One of Australia’s largest inland salt lakes is a sacred site to the Aboriginal nations surrounding it, but it does not have any native title protections.
- Lake Torrens is a sacred site to at least four Aboriginal groups: the Kokatha, Barngarla, Adnyamathanha, and Kuyani
- In 2016, a Supreme Court case determined that native title would not be given to any group
- The South Australian Government is considering a proposal for exploratory drilling on the lake
Lake Torrens, 450 kilometres north of Adelaide, is a national park and a sacred site to the Barngarla, Kokatha, Kuyani and Adnyamathanha people.
Kelaray, a subsidiary of mining company Argonaut Resources, plans to conduct exploratory drilling on the lake.
Kuyani woman Regina McKenzie said her people had a deep connection with the lake.
“The Kuyani were the law holders of what anthropologists would call the lake’s culture people,” she said.
Ms McKenzie said the lake’s culture people were Aboriginal nations that surrounded Lake Torrens before European settlement.
“Kuyani bore the brunt of a lot of massacres in the areas that they lived,” she said.
“My grandmother was born at Arkoona, and her generation witnessed the destruction of Kuyani people. They found refuge in the hills of the Flinders Ranges with the Adnyamathanha.”
“Lake Torrens is very important to the Kuyani. The name we call it is Ngarndamukia, which means ‘shower of rain’.
“All the different stories that go across this lake are significant and very central to the Kuyani people.”
The Kokatha, Barngarla and Adnyamathanha/Kuyani people had separate native title claims, but during the Lake Torrens Overlap Proceeding in 2016 the Supreme Court determined that native title would not be given to any group.
That is because it could not be determined if any of them had ownership before colonisation of the area.
“I am not persuaded that a determination of native title in favour of any of the three applicants should be made in respect of any part of the claim area,” Justice John Mansfield said in his determination.
The Kokatha did have native title over the lake, but that was extinguished during the 2016 proceeding.
Heritage services manager with the Kokatha Aboriginal Council, Glen Wingfield, said his people maintained a deep connection with Lake Torrens.
“The Kokatha people have been around for many years and have connections to that lake,” he said.
“The oldest maps that have been around for many years show that they’ve had connection and are connected to it.”
Mr Wingfield said Lake Torrens was an important site for other nations, not just the Kokatha.
“If the government can find it in their heart to not give the drilling rights … because once they do the drilling, it ends up like lakes in America and they can’t be used.”
Peter Sutton is an anthropologist with the South Australian Museum and was an expert witness for the South Australian Government during the 2016 Supreme Court proceeding.
He gave evidence stating the Kuyani had the strongest connection to Lake Torrens.
“The northern half of the claim area, the lake, and the surrounding area for quite some distance, was part of the Kuyani language area,” Professor Sutton said.
His assessment was that the Kokatha people had moved into the Lake Torrens area after colonisation and worked on surrounding sheep stations.
“Their mythology for the lake and surrounds didn’t match the mythology of the people that were there before them,” Professor Sutton said.
“This was a problem for any kind of attempts to unify a claim or coming to some kind of agreement.
“This area doesn’t have any great deal of records, so if any deal like that was done it didn’t manage to get recorded.”
Despite native title not being recognised on Lake Torrens, Professor Sutton said surrounding Aboriginal nations maintained a strong connection to it.
“It may be relevant how old the connection is, the particular mythology for one of the groups can’t be found until the 1990s,” he said.
Argonaut Resources CEO Lindsay Owler declined to comment but said his company’s proposal was to conduct exploratory drilling on the Lake Torrens surface.
The proposal comes after Rio Tinto faced fierce criticism for its destruction of caves at Juukan Gorge, a culturally significant Aboriginal site in the West Australian Pilbara region.
Strict environmental guidelines
South Australian Mining Minister Dan van Holst Pellekaan said any mining on the surface of Lake Torrens would be done under strict environmental guidelines.
“Drilling on a salt lake is a far more delicate operation than drilling on the shore away from the lake,” he said.
He said the State Government would get expert advice and decide if the mining application would harm Aboriginal culture.
“If they decide that it would, then the activity is not allowed to go ahead,” he said.
“If they decide it would be permissible, from their perspective, then it comes back to the Department of Energy and Mining for consideration.”
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