‘It’s Raining Motorcars’: Mining and the destruction of Aboriginal Sacred Sites

Editor: This article has three sections, beginning with Seán Kerins giving background on the destruction, then Jack Green’s account of the situation, following by a collection of Jack’s artworks that express the same concerns in a visual way.

Background, Seán Kerins

The destruction of Juukan Gorge is far from an isolated event. Rather, it is part of a far larger pattern of extraction, colonial dispossession and erasure.

In the first week of May 2021, the Australian Government’s Joint Senate Standing Committee on Northern Australia flew into Borroloola, on the banks of the McArthur River, in the southern Gulf Country of the Northern Territory.

Borroloola, a town of about 1000 people, is home to the Gudanji, Garrwa, Marra and Yanyuwa peoples, who live in a number of camps, in overcrowded housing, that surround the small town of a few shops, a police station and a post office. Aboriginal people make up about 90 per cent of the town’s population. Their ancestral territories lie under and surround Borroloola, and extend for hundreds of kilometres in all directions. The Gudanji, Garrwa, Marra and Yanyuwa peoples own significant areas of this land following passage of the Commonwealth Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976. The Borroloola land claim was one of the first heard in 1977 under the then newly minted act. Over the remainder of their ancestral lands—areas they have never been able to regain ownership of because of legal barriers—they hold exclusive and non-exclusive native title rights through determinations made under the Native Title Act 1993 (Cth). None of this land ownership has empowered them to halt mining on their country.

The standing committee was tasked by the Senate in June 2020 to undertake an inquiry into the destruction of 46,000-year-old caves at Juukan Gorge in the Pilbara region of Western Australia. Juukan Gorge had been carelessly blown up by Rio Tinto in its pursuit to extract as much high-grade iron ore as possible. Rio Tinto, aware of the gorge’s enormous cultural significance to the traditional owners, the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura peoples, and its high archaeological significance to wider Australia, and the world, determined that the economic gain outweighed any penalty it may encounter in blowing up the site.

The committee, initially focused on the Pilbara region of Western Australia, soon became aware that, despite a diversity of laws established to protect Aboriginal cultural heritage, across the country there were many other Aboriginal peoples whose sacred sites had been destroyed, were being destroyed or were about to be destroyed. The committee received over 150 submissions and soon extended its work to other significant sacred sites, as well as important cultural heritage places.

Long before lead, zinc and silver mining began at McArthur River, 65 kilometres upstream from Borroloola, the Gudanji, Garrwa, Marra and Yanyuwa peoples had valiantly fought mining companies and governments to protect a network of sacred sites at the mine site and port at Bing Bong. Mt Isa Mines, the first owners of McArthur River Mine (MRM), began underground-mining the ore in 1993. The ore formed part of a significant sacred site of a Snake Dreaming. At the time most Aboriginal people opposed the mine.

The Gudanji, Garrwa, Marra and Yanyuwa peoples were determined to make their voice heard in the Juukan Gorge inquiry. In 2006, when MRM was given approval by the NT and Australian governments to double in size, it changed from an underground mine to a massive open-cut operation in the bed of the McArthur River. To do this, MRM diverted the river through a 5.5-kilometre-long artificial channel and dug an open-cut pit in the river bed. The pit was dug at the sacred site of The Snake, which was destroyed when the river was diverted. The Gudanji, Garrwa, Marra and Yanyuwa peoples found court action ineffective in trying to protect their rights because, even when they won, the NT Government would swiftly amend legislation to overrule the court, allowing the massive development to proceed.

Since open-cut mining began, MRM’s independent monitor has reported annually on a number of serious environmental problems. In late 2020, despite these problems never really having been adequately addressed or resolved, the NT Government approved a further expansion of the mine that increased the size of its massive waste-rock dump. The dump now encroaches on sacred sites and will destroy a site of cultural and archaeological significance.

Glencore, the current owner of the mine, claimed that it had an agreement with ‘the custodians’ of the sacred sites to proceed.

This agreement was kept secret. It promises six people, selectively chosen by MRM, a vehicle to the value of $85,000 each, as well as $400 food and $400 fuel vouchers every month for the duration of mining. Once all the environmental and regulatory conditions are signed off the agreement promises $250,000 for each of these people to spend on their homelands.

For over a century now, Australian governments’ policies for developing northern Australia have had little to do with progressing the aspirations of the region’s Indigenous peoples but rather have served as policy tools for legitimising the government’s ‘open for business’ developmental agenda, where wealth is extracted from Indigenous peoples’ lands while they bear the costs. 

