On 21 June 2018, less than four hours before the passage of Australia’s first treaty legislation through the Victorian Parliament, the only Aboriginal member stood to draw attention to the hypocrisy and disrespect being shown by the Daniel Andrews Government. Lidia Thorpe – a Gunnai, Gunditjmara and Djab Wurrung woman, and the Greens member for Northcote – asked Minister for Planning Richard Wynne and Minister for Roads and Road Safety Luke Donnellan to halt planned construction works, the effect of which would be to remove three trees of huge cultural significance to Djab Wurrung people.
Surrounding the town of Ararat in Victoria’s Western District, Djab Wurrung country has become embroiled in local, regional, state and national politics. In response to VicRoads’ planned removal of the trees, the Djab Wurrung Heritage Protection Embassy has been founded by Djab Wurrung women, primarily Aunty Sandra Onus, Tracey Bamblett-Onus, Meriki Onus, Tarneen Onus-Williams and Sissy Austin, and it is their knowledge and leadership that have informed the writing of this article. The Embassy is an ongoing camp at the site of the planned works, and it aims to protect a series of cultural sites from destruction. It is an iteration of an intergenerational movement of Aboriginal women who have exerted their sovereignty to protect country and culture, and to resist colonial elimination in the area now known as Victoria.
The physical manifestation of the Embassy as the protector of the sacred trees – that the Victorian Labor Government has so far refused to recognise as legitimate cultural heritage sites – is exposing the limitations of the state’s ‘progressive’ approach to Aboriginal policy, bureaucracy and self-determination. According to Meriki Onus, by refusing to recognise the trees as sacred, and dismissing Djab Wurrung culture and knowledge, the state government is ‘destroying the romance of their own treaty’.
Victoria’s Western District has a brutally violent history, remembered by Aboriginal people for their successful acts of armed resistance in the 1840s, and the indiscriminate reprisals of settlers (documented in Bruce Pascoe’s Convincing Ground, Ian D Clark’s register of mass killings in the Western District, Scars in the Landscape, and in Tony Birch’s political analysis of pioneer culture and memorialisation). For the white population, the area is celebrated for sheep farming, the gold rush, and prisons. Ararat’s heritage list is a testament to colonial memorialisation and domination: prisons and churches, homesteads and woolsheds, honour rolls and cenotaphs to settler soldiers serving in the First and Second World Wars.
The local community would be outraged if their rural settler heritage was under threat from a development project, but it appears that for the Andrews Government, Aboriginal cultural heritage is far more expendable. Meriki Onus argues that VicRoads ‘wouldn’t do this to a cathedral, they wouldn’t do this to other sacred sites for whitefellas’.
The Western Highway Duplication is Victoria’s biggest rural roads project, upgrading the main trucking route connecting Melbourne and South Australia. Local politicians, the community, and Embassy organisers are in agreement that the project is needed for safety reasons. However, the specific route of the upgrade has been contested since 2013 by both local and environmental interest groups. In the area under dispute, VicRoads’ plans involve permanently altering the landscape by removing up to 3,000 trees, including the three sacred trees, bulldozing hills and potentially destroying the habitat of endangered fauna. Conservation groups and the Embassy are seeking to minimise the environmental and cultural harm caused by the highway expansion, and they’re both arguing for an alternative route to be found.
But the previous campaign’s legal efforts to change the highway’s course have been largely ineffectual. Its organisers only recently allied with Djab Wurrung Elders, who themselves independently sought heritage protection in February 2017. That heritage application was rejected, and works were scheduled to begin on 18 June 2018. It has only been the Embassy’s presence on the ground since that date that has prevented works commencing. The Embassy’s most pressing demand is for a total halt on works until a comprehensive and independent cultural assessment of the area and sacred trees can be conducted. While the research and the contacts of the local campaign have been useful to the Embassy, in reality it has taken the locus of opposition shifting from a liberal-centrist catchcry of ‘All Trees Matter’ to the culturally charged assertion that Sacred Trees Matter, for this campaign to have become a genuine political threat.
