"Their spirits are here now"
Sharing country and culture
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are advised that this page may contain images or voices of people who have passed away. This article may contain names and images that may be culturally sensitive to some Aboriginal people.
“Country” is about more than the land’s hills, rivers, valleys and bays. It is a connection between land, people, ancestors, animals and plants that is intrinsic to culture. Wik-Waya elder Tony Kerindan, puts it like this: “You see that scar tree, it’s me. The plants and animals, they’re me. The creeks and rivers are me. From land and sea, it’s me. To the reef-bed there you see, it’s me.
This country is alive today with all our ancestors, their spirits are here now.
We were the first mining company to embrace Indigenous land rights in Australia, in the 1990s, and we continue to recognise that our Australian mines are on land that has belonged to Indigenous groups for tens of thousands of years. We respect their ongoing deep connection to country and recognise that Indigenous Australians continue to hold vast knowledge about it.
Today, we have more than 30 land use agreements with Traditional Owners across Australia, built on extensive dialogue and considerable goodwill by all parties. We are also one of Australia’s largest employers of Indigenous people, with more than 1,400 permanent Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander employees. We contribute extensively to local communities, support scholarships and cadetships and in 2017, struck A$162 million of contracts with Indigenous businesses.
In 2019, we supported the Uluru Statement from the Heart and its objectives – to enshrine a First Nations Voice in the Australian constitution and to establish a Makarrata Commission. We are working with Indigenous leaders, Traditional Owners and our Indigenous employees to determine how we can best support the recognition of Indigenous Australians, which we believe is an important step towards reconciliation.
The Uluru Statement from the Heart is a national Indigenous statement on constitutional recognition that came out of the First Nations National Constitutional Convention in May 2017. It followed robust consultation at 13 regional forums across Australia, featuring 1200 delegates, which was the most proportionately significant consultation process undertaken to date with the nation’s 600,000 Indigenous Australians.
In beautiful, far north Queensland, Australia, where the northeastern tip of the country reaches to meet the Arafura Sea, sit the Wik-Waya traditional lands. In 2015, we announced an A$2.6 billion investment there, for the construction of a bauxite mine, processing and port facilities. At the request of Traditional Owners, we named it Amrun, the Wik‑Waya name for a sandy point near the mine.
Elder Tony Kerindan, or Uncle Tony as he is known, and the Wik-Waya have been intimately involved in planning for the mine from the start, ensuring their land, sea and culture are protected while the community benefits from career, education and business development opportunities the mine brings.
Reconciliation Australia chief executive Karen Mundine, a member of the Bundjalung Nation in northern New South Wales, says a visit to Amrun, which we commissioned in 2019, left a strong impression on her.
“From the moment we stepped off the ferry, we could see a welcoming embrace, we could see culture, living within the operation,” Karen says. “It’s not just because of the naming, it’s the way that people interact, what they do and the thought that goes into it, which demonstrates that it's not just words, it actually means something.”
Across the Gulf of Carpentaria, in northeast Arnhem land, our Gove mine is closer to the end of its life than its beginning. Here we are working with local people and communities on life after mining finishes.
Phillipa Dhagapan and Sam Bidingal are both began as trainees and now are full time operators at the mine, part of our Australia-wide commitment to support trainee and apprenticeship opportunities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. The two Yolgnu people are both pursuing a career operating machinery they had sought since they were kids.
Phillipa’s interest was sparked by her father, who operated atrucks, and Sam’s by a childhood fascination with big machinery.
They are training at Gove to get skills that can give them long-term employment once the mine closes and can inspire younger members of their home communities.
Phillipa, from the Community of Lake Evella, a three-hour drive from Gove, says she hopes training and a job at our mine will mean that in the future she can operate heavy machinery on roadworks. “I loved seeing Dad on the machines and I’d always said one day I’d follow his steps,” she says. “It’s similar to what Dad was doing - this is the best chance for me to learn to drive loaders and trucks and after that to be an operator, get more skills and be a heavy duty truck driver.”
Philippa says it was a little scary when she saw our giant mining trucks, but any trepidation soon disappeared.
"I got a big smile on my face when I drove the trucks, this is awesome… I just love it," she says.
Phillipa and Sam both say it is important to set an example for younger members of the community.
“I need to show them how I’ve learned and got more skills from Rio Tinto,” Phillipa says. “I need to show them they can put in effort and be new trainees, and become an operator like me.”
Sam, who is also from the Community of Lake Evella, has been keen to work with big machinery since he was boy. He is now working at our mine site driving haul trucks, water carts and rollers. “Growing up as a kid, I always liked machines and how they operate,” he says.
He wants to be a role model for younger kids who will be the Indigenous leaders of the future. “It’s important, getting more experience and feeding back to the community what I learn from Rio Tinto,” Sam says. “All my nieces and nephews see me going to work every day... I feed back to the community what I do and to the school as well.” When mining finishes at Gove, Sam wants to use his experience to work at other mines in different regions.
The art is on Murujuga, the traditional name for the Dampier Archipelago and Burrup Peninsula, where there are more than a million rock engravings, spanning more than 20,000 years, from before the last ice age, to European occupation.
The Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation looks after the rock art on behalf of the five Traditional Owner groups and custodians of the Burrup: the Yaburara, Marduthunera, Ngarluma, Yindjibarndi, and Woon-goo-tt-oo people. “When we talk about Murujuga, we talk about connection to country being about a link to creation, since the beginning of time,” says Ngarluma man and Murujuga chief executive Peter Jeffries.
“We have art on the Burrup ranging from the Creation Spirit, that we call the Marrga, there are other spirits that lived in that Dreamtime, [and] there are also marine and land animals that we’ve taken for food or observed and art from first contact, the sailing ships that first came to the country.”
Much of the art comes from a time when the sea level was 70 metres lower and the islands were hills on a fertile plain and hunting ground. The carvings include those of land and marine animals, people, spirits and tracks. There are Tasmanian devils and thylacines (Tasmanian tigers), from when they roamed the mainland, extinct megafauna and some unknown macropod species.
The engravings have links to art in Arnhem Land, in the Northern Territory, and South Australia, confirming ancient highways where goods, ideas and art were exchanged over vast distances.
In 2019, in partnership with the University of Western Australia (UWA), we announced a five-year funding arrangement for rock art research, an extension of our longstanding rock art research partnership with UWA. UWA Vice-Chancellor Professor Dawn Freshwater said the agreement was important for the preservation of the State’s rock art and Aboriginal storytelling.
“The custodians of the land inscribed their story onto the land itself,” Professor Freshwater said.
They told a story of land and landscape, history and society, beliefs and ideas. The story is as complex and fascinating as the people who created it. They left their signs for us; they still sing to us from the rocks.
Professor Dawn Freshwater, Vice-Chancellor, University of Western Australia