PKKP keeps gorge destruction secret from elderly daughter of Juukan over fears for health

The traditional owners of the 46,000-year-old Juukan Gorge rockshelters have revealed they have kept their destruction a secret from the last living child of the man who they were named after over fears she would pass at the news.

In its first public comments since the blast, contained in a submission to a parliamentary inquiry, the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura Aboriginal Corporation outlined their feelings of betrayal by Rio Tinto and the heartbreak and guilt at the loss of the rockshelters, a significant part of their land and story.

The Juukan Gorge blasts cost the jobs of three Rio Tinto executives.
The Juukan Gorge blasts cost the jobs of three Rio Tinto executives. Credit:PKKP Aboriginal Corporation

Juukan Gorge was named by the daughter of Puutu Kunti Kurrama man Juukan, known as Tommy Ashburton, and the submission said the destruction of it had impacted the group so much, they have not had the heart to tell her.

“Within the PKKP family is an old lady. She is in her late 90s and quite frail. She is the last remaining daughter of Juukan, and she named the Gorge and the rockshelters on behalf of her father, who is a very respected ancestor of many,” the submission said.


“No one has told her that the rockshelters and Gorge have been lost, as they all fear it will result in her passing.

“Everyone hopes she will never find out.

“PKKP people feel immense grief, guilt and a sense of failure for not being able to exercise their responsibility to look after country.”

The PKKP’s submission takes aim at both Rio Tinto and the WA government for not doing enough to stop the blast.

In particular, it levels harsh criticism at Rio Tinto’s actions in the lead up to the blast and questioned the company’s subsequent public statements.

“Rio Tinto has repeatedly referred to its relationship with traditional owners as a ‘partnership’ and says in its submission that partnership is ‘core’ to its approach to cultural heritage management and there should be ‘shared success through partnership’,” the submission said.

“The sequence of events that led to the destruction of the Juukan Caves demonstrates that there was and is currently no true partnership with the PKKP people.

Everyone hopes she will never find out.

PKKP submission

“The information provided by Rio Tinto to PKKP was limited. Rio Tinto rebuffed repeated attempts at increasing communication between Rio Tinto and Traditional Owners and took a narrow procedural approach to the relationship.”

The corporation raised questions as to why Rio Tinto kept loading explosive charges around the Juukan 1 and Juukan 2 rock shelters after the PKKP raised its concerns about the significance of the site. It also criticised Rio Tinto’s “deep-seated and systemic culture” of minimum compliance referencing profit over everything else, which it said was reflective of the majority of WA miners.

“We hope our submission provides a better understanding of our position in relation to the desecration of the Juukan Gorge sites and how this tragedy has deeply affected us,” PKKP Aboriginal Corporation chair John Ashburton said.

“We believe it will provide some clarity about the events leading up to this shocking act of corporate vandalism to our very sacred site, as well as countering some of the information presented by Rio Tinto which, in our view is, at best, incomplete.”

The corporation took aim at legacy agreements signed between Aboriginal groups and miners, which disadvantage traditional owners and claim Indigenous culture and heritage was undervalued in Australia and the rest of the world.

Despite the rigidness of the WA Aboriginal Heritage Act, which was used to approve the Juukan blasts, the PKKP believed the WA Government could have done more to stop the incident.

The PKKP is yet to state its case to the parliamentary committee due to COVID-19 travel restrictions.

Mr Ashburton said the PKKP looked forward to presenting to the inquiry in person so they could fully relay how the event impacted them.

The Juukan Gorge incident claimed the scalps of three senior Rio Tinto executives, including chief executive Jean-Sébastien Jacques, after a campaign by major shareholders.

Rio Tinto declined to comment.

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