Threats to a Sacred Lake Stir an Aborigine Woman to Action

Mining project near Lake Jasper reminds Beryl McGlade of discrimination she endured in her youth

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

As a child, Beryl McGlade often walked the shores of Lake Jasper. But she could never dangle her feet in the water because it was so sacred.

Archaeologists have since found stone tools and ancient tree stumps deep under the waters of the lake, showing the presence of a thriving indigenous culture long before floods turned the area into a lake 4,000 years ago.

But now this lake is the site of an emotional tug of war. On one side are the state government and a Japanese-owned mining company that want to extract mineral sands here; on the other are archaeologists, environmentalists, and Aborigines like Ms. McGlade, who say the proposed mine threatens the lake's history and its delicate ecological balance.

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"What about our people there?" McGlade asks pointedly. "Would you like someone to walk over your mother's grave and dig it up around you?" Then she adds darkly, "No one can get that land because we'll call in our relatives and protest."

The area around Lake Jasper, which is part of the D'Entrecasteaux National Park in the southwestern corner of Australia, is rich with eucalyptus forests, swampy plains, and pristine sandy beaches set against a majestic stretch of coast. In a complex land swap, the mining company, Cable Sands, has offered to give the state government of Western Australia 2,640 acres of its own land outside the national park in exchange for 910 acres within it. The conservative state government has given its initial approval, pending an environmental impact study by its Environmental Protection Authority. When outlining his reasons for supporting the land swap last year, former Environment Minister Peter Foss said the size of the park would increase and the proposal would add to the public purse and create jobs.

Cable Sands estimates that the ore body is worth A$330 million ($246 million) and says it will pay A$11 million in royalties to the state and create 140 jobs. Extensive studies commissioned by the company, including research on the native animals and vegetation of Lake Jasper, show that the environmental and archaeological values of the lake will not be affected, says Ken Mills, the company's exploration manager.

"We know that they [Aboriginal groups] have an interest in the area and we wish to respect that interest," he says. "We recognize that we have to deal with that." In fact, Cable Sands is currently in negotiations with Aboriginal groups to gain their approval for mining a small piece of land 328 yards west of the lake, and Mr. Mills says he hopes the negotiations will continue.

Historic site

But to judge from the reaction of the state's Green Party and other critics, Cable Sands has a fight on its hands. Even if the EPA gives its approval, Aboriginal groups could likely take legal action, a strategy that has stalled other projects around the country. Australia's indigenous people, now about 180,000, often feel like second-class citizens. They face racism, high unemployment, poor health, and alcoholism.

Lake Jasper is the only underwater historic site known in Australia. Archaeologists say this discovery has particular value since many artifacts here have been better preserved than those on land.

Some critics of the plan say the land swap might have been less contentious if Cable Sands had done a better job of recognizing the spiritual importance of the area to the indigenous people.

"You can't prove the spirituality of things like they are numbers," says Glen Kelly, the director of land and heritage issues for a nearby Aboriginal corporation. "This is a reflective place and a really strong symbol of our continuing ties to the area," adds Mr. Kelly, who himself has ancestral links to the Bibbulmun Aboriginal tribe, the traditional custodians of Lake Jasper. Australian Aborigines have at least 30 distinct languages and dozens of tribes.

Raised in an Aboriginal camp

McGlade, who grew up in an old Aboriginal camp of about 250 people along Lake Jasper, says the state's initial approval of the mining proposal is just one more example of the country's poor treatment of Aborigines.

She remembers the police beating her uncles with belts for breaking curfews. Shopkeepers did not allow Aborigines into their stores - all transactions were conducted from the porches.

Still, McGlade looks back at those days as the happiest of her life. Adults had the freedom to spear kangaroos and possums for food and use grass nets to fish in waterholes. Her uncles would tell her traditional "dreamtime" stories by drawing pictures of serpents in the sand.

But this peaceful life was shattered in 1944, when she was taken by force from her family under the government's assimilation policies, practiced in Australia from 1910 to 1970. Between one-third and one-tenth of Aboriginal children were separated from their families by state welfare authorities and placed in church missions, orphanages, and other institutions, in an attempt to "civilize" them and teach them the Anglo-Saxon ways.

McGlade recalls that when the welfare agents came to Lake Jasper, many residents, including her mother, Mary Mills, moved. (Her father, who was white, had left the family some years earlier.) Mills took her five children and moved to a town near Mt. Barker, where McGlade currently resides. "She said if a stranger came, we should run and hide."

But an inspector from the Child Welfare Department did finally track them down and recommended that 12-year-old Beryl, her older sister Patricia, and two younger brothers be taken away from their mother. "This was necessary for the ... future well-being of all the children," the inspector wrote in his report, which McGlade recently obtained through the state's Aboriginal Affairs Department. "The whole place was filthy and would be no credit to the dirtiest of our Aborigines."

Labeled 'lazy' and 'troublesome'

The police took the children to a local jail for the night, and soon after, they were proclaimed to be wards of the state. For the next five years, she was transferred to three state institutions. Although she went to school when living with her mother, she says her education was discontinued and she was forced to perform domestic chores. When she rebelled against the situation, McGlade was branded not only as lazy, troublesome, and hot tempered, but also a "menace to boys."

McGlade was only reunited with her family at age 18, when she left the orphanage. Still embittered against the government some 40 years later, she regards Lake Jasper as her true home and is investigating the possibility of making an Aboriginal land claim over the area in a bid to stop the mining. She is one of the few remaining people to have lived at Lake Jasper before it was included in the national park. Though historical records are scarce, she says the government gave the place to Aborigines as a reserve in 1905.

In the next few months she plans to take a group of students on a camping trip to the lake and teach them the spiritual importance of the place. "I'll go down there and have a good sit down and a good cry," she says.

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