Three percent of the world’s zinc lies beneath the serpentine riverbed of northern Australia’s McArthur River — and the zinc will soon be headed to China’s steel mills. For Aboriginal Australians, the entire river is respected as the Dreamtime pathway of the Rainbow Serpent, one of the most important of the ancestor spirits who formed the land and still enforces the law.

Xstrata Zinc is starting to excavate an open pit mine at McArthur River and is building a 5.5 kilometer diversion channel to redirect water around the deep hole the mining company is digging.

When we tried to enter the area with traditional owner Harry Lanson, the mining company threatened to arrest us for trespassing and ordered us to leave. As Harry Lanson asserted his right to visit the land he was born on, to show us his sacred sites, a helicopter landed within 100 feet of our “mob” — which included more than a dozen children.

We retreated back down the road to the river. Even after the humiliation and stress, the Aboriginal women proceeded with the dance they had come to do next to the river, to honor the female form of the Rainbow Serpent, which in English they refer to as a “mermaid.”

This video was produced by the Sacred Land Film Project,, a project of Earth Island Institute. To deepen public understanding of sacred places, indigenous cultures and environmental justice, the Film Project produces a variety of media and educational materials—films, videos, DVDs, articles, photographs, school curricula and other materials. The Sacred Land Film Project uses journalism, organizing and activism to rekindle reverence for land, increase respect for cultural diversity, stimulate dialogue about connections between nature and culture, and protect sacred lands and diverse spiritual practices.

Its latest project, Standing on Sacred Ground,, is a four-part series that chronicles indigenous people in eight communities around the world standing up for their traditional sacred lands in defense of cultural survival, human rights and the environment. Watch them stand against industrial mega-projects, consumer culture, resource extraction, competing religions, tourists and climate change.

If you enjoyed this clip, please consider supporting our ongoing work by visiting and clicking Donate.