Sparsh Ahuja is a filmmaker and journalist based in Naarm (Melbourne), Australia.
QUEENSLAND, Australia — It’s August, nearing the end of winter, but the harsh sun beats down on the countryside. I’m driving up a windy forest highway in the Glass House Mountains National Park, craning out the window of my rental Fiat to glimpse past the leafy Mallee Eucalyptus trees to the mountains beyond.
The park is home to 11 volcanic plugs — peaks made of remnants of prehistoric volcanoes roughly 26 million years ago — that are sacred to the region’s Indigenous custodians, the Jinibara and the Kabi Kabi. These peaks have become a flashpoint in a debate over who decides what’s of spiritual importance and what it means to honor and preserve it.
The Jinibara have pushed to permanently close Mount Beerwah, the highest of these summits, despite pressure from hiking advocacy groups like “Save our Summits,” who fear a closure would spark a domino effect that locks them out of other culturally significant sites across Australia.
Tensions flared a few months earlier when the Jinibara awoke to the news that one of their sacred sites had been vandalized. The foot of Mount Beerwah had been defaced with a suspected power tool, with the words, “Jesus Saves, Just Ask Him,” etched into its barren rock face. Queensland authorities responded swiftly, temporarily closing the mountain off to hiking groups.
BJ Djinidjini Murphy, an Aboriginal man in his mid-40s — Jinibara matrilineally, Kabi Kabi patrilineally —cuts a defiant figure in the afternoon sun, with a stout beard and patterned tattoos skirting up his forearms.
“See that fella looking out to the sea?” he says, pointing to the cragged rock face of Mt. Tibrogargan. “He’s the father of all these mountains here.”
He waves his hand across the landscape from our viewpoint at the Mary Cairncross Scenic Reserve, sweeping over the range, toward the Coral Sea just beyond. “The one in the middle there … who looks like he’s hunched over? That’s Crookneck … we call him Coonowrin … and that lady, the one with the white scar running through her? That’s Mother Beerwah.”
He gestures to the hiking trail cutting down the mountain’s side. “One version of Beerwah’s story comes from my dad’s folk, Kabi Kabi nation up in the rainforest. They say that Tibrogargan once witnessed the tide come in strong. He looks back at Coonowrin, asking him to look after his pregnant Mother Beerwah. But Coonowrin thinks only of himself and scurries back to the mainland.”
Looking at Mount Tibrogargan facing the coastline, the peak indeed resembles a protective father, sheltering the hinterland behind him.
“Anyway, Tibrogargan returns, angered, and whacks Coonowrin over the head with a nulla-nulla (hunting stick) … that’s why he’s got a crooked neck!” Murphy laughs. “This is how our dreamtime stories — how these mountains — teach us family values. You gotta look out for your clan.”
As Australia has been forced to confront its tarnished racial history, this local dispute became one theatre for a national debate. An island country colonized by the British in early 1788, Australia was used as a giant prison for roughly 160,000 convicts over the next 80 years.
Most of these criminals had committed petty crimes in the United Kingdom and Ireland. This colonization decimated Australia’s native Indigenous population — the oldest living culture in the world, according to a 2016 study of ancient DNA — through exposure to foreign diseases and conflicts between settlers and the natives.
Today, the country’s Indigenous descendants number about 800,000, or about 3% of Australia’s population, and remain significantly disadvantaged across various socio-economic indicators. Many have campaigned for legislative changes to not only improve their material conditions but to also be acknowledged as Australia’s first people.
In October, Australia conducted its largest democratic exercise in nearly 25 years, with millions of citizens required to vote (or face a fine) on whether to constitutionally recognize the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, inheritors of the oldest living culture in the world, as the First Peoples of Australia, and enshrine an Indigenous “Voice” to Parliament — an advisory board designed to represent the Indigenous population — in the federal Parliament.
But that vote failed.
Advocates had hoped that the Voice could lobby the federal government into legislating national standards around the protection and promotion of Aboriginal cultural heritage, an issue that’s generally regulated by Australia’s six states and two territories. However, more than 60% of Australians voted against the proposed change — despite polling data that showed the Indigenous community had overwhelmingly voted in favor.