The three specific trees under the Embassy’s protection are thought to be over 800 years old. They are of local and national significance: as women’s sites, the trees connect over fifty generations of families, and they also connect to clans and nations across the country through a songline that transcends colonial, state and administrative borders. In its official statement of demands, the Embassy explains:
These trees are our ancestors, our ‘Tjukuritja’. To destroy them is to destroy a part of us. They warrant our protection like our grandmothers and grandfathers. It is our duty to protect them. Our old people mourn deeply at their destruction. It is our belief that their destruction causes great misfortune and sickness.
In the rain on 17 June 2018, Aunty Sandra Onus and her daughter Tracey Bamblett-Onus declared a run-of-the-mill camping tent to be the sovereign Djab Wurrung Embassy. Declaring a site an Embassy is an act of sovereignty that First Nations people globally use to exert the existence of separate, independent nations, and as sites, they are used for conducting international relations. Usually formed in response to specific issues and based on a set of demands, embassies hold political and educational functions. They open dialogue and negotiations with external authorities and provide visitors with information. Throughout its occupation, the Djab Wurrung Embassy has been engaging with Victoria Police and VicRoads, and operating under principles of non-violence and harm minimisation. The Embassy’s organisers reject the notion that their presence is a protest camp, or that they are anti-development. Instead, they assert that they are leading a grassroots protection action to preserve their heritage alongside the highway extension.
Erected under the sacred trees metres away from the Western Highway, the Embassy will be constantly occupied by traditional owners until their sites are no longer threatened. Spread over three camps, the Embassy is functioning as a settlement with tents, kitchens, toilets, and ample supplies of food and wood. The Embassy’s public communication is being largely facilitated through social media including video production and guest-hosting the influential IndigenousX Twitter account. Within the first week of the its occupation, the Djab Wurrung women leading the Embassy were able to rapidly mobilise an enormous amount of physical and financial support, far exceeding the long-running efforts of the environmental groups, including setting up a crowdfunding page that attracted almost $10,000 in twenty-four hours. A month into the protection action, the Embassy’s online petition to Daniel Andrews has over 50,000 signatures. Through the campaign, Embassy organisers have activated a range of networks, including global indigenous groups, self-proclaimed allies, forestry activists, a Muslim solidarity group, student groups and the Greens political machine.
As with the recent camp at the Stolenwealth games on the Gold Coast, the most valuable resource for Embassy organisers is bodies on the ground. The camps’ numbers are fluctuating, but with infrastructure in place to feed and accommodate dozens of people, at least three protectors are stationed at each camp at all times. Over one hundred people attended information and cultural mapping gatherings for Djab Wurrung and neighbouring clans; VicRoads did not accept invitations to attend. Based on the principles of non-violence and Djab Wurrung authority, there have been few issues at the largely respectful camps, populated by a majority of settlers from diverse backgrounds, including diasporic POC and Melbourne’s queer, non-binary and trans community. Beyond the dedicated presence and advocacy of Djab Wurrung men Zellanach Gunai Kurnai and lawyer Jidah Clark, very few supporters at the camps identify as male. Camp organisers are making concerted efforts for the space to be safe for non-male identities, reflecting the reality that the Embassy was founded by black women drawing on a legacy of female resistance to the gendered impacts and logic of colonialism.
For Tarneen Onus-Williams and her mother Onus-Bamblett, the refusal to recognise the trees as sacred women’s sites, and the threat of their destruction, are acts of gendered colonial violence and cultural terrorism. The Embassy is an intergenerational women’s effort through which the Onus family and matriarchy is continuing their resistance of settler-domination and fighting to preserve their heritage. Since invasion, Aboriginal women of Victoria have exercised their sovereignty through non-violent political resistance, through letter writing, landmark legal actions such as Aunty Sandra Onus’s defeat of the multi-national steel company Alcoa in Portland, and the annual Invasion Day rallies led by the women of Warriors of the Aboriginal Resistance.
2018’s NAIDOC theme, ‘Because of Her We Can’, promoted and celebrated the achievements and the vital presence of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women. It demanded we pay respect to the grandmothers, Aunties and daughters who enable and continue the struggle for their rights and justice.
