By Jane Vadiveloo, CEO.
My 13 year old daughter has not met any Djab Wurrung people. When I explained that the Government wanted to remove the Birthing trees for the highway she said, “but they can’t do that, why would they do that?”.
It is a simple question, that I am not able to answer simply. Neither is it simple to explain the damage that this action will have on generations today and tomorrow.
The ongoing intent of the Government to build a road through Djab Wurrung country is not simply a denial of the importance of these sacred trees. It is a denial of the responsibilities and laws of the Djab Wurrung people. As Amanda Mohamet said, “We are the traditional custodians of this part of country, and we have a cultural obligation to be here.”
As a psychologist I have witnessed the impact of denial of the voice and rights of First Nations people in relation to land and law too many times over the past 25 years. It causes harm. Serious and enduring harm. Physical, psychological, cultural, economic and societal harm. It damages children, young people, old people, women and men. It is a cultural violation. Some call it racism but it is more that that. It is not understating the impact to recognise this is the continued structural genocide of First Nations people. It is only held at bay due to the power of First Nations people to resist – a resistance that is driven by the land and law. Resistance does not mean that harm is not done.
When we question why First Nations people are over represented in jail, in hospitals, in early death, in all markers of social and economic stress – we return to the heart of the recent history of this country – the denial of First Peoples, their laws, rights, dignity and land and the violence enacted. There is a constant assault on people’s cultural safety and wellbeing. Heightened and prolonged stress is experienced by many First Nations people. Stress has serious health implications with cortisol and other stress hormones increasing risk to a range of health problems. The evidence shows that we are sending people to their graves early, as they fight each day emotionally and culturally to deal with racism and trauma.
For Djab Wurrung custodians, the destruction of this area will be felt deeply as they will not have been able to protect land that by law is their responsibility.
The Birthing Trees are sacred.
Across Nations, the old people say that the spirits are in the land. Just as there need not be proof of God for there to be an acceptance of Christianity, this is about respect. I have many times had the privilege of being on country with First Nations people as they sing out the ancestors and speak to the land – taking care of the country and the people, as law requires.
When land and country is destroyed, the damage is not only to the land – it is also visited upon the people. Lydia Thorpe explained: “It’s a part of us, it’s not just a tree. It’s an ancestor tree, it’s got a lot of knowledge.” This is a place that has birthed precious children across generations – a place of maternal practice and knowledge. It is important for future generations. It holds history, learning, story, song, spirit, culture and law.
I have watched for decades this profound relationship with the land dismissed and diminished by Governments. It causes me pain, and I am not a First Nations person in Australia.
It is the undeniable truth that the First Peoples of these lands lived and Governed these lands for over 60,000 years. It is the legal responsibility of the Djab Wurrung to protect these trees. This is the cultural legal responsibility as the traditional owners and caretakers of this land.
While there are many First Nations across Australia, there is a shared law that underpins life and that law exists in the land. The land is everything to First Nations people. It defines the law, it gives rise to the structure and rules of society, to education and health, to economies and identity. It determines roles, responsibilities from birth. As the Central Land Council in Alice Springs has long stated, “The Land is Always Alive.” It is the heartbeat.
The fight to protect the Djab Wurrung trees is a prime example of why we need a truth and justice process in Australia – to cease the damage that is caused by the need of First Nations people in Australia to engage in a daily fight for recognition and rights. To mature as a nation and understand and celebrate the culture, knowledge and history across our incredible country.
There are songlines that stretch across this vast country – that hold ceremony and law of the longest living cultures in the world. Imagine if we celebrated and protected this as part of our shared identity as a nation. Imagine if we valued these trees and their knowledge – so that the next generation of Djab Wurrung children and all children could learn about a knowledge system and history that has evolved for over 60,000 years.
Imagine a new generation of children being born into their country that values their history, knowledge, identity and law, as First Peoples.
6 September 2019