“I had been camping out at the base of the mountain for seven days, to protest the climbing. I reckon the vandalism was retaliation,” says Murphy. But with crowds of climbers continuing up the mountain after a brief closure, he felt defeated: “I’ve failed my Mother.”
Who Made The Mountains?
On Aug. 12, Mount Beerwah’s base is teeming with dozens of SOS volunteers in black and white tee shirts. A celebratory atmosphere fills the air. They’re gearing up to climb the mountain for the first time since it was vandalized. At the entrance of the trailhead, a temporary stage has been erected and founders of the group are addressing the crowd.
“When the incident on the mountain happened, we were absolutely devastated. It wasn’t just the traditional owners who were hurt,” says Craig Evans, a Welshman who grew up in Bradford in Northern England and immigrated to Australia 17 years ago. “But to create permanent segregation, to get to a point where you say, certain people can go here, and certain people can’t — that’s not helpful. …This has nothing to do with race.”
In the hikers’ minds, humans should only be able to own human-made sites. Donna Muller, an avid rower who joined the climbing community as a means of overcoming a divorce, speaks next — “I knew, as a human being, another human couldn’t help me with that pain … so I chose Mother Nature.” Her voice brims with anger. “I refuse to be told that I cannot climb something that has not been created by any man. Man didn’t create that; he didn’t create the trees. … So no man can say he owns it!”
As such, the hikers believe that comparisons of the mountain to traditional sites of worship are misleading. “I wouldn’t climb a church … and I’d take my shoes off before entering a temple,” echoes climber Andrew Flanagan, who started a Facebook activist group entitled “Oh the Places You Can’t Go,” after another sacred peak — Mt. Wollumbin (Warning) in New South Wales — was permanently shut off to climbing in late 2022. “But those are structures that have specifically been made for that purpose. These mountains? They were here 23 million years ago — before humans were even on the planet.”
Their sentiments are not novel. This distinction between natural and created sites — with the former viewed as de facto public spaces and the latter private areas that confer ownership — is foundational to Western political thought and the West’s subjugation of Indigenous lands.
In 1689, in the aftermath of the English Civil Wars, English philosopher John Locke attempted to explain how any individual could lay claim to the land when, according to the Bible, it was bestowed by God for the commons. In his seminal text, “The Second Treatise of Government,” Locke proposes the labor theory of appropriation, the idea that private property itself emerges when man’s effort is exerted on uncultivated land and he claims the fruits of this labor.
At the time, this idea was revolutionary, guaranteeing a natural right to property against the excesses of an authoritarian monarchy. However, as imperial Britain ventured toward the New World, it became crucial to curtail these expanded rights to its own citizens. As political scientist Barbara Arneil writes, colonial policy in 17th-century England was deeply unpopular within the country. For Locke, who was a stockholder in the Earl of Shaftesbury’s colonial plantations in the Carolinas, justifying these settlements became a question of livelihood.
The labor theory of appropriation heavily influenced the development of Western legal systems; indeed, Locke is now celebrated as the “father of liberalism.” Yet it also provided an ethical and economic rationale for the British dispossession of Indigenous lands.
If private ownership, as Locke claimed, arose because of man cultivating the land, then the agrarian settlements that the British founded in North America were legitimate units of property — land that could be bordered, subdivided and, crucially, traded. Indigenous and hunter-gatherer relationships to the land, which were based on subsistence rather than profitability, did not engender the same respect.
“What is respect? That word really grates on me. … I was always brought up to believe that respect was earned,” remarks Flanagan, after returning from his summit climb. “They (the Indigenous) can either go full isolation, live in their tribal systems. Or they can get educated … and move into the Australian culture. I don’t believe there can be an in-between.”
While other former British settler colonies such as New Zealand, the U.S. and Canada signed treaties with the First Nations (or Native Americans) whom they subjugated — in principle, acknowledging them as sovereign entities — early Australia did not recognize any of the pre-colonial interests of its Indigenous population.
The reason why Australia was an outlier is still debated. Some scholars say it’s simply the result of racism. The settlers perceived Australia’s Indigenous population as uniquely savage — because they lacked a written language and had people scattered throughout the country — unlike New Zealand’s Māori, who signed the Treaty of Waitangi in their own tongue, or the Native Americans, many of whom had permanent dwellings.
