Words by Tess Astle
The destruction of France’s Notre-Dame cathedral is devastating. But so is the destruction of Indigenous sacred sites. In Australia, this happens all the time, usually for the purposes of mining or the development of highways.
About 200 kilometres west of Melbourne, more than 260 Djap Wurrung trees are planned for demolition to pave the way for a $42 million upgrade to the Western Highway. Among these trees are two sacred birthing trees over 800 years old. These trees are where over 50 generations of Djap Wurrung people have been born, as centuries of women have visited in their final moments of labour to give birth in the shelter of the hollows. These trees and the surrounding flora form an intrinsic part of the Djab Wurrung people’s cultural identity. This land is their cultural cathedral and the government plans to destroy it.
An action group called the Djab Wurrung Heritage Protection Embassy explains the vital connection between life and land.
“It is our food, spirit, identity and culture. Our lands have a spiritual value and not an economic one. If the land is destroyed so is our dreaming. Our dreaming is our story. It is what connects us to the beginning of time, back to our spirit ancestors, our creators.”
The Victorian government’s proposed development will build a 12.5 kilometre next to a pre-existing section to eliminate road safety risks and to cut down on two minutes of driving time for commuters. The Djab Wurrung peoples continue to fight for this land which is currently not protected under Victoria’s Aboriginal Heritage Act 2006. As of April, the status of the project hangs in the balance. Demolition was put on hold until the Federal Court decides if the area should be heritage protected. Until then, the community continues to fight.
This pending destruction of sacred Indigenous sites is nothing new for Australia, which has a long history of destroying ancient land. A report in the National Indigenous Times claims that in NSW between 2005 and 2009, the State Government approved 541 permits to destroy or disturb Indigenous heritage sites. In Gippsland, Legend Rock, an important site in Gurnakurnai mythology, was almost completely destroyed during road construction in the 1960s. And in late 2010, a rock engraving in Cromer NSW was destroyed by a subcontractor of a government owned energy company during the laying of energy lines.
Legislation around site protection is growing but many state laws remains insufficient and must be revised. Australia’s settlers did not see the value of the land and were fine with breaking and entering into sacred country to destroy it. Taking and ruining sacred lands ruptures the history and lifelines of Indigenous Australians.
Until there is stronger legislative protection, the burden of defending Australia’s incredible history falls to us, the communities. Something we can can do is join the Djab Wurrung with their fight for land by signing petitions or actively protesting. We can also try and change the misconceptions about the history of Australia. Many Indigenous sacred sites are as old as the Pyramids and once there is a broader recognition about our ancient history, preserving culture will be a priority not a hindrance.
Go out and visit some of Victoria’s most sacred Indigenous sites. Gariwerd, or what is now known as the Grampians, is home to 80% of Aboriginal rock art sites in Victoria. Among the rock art shelters is Bunjil’s shelter near Stawell. Bunjil was known as a good spirit who gave the tribes their law and culture. Even closer to home, Birrarung Marr, which means ‘river of mists’ in the Woiwurrung language, is located on the banks of the Yarra River in the heart of Melbourne. This is a significant ceremonial site for the Indigenous population.
Valuing country, means valuing life. And sadly, if this trend continues then both country and life will be seen as dispensable in the pursuit of profit and property.