Nothing New? The Heritage of Indigenous People in Resource Industries in Australia’s Pilbara

From the Series: The Pilbara Crisis: Resource Frontiers in Western Australia

Photo by David Caloren, licensed under CC BY NC.

Think Pilbara today and Australians think of resources and industry. The vast remote region is central to current debates in Australia about future national development and prosperity, but the region is almost absent from imaginings of the national past. In the Pilbara there has been rapid growth in economic activity placing pressures on communities, accommodation, infrastructure, and Indigenous capacity to meet various paralleled Indigenous economies such as environmental and heritage surveys. People discuss the need for sustainable communities given the prevalence of fly-in/fly-out (FIFO) workers, for “future cities,” and regional development even as the current mining boom begins to slow.

This essay attempts to make sense of contemporary issues by highlighting longer histories of resource industries and Aboriginal people. What is clear is that the use of the Pilbara for the extraction of resources is not new. In fact, extractive resource industries have always involved and impacted Australia’s Indigenous people. The extraction of minerals, oil, and gas supplants industrial activities such as cattle and sheep pastoralism with pedigrees reaching back to nineteenth-century colonization. Today, mining magnates like Gina Reinhardt and Andrew Forrest are repeating history by renewing their interest in cattle pastoralism, given the growing boom in cattle product exports to Asia and the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement.

The Pilbara region is an extraordinary semiarid, coastal, and desert landscape, with cultural heritage sites of ancient Aboriginal ancestors going back at least 50,000 years as well as historical and maritime sites. A great gap exists, however, in the way that these heritage places are used to explain and highlight the arrival of non-Indigenous outsiders, the history of resource industries, and the role of these industrial processes on the wider community, including Indigenous peoples.

Today, as in the past, the Pilbara is home to many different Aboriginal peoples. First contacts involved sporadic and rare visits, such as that by William Dampier now commemorated in the names for the town of Dampier and the Dampier Archipelago, both on the traditional country of Jaburara people.

Early settlers came from the sea. Perhaps we can say that before FIFO workers, there were SISO (“sail in, sail out”) workers. American whaling vessels were visiting the coastal Pilbara regularly after 1800 for the commercial harvesting of whales. In the 1840s, decades before European colonization, up to a dozen American vessels were active at the same time in the Rosemary Islands (Dampier Archipelago). These visits are reflected fleetingly in burial sites marked with whale bones and a ship's name carved into rock.

Aboriginal people of these islands—the Yaburara people of Murujuga—encountered these arrivals. Their history is substantially deeper: archaeology and rock art speaks to tens of thousands of years of history. The rock art of these islands is now considered worthy of World Heritage nomination, yet it lies uncomfortably close to industrial infrastructure and port facilities.

The colonization of the Pilbara occurred after 1861, relatively late in Australia’s colonial history. Early colonists relied heavily on two industries: sheep farming and pearling. Accounts of the golden age of sheep farming and pearling are often romantic, perpetuated by communities and companies for the purposes of tourism and revenue. These were critical export industries. In the nineteenth century pearlshell and pearls from Western Australia and the Torres Strait were Australia’s most valuable resource export industry.

Cultural heritage provides an insight into the ways that these resource histories and their implications have shifted over time (Gregory and Paterson 2015). Most people would think the heritage of the resource sector would be derived from the twentieth-century mining boom. They might look to the statue of Red Dog, an iconic 1970s character made famous in books and film, or perhaps an iron ore mining pit, such as the 1960s Whaleback open-cut mine at Newman. Mining in the Pilbara dates back to the late 1800s, and tourists encounter remnants of towns and infrastructure at places like the Whim Creek copper mine.

Heritage sites have the potential to make visible other industries like pastoralism and pearling, and to recognize Aboriginal workers and agency. At the historical settlement of Cossack, it is this kind of story that is being told today. As the prime colonial coastal port, Cossack was the center of industrial activities: the home of the pearling fleet, and a critical port for the movement of goods. Today Cossack is a historical ghost town and the epicenter for historical tourism. In the 1970s the National Trust recognized its significance, and a cluster of stone ruins was rebuilt to create a small hamlet for tourists and locals.

At the town’s center stand two signs. The first was erected by the local council, the second by the local Aboriginal community. The first reflects common tropes regarding the colonial era and the pearling industry, for which Cossack was the base in the nineteenth century before being eclipsed by Broome. The second focuses on the negative impacts of the pearling industry on Aboriginal people by critically considering the pearl and asking the viewer to remember the darker aspects of colonialism. Despite an early heritage focus on the built environment, the more recent signage invites visitors to think about all of the people who were once at Cossack—Asian and Aboriginal divers, as well as all of the Aboriginal people living in camps around the town.

With the second sign, local Aboriginal people have actively inserted themselves into the frame of history. It is a challenge to tell these histories of resource industries, rather than just offering a catalog of old buildings. Doing so requires some interpretive work to move from static ideas of discrete heritage places to an approach described by François Richard (2013, 59–60) as “grounded in identifiable histories of movements, connections, cultural transfers, discourse, and life in-between.” A critical part of this approach involves shifting beyond dominant narratives (and indeed categories of heritage such as white, historic, Aboriginal) and using approaches drawn from historical archaeology that move beyond sites and objects to encompass other evidence from memory, oral history, and the wider landscape (Jones and Russell 2012).

With such an approach, the story of pearling could be told across many sites in the region. Towns like Cossack tell a story of the pearling fleet and the commercial world. Out in the islands small archaeological sites reveal where ships were careened, where divers killed at sea were buried, and where Aboriginal people lived alongside the often-brutal pearlers.

Industries are not discrete, but overlap as capital and labor come together. Sheep pastoralists took their Aboriginal workers to the coast to work the pearling grounds on boats. This was dangerous work involving men, women, and children. Those who made it back to the sheep stations clearly remembered their labor on the seas. Rock engravings depict many aspects of the early colonial period, including sailing vessels with divers strung under them. At other sites are depictions of men, women, guns, and horses—the shock of the new.

In the debates about Aboriginal roles in industrial industries today, a longer-term approach to heritage sites across the landscape helps to reveal the presence of Aboriginal people at the origin of Australia’s resource histories.


Gregory, Kate and Alistair Paterson. 2015. “Commemorating the Colonial Pilbara: Beyond Memorials into Difficult History.” National Identities 17, no. 2: 1–17.

Jones, Siân and Lynette Russell. 2012 “Archaeology, Memory and Oral Tradition: An Introduction.” International Journal of Historical Archaeology 16, no. 2: 267–83.

Richard, François G. 2013. “Thinking through ‘Vernacular Cosmopolitanisms’: Historical Archaeology in Senegal and the Material Contours of the African Atlantic.” International Journal of Historical Archaeology 17, no. 1: 40–71.