‘Our Country is alive and whitefellas don’t want to know’, Jack Green, as told to Seán Kerins

I felt really worried first up, when I heard the government mob was coming to Borroloola to talk about the sacred sites. In the back of my mind I thought we’d just get another Peter Garrett. [Garrett was minister for the environment when the expansion was happening in 2006]. We all knew his songs, ‘pay the rent’ and all that, but he signed off on the diversion of the river and from then on everything got worse. I was hoping that this time they would come to hear us. I wanted them to take this one very seriously, so they could start to feel how we feel in our hearts for these places. I want them to know how it worries us and causes hurt inside us when these places are interfered with, or damaged. I wanted them to come and listen to us, see our country, hear our words and then take it all with them back to Canberra.

The first day, it was all us Aboriginal people culturally tied into the sacred sites through song lines and ceremonies who met with the committee. There were many of us. We sat and told the committee how we feel. We told them what Glencore had been doing to undermine our Law and decision-making processes so that the company could damage or destroy our sacred sites and cultural places. I felt it was one of the few times that our people could talk freely about what’s been going on with MRM. There’s always mining people or government people about; they are always interfering in our decision-making. There’s always one or two of them looking to rub one of our people’s backs, getting him to talk up for them, support them.

I told the committee: because I can’t read or write I paint what I see going on with the mine, the sacred sites, the water, and the way the company works. I’ve been watching, close up, painting and recording my stories for years. I told them that I sent a whole lot of these paintings with their stories to Canberra as my submission. This is the only way I can get them to see what we are worried about. I told the committee that Glencore just pick certain people; they don’t represent the custodians under our Law. These people are getting paid off to agree with the mine. Under our Law, Aboriginal law, you can’t do that. We’re all in this together, the four clan groups, and the families who are connected to that land.

On the second day we took the committee to visit the sacred sites on the mining lease that our people have visited since the beginning of time. The Snake lines, Jirriminni, The Garbula Tree, The Turtle and The Barramundi Dreaming—these are all powerful places. They are important places. Old Musso Harvey, a Yanyuwa man, used to say that ‘those Dreamings travelled like human beings and their spirit is still there in the country. We talk to them as our own relations and we believe their spirits come back into our families in the new generations that are born’. That’s how we feel.

I knew that we were going to the sacred sites with the custodians and traditional owners for those places, and that we were going there under our Law and customs. But we were met at the gate of the mining lease with Australian law that made us all dress in orange high-vis clothing and behave not like we were entering our own country to visit our ancestors but like we were entering their country.

It was very hard for us when we got into the mining lease.

For some of the young people it was their first time to visit their mother’s sacred sites. They had never been there before. This is not unusual for those families whose sacred sites have been fenced off, away from them. Places within or near the mine site have long been off-limits to us Aboriginal people.

At the place where McArthur River had been cut and diverted, at the place where they dug The Snake Dreaming, cutting the snake line, cutting the kujika (song), the Junggayi (ceremonial manager or policeman) for that place wept. We all hurt deep inside seeing the damage to our sacred sites.

For the young fella, coming to the sacred site for the first time, a place his mother had passed to him, should have been a happy time for him, and the Minggirringi (traditional owners) for the place—for all of us. But it wasn’t. It really hurt us.

As the day went on it got worse. We were out in Gudanji country, a place some of us older people know well. But we didn’t know where we were. The river had gone, huge mountains of waste rock were piled high in the sky, blocking our view of The Barramundi Dreaming. We couldn’t see the sacred sites in relation to each other. The whole place has been destroyed. There were roads everywhere. It was like being in the middle of Sydney or Melbourne.

We were lost in our own country.

NB. The Joint Standing Committee on Northern Australia will report to the Senate by 18 October 2021. Background material to the Gudanji, Garra, Marra and Yanyuwa peoples’ struggle to protect their ancestral lands can be found at the online exhibition Lead in My Grandmother’s Body.

Jack Green’s Artworks

The images below are from Jack Green’s submission to the Joint Standing Committee on Northern Australia inquiry into the destruction of 46,000-year-old caves at Juukan Gorge in the Pilbara region of Western Australia. Also included are Jack’s commentaries on the artworks.

Red Country, 2017

Jack Green, Red Country, 2017

Right across the McArthur River region are The Dreaming tracks of the ancestral beings. The barramundi, the two snakes who travelled together and the one that come up from the south. The Rainbow Snake and the Stinking Turtle. They all there. So too are the places where they coiled or rested, or went down under the earth like at the place I have marked in the river. Big name places, important and sacred places, they are right across the region and they tie people to places and people together. Right in the middle of this sacred country is a torn-up place, right where the Sacred Tree is that forms part of the Rainbow Snake story. It’s a big name place, right where the massive open cut pit now is. The black represents the hole that keeps getting bigger and bigger and the brown represents how the mining company is now talking about stuffing all the toxic waste rock back in the hole before they take off with their money and leave us and generations to come with their toxic mess.