I visited the Embassy this month and was privileged to hear Djab Wurrung matriarch Aunty Sandra Onus describe the cultural knowledge and stories that the trees embody. It is clear that the trees contain enormous significance to Djab Wurrung families. As well as the protection of the trees as its immediate priority, the Embassy is also demanding reform of Victoria’s cultural heritage system. There are significant structural flaws and failures in the system, that have led to sacred sites having to be protected physically by Aboriginal women, rather than the instruments of bureaucratic power through which Aboriginal self-determination is supposed to be wielded.
Sacred Indigenous sites in Victoria are protected under the Aboriginal Heritage Act 2006, which is administered by the Victorian Aboriginal Heritage Council (VAHC), an eleven-member board appointed by the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs. The primary function of VAHC is to appoint Registered Aboriginal Parties (RAP) – traditional owner groups who can prove connection to country and an ability to manage the heritage in their area. The RAP for Djab Wurrung country is Martang Incorporated, which listed no culturally significant sites obstructing VicRoads’ planned construction path.
While Aboriginal groups making decisions over their ancestral land is a form of self-determination, the Embassy alleges that VAHC’s appointment of Martang Incorporated is flawed, and is indicative of larger problems in the state agency Aboriginal Victoria. Martang’s connection to Djab Wurrung country is not disputed, but Aunty Sandra Onus argues that the group’s claim to represent the interests of the community is extraordinary, as there are ‘only four members of Martang and they’re one family’. Aunty Sandra recounts that Martang were ‘asked by the government to upgrade their membership to include more people’ in 2006, but Martang retained their RAP status, perhaps because their CEO is the Deputy Chair of VAHC. For Meriki Onus, cultural heritage should be managed by the community, ‘not just one family making all the decisions’.
While VicRoads’ and Aboriginal Victoria’s claim that Martang have the authority to approve construction is technically true and was backed by Premier Daniel Andrews, the state undermined its position by falsely asserting that a second Djab Wurrung traditional owner group, Eastern Maar Aboriginal Corporation, had also signed off on the route. The state cannot claim to be ignorant of the problems and limitations of the Act (including Martang’s status) or the view that the VAHC has tendencies towards nepotism and self-interest, as these were raised in many submissions to a parliamentary review of the Aboriginal Heritage system in 2011.
By calling for reform of the Aboriginal Heritage Act, the Embassy shows how the bureaucratic structures intended to empower Aboriginal people can be flawed, especially if they privilege and elevate individuals rather than grassroots culture that respects and involves elders.
Throughout her intensive involvement in the Victorian treaty, Lidia Thorpe has been concerned that the process has been driven by Aboriginal elites on the Treaty Working Group, half of whom are selected by the Minster for Aboriginal Affairs (and many of whom also sit on other powerful boards, such as VAHC and the Treaty Advancement Commission). Unrepresentative decision-making can silence grassroots groups and heritage, and this is a source of worry for the Greens.
Holding the balance of power in the Upper House, the Greens forced the Andrews Government to accept some amendments to the treaty legislation that was passed. However, most of their treaty principles were roundly rejected by the Parliament. Despite Thorpe’s open dismay at the state’s refusal – or claimed inability – to recognise Aboriginal sovereignty, it should ultimately be remembered that the treaty legislation was passed on Greens votes.
Thorpe’s detractors in the Parliament label her as obstructionist and idealistic, but she has committed to continuing to strengthen the treaty process. This is necessary to avoid the prospect that after two years of treaty talks, an incoming Liberal government could shelve the legislation, as recently happened in South Australia.
