By Bobbie Chew Bigby (Cherokee)
Before arriving in Australia’s southwestern region, I had taken the time to familiarize myself with photographs of the Cornwall Pit, a key site—now turned tourism attraction—at one of the world’s largest lithium mines. Now, on the ground, walking to the top of the mine’s lookout site and gazing down through the protective fence toward the mine pit bottom, this view of the landscape literally took my breath away. No singular aspect of the mine pit caught my attention with that first in-person look, even though many distinctive sights abounded, from the haul trucks winding around the edges of the pit’s stairstep levels to the dark, olive-colored pool of water at the pit bottom. Instead, my senses were overwhelmed by how the Cornwall Pit stood as a profound rupture to the land and waterscape I had been taking in over the hours-long drive from the city of Perth. I was no longer looking out onto the Jarrah or Marri tree forests, the wattles, banksia flowers, patches of wildflowers, and kangaroo paw plants unique to this area of Western Australia. Instead, I was gazing out towards a gash in the landscape where I was not hearing birds or spotting any crayfish in the shallow bodies of water. What I saw looked like a jagged and raw wound carved into the flesh of the Country—and an indication of what might increasingly become the new normal in this time of transition to ”green” economies and energy sources across the world.
First look at the Cornwall Pit lithium mine.
With this introductory journey to the Cornwall Pit mine lookout, I had officially arrived in the town of Greenbushes, Western Australia. The Greenbushes area is known for being the longest continuously operated mining district in Western Australia, beginning with tin mining in the late 1880s and continuing to mining of tantalum and lithium deposits today. The state of Western Australia is known both within Australia and globally as one of the world’s mining powerhouses, whether it is iron ore, rare earth metals, or staple transition minerals like lithium that are needed for electric vehicles. Given that this area in the far southwestern corner of Australia has the world’s highest grade and largest defined hard rock deposit of the lithium mineral spodumene, it comes as little surprise that Australia is the world’s top supplier of this increasingly coveted metal. For several decades now, this high-grade lithium has been mined in and exported from Australia, processed in China, and then used in batteries powering key technologies of our modern day existence, such as smartphones, electric grids, and electric vehicles.
The Talison Lithium mining company’s welcome sign directing visitors to the public lookout at the Cornwall Pit.
Yet, Australia’s position as the world’s top lithium source has recently encountered rising competition, particularly from countries in South America. In Argentina, Chile, and Bolivia, where salt flats comprise unique parts of the Andean plateau landscape, lithium has been found within the brine of these salty flats. Extracting lithium from this part of the world requires technologies different from those used for hard rock mining in Australia. Namely, the lithium extraction employed in the Americas, both South and North, has focused on brine mining, a process where pools of brine containing water, salt, lithium, and other minerals are evaporated over months to leave the lithium in its more concentrated form. Aerial photos of these mining sites often show eerily fluorescent, bright blue, green, and green-yellow evaporating pools against a stark landscape of snow white salt flats. For the economies of these South American nations, lithium mining represents a potential economic boon while also promising to position these countries more securely into the green energy system. But South America is not alone in pursuing this type of lithium mining, as movements such as People of Red Mountain demonstrate. This advocacy group of the Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone Tribes are engaged in an ongoing struggle of opposition to a new lithium mine at Thacker Pass, Nevada, located in an area considered to be the largest known lithium deposit within the United States. Although, it should be noted that some Tribal members have shown support for the mine.
Just as these new and oncoming waves of lithium mining have drawn mixed responses of vehement opposition and support from the Indigenous communities on whose lands this mining is taking place, there are reminders everywhere throughout the southwest of Australia that this region is, and always has been, Noongar Country. The Noongar, a large Aboriginal Australian Peoples of 14 different clans, are the traditional owners of much of the territory of southwestern Australia, sharing a common language and cultural background with regional variations. Within the settler-colonial context of Australia, Noongar Traditional Owners have been recognized through the Native Title system as maintaining certain rights and responsibilities in relation to their traditional Country. The Native Title Settlement granted to the Noongar Peoples was the largest settlement ever provided to an Indigenous Australian group. This settlement recognizes that “since time immemorial, the Noongar people have maintained a living cultural, spiritual, familial, and social relationship with Noongar boodja (Country).” This recognition via the settlement does not, however, equate to the level of recognition or rights, particularly on an economic level, granted by numerous treaties of other settler-colonial Indigenous States, such as in the U.S., Canada, or Aotearoa (New Zealand). Further, as the recent Australian referendum just demonstrated, the proposal for Indigenous Australians to have recognition in the national constitution and a voice in Parliament was rejected by a majority of voters across the country. While this referendum was supported by a large number of Indigenous Australians across the country, there were also diverse and dissenting opinions about this proposal and its potential for delivering greater rights and sovereignty for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.