Whitefellas Work like White Ants, 2014

Jack Green, Whitefellas Work like White Ants, 2014

The whitefella bulldozer is pushing over what he thinks is just a tree. But it’s not. It’s a sacred site tied in with the song lines that run through our country. Above the bulldozer is a white ant. White ants destroy things. On the right of the painting I show how white ants attack and kill healthy trees. The white ants find the weak spot, like a decaying root, they get in there and slowly start eating the tree from the inside out until they kill it.

This is what whitefellas do to us Aboriginal people when they want to get us to agree to one of their mining projects. They find the weak ones in our cultural groups. They look after them. They use them to sell their plans, and to tell us there will be jobs and good things from the mine.

This way of working always causes conflict among our people. It starts to eat away at our cultural groups and our Law, from the inside, just like white ants do. When they pick us Aboriginal people off and separate the weak ones from our cultural groups they killing them and our culture. I symbolise this in my painting by the body hung by the neck in the tree. The person is separated and isolated from our cultural group—might as well be dead.

Whitefellas, they just work like white ants.

It’s Raining Motorcars, 2017

Jack Green, It’s Raining Motorcars, 2017

In the sky, close to the ground, an evil cloud forms. He’s smiling, teeth showin’ and he rains motorcars down on our people.

Sitting on the side are two miner blokes, they sitting under their umbrellas laughin’.

They laughin’ because they reckon they can just throw a few motorcars around and people will agree to our country being contaminated with toxic waste from Glencore’s mine at McArthur River.

While some of our mob might have their eyes shut tight and arms open wide and will take a motorcar, plenty of us won’t. We going to keep fightin’ that mine until it closes and they clean up the mess they made and make the country safe again.

Heart of Country, 2014

Jack Green, Heart of Country, 2014

The heart represents the life of the country. It’s the heart of Aboriginal people and the country, together, as one. Through the heart runs McArthur River. Rivers are really important places for us. In the middle of the heart are the four clan groups of the Borroloola region. Lined up are four people sittin’ down. They are the singers. In red are Yanyuwa, black and red Mara, yellow one Gudanji and brown Garrwa. Above them in the heart are their dancers. It’s though our song and dance that we all pass the knowledge of the country. Above the heart is what the country used to be like. Beautiful, with everything there for us, lots of bush tucker and water. On the right-hand side at the top are four people. This is the mining company and government. They work together, lookin’ out for each other. Below them are the drilling rig, grader and dozer belonging to the mining companies who are comin’ into our country and damaging it with all their machinery. People and bush tucker get pushed aside, having to move somewhere else, sometimes dyin’. You can see the area around the miners is empty—no bush tucker and no Aboriginal people. No good.

How can Junggayi (Ceremonial Boss for Country) and Minggirringi (Traditional Owner of Country) do their job looking after sacred sites when their land, water and food been poisoned?

Like an Ice Cream in the Sun, 2014

Jack Green, Like an Ice Cream in the Sun, 2014

This painting is about how Glencore work in Borroloola. Glencore won’t let us organise under our own Law. Instead, they pick off one or two of our people. They say to them, ‘If you can work for us we’ll get you a motorcar, we’ll give you tucker. You’ll be well looked after, and you’ll have money and everything. So, if you want this, you help us get an agreement. You talk for us to your family’.

They want these people to say to the families, ‘Look, if you work with the mining company you will get money, you’ll get motorcar, and you’ll get everything you need’. But in the back of Aboriginal people’s minds we worried about our land, our song lines, and our sacred sites. We worried about our bush tucker. We worried about our future.

Three men under the dollar signs represent the Aboriginal fellas that have been picked off by the mining company. The mining-company man is standing behind the Aboriginal fella, patting his back and saying to him, ‘You talk up for me, old man’.

The ice cream, lollies on a plate and cake symbolise the absurdity of what’s being offered to us. Things that have little long-term value to us. Things that won’t last. Here now, but quickly gone, just like an ice cream in the sun.

Glencore throw down scraps like this while they destroy our sacred sites and contaminate our land and water, while the government watches.

There’s no way we should be played off like this. We want people in the cities to know what’s happening to us. They have to know how their governments work with mining companies to do us over and destroy our land.

Fracking on Trial in the Northern Territory

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As carbon dioxide in our atmosphere pushes 410 parts per million, fuelling a dangerous climate emergency, the world simply cannot afford to let the Northern Territory become the fossil-fuel industry’s next fracking frontier.

About the authors

Jack Green

Jack Green is a senior Garrwa man, artist and cultural warrior. He is a board member of the Aboriginal Areas Protection Authority (AAPA) and is a council member for the Borroloola/Barkly region on the Northern Land Council.

More articles by Jack Green

Seán Kerins

Seán Kerins is a fellow at the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research at the Australian National University.

More articles by Seán Kerins

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