Others, such as political scientist Peter Russell, take a realpolitik approach, arguing that as a “penal colony with a substantial military force,” the settlers felt like negotiation was unnecessary. In either case, following the Lockean tradition, the settlers denoted the land as terra nullius, a Latin legal doctrine meaning “nobody’s land.”
This belief emboldened colonial policy for the first 140 years of settlement, marking a deeply violent era of Australian history known as the Frontier Wars. From the landing of the First Fleet in Botany Bay in 1788 to 1939, an estimated tens of thousands of Indigenous Australians were killed in a series of massacres and guerrilla skirmishes with settlers. This figure does not include the thousands that died due to diseases introduced to them by the Europeans.
The Kabi Kabi’s fate in Queensland was no different. In 1842, at the peak of the Frontier Wars, over 60 of Murphy’s ancestors were poisoned at a sheep station in Kilcoy, around 30 miles west of Beerwah. “They (the settlers) would lace flour with strychnine, then leave it out for us to eat,” Murphy says. “It’s why my elders are scared to join me at the protest — they fear we could lose more.”
The SOS hikers acknowledge these ugly chapters of Australia’s history and the need to engage in discussion with the Jinibara. However, many fear that the specific push for summit closures, which began with the high-profile case of Uluru in October 2019, is fueled by a desire for political retribution — rather than a genuine spiritual connection.
At the base of Mount Beerwah, Flanagan holds up a copy of “A Guide to Climbing Ayers Rock” to the crowd, insisting that proceeds from the little-known 2018 guidebook, which retains Uluru’s colonial name, will be dedicated to protesting further closures. “We know they have had a really rough chop,” he admits. “But why do they want to close the places that are so cherished by so many Australians? I think this is spite.”
Evans grew up in Bradford in the 1980s, learning basic Hindi and Urdu out of respect for the communities he grew up between. He tells me, after his summit climb, that to him, commentary on how Indigenous land was “violently stolen” is a step backward, punishing him for the mistakes of his ancestors. “The question often comes down to making reparations for something somebody else did. … Why should that impose on a climber’s lifestyle?”
He continues: “We’ve got to reconcile, we have to work together, we’re in an overpopulated, shrinking world…yet we’re talking about segregation.”
“Rosa Parks would turn in her grave.”
The climbers point to the law, claiming that Australia’s Native Title legislation is racially discriminatory. “Most of Australia is private property. I can only walk bush in National Parks,” notes an engineer called Robert, his voice dejected. “The Jinibara have Native Title, but what do I have?”
They worry that traditional ownership of the land is a thinly veiled attempt to privatize Australia’s taxpayer-funded natural reserves. “I’ve heard that Indigenous Australians don’t have a concept of land ownership,” continues Evans. “They say they belong to the land, not the other way around. But then I look at Native Title, and it looks a lot like land ownership to me.”
The hikers’ fear is based on a popular misunderstanding of Australian law. As of a 2020 legal review, 40% of Australian mainland mass indeed falls under Native Title, a bundle of rights recognizing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders’ pre-colonial interests over their traditional land. However, in practice, it is very difficult for Indigenous groups to assert any control over these areas.
The first significant judicial campaign for Aboriginal land reclamation in Australia took place in the 1960s, in the Gove Lands Rights Case. In 1963, the Australian government sold part of the Arnhem Land Reserve in the Northern Territory, the traditional lands of the Yolngu nation, to a bauxite mining company — without any consultation of the Yolngu, triggering the clan’s appeal to the Northern Territory Supreme Court.
Gove marked the first time that the Australian judiciary recognized Indigenous connection to the land — what they refer to as “Country” — in any substantive manner. The state judge conceded that the Yolngu had an elaborate system of traditional laws that governed the “ritual and economic use of the land.” However, he ultimately rejected the claimants, asserting that the clan’s relationship to Country was not a “right of private property,” and therefore, “not a right … in connection with the land.”
It took another two decades for Australia to overturn the doctrine of terra nullius. In 1992, an Indigenous Mer man called Eddie Mabo from the Torres Strait successfully sued the state of Queensland in a landmark High Court case, Mabo vs Queensland (No 2). The Justices’ decision — informed by precedents from cases in the U.S. and Canada — overturned Gove and enshrined Native Title into Australian common law. They noted, however, that Native Title could be shared with pre-existing rights on land, or completely extinguished by the government acting in the public interest.