Back out at Greenbushes on the day of my visit there, the frigid morning temperatures make it clear that it is Djilba season, the coldest time of year, running from August to September in this corner of the southern hemisphere. Noongar people traditionally have identified six seasons, each characterized by the animals, plants, temperature variations, and moisture levels in the Country. But even more importantly, the seasons are shaped by human activities in relation to stewardship of and engagement with the living landscapes. At the nearby Greenbushes nature walk and pool, an informational sign educates visitors about the traditional Noongar seasonal calendar. Djilba season is when big game animals such as kangaroos and emus were traditionally hunted for sustenance, roots were collected, and people knew by the flowering of the local Moodjar Christmas tree to migrate to the coast. This Moodjar tree, with its vibrant orange flowers, is considered to be one of the most sacred trees on Noongar Country. Other seasons, such as Birak and Bunuru, which mark the hottest times of year, were the most appropriate times for seasonal burns—often referred to as prescribed, or cool burning—that would help to replenish vegetational growth and prevent massive wildfires.
Greenbushes pool offers an area for recreation as well as local wildlife.
An interpretive sign around the pool detailing the six traditional Noongar seasons, as well as local plant species.
The Greenbushes nature walk and pool area is a space for the local flora and fauna. Ringed by paperbark trees that spill into the surrounding Jarrah and Marri forest area, the interpretative signage of the area helps to highlight the local animal species that are mostly nocturnal and human-weary, ranging from small and large marsupials to the tiny dunnart, western grey kangaroo, and other mammals. The birds, insects, frogs, and native plants are easier for visitors to spot, and they come in a spectrum of colors.
An up close image of a paperbark tree.
Yet, even in this haven for wildlife, the legacy of tin and lithium mining is embedded within the lands, waters, and character of this part of Noongar Country—though it is not always clear at first glance. Visitors arriving at the Greenbushes pool and nature walk are greeted by the sight of an apparently pristine pond with a surrounding nature walkway. But the historical interpretive sign detailing the history of the Greenbushes pool reveals that the pool was man made, created by a tin dredge in the tin mining boom of the late 1800s. The pool, previously called Mitchell’s Dam, was the center of mining operations in the early part of the 20th century while simultaneously used by the community as a recreational space and swimming area. It was not until the 1930s that the Mining Department designated the area as a recreational pool and placed restrictions on dumping slurry and tailings into the pool water. One local resident recalled that the Greenbushes slurry pool was a favorite playground of children in the area, who would have to wash off the thick, white slurry liquid after playtime. The stunning connection to mining as a literal foundation for the natural and human communities of Greenbushes is further reinforced through the colorful murals dotting the sides of the restrooms at the park. Next to vividly colored paintings of the local church and primary school is the other part of the community, the Cornwall Pit mine site. For many, this mine pit represents not an open, gaping hole in the land, but an iconic, foundational branch in making Greenbushes the community it is today and a source of livelihood for many living there. This image of the Cornwall Pit is particularly striking since it features not only the jagged scars on the Country, but is adorned at the bottom by images of a curious emu, local banksia flowers, and the nuts of the Marri tree, members of the community that likewise are impacted by all human interactions with Country.
The mural adorning the side of the public restroom and changing area showing scenes from the local Greenbushes community.
An up close view of one of the key sites in the community, the Cornwall Pit.
While mining is undoubtedly a major influence and activity across Western Australia, being inextricably embedded into places like Greenbushes, there are some who feel that mining should not guide how we humans treat or view Country. This aversion stems from the viewpoint that land and waterscapes are living, sentient forces, a worldview that resonates deeply with many traditional Noongar beliefs toward Country. An important Noongar concept that illustrates this worldview and the ethos of care that humans assume towards Country is the term kurduboojar, or love of place. A group of scholars with deep ties to Noongar Country write that this term is a way of seeing, respecting, and deeply caring for Country in a Noongar way. This term helps not only to offer a different perspective toward understanding lands and waters as living beings, but actively shapes how we can relate to Noongar Country in a different way—a way that emphasizes care, reciprocity, stewardship, and, above all, deep love. These authors show that while the concept of kurduboojar stems from Noongar traditions, all people who interact with Noongar Country are able to care for and show love toward this beautiful place.
