The reporting of the legal destruction of an Aboriginal site in the Juukan Gorge by mining company Rio Tinto in recent weeks has rightfully gained international attention and condemnation. As director of a cultural institution which has attempted to work with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities for a greater respect, understanding and public awareness of the rich heritage legacy of Australia’s traditional owners and their ongoing connections to Country, I would like to add to this discussion.
I am aware that Rio Tinto has state permission to expand a new mine from 2013, and that archaeological investigation of the site by archaeologists and traditional owners took place in 2014. The materials excavated proved in European scientific terms the longevity of the site’s use; the continuing relationship between early artefact makers and Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura (PKKP) people today and including the oldest example of bone technology known in Australia.
The collections of the Chau Chak Wing Museum include objects and spiritually potent items that were collected, purchased and appropriated from Aboriginal peoples in the past. Frequently items were simply ‘picked up’ from Country. This changed in 1994 when the University drew a line in the sand, enacting a repatriation program to ensure a pathway for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to request their objects and indeed their Old People to be returned to Country. Our collection policies ensure that we will not acquire material that was taken illegally or improperly.
An approach such as this which prioritises people is at odds with the investigation and subsequent destruction of Juukan Gorge where there is an assumption – at least for Rio Tinto who funded the excavation – that isolating objects of importance and removing them from their ancestral places is akin to rescue. The opinion that objects are ‘better off’ in places where they can be seen by millions rather than a few, is at odds with worldwide Indigenous peoples who refute such controls on their heritage.
The destruction of the Juukan Gorge site can become a turning point, in which Australia as a nation begins to fully appreciate and value the connections between people, objects and lands unique to this continent.
In the mining of the Juukan Gorge rock shelters, a 2014 emergency archaeological excavation secured potent objects of world-wide importance. These included a 4000-year-old hair belt that made evident the physical connection between the current day PKKP Traditional Owners and their ancestors. This is something Australians freely acknowledge – this continent is home to the longest continuing culture anywhere. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders continue to take care of their lands and seas in a profound way that is essential to continuing survival of all of us living in this place.
The continuing line of responsibility and custodianship, the constancy of tens of thousands of years of lively acts of purposeful learning and teaching enacted within the shelters has now been broken. But as Burchell Hayes, a Puutu Kunti Kurruma Traditional Owner remarked: "We can't undo what's already happened but what we can do is try and go back to Rio Tinto and talk to them on how we can protect the remaining sites in that area." As Puutu Kunti Kurruma Pinikura people engage in this vital work, we can also act when and where we can to prevent the re-occurrence of cynical ‘oversights’ devastating knowledge.
A review of current state and Commonwealth heritage legislate is required urgently, as is far greater campaigning of public awareness of the international importance of the rich cultural heritage of Australia. A review of other sites of importance which face future threats should also be conducted with full community input. The destruction of the Juukan Gorge site can become a turning point, in which Australia as a nation begins to fully appreciate and value the connections between people, objects and lands unique to this continent.
David Ellis is the Director of the Chau Chak Wing Museum at the University of Sydney.