What Australia Can Learn from the Destruction of Notre Dame

Worldwide cultural heritage was harmed with the devastating destruction of the 850-year-old Notre Dame cathedral in Paris. Footage of the spire burning and collapsing is horrifying to watch, with so much history just disappearing rapidly before your eyes. Regardless of your religious denomination, it’s always painful to see this kind of destruction occur without reason.

As Frances President Emmanuel Macron stated:

What happened tonight in Paris, in this cathedral, is a terrible event. Notre Dame is our history, our literature, part of our psyche, the place of all our great events, our epidemics, our wars, our liberations, the epicentre of our lives … So I solemnly say tonight: we will rebuild it together.

It is powerful to see a leader make a statement that recognises the wealth of history that has occurred long before he – or anyone else for that matter – existed.

Which is why, as the Australian election campaign rolls on, the silence from the leaders of this country about the rampant destruction of Indigenous history in Australia is deafening. I say this not to try and minimise the destruction of Notre Dame, but to bring relevance and equivalence to what has occurred in France to what is occurring in Australia.

In Victoria alone, there is the continued threat to the 800-year-old trees that exist in Djapwarrung country. Vicroads intend to remove these trees so that they can transform the highway that runs through the region from a two lane highway into a four lane one. It has been reported that this extension will save travellers a whole three minutes off their current travel time.

Think about that – 800+ years of history gone for the sake of 3 minutes.

One of the easiest ways to damage communities is to destroy and remove their culture. Ever since Australia was invaded way back in the 1700’s, Indigenous culture has been destroyed and removed in the name of ‘progress’. Countless sites have been wiped off the history map for another mine, or road, or housing settlement to be constructed. Yes, Aboriginal Heritage Acts exist across Australia, but even that is not enough to stop mining companies from wanting to destroy culturally sensitive sites that have been dated as far back as 23,000 years ago.

When you contrast the way that European history is embraced and celebrated around the world, to the way that Indigenous history in Australia is rejected and shrugged off as irrelevant, well, you can’t help but be furious and upset by this. When you look at some of the responses to the fact that nobody will be allowed to climb Uluru from October 26th 2019, well, you can’t help but weep. Reading ‘it’s just a rock’ is no different than to saying that Notre Dame is ‘just a pile of well organised stones’ – it’s to reject the cultural, historical, and spiritual significance of Uluru, of the Djapwarrung trees, of the Indigenous rock art in Spear Valley, and to shrug it off as irrelevant.

How can Australia sit in silence as this happens? Indigenous history is Australian history. To destroy that is to destroy who we are as a society. Are we that married to the idea of infrastructure that we can’t even realise that we’re cannibalising ourselves and losing our identity as it happens?

In Inga Simpson’s book Where the Trees Were, her main character, Jayne, operates in the middle of the night to steal away Indigenous artefacts from a museum. These artefacts are Wiradjuri aborglyphs – carved trees that mark the grave of a significant male elder. As a child, Jayne saw these trees and says:

The cuts were deep and wide, right into the heartwood, like fingers making a river. Scrolls and diamonds filled the space around it. It all meant something. It meant a lot. We knew that straight away. We didn’t quite understand, the way we didn’t fully understand a lot of things. At the same time we almost did, although it was more than we could have explained. And we knew that we all felt the same, without having to speak. It was as if the trees said everything for us.

It’s clear that there is something significant about these trees, and as the book progresses, Jayne grows to fully comprehend their importance, but is unable to stop their destruction at the hands of her father who is afraid that new land-rights claims would mean the loss of his farm.

Where the Trees Were was written by a white woman, and tells the story of a white character growing to realise the importance of Indigenous heritage, and doing what they can to try rectify the actions of their parents. While this history is not white Australia’s history, it is still history that we – white Australia as a whole – has been complicit in destroying. For this reason alone, white Australians need to stand up for Indigenous culture and make their voices heard that this willing, government stamped destruction of Indigenous heritage is not ok. We simply cannot sit around while trees that were around long before white Australia made its presence known are destroyed.

Jakelin Troy writes about the importance of trees for Indigenous culture for The Guardian here. I urge you to read this piece. If there’s one thing I fear about the state of Australia as a whole, it’s the rampant destruction of trees around Australia as a whole, and our willingness to simply remove so much vegetation without comprehending what will happen to the land when these trees are gone. Not only are these trees historically important, but they are vital for the land to stay healthy and alive, and, of course, the mere fact that they provide us oxygen to live.

What can you do to help? To start off with, follow and amplify Indigenous voices on social media. Where you can, put financial support behind Indigenous voices.

I’m a proud supporter of IndigenousX and definitely urge you to follow them and support their campaigns.

In relation to the Djapwarrung trees, you can find out more about the campaign to stop their destruction on the DW Embassy website, or by reading this Women’s Agenda article.   

I also urge you to reconnect with the land you live on, and to take note of what part of Indigenous Australia you live within. To find out, have a look at the AIATSIS map of Indigenous Australia here. For me, I live on Whadjuk Noongar land.

I also highly recommend giving Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu a read.

But, the most important thing you can do is to listen. Listen to the stories of the First Nations people. Listen to the stories about their lives.  

Finally, if the devastation on Notre Dame makes you upset and alarmed, then I urge you to be upset and alarmed at the destruction that occurs every day in Australia.    

Andrew F Peirce

Andrew is passionate about Australian film and culture. He is the co-chair of the Australian Film Critics Association, a Golden Globes voter, and the author of two books on Australian film, The Australian Film Yearbook - 2021 Edition, and Lonely Spirits and the King. You can find him online trying to enlist people into the cult of Mac and Me.

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