DJAB Wurrung fighting woman Sissy Austin says it is hard to see a way to move forward to improve Aboriginal rights in Victoria on a "broken base".
Ms Austin still believes, however, progress on the Western Highway project and First People's Assembly of Victoria, setting the framework for treaty, can be made if the government slows down and listens to people on the ground.
She admits this is also where issues get most complex.
Ms Austin has been thrust into the spotlight and captured worldwide attention the past week as a lead voice amid protests for the felling of a sacred tree on Country at Dobie, near Buangor, for Western Highway works.
Only, Eastern Maar Aboriginal Coorporation claims the Fiddleback tree removed had been deemed not culturally significant after extensive surveying from cultural heritage experts.
EMAC represents 12 Indigenous families, including Djab Wurrung women. Protesters, including Ms Austin and fellow Djab Wurrung family, claim this tree was sacred to Djab Wurrung women.
The Victorian government recognises EMAC as the legal Aboriginal representative body for the region. EMAC is the registered Aboriginal party for the area that includes the felled tree and has an application for a native title on that area yet to be settled.
Western Highway Conservation Group's David Leviston, writing in The Courier, said the protest had generated great traction on social media for the cause but he felt the result was a "great disservice" for all Victorians.
Mr Leviston's conservation group had been advocating for vegetation preservation the past five years in the Western Highway duplication project. He felt in that time the government and major roads bodies had grown in a willingness to listen and work with people of different perspectives.
Changes had been made a year or so ago for the route to avoid 16 trees EMAC deemed as culturally significant, of which the felled tree at the centre of protests was not one.
Mr Leviston said a "sense of partnership and respect had been built up" but this must work both ways, especially when there was a disagreement. He was concerned this would harm future projects with government bodies.
Some commentators have likened the confusion in the fall-out to a family fight among the Djab Wurrung.
Ms Austin said government processes worked against Indigenous people who, at the end of the day, were family.
It's sad and I hate situations like these causing an element of division for usSissy Austin, Djab Wurrung
Ms Austin was one of three Indigenous people elected to represent the state's south-west on the First People's Assembly. The Ballarat-based Ms Austin maintained from the outset she would step down should culturally significant trees between Buangor and Ararat be harmed.
She was among the first group of people to set up the Djab Wurrung Embassy on Country by the highway project two years ago.
And so, Ms Austin stood down from the Assembly in an emotional live stream on social media last Tuesday night in a move she said was right and in keeping her integrity.
More than one week on, Ms Austin said it had been on the of hardest weeks in a long time. She still believed in a Victorian treaty but was conflicted by what had played out on Djab Wurrung Country last week.
"If the government slows down and listens to people on the ground, it could work," Ms Austin said. "There are some amazing grassroots people on the Assembly pushing for (treaty) to be done on our voices. It needs to be done on our terms and not infiltrated by government terms and processes."
Ms Austin felt her voice was better used elsewhere but ultimately, the only way healing could start was bringing people on the journey.
Ms Austin said she felt burnt out but support had trickled in from pockets of people she had never considered. Messages have come in from across the world.
IN OTHER NEWS
American-born street artist Amanda Newman painted a mural of Austin's face with the words "show up" near a reserve in Fitzroy North.
Ms Newman, who has been living in Melbourne the past year, said she liked to paint people who inspired her. Her mission is to try and be educated and learn new things then share them.
Sydney premiership player and North Ballarat Rebels export Adam Goodes is also in her body of works.
News about the tree near Dobie was all though Ms Newman's social media feed. She felt Ms Austin's actions, in protesting and stepping down from the Assembly, showed strength and raised awareness of Aboriginal issues.
"Even when I was painting, people would stop me and ask who it was and what it was about," Ms Newman said. "Then they would say 'oh, I learnt something today'."
Ms Austin has never met the artist but saw the finished work on Instragram. She said the work was awesome and she was shocked by it.
Ms Austin was conscious some people were only aware of "the fight" because of the tree destroyed but, in a way, this helped bring Aboriginal issues to the fore.
- A Victorian Supreme Court injunction has halted works on the Western Highway duplication between Buangor and Ararat until November 19.
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