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No Trees no Treaty: Listening to the DjabWurrung

No Trees no Treaty: Listening to the DjabWurrung

On the weekend, I travelled with my family and staff to where the State and Federal governments have started the Western highway duplication project. That is also where the DjabWurrung people have established three camps. They have been there for over a year, and remain there, to remind the Government of their sovereign rights to Country. All they want is proper input in negotiating an agreement with MRPV, VicRoads and our state and federal governments to create a road that will cut through their Country.

Today I visited the DjabWurrung Embassy to listen to the DjabWurrung law-man, about the Sovereign culture of this area. Before we go forever altering this incredible landscape, I implore the ministers responsible for the project, to go onto Country and listen to the DjabWurrung people.

This is what I have learned: just by listening. The DjabWurrung people, like all the Indigenous Nations in Australia, have a deep system of respect, reciprocity and kinship that embraces all individuals of all species. Prior to colonisation they had robust economic systems involving trade and trust, as well as highly successful and complex agricultural systems that kept them in plenty even during times of drought. They had a Continent-wide political system of law and order that was clear and exacting for every person. Their diverse cultural and spiritual systems covered the entire country we call Australia. They were deeply meaningful, giving them a clear moral and environmental framework through which to enact their happy and prosperous lives. Their scar trees on the ground and the stars in the skies mirrored each other, creating the most elaborate and certain map which would guide them as they travelled. Just as we have maps and signs, so they too had maps and signs. Some would guard men against entering an area of womens business, and similarly advise women to take another route in certain places. Throughout the land we call Australia, people mapped placed of food, water and shelter so that those who might be travelling for trade, can make their way the other landscapes in comfort and safety. Their spirit animals would be their messengers and guides. On the landscape of the DjabWurrung, there are living ancestors – human and non-human – in the trees, the hills and the Valleys. It is not just about the grandmother birthing trees that have witnessed over 50 generations of children born within then, it is also the grandfather trees, the Directions trees, and the Scarred trees below that reflect the Stars up above. Much of this is still a living reality for the DjabWurrung now. Today.

So, you might ask, what does any of this have to do with widening a highway?

A lot. We are, once again, using our government system to subdue and de-legitimise the interests and needs of the original sovereign clans of this area. This is a time when the government is working towards Treaty, whilst simultaneously dismissing the interests of those it seeks Treaty with. This Western Highway duplication project is now emblematic: A line has been drawn in the sand. After 240 years, it seems the First Nations people have had enough. 10 years ago the government said sorry. Now it’s time for them to act sorry. If this Highway goes ahead, without the required adjustments, there will be no Treaty. On the other hand, this is a real opportunity to recast the relationship between aboriginal and non-aboriginal Victorians, in preparation for Treaty.

Is there a solution to the Western Highway Duplication Project?

Yes. Yield.

When we build infrastructure, we yield to places of importance. We lower the speed limit near schools and ask people to slow down through towns. We protect ancient cathedrals and burial sites: we build roads around them, not through them. We yield. Why? Because these structures are historically, socially and culturally meaningful to us. The ancient cathedrals embedded in DjabWurrung country are also living and meaningful to generations of Australians – these Trees, landscapes and waterways have guided, protected, nourishing and birthed generations upon generations of sovereign indigenous clans in Western Victoria.

It’s time to yield to the DjabWurrung culture, to their laws and dreaming. It’s time to protect their women and children by not cutting into their sacred birthing area. It’s time to respect their ancestors by not felling the living Cathedrals that house their spirits. Yielding in this way keeps everyone safe. And not just the DjabWurrung. Their law says that we are all inherently connected to Country. We are all birthed from the same Mother. So when Country is well we are well. When Country is sick, the people suffer.

At a time when we are concerned that our youth are spending too much time on devices, where the devices pose tacit danger on the roads, and a social and psychological risk to our young, this is an opportunity to respect the ancient, give regard to the simple and yield to what’s important. If we yield to the ancient law of this land, we make a real step towards Treaty, and cars and trucks will still get where they need to go.