Beyond Thorpe’s own advocacy for sovereignty, and the Greens’ ability to strengthen the treaty bill, the party has a strong interest in supporting and politicising the Djab Wurrung Embassy. The primary political target of the Embassy and its allies has become the Minister for Planning Richard Wynne, who was responsible for approving the route of the highway. Wynne’s actions are easily condemned when compared to the lip-service he paid to Aboriginal peoples in the treaty debate:
If I learned anything at all as the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, I understood that there were two key elements to any association that you have with Aboriginal people. The first is the critical association of Aboriginal people to their land. That is absolutely fundamental. It is the bedrock on which this treaty negotiation will stand. The second is the respect for and the centrality of self-determination. These are the two key principles that must guide a respectful relationship between this Parliament, this government and the Aboriginal community more generally. I understand that, and self-determination is absolutely embedded in the bill itself.
– Richard Wynne, 6 June 2018 (Hansard)
During the week of the treaty debate, Allies Decolonising – a Narrm based settler-solidarity group – held daily actions at VicRoads headquarters and ran an email campaign, building momentum for a snap-action in support of the Embassy at Wynne’s office in Fitzroy. The action was attended by around seventy supporters who brought banners and signs to picket Wynne and spread awareness of the Embassy. Representatives from the Embassy and Eastern Maar, including Onus-Williams, spoke on the situation, however organisers and some attendees were uncomfortable with the rally’s political turn. Wynne’s hold on Richmond has been steadily slipping, defeating the Greens by 1.8 per cent in 2014, but for rally organisers the impromptu speech by his political rival Kathleen Maltzahn on the day wasn’t welcome. Organisers released a statement careful to promote continued pressure on Wynne while disendorsing Maltzahn for her history of anti-sex-work lobbying. Wynne will remain a pressure point for the campaign, and recently his office was the site of a second, student-led protest, featuring Lidia Thorpe and Uncle Larry Walsh.
In point of fact, with the upcoming Victorian election, Wynne’s marginal seat is under threat – and its loss would upset Labor’s (already slim) majority. Continued action by the Greens, including at the federal level, may motivate Andrews to find an alternative route that saves the sacred trees. But to prove that their support of the Embassy is not entirely opportunistic, the Greens need to make long-term commitments to strengthening treaty and reforming the Aboriginal Heritage Council.
Meanwhile, the Djab Embassy will not cease protecting the sacred trees. VicRoads have conceded to some of the Embassy’s demands, and archaeologists have just begun an initial cultural assessment. However, the state continues to promote the authority and determination of the Martang group. As sovereign space, the Embassy is an unprecedented challenge to Victoria’s biggest road project and the forms of self-determination and representation acceptable to the settler-state. The crisis that prompted the founding of the Embassy was avoidable, but it is remarkable that up to four generations of Djab Wurrung women have built a campaign under the guidance of their Elder Aunty Sandra Onus.
While the Embassy protects sacred trees on the ground, it is negotiating a layered and complex political landscape, with the potential to influence votes and the next phases of the treaty process. Meriki Onus is sceptical of any political process that empowers a ‘few handpicked people and lets them sign-off on things we have no say in’, and is fearful that the fledgling treaty process is resembling Victoria’s cultural heritage system, which has consistently failed the Djab Wurrung.
Confidence in the treaty process is fragile. For some Aboriginal activists, breaking up the Embassy by force or removing the sacred trees would entirely undermine the government’s line that their treaty is based on good faith. On the steps of the Victorian Parliament at the Victorian NAIDOC march, Thorpe questioned how Labor politicians and the settler public could celebrate treaty and black women while turning a blind eye to the destruction of their scared sites: ‘a treaty means stop logging our country, stop destroying our country and leave our 800-year-old ancestor trees alone.’
Ongoing support and actions to take
The Embassy’s first priority for support remains bodies on the ground, and the camp is just over a two-hour drive from Melbourne. If you can’t stay, the camps need wood, food, water, and other gear to sustain them.
Find more information on the issues and other ways to support the Embassy, including templates to email Labor ministers, can be found at the official Embassy website: No Trees No Treaty
You can also follow the Embassy on Facebook. Or use this form to email the Minister for Roads and the VicRoads project team (hosted by the Australian Jewish Democratic Society).
Donations can be made at the Djab Wurrung Heritage Protection Embassy’s GoFundMe page.
Lead image: Aunty Sandra Onus (photo by Tarneen Onus-Williams)