“Native Title allows traditional owners to continue to enjoy certain rights on Country, such as performing ceremonies or traditional hunting practices,” says Dominic McGann, a senior lawyer with over 20 years of experience in managing cultural heritage claims. “But in this case, the Jinibara have a shared lease with a National Park. At least under Native Title, they cannot exclude people from climbing the summit.”
Indeed, less than half of Australian Native Title leases, which are a recognition of Indigenous rights and interests to land and waters, are exclusive — meaning Indigenous people can exercise their rights and interests to the exclusion of all others — and represent nearly 15% of Australia’s total land mass. This overlaps significantly with the 17% of Australia that is considered fully owned under freehold or perpetual lease title to Indigenous people, bringing the true percentage of Australian land on which Indigenous communities can assert exclusive tenure to about 26%. An amendment to the Native Title Act in 1998 barred any claims over urban areas. As such, much of this land is uninhabitable, severely limiting any economic benefit that Indigenous folk can derive from it.
Even when exclusive, Native Title leases do not constitute statutory land rights. Unlike private property, they can be overturned by the government if sufficient economic rationale is demonstrated. In 2017, the Queensland government controversially fast-tracked amendments to the Native Title Act to facilitate a mining deal with the Indian coal giant Adani on Wangan and Jagalingou traditional land, prompting Indigenous activists to deride Native Title as simply a “governmental instrument … to achieve dispossession through legal means.”
Flanagan, the activist climber, disagrees. “The mining royalties alone that Native Title holders receive are phenomenal,” he says. “All of this money makes a few people extremely rich.”
He’s referring to states such as the Northern Territory, which, according to the ABC, receive around $230 million yearly in mining royalties on Indigenous land. However, most successful compensation claims in the NT are made on Indigenous freehold, not Native Title leases. The money is then further divided between the administration of the payout schemes, Indigenous land councils, government grants, and royalty payments to traditional owners.
In 2020-2021, the NLC, one of the four bodies administering these payments, distributed around $48.5 million Australian dollars in freehold compensation to 7,604 traditional owners — an average payout of AU$6,350 (or $4,350 U.S. dollars) per claimant. Native Title royalty distributions over the same period amounted to $5.5 million — roughly 10% of the NLC’s total royalties.
Moreover, legal experts argue that the Native Title compensation schemes represent a form of economic coercion. traditional owners can only receive compensation for development if they negotiate a preliminary land use agreement with the developer in question. If they choose to fight for their Native Title, as in the Adani case, the matter is referred to a federal tribunal, which often rules in favor of the public’s interest — in this case, with a development permit resulting in their loss of any subsequent claim for compensation.
“It (Native Title) is the bare minimum,” Murphy says. It’s “just an acknowledgment that my people existed. We’re dealing with crumbs, trying to bake a cake.”
Beyond Native Title
Australia was one of the last ex-British colonies to recognize Aboriginal title. By 1992, not only had most common-law countries acknowledged its existence, but some, like the U.S. and Canada, had also developed systems of fiduciary redress should the state infringe upon native land for its own purposes.
Even in treaty-signing countries, however, Indigenous sacred sites remain woefully under-protected by law. Canada’s Aboriginal Title, for instance, is the only native title framework in the Western world that approximates full land ownership. Unlike Australia, it is enshrined in the Constitution Act, allowing for the exclusive use and occupation of native lands, and cannot be extinguished by the Crown without the title holders’ consent.
However, there has only ever been one successful case of Aboriginal Title being recognized in Canadian history. That occurred in 2014, when Canada’s Supreme Court acknowledged that the Tsilhqotʼin Nation had claim over 675 square miles of their ancestral land. Moreover, Section 35 of the Constitution Act, which outlines the conditions that First Nations must satisfy to prove Aboriginal Title, falls prey to Lockean logic. One such condition — the “sufficiency of occupation” — can be evidenced through “construction of dwellings, cultivation of fields, and exploitation of resources”; crucially, none of which a natural sacred site typically encompasses.
In Australia, since individual states are responsible for the governance of National Parks, balancing public access with the protection of Indigenous heritage is a haphazard process. “At the moment, each state has a completely different piece of legislation regarding cultural heritage,” says McGann. As such, the hikers’ worry — that a closure of one mountain will set a precedent for closure of another — is misplaced. “They’re conflating legal precedents with policy precedents,” McGann explains. “It’s a case-by-case thing. … If no one is banging the drum, nothing happens.”
