Lessons in Loss: The Juukan Gorge

This month, we mark one year since Rio Tinto wiped a significant site of heritage, where the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura peoples had lived in connection with their homeland for tens of thousands of years, from the earth. In Artist Profile Issue 53, Louella Hayes investigated this violation, and artists' responses to it.

In May this year we lost a precious thing. We did not know that we would mourn it, and many of us did not know how important it was until after it was gone. Now, months on, we are united in our grief, and we are resolute that it should never happen again. On 24 May, Rio Tinto detonated explosives at one of the oldest sites of human occupation on the continent, decimating a place that was both ancient and sacred. The blasts destroyed two culturally significant rock shelters, one of which had chronicled 46,000 years of Aboriginal history. Now people the whole world over know its name: the Juukan Gorge.

A parliamentary enquiry has been launched; a Royal Commission has been called for. Rio Tinto has been stripped of its human rights ranking. Shirking accountability at every corner, the mining company blamed flaws in systems, data sharing and decision-making. Bonuses were cut. A few executives stepped down. Rio Tinto sort of apologised, but not very well; one employee said, “We’ve positioned our response with an apology for the distress caused, not for doing the wrong thing.” An ‘unreserved’ apology only came later, after public outrage.

The ancient sites of Juukan had yielded some 7,000 artefacts. A plait made of human hair from several people 4,000 years ago was found –through genetic testing– to belong to the direct ancestors of Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people still living in the region today. A 28,000 year old kangaroo bone pick –Australia’s oldest known bone tool– was among the significant objects found, along with the earliest known grinding stones in the Pilbara, and pollen charting thousands of years of environmental changes. London-based archaeologist Dr Lawrence Owens says the site was “one of a handful that testifies to tens of thousands of years of occupation, changing landscapes, differing economies, climatic trends, wildlife changes…it was like an encyclopaedia of the Aboriginal people.”

The Juukan caves vastly pre-dated the Pyramids, Stonehenge, or any number of revered heritage sites around the world. But more importantly, Juukan held ongoing spiritual significance for the traditional owners of the land, for whom heritage is heavily entwined with place. Ancestral sites are conduits, connecting contemporary Aboriginal people to an ongoing cultural narrative that abides through time within the physical landscape. The value of sacred sites cannot be comprehended purely by their age or scientific output; it is the intangible aspects of physical places that touch at the core of Aboriginal relationships with land, culture and ancestors.

Responding to the loss of the Juukan caves at a time when our social landscape was being ravaged by a global pandemic, Sydney-based artist Tony Albert created Misunderstanding, 2020, a velvet painting depicting sticks of dynamite superimposed over the portrait of a young Aboriginal girl. The dynamite is emblazoned with the words ‘Rio Tinto’. The work references velvet portraits of Aboriginal children that were popular in Australia in the 1960s and 70s.

At 36 x 26 cm it is a small but powerful work, which seeks to highlight the patterns of disregard for Aboriginal people and culture that allow for atrocities like the destruction of Juukan to take place in Australia.

Albert made the work with respect for the loss endured by the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people. “The cultural knowledge that belongs to them has been destroyed, and that needs to be acknowledged. We as a whole society need to respond,” he says. The work was acquired by the Art Gallery of Western Australia in June. Its place in a state collection may serve as an important reminder of our collective loss. As Albert says: “There is a responsibility that we all have in pulling up these issues and fighting for change. Our whole mentality has to completely change. We have to learn.”

Rio Tinto claimed that its executives were not aware of the cultural significance of the sites they destroyed, in spite of a trail of evidence dating back to 2004, when a report to Rio Tinto recommended the site for further research and protection under state heritage law. A decade later, a report to the mining company by archaeologist Dr Michael Slack revealed the sites rarity and importance. Then there was the 2015 documentary, funded by Rio Tinto, in which traditional owners opposed the destruction of the caves. And, most recently, a 2018 report for Rio Tinto by Dr Slack stated that the site was of “the highest archaeological significance in Australia.”

