• The Wintawari Guruma Aboriginal Corporation says it has only recently discovered that hundreds of ancient artefacts were destroyed at a Darwin rubbish tip. (Supplied)Source: Supplied
The Wintawari Guruma Aboriginal Corporation has made a powerful submission to the federal parliamentary inquiry into the destruction of ancient rock shelters at Juukan Gorge in the Pilbara.
Karen Michelmore

25 Jun 2021 - 5:18 PM  UPDATED 25 Jun 2021 - 7:32 PM

Traditional owners in Western Australia’s Pilbara region have called for an independent investigation into a “shameful history” which saw hundreds of ancient artefacts dumped at a Darwin rubbish tip.

The Wintawari Guruma Aboriginal Corporation (WGAC) said it has uncovered secret evidence of the destruction of Eastern Guruma cultural material that was kept from them from 25 years.

It has called for the immediate repeal of a 30-year-old law which removed Aboriginal heritage protection laws from the culturally significant Marandoo area in Karijini National Park, and gave Hamersley Iron (later Rio Tinto Iron Ore) permission to mine the area.

“We call on the new Minister for Aboriginal Affairs [Stephen Dawson] to repeal the Aboriginal Heritage (Marandoo) Act immediately and to require Rio to comply with basic cultural heritage protection measures,” the corporation, representing the Eastern Guruma, said in a statement.

“Why successive governments have continued to give Rio a leave pass on Aboriginal heritage protection at Marandoo is unclear.”

Artefact destruction laid out in Juukan submission

Details of the loss of the artefacts, collected at 28 culturally significant sites including 20 rock shelters in early 1992, are laid out in a new submission to a federal parliament inquiry investigating Rio Tinto’s destruction of ancient rock shelters at Juukan Gorge in the Pilbara.

It’s been a year since Rio Tinto blew up the 46,000-year-old rock shelters on the land of the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura (PKKP) people, sparking global condemnation and the federal parliamentary inquiry which is ongoing.

The WGAC said 28 years before the destruction at Juukan Gorge, Rio Tinto had “completely failed” in its responsibility “to show any standard of care for our cultural heritage”.

“So little was the respect for either the State’s conditions, or for the cultural heritage that was destroyed on a massive scale, hundreds of Eastern Guruma cultural artefacts ended up in the bin,” the corporation said.

“It is WGAC’s view that the accidental, and then deliberate, discarding and destruction of Eastern Guruma cultural material was never disclosed to the Eastern Guruma people.”

 “It is indicative of a mining industry that has not valued Aboriginal heritage and good relations with Aboriginal Australians.

“It is an industry that hasn’t behaved responsibly and an industry that needs far greater oversight in heritage protection and agreement making.”

Sites showed Ice Age history

The introduction of the Aboriginal Heritage (Marandoo) Act in 1992 removed heritage protection from the culturally significant area, and “permitted the unregulated destruction of Eastern Guruma cultural heritage”, the corporation said.

Under the law, the mining company was required to undertake a salvage and management program of the area, including the safekeeping of cultural materials.

In early 1992, a survey identified 105 heritage sites. A further 300 sites were located but not recorded or documented “in any way”, the corporation’s submission said.

A report that year noted the area’s “outstanding archaeological and cultural significance”, including one rock shelter containing cultural materials which were 18,000 years old, the first evidence that Aboriginal people had lived in the Hamersley Ranges through the last ice age.

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But the corporation’s investigation found that within five years the items salvaged had been destroyed.

The submission said that in 1997 the Northern Territory University had sent a report the mining company detailing how the Marandoo cultural materials “were poorly stored, mislabelled and allowed to sit for a prolonged period in a rusted-out sea container”.

“The report noted that the cultural material had become water damaged and that some of the cultural materials known to have been stored in 1996 could no longer be found, while others were mixed together,” the submission said.

“The report advises that cultural material from some sites had been re-bagged and returned to Rio Tinto Iron Ore.

“The rest of the excavated cultural material from the remaining sites had been taken to the tip in Darwin and thrown away.”

"Left with nothing"

The Eastern Guruma directors wrote in the submission they’ve been “left with nothing”.

“Only now we find out what really happened, that no one cared for our artefacts, our Old People’s things,” the directors said.

“It hurts us that our heritage was thrown in the bin.”

The corporation said under the Marandoo law, Rio Tinto only had to comply with four conditions, but “did not even do that.”

Rio Tinto outsourced the 1992 salvage work to a private engineering company, which sent material from a small number of rock shelters to the University of Western Australia, while the bulk of it was shipped to the Northern Territory University.

Rio Tinto apologises for Marandoo

Rio Tinto chief executive Iron Ore Simon Trott apologised to the Eastern Guruma people for the company’s past actions.

He said the company supported the repealing of the Marandoo Act.

“We’re not proud of many parts of our history at Marandoo and we reiterate our apology to the Traditional Owners of the land, the Eastern Guruma people,” Mr Trott said in a statement.

“We know we have a lot of work ahead to right some of these historical wrongs which fell way short of the standards we expect today.

“This will take time, consistent effort and open dialogue with the WGAC to rebuild trust and reset our relationship for the future.

“Our leadership team are engaging regularly on this important work and are committed to meeting with the WGAC again when they are ready.”

A spokeswoman for WA Aboriginal Affairs Minister Stephen Dawson said the draft Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Bill proposes the repeal of the Aboriginal Heritage (Marandoo) Act 1992.

"The State Government has been in discussion with Rio Tinto and Traditional Owners about this matter," the spokeswoman said in a statement.

"The McGowan Government continues to make improvements to the Draft Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Bill based on feedback from stakeholders, as we work towards the historic reform of Western Australia’s outdated Aboriginal cultural heritage system."

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