed; we are placed in a controlled mechanism where sedation, censorship and cultural prostitution feel very real. However mining is just another in a long line of many abusive pimps that have continued since non-indigenous ‘settlement’. To First Australians all money is blood money – it is an imposed economic platform that Aboriginal people are indentured into and trickle-fed. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander arts organisations, their boards and communities argue and debate this. It’s simply another thing to deal with in the litany of community in which cultural, ethical, spiritual and survival discourses are omnipresent. Sometimes they stand their ground. Sometimes they compromise. And when it comes to mining and the responses of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander arts dancing on the triple bottom-line – we’re damned if we do, damned if we don’t.
Sam Cook is a playwright and visual artist, educator, arts manager and leader in Indigenous Arts. Former Director of The Dreaming: Australia’s International Indigenous Festival and a programmer of the Woodford Folk Festival, she was CEO of Yirra Yaakin Aboriginal Theatre and the inaugural Aboriginal arts columnist for Artshub and Tracker and the founder of Australia’s Blak History before launching her company KISSmyBLAKarts™.