Forming genuine cultural connections

Forming genuine cultural connections

Learning from Indigenous peoples’ deep knowledge of the environment


Last updated: 30 September 2022

After growing up on a property in rural Darwin, it’s not surprising that Joelene, Graduate Environmental Advisor at Gove in the Northern Territory, was passionate from a young age about caring for the environment. But she also has unique insight about how much we can learn from Indigenous peoples’ deep knowledge of the environment – which is only possible through genuine, meaningful engagement with Traditional Owners of the lands where we work.

“Recognising the need for meaningful and culturally driven engagement fuels my passion – especially as an Indigenous environmental scientist working in the mining industry.

Indigenous peoples have so much rich knowledge about environmental management, it is formally being recognised now as Traditional Ecological Knowledge, but few people naturally possess the cultural awareness required to engage with Traditional Owners effectively and meaningfully.

I am a descendant of the Jaru people in Western Australia and the Arrernte people in central Australia, and I have been very privileged to have been adopted into a local Aboriginal Yolngu clan here in Nhulunbuy. As part of my adoption, genuine care, and respect in wanting to learn Yolngu language and culture, this community has trusted and shared learnings with me that they have not shared with anyone else since the mine was built in the 1970s.

Forming genuine cultural connections

During a recent cultural heritage survey, my pipis (uncles), galays (cousins), and mari (grandfather) were teaching me Yolngu environmental knowledge, and everyone on the survey was captivated by the cultural environmental knowledge that my adopted family shared with me and the broader team – knowledge that wouldn’t have been shared if we didn’t show respect and a genuine interest in learning.

Our leadership team recognised a gap in our existing relationships with the Traditional Owners here at our Gove site. And due to my adoption, environmental qualifications, and the genuine respect I hold for the Traditional Owners here, I am the preferred candidate to lead a cultural reconnection programme.

I’ve spent a lot of time with senior Yolngu women, and as part of that engagement I was invited to a discreet, women’s only workshop on Gumatj Country. During the workshop, I was formally adopted and given my Yolngu name, skin name, clan, homeland, and Yolngu language.

Forming genuine cultural connections

When I meet with the senior women, I meet with them on their Country in their community. When I travel to the community, I dress appropriately by wearing a yapa skirt, in addition to my Rio Tinto shirt and PPE. As a result, I’ve been privileged to learn sacred cultural heritage information of sites located on the mining lease.

It’s very early days in establishing these relationships. I am very mindful of my place within the community and with developing and managing these relationships with great care, trust and respect.

My next step is to facilitate bringing the Traditional Owners back on site, to their Country, so that they can reconnect with their places of cultural significance. Once completed, other areas of cultural significance can be identified, and more frequent visits can feed into our closure plans and visions for the future.

It is my responsibility as an Indigenous person within the business to protect and safeguard cultural heritage sites of significance and ensure that they are treated with the care and respect that they deserve. With the development and implementation of this cultural reconnection programme, I’m continually improving our engagement with Traditional Owners in this region.

In future, I would love to see this programme implemented at our sites nationally and internationally, based on the important work we’re doing here.”