Tour operator and culture keeper, Troy Bennell (Noongar), has led and operated Ngalang Wongi Aboriginal Cultural Tours in the Bunbury area of Western Australia for many years, telling the stories and sharing the culture of his traditional part of Noongar Country, Wardandi Noongar Country. As my colleague Nikki and I walk alongside Troy on his tour at the edge of the bank of the Collie River and Bunbury estuary, he shares stories of how the local plants, animals, and waterways are all connected to Noongar people through the concept of the Nyitting (Dreaming). The Dreaming refers to the ancestral time of Noongar people and comprises a comprehensive set of traditional stories and values representing sources of deep Noongar knowledge that date back tens of thousands of years, but are relevant and alive in grounding Noongar people to Noongar Country in the present. Troy expresses some of these key points of connection between Wardandi Noongar culture and Country not only through the stories he tells on his tours, but also through the murals he paints throughout town that incorporate his knowledge of Noongar language and lore. An important stop on his tour is Wardandi Memorial Park, a burial site and resting place for many of his Noongar ancestors, right at the edge of the Bunbury coast overlooking the Indian Ocean. The unadorned rock headstones face out towards the wide coastline with the strong waves crashing on shore in continuous cycles. Troy shares that at one time, the Bunbury town coastline had been dotted by sand cliffs, but they were destroyed years back, blown up to gain access to the mineral sands they contained. He sighs, pointing to yet another example of the ways that mining throughout his area of Country represents the ongoing subjugation of his people, his culture, and his land.
Troy Bennell, operator of Ngalang Wongi Aboriginal Cultural Tours, describing his connections to Wardandi Noongar Country and language that are reflected in his mural in the town of Bunbury.
Back up north in the city of Perth, which is situated squarely within Whadjuk Noongar Country, a sprawling park sits at the edge of the Swan River that winds like a serpent through the heart of this metropolitan city. Kings Park and Botanic Garden prides itself in being one of the largest city parks in the world, while also aiming to serve as a site of living cultural heritage and interpretation. It is within this bountiful park landscape that Kerry-Ann Winmar (Whadjuk Nyungar) has proudly offered her Nyungar Tours since 2018. Joining Kerry-Ann on a walking tour through this living landscape, her storytelling interweaves both the deep cultural and botanical knowledge that she carries with her as a proud Nyungar yorga, or Noongar woman. Within many Indigenous Australian communities, the knowledge of medicinal and nutritious plants (often called “bush tucker” or “bush medicines”) is often the domain of Indigenous women. Kerry-Ann guides us on a brisk walk through the park’s nearly 3,000 plant species, pointing out that the state of Western Australia is home to nearly half of Australia’s 25,000 total plant species, with two-thirds of these not found anywhere else on earth. Kerry-Ann invites us visitors to repeat after her the original, Noongar names for these unique trees, flowers, pods, and other growths, while also giving us the chance to taste the nectar of the green birdflower or learn about the exceptional antiseptic and nutritional qualities of countless edible plants. An important highlight of this tour through the botanical wonders of Whadjuk Noongar Country was an encounter with the towering Marri trees, which shed a bright, blood red gum paste full of antiseptic properties. A tree that bleeds red blood, just as we humans do. This is a reminder that even in relation to the plant world, we humans share so much more in common than we realize.
Kerry-Ann Winmar, operator of Nyungar Tours, shares cultural knowledge of plants during her tour in Kings Park in Perth.
The blood-red color of the gum oozing from the unique Marri trees of the area contains antiseptic qualities that Traditional Owners have always known and respected.
Without a doubt, journeying across different parts of Noongar boodja shows the extremes that human relationships with Country can take. Seeing up close the mounds of mine tailings and the way that bodies of land and water have been reshaped by extraction, while also observing the way that animals and plants unique to this land have nourished communities over millennia, the contrasts in relationships are stark. Yet, Noongar Country remains, and proud Noongar voices, such as those of Troy and Kerry-Ann, help to keep those stories and traditions alive in a way that embodies the Noongar perspective of kurduboodjar. This term would serve well as a guiding ethos for all people who spend time in Noongar Country, whether they are passing through as tourists or call these lands home; whether they are staring into the open mine pit wounds dotting the Country, or are fed by the life-giving bush tucker that can only be found in this special corner of the world.
The distinctive kangaroo paw plant found only in this area of the world.
--Bobbie Chew Bigby (Cherokee Nation) is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Waterloo, Ontario, where she researches the intersections between Indigenous-led tourism and resurgence.
Top photo: Nuts of the Marri tree with Cornwall Pit in the background.
Much gratitude to Dr. Nicole Curtin, husband Tony, and family for being such wonderful hosts while on Noongar Country and helping to inform and broaden my understanding on what lithium and mining processes can mean for people and place. My thanks to Kerry-Ann Winmar and Troy Bennell for serving as inspiring tour guides and knowledge keepers. A big thank you as well to Dr. Sandra Wooltorton and Len Collard for helping to facilitate and inspire connections and thinking about all things in Noongar boodja.