The Other 800-Year-Old Sacred Place That Risks Being Destroyed

As Zellanach Djab Mara watched Notre Dame burn, a piece of his heart was cut out, but his spirit remained with attempts to save his people's eight-century-old sacred site.

For months, Zellanach, a traditional owner, and his Aboriginal mob -- the Djap Wurrung people -- have been camping out on their land near Ararat, about 200 kilometres west of Melbourne.

There, along a stretch of road, an estimated 3,000 spiritual trees stand tall yet only 17 are documented by government body Aboriginal Victoria as being significant.

About 260 of them are sacred birthing trees -- where over 50 generations of Djap Wurrung women have visited to give birth to their children.

Like Notre Dame, one tree is said to be 800 years old. Zellanach calls the sacred sites "two and the same".

Image: Supplied

"That cathedral is a place where people go to conduct their spiritual religion of a higher power, which is exactly what we have here," he told 10 daily.

But four of the 17 documented trees, and their surrounding landscape, still face demolition to pave way for the Victorian government's planned upgrade to the Western Highway between Buangor and Ararat.

The proposal is part of the government's $672 million highway duplication project, under Major Road Projects Victoria, and involves building part of the road next to a pre-existing section to "eliminate road safety risks" and cut down on "two minutes of driving time". 

Image: Supplied

The Djap Wurrung people say their "food, spirit, identity and culture" risks being destroyed.

"When you talk about ultimate sacredness within our culture -- or any culture -- it's about life and reincarnation," Zellanach said.

"These trees are a particular place that enable my people to give life. They're our way of honouring our women and children -- everything comes from the mother, and must go back through her."

"These are the trees of life; they give life. They have our family DNA and our spirit."

The Notred Dame Cathedral is now a site of sacred pilgrimage for Catholics globally and is considered the beating heart of French Catholicism, open to the public every day for Mass.

Since Monday's fire it has received nearly one billion dollars in donations to rebuild.

But in the aftermath of the tragedy, many are asking why the destruction of sacred places in predominately white cultural contexts resonates more than others.

"I think we have this Eurocentric concept of who we are that is still so present in the mindset that we are taught," Kate Gane, a Victorian artist who grew up on Aboriginal land in Warrnambool, told 10 daily.

Traditional owners formed the Djab Wurrung Heritage Protection Embassy  last year, and when construction was scheduled to commence in recent months, they set up three camps on site to halt the works.

The group submitted an application seeking protection for Indigenous heritage in the area under the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act, but was rejected by Environment Minister Melissa Price in January.

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However, a Federal Court ruling last week quashed Price's decision.

Justice Mortimer ruled the minister would pay the applicant's legal costs and that they could apply for "urgent relief" related to any proposed works by Major Roads "which may affect the area which is subject of the application".

In her order, she said Price did not afford the applicants "procedural fairness" in making her decision by making "credible, relevant and significant" information to them and "inviting them to comment".

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Zellanach "wholeheartedly" agreed.

"We want to determine what happens on our land and how that happens. We need to be at the table making those decisions," he said, adding he has reservations about how a planned Indigenous treaty would pan out.

Now, the status of the project hangs in the balance. After the government's announcement in February, work was set to recommence. But the project was again put on hold until the outcome of the Federal Court hearing.

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10 daily has contacted the state transport minister's office and Major Roads for an update and is yet to hear back.

Meanwhile, Zellanach said the Embassy is awaiting legal advice on its next movements. Until then, they won't be stopping their fight.

Featured image: Supplied 

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