They are at it again. Another group of First Nations people is trying to close a part of a national park because it is a ‘sacred site’. This time it is Mt Warning, aka Wollumbin, on the far north coast of NSW. It is ‘sacred’ to the Bundjalung people and, until recently, attracted over 100,000 visitors annually who took the 8.8-kilometre round-trip to the summit to enjoy the spectacular coastal views.
Closing down walking trails around Australia because they impinge on sacred sites is increasingly common. When Uluru was closed down it was national news but the closure of less well-known sites such as St Mary’s Peak in the Flinders Ranges and various parts of the Grampians National Park in Western Victoria is passing almost unnoticed. A recent edition of the ABC programme Four Corners dealt with problems in Kakadu where traditional owners are threatening to close the entire park unless Canberra allows them a greater say in managing Kakadu.
The story was a masterpiece of obfuscation as it avoided any suggestion that indigenous intransigence was contributing to Kakadu’s problems.
In an attempt to appease the locals, federal Minister for the Environment Sussan Ley removed the three most senior Canberra appointees and promised to pay greater attention to the desires of the traditional owners. At least one walking track near a major tourist attraction is now closed because of ‘potential damage to sacred sites’.
As an atheist I do not accept that there are such things as sites which are sacred due to their connection with holy spirits. Thus I do not believe that the ground on which the Vatican or Canterbury Cathedral are located is sacred. I do accept unreservedly that the Catholics and Anglicans for whom these sites have tremendous spiritual significance have every right to consider them as sacred ground and they have that right because they subscribe to a set of beliefs and teachings which have been passed down from one generation to the next over several centuries.
There is not one tribe in Australia which today continues to follow the practices and beliefs which were held for thousands of years before the arrival of the white invaders. The Bundjalung people objecting to the existence of a walking track at ‘Wollumbin’ are a typical case in point. The quaintly named journal, Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society held at Philadelphia for promoting useful knowledge, is sadly no longer in print. Volume 37 published in 1898 contains a fascinating article on the ‘Initiation ceremonies of Native Tribes of Australia’ which goes into great detail about the sacred rituals and ceremonies involved in celebrating the arrival at manhood of the Aboriginal tribes of the region in which Bundjalung people lived.
The transition from boys to men in hunter-gatherer societies across the world was always an important event and, in some tribes, it was quite simply torture. The boys of some groups in the Western Desert became men by having an incisor knocked out and then their foreskins were removed with a piece of flint instead of a scalpel and they were then sent alone into the desert for a week or two to contemplate the nature of things. Compared to this, the rituals which were involved in Bundjalong boys becoming men were relatively painless. They were, or so the journal claims, required to undergo what would now be described as severe indignities which I shan’t detail here but on the lighter side included having their mothers ‘rub their hands over the bodies of their sons…’.
I’m willing to bet that the Bundjalung mothers no longer treat their adolescent sons to the more extreme practices detailed and that the boys themselves are no longer required to undertake the extremely distasteful and unhygienic practices of the past in order to celebrate their arrival at manhood. Unfortunately it is also equally likely that the Bundjalung parents wouldn’t have a clue about the bizarre rituals and ceremonies which gave shape to the lives of their ancestors before the arrival of the white men.
Instead of revealing any genuine understanding of how their ancestors live, whenever an indigenous group seeks to demonstrate its connection to the past, we are treated to the spectacle of a group of men wearing red nappies mincing around while holding a piece of bark containing smoking leaves. It is a travesty but an equally egregious travesty is that of the journalists who accept these macabre performances as an expression of a genuine connection to the past. One can forgive the dancers. They are actors pretending to be something they are not. But the journalists who report on these shows and accept them at face value are either lying to themselves or demonstrating their woeful ignorance of the gap between pre-contact aborigines and those who claim, rightly or wrongly, to be their descendants.
Mt Warning was once undoubtedly central to the rituals which gave shape to the lives of the indigenous communities that lived around it. It probably was a sacred site where men initiated adolescents into manhood and it probably was forbidden for women to intrude on some of the secret ceremonies that took place on the mountain. But that time is past. Just as Stonehenge was once a sacred place and is now a tourist attraction, so Mt Warning and all the other ‘sacred sites’ around Australia are no longer sacred because no one today adheres to the beliefs and practices that gave them that status.
Don’t believe me? Go to the internet, search for the aforementioned journal, and read the chapter on ‘Initiation Ceremonies of Native Tribes of Australia’. It describes a world which has gone forever. Yes it was destroyed by the indifference of the white invaders but, after reading the information in that journal, no one can seriously argue that the lives and beliefs of the people described therein can have any direct connection with the present world.
We are now finding that almost every road project in rural Australia encounters problems with people claiming that a tree or rock is sacred. Last November a ‘birthing tree’ in Victoria was cut down to allow improvements to the Great Ocean Road. One Indigenous academic likened it to watching Notre-Dame cathedral burn and it made national news despite the fact that the local indigenous group responsible for identifying sacred objects and places found the tree had no significance.
The intensifying sacred site fandango is only a foretaste of what will come when the voice to parliament gets in on the scam.
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