By Jennifer Michels
An Australian Outcry: Political Offices, Churches, Libraries and Grave Sites Destroyed.
With #BlackLivesMatter such a hot topic around the world I have not only been challenged in many of my views lately; I have dished out my fair share of opinion challenges myself during online debates. One of the points I often find myself referring to in these discussions is the topic of Aboriginal Land Rights. Pointedly, the injustices our Traditional Owners face when Sacred Sites, with such a huge impact to culture and our way of life, are damaged or destroyed.
Recently Rio Tinto caused significant damage to a Sacred Site in Western Australia. Juukan Gorge was said to be over 46 000 years old, containing a cave showing evidence of human habitation during the last Ice Age. Now while Rio Tinto has received widespread backlash for the damage to Juukan Gorge, BHP have received approval to destroy a further 40 sites, all with significant value to heritage, all within Western Australia.
I do not dispute the importance of the mining companies within Australia, but to allow this continued desecration of Sacred Sites is sacramental to the Aboriginal People. Our ties to land do not give us the same ownership our fellow citizens value; quite the contrary, our lands own us. They own us because we not only draw our life directly from the land and sea, our bodies have become the very dirt that is being exploded across what appears to be nothing more than barren, red earth.
Many only see minerals such as iron ore ready to be dug from the ground. To the First People of Australia there is a great deal more than meets the eye. For our People, this land holds our ancestor’s bones, record our histories, are the locations our laws were made and provides our places of worship; just to name a few! In other words, our Political Offices, Churches, Libraries, and our grave sites are being blown up to extend another mining operation or increase roads within Australia.
While these sites are damaged or destroyed Australia has a long line-up of buildings seen upon heritage lists. Buildings where paint colours cannot be changed; let alone see the buildings placed upon a list to be destroyed. These buildings are aspects of Australian history without the age and in many cases lacking the same combined significance as the Sacred Sites; not to mention the fact a building can be re-built. A cave used for thousands upon thousands of years cannot be recovered once it has been blown apart, nor can the history be recovered after the fact.
Mining companies within Australia have suggested electronically recording the sites proposed for destruction; however even my eight-year-old understands the difference between seeing something electronically and the value of viewing it with your own eyes. My son would not give up the ability to see an eclipse in person for the option of having them online instead, and I doubt anyone would be happy to see a horse or a dog only available via online means.
Would a church be better captured virtually to be prayed in? Can a library share the volume of knowledge via an online image of covers stacked upon shelves? Would recording family gravesites to only see them in an online fashion bring the same comforts to our souls?
Yet this can be considered by highly educated individuals as compensation for losing another place of worship, another burial ground, and generations upon generations of history; especially when significant portions were lost generations ago.
Herein lies a furthering of the difficulties for the Aboriginal People; religious beliefs are protected within Australia. They cannot be discriminated against without legal repercussions. Nor can the rights of the various religious beliefs be overruled or undermined in other professional undertakings. For example, an employer cannot insist an employee miss Sunday Mass as it is a protected right under Australian Law. Break down exactly what the term Dreamtime means, and it quite clearly fits into the category accepted around the world as religion. Dreamtime records the history of the First People. It explains the afterlife, defines laws and teaches social structures. If one were to look at the dictionary meaning of religion these topics are exactly what you will find. Yet the cultural and religious connections of the First People are not protected in the same manner. The rights of the religious beliefs held by Aboriginal People are not upheld under Australian laws like other religions are within this country.
Personally, I have come to believe the main reason for this relates directly to the minimal understanding of what the Dreamtime is. Those outside the communities, or Aboriginal family networks, are not regularly exposed to the spiritual beliefs or the connections to land and how they affect our afterlife; or in other words the First People’s many versions of Heaven.
When the term Dreamtime was made popular the Aboriginal Elders would have had a revolt on their hands had they described Dreamtime as religion, a result of Aboriginal history that has compounded this misunderstanding of culture and religion further. Religion is the word given to what was taught to the Stolen Generations, resulting in Dreamtime being referred to as culture instead of “many religious beliefs aligned in a similar fashion within a single ethnic group.” Because the Dreamtime of one Aboriginal Person is not the same as another Aboriginal Person. Each area of Aboriginal land has their own version of Dreamtime, their own individual Heaven. And you must die upon your own land to join the Elders and other ancestors of your family, meaning those forced from their homelands, those who die in another person’s land never see their loved ones again. They spend eternity without their siblings, never again to see childhood friends, their children cannot even share the same Heaven if they do not die upon the same lands.
If this was the way of your religious belief system, would you too raise your voice against an injustice to your loved ones when your communities were closed or you had been provided no choice but to leave your homes and the land you love so dearly?
Another reason for saving these Sacred Sites are the benefits lost to scientific communities around the world! Scientific communities that can give our society a much clearer understanding of our history. The scientific benefits have barely even scratched the surface to explain to the First People what their ancestors ate, where they hunted or how they lived. With the current finds surrounding Stonehenge the world has come alive with new talk inspired by history; including the recent discoveries in the Pilbara with the amazing find underwater. Imagine the ancient discoveries that could be found if more research were done into the past of this great country!
Imagine the benefits new information could provide the next generations seeking
employment or benefiting from scientific advancements. What about tracking where the Stolen Generations came from? Enough full genomes of our descendants could potentially reconnect families and finally heal the losses felt for generations. None of these things will come to pass if we continue destroying the Sacred Sites!
Considerations shown by the Australian Government since the introduction of Traditional Land Rights can be described as nothing short of lacking! How many times do amendments need to be put on the back burner by the very people elected to run these departments?
How many more election promises need to be broken before the changes we have asked for are considered, let alone made? How many times do the voices of the Traditional Owners need to be ignored before their objections are taken seriously? How much more of our history needs to disappear forever before more can finally be rediscovered? How much longer until the value of our history and culture can be understood for the enormity it really is?
I have often asked myself; “What if the heritage listed buildings were to suddenly become the target of approved destruction? Would my fellow citizens be so silent on the matter? If other religions beliefs were so blatantly discriminated against; would Aussies sit back in complacency? If significant political buildings were repetitively blown up, would our population turn a blind eye? If our combined historical records were so keenly targeted; would our society see high value to prevent such destruction? If churches were demolished across the country with such frequency, would the protests become a deafening roar?” Personally I think there would rightfully be an enormous outcry if any of these things were to become a reality for many other Australians; yet not enough are or have been actively seeking to prevent similar losses of significance to the Aboriginal People.
Aboriginal Elders have often sought advancements in areas such as tourism as a way of creating economic value within their communities; thus, becoming a benefit to the rest of Australian society. How many people travel the world for cultural value? How much do they spend? Tourism is widely accepted as one of Australia’s largest economies; yet vastly undervalued upon Aboriginal Lands!
Could the creation of real tourism in communities be valuable as a post-COVID recovery plan? How many new jobs could be created in building infrastructure? Would TAFE and other RTOs around the country benefit from teaching community members? What benefits would be generated by teaching the community members how to run their own businesses? How much of an injection could the Australian economy generate with a tourism industry dedicated to Aboriginal culture?
Appreciation for Aboriginal art, music and other cultural values has already spread the world over. Might opening these doors wider offset the losses felt by mining giants from denying the destruction of Sacred Sites? Please join your voice to the outcry and help our great country finally save our First Peoples’ Churches, Political Offices, Historical Libraries and Burial Grounds for future generations.
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