Sunrise Country

Of Time ‐ Place ‐ History ‐ Geography ‐ Geology ‐ Life ‐ Links ‐ Web Community ‐ Commerce … and Art So. Eastern Arnhem Land. I carried on zooming over the map, compelled to explore deeper. Flying as the girl in my childhood dreams, above the red earth tracks and trails, ridges and bluffs, inlets and promontories of this ancient land. And then a few miles to the west of Nhulunbuy, among the eucalypt woodlands, vibrant patches of a different colour became visible. Closer in to a dramatic striped patchwork of strong orange red and pink. Strange and possibly beautiful from the air but clearly not the natural landscape.

Google map, left: area near Nhulunbuy showing orange/pink/red scar; Google map, right: close up of surface mined strips at Rio T

Agriculture? . . . Mining? The brain flips backwards and remembers A level geography lessons with Miss Povah, my badly drawn outline of Australia and a simple dot at the top end of the map labeled bauxite. And now in front of me here, nearly forty years later, could this be the startlingly harsh impact of that crumb of knowledge? The hidden price we pay for our aluminum foil? So, I google bauxite and sure enough find that the sedimentary rocks laid down 1500 million years ago are perfect for the formation of laterite “a reddish clayey material… forming a top soil in some tropical or sub-tropical regions.” and… “rich in iron and aluminum oxides.” And, because the ore is found close to the surface, the resulting bauxite is strip-mined in open pits. And that one of the processes of the alumina refining “involves separation of ferruginous residue (red mud) by filtering”. All I think visible in the above images. I read that Australia is the top producer of bauxite in the world and this Rio Tinto Alcan mine the third largest in the country (annual production valued at AUD£605 million!) with at least thirty years of reserves. I learn that Nhulunbuy was built in the early1970’s to service the bauxite mine. And I learn the whole region has been ancestral home to the indigenous Yolngu Aboriginal people for at least 40,000 years.

Google map, left: Yirrkala and surrounding mine workings; Google map, right: blocks of land mapped out in strips south of Yirrkala

Further aerial searches reveal many more blocks of virgin bush mapped out in strip configuration (above), branding this land of wandering tracks and pristine white beaches and surrounding Yirrkala which has been home to an indigenous community throughout recorded history. Are these areas destined for future workings I wonder? I start to feel uneasy. Northeastern Arnhem Land is most noted for its remoteness, as an area of unspoiled wilderness and the enduring traditions of its indigenous inhabitants. Here, the profound interconnectedness of culture, clans, knowledge, law and land is passed to future generations through song/ dance/ art and ritual; firmly binding the ancient and the living, the past and the present and all life. So it is not surprising that in the early 60’s the indigenous population were strongly opposed to the Federal Government’s decision to excise significant areas of their ancestral land for bauxite mining. At a time when the world was waking up to and respecting Aboriginal art traditions, they used their visual art as a political tool – eventually to great effect. I have been reading about the Yirrkala Bark Petitions which were sent to the House of Representatives in 1963 to protest against the granting of Nabalco’s mining authorisation in the area. They both visually and textually assert the Yolngu people’s connection and rights to their land and now hang in Parliament House in Canberra; a striking testament to this period in Australian history.

Yirrkala Bark Petition sent to House of Representatives, Canberra, January 1963

And I learn that in 1968, when the government had still not changed their position, the Yolngu made a direct challenge to the mining company in a famous legal case: Milirrpum v Nabalco. Although that too failed because the authorities still refuted any ownership of land prior to white settlement, it inspired national protest resulting in wider awareness of the claims of Yolngu and indigenous people throughout Australia. It ‘opened the way to the passage of the Land Rights Act (Northern Territory) in 1976, the beginnings of legal recognition of Aboriginal title to land and the eventual voiding of the doctrine of terra nullius.’ I was nine in 1963 and graduated in 1976, an English girl and young woman on the other side of the world slowly awakening to world issues. Now in 2009, through participation in the World Beach Project and hours of fascinating research, I feel strongly drawn to a culture where there is a constant interplay between art and land coupled with a powerful link to the past. Through the journey of research I have come upon many fascinating sites, some of which I’d like to share with you here. Yirrkala is the vibrant hub of the area’s rich creativity and the Buku-Larrngay Mulka Centre is at the heart of it, displaying a vast range of work including Nuwayak (painting on bark), Larrakitj (memorial poles) and a print work shop: the Yirrkala Print Space. These two sites are part of the same whole. As with all the websites I mention here, it’s worth checking out all the sections and their relevant subsections to see the depth and richness of the various projects. Through this site also, I came upon The Mulka Project which ‘provides meaningful employment and empowerment to the Yirrkala community by allowing Yolngu Aboriginal People to take control of documents of their culture in modern digital media’. It contains more extremely interesting short videos, many of which are featured on their own channel on YouTube. The mission statement: “ We want to bring knowledge of the past into the present, to preserve it for future generations and to understand what meaning it has in the present day and age.” It could have been written for the V&A. And here an absorbing site about The Yolngu and the making of three films documenting ceremony and ritual across forty years.

Yidaki or didjeridu. Image courtesy the 'Artistic Yidaki Gallery' from the Buku- Larrngay Mulka Centre website; Right: Handwoven Nyalka of pandanus grass by Caroline Gulumindiwuy, Northeastern Arnhem Land

Left: Yidaki. (Image courtesy the ‘Artistic Yidaki Gallery’ form the Buku- Larrngay Mulka Centre website). Right: Handwoven Nyalka of pandanus grass by Caroline Gulumindiwuy, Northeastern Arnhem Land. The Yidaki (didjeridu) originated in Arnhem Land and Yidakiwuy Dhawu Miwatjnurunydja is a very good site covering everything you might ever want to know about this instrument. From that site there is a link to Useful Websites Owned By or Made in Collaboration with Yolngu The list includes environmental, political, education and creative issues. From here I found the very interesting Arnhem Weavers containing a number of fascinating short Quick time movies. And to prove that World Beach is so not new… I also discovered two images of stone arrangements found near Yirrkala and constructed over 100 years ago. The stones describe the shape of a Macassan fishing boat and were constructed by Yolngu elders to educate future generations about the history of the Macassan traders who visited this coastline from Indonesia over several centuries.

Part of the Yirrkala stone arrangement representing a Macassan fishing boat; Right: Yolngu stone arrangement

(Left hand image photo credit: Ray Norris) Stunning technology allows us to celebrate the uniqueness of our human handmark across generations and across the planet; to connect to the individual. It also causes us to become witness to our own human impact on the earth. I grew up in the coal mining environment of Northeast Derbyshire. Huge black slagheaps were strung across the landscape. I never saw it from the air, I imagine it would have looked pretty ugly. The pits are now long gone and the air is cleaner. Parks and paths and fields and trees green the land. The scars are evident but much healed. I do wonder if the bauxite scars of Northeastern Arnhem Land will be healed with an active programme of environmental regeneration at some point in the future and that the Yolngu will be able to walk freely across their lands once more?


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