Instead, many Australian states have adopted joint management plans (JMPs) — statutory agreements in which traditional owners and the state share control of the National Park and any sacred sites within. Proponents claim that JMPs preserve Indigenous cultural practices and provide the state with the benefits of traditional knowledge for maintaining natural reserves. The closure of Mt. Wollumbin, which catalyzed the formation of SOS, was similarly initiated by an Aboriginal Consultative Group, a coalition of Indigenous elders and families with connections to the mountain. NSW Parks described the move as a “first step to joint management.”
In the case of Mount Beerwah, however, Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service has not yet made any such arrangement. This leaves the Jinibara with little legal recourse to prevent the mountain’s reopening.
According to McGann, this discrepancy among states regarding willingness to adopt JMPs is a “classic illustration” of an issue the failed Indigenous Voice to Parliament could have addressed. He believes Australia needs federal standards for protecting Indigenous cultural heritage. “You’d like to think that things that are — if I may use the Australian vernacular, bloody significant — are not put at risk,” he says. “If the role of Indigenous Australians was constitutionally recognized, surely their cultural heritage could become a national matter.”
The hikers worried that efforts like the Voice could influence more states to adopt Indigenous preferences into their Parks policies. “I think it’s a totally racist thing to do, adding race into the Constitution,” argued Flanagan, who — for the same reason — was staunchly opposed to the amendment. “I just think it’s a natural logic progression. Uluru closed, then Mt. Warning closed. … If they have more voice, they’ll have to allow more of these places to close.”
The Jinibara, for their part, are skeptical. “The problem with the Voice is that no one came to us, explained how they would talk on our behalf,” Murphy said. “There’s a lot of mob out in the desert who don’t even speak English — they see you mention Voice to Parliament, they don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“It’s not even that I’m a ‘no’ voter,” he continued. “I just don’t think it will do anything for the mountains.”
An Alternate Spiritual Vision
At Mount Beerwah’s carpark, only a few minutes walk away from the SOS stage, a senior Indigenous lady in a red-patterned shirt sits on a park bench. She fidgets nervously with a lit cigarette in her hand, smiling wryly at the hikers walking by. This is BJ Murphy’s mother, Zeitha Jalamala, 61, who has come to reason with the SOS volunteers in one last-ditch attempt to change their minds. She considers it a familial duty. “People say you gotta believe in God because God is never going to abandon you. Well, neither is this land,” she says.
Jalamala believes spending time in the mountains helped her overcome the trauma of growing up as one of the Stolen Generation. Until the 1970s, official Australian government policy forcibly assimilated Indigenous children by resettling them into white society. Jalamala was one of these children, torn from her biological parents and native land when she was 3 months old. “When I returned to Beerwah,” she reminisces, “I felt I was coming home to my culture. If the climbers understood this connection, it might influence how they relate to nature.”
The climbers, too, see themselves as caretakers of Beerwah. As they trickle back from the summit, some of them tell Jalamala how they picked up the rubbish they came across on their climb. Some tell her about the precautions they’re taking regarding their personal safety after a climbing death in March triggered a backlash from traditional owners who felt responsible for accidents on their land. Evans and Flanagan even pledge to join the Jinibara’s fight against a local quarry that is expanding its operations across the Glass House Ranges.
“When Zeitha said this mountain was like her church, I couldn’t agree more,” Evans tells me.
But the caretaking these climbers and hikers profess is ultimately undermined by their own liberal code of ethics, which claims to respect Indigenous communities but disregards how these communities want to be respected. Requests for climbers to change their behavior is described by hikers as a sort of spiritual imposition, which in and of itself presupposes that the climbers have an equal footing with Indigenous peoples on their own native land.
“To sit on that summit in the full moon and look around at the wonder of creation. That is my church!” exclaims Evans.
The SOS hikers may hold a kinder view of the land compared to the mining groups and development bodies that typically dispute traditional owners. But Jalamala sees their insistence to climb the mountain as reflective of a deeper spiritual thirst. If land and people are intertwined, then Country also includes the people who have traditionally nurtured it. By deliberately ignoring