In the days leading up to blasts Rio Tinto hired lawyers in case opponents tried to seek injunctions to stop them. There can be no doubt that Rio Tinto knew the significance of Juukan, and that the reason they destroyed it had nothing to do with ignorance, and everything to do with the $135 million worth of iron ore that lay beneath it. A mining company chose profit over integrity; chose profit over historical legacy; chose profit over the connection that the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people have with the lands their ancestors have lived on for tens of thousands of years.

Perhaps we should have known better than to expect anything more of a mining company. The worst part, of course, is that what Rio Tinto did was legal. It was the Western Australian government that approved the destruction of this sacred place.

The Aboriginal Heritage Act was established in 1972 to protect places of significance to Aboriginal culture, but landowners such as mining companies can apply for an exemption under Section 18 of the Act. If Section 18 is granted, the landowner can destroy any part of the land, no matter how ancient, valuable or sacred. A full assessment of the site is not required beforehand. Once Section 18 is approved it cannot be challenged; Aboriginal people have no right of appeal, and there is no part of this process requiring consultation with traditional owners. Section 18’s have no expiry date, and are not affected by any subsequent discoveries indicating heritage significance. There have been over 460 applications by mining companies to impact Aboriginal heritage sites in Western Australia under Section 18 in the past 10 years. Not one has been rejected.

Rio Tinto had been granted Section 18 for the Juukan Gorge area in 2013, one year before new evidence revealed the sites’ immense age and bearing on Aboriginal heritage. Having now forever lost the Juukan caves in a senseless act (enabled by a senseless Act), we must raise our awareness to other important sites under threat by mining, industry and the shortcomings of government.

A 2016 paper by archaeologist Joe Dortch suggests that more than 3,200 Aboriginal heritage sites were deregistered between 2008 and 2015 alone. More and more sites are under threat every day. In an ominous echoing of the Juukan blasts, Rio Tinto has gained 28 approvals under Section 18 to destroy sites in Yinhawangka country in the Pilbara, including a heritage site showing evidence of occupation spanning over 23,000 years, which proved a theory that the area was a climate refuge during the last Ice Age.

In the Burrup Peninsular more than one million petroglyphs dating back 40,000 years are under threat by several types of industry, despite the area being nominated for World Heritage Listing. The disappearance of countless Burrup petroglyphs in the 1970s was a motivating factor for the creation of the Aboriginal Heritage Act. Almost 50 years later, still not enough is being done to protect these important artefacts.

Some artists have tried to capture the lands they are losing, or have lost. Julie Dowling has painted the degradation of traditional sites, such as with Burrup, 2007 and her ‘Seven Deadly Sins’ series, 2000, which feature scenes of environmental exploitation by mining and disrespect for country in pursuit of wealth. Lena Nyadbi’s quietly political works respond to memories of her ancestral lands, and the Ngarranggarni (Dreaming) stories that took place there long before the landscape was destroyed by the pit of the open-cut Argyle diamond mine. Nyadbi’s works such as Dayiwul Ngarankarni, 2008 were painted in memory of her country before the mine, to pass these stories on to her children and grandchildren.

Responding to the threat of mining on Gija country in the East Kimberley, artists Mabel Juli and Rusty Peters put their names and artworks to a new movement, Garnkiny not Granite, which opposes granite mining on their traditional lands. Mining company KGH has begun tearing apart landscapes significant for their connection to two key Ngarranggarni stories: Garnkiny, the Moon Man and Goorlabal, the Snake. The artists’ works may bear testament to these stories long after the landscape is consumed by mining, unless it can be stopped.

Australian Indigenous academic Prof Marcia Langton says current public attention is all that is keeping some companies from destroying many more sites: “All of the existing authorities to destroy remain valid,” she says. Proposed reforms to heritage laws may afford traditional owners some rights of appeal and involve more consultation, but contain no substantive rights. New legislation must recognise and support the living connection between Aboriginal land, culture and ancestors.

Months on, reverberations from the Juukan blasts are still being felt. They ripple through us and touch at the very core of what it means to be human; to know and understand our history, and our existence in harmony with the places we inhabit. Musing on the most important lesson from our loss of Juukan, Tony Albert says, “We have a chance to change the world we live in right now, and we have to be proactive about it.” Yes, we are united in our grief, and we are resolute that it should never happen again.

This essay was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 53, 2021.

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