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McArthur River Mine


It’s six o’clock on a Monday night and the day shift at McArthur River Mine is just knocking off work.

After 12 hours at the wheel of a 200-tonne truck or the controls of a mill grinding 14,000 tonnes of ore a day, these men and women are ready for dinner and a good night’s sleep.

But rather than heading to the kitchen, many of them are instead gravitating to a quiet corner of garden nearby. In a specially designed garden of natural trees that provide both shade and seeds, Gudanji and Garrwa women and men are teaching MRM employees skills that have been passed down to them through generations.

Sitting on mats on the ground or next to a fire pit, they are making spears or jewellery, weaving baskets, cooking up bush tucker, boiling bush medicine or creating extraordinary artworks inspired by their country.

Every two weeks or so, traditional Aboriginal Cultural Workshops take place at the mine site, 720 km southeast of Darwin, in the heart of Gudanji country.

It’s a way of giving all the mine’s workers an insight into local Indigenous knowledge. It also brings together the mine’s local workers and their families – one night three generations were making bush medicine together – and sets a platform for building respect across cultures.

MRM Senior Community Engagement Advisor Rebecca Gentle started the program three years ago. It began as an extension of work she was doing to help create a book about bush plants on and around the mine site.

“As the ladies were explaining the uses of plants to me, I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be fantastic if other people who work at the mine could learn about this too?’,” she says.

“The ladies were happy to come and show other people about how they make bush medicine and the most amazing bush tucker cook-ups, so we arranged for them to come to site after day shift a couple of times.”

The workshops grew so much in popularity that a dedicated space has now been created to host them. It includes a fire pit and cleared space where people can sit, create and share stories.

Peggy Mawson is a Gudanji elder with a fierce determination to ensure Indigenous cultural knowledge is passed to future generations. She is also a gifted artist and quiet storyteller who enjoys yarning with the mine workers.

She is one of a number of elders who take part in the program, and says her reward is seeing family members and others working at the mine enjoy the experience.

“Everyone is nice to us and us like sharing what the old people taught us,” she says. “I think that it is funny when we are doing a bush tucker cook-up – everyone wants our food, but we like to eat in the kitchen first.

“It feels like home when I am out here. Depending on what workshop we are doing, we normally go out bush around the mine and Bing Bong to collect what we need.

“It could be dumbuyumbu (sandalwood leaves), wagarra (pandanus), binjirri (paperbark) or just collecting seeds from different trees. Sometimes we have to collect things in advance, so that they can dry out. Other times we have to collect them just before the workshop starts so they stay good.”

Similarly, Garrwa elder Shirley Simon has family on-site, too.

“My daughter and her sons work here at the mine. It is good when they come to the workshops and help us teach what we know to all the mine workers,” she says.

“We have had some funny times trying to teach people stuff. One time we found sugar bag and one of the men was helping us get it and he didn’t understand what we were telling him. He got blisters from trying to chop the tree the wrong way.”

Earlier this year, MRM appointed two cultural advisors – senior men from the local community: Gudanji man Chris Pluto and Garrwa-Gudanji man Alan Baker – to help take the program forward and support other elements of the site’s Cultural Respect Strategy.

Chris has become a mentor to many local employees, not just the new trainees who are coming through.

It can be hard for local people to settle into a full-time production role, as they have roles in the community that are almost full-time as well. Chris helps to break down the communication barriers by being there to listen and give advice when needed.

He remembers his dad telling him of the places around the mine site and the stories that come with that.

“It’s good to get out and see these places again. It has been a long time since I have seen them,” he says.

Alan and some of his family are now working for MRM full-time. He was instrumental in diversifying the mine’s Cultural Workshops.

“I was working at the school and my nannas, Peggy and Shirley, would come home and talk about these workshops that they were doing out on the mine site,” he says.

“I was intrigued and asked if I could go along to one in the school holidays. I think I did half of one and then I was roped in to planning and helping with every one of them since.”

Alan’s role is as diverse as it is rewarding.

“No two days are ever the same. That’s one thing I like about working at MRM. The other reason that it’s good is that people are genuinely interested in learning about our local culture and traditions,” he says.

For MRM senior geotechnical engineer Carrie Heaven, the cultural workshops are the opportunity to learn more about the culture of the land she works on.

“It’s amazing that we get the opportunity to meet and engage with Traditional Owners teaching us some of their skills while we are at work,” she says.

“It is a truly authentic experience that leaves you feeling more connected with the land we work on.”

With two Indigenous trainees working in her department, Carrie says the shared experience helps bring people together in the workplace as well.

“Attending the cultural workshops as a team has given my trainees the opportunity to share some of their own knowledge and skills with other team members, and made them feel welcome while reinforcing the idea that everyone has valuable skills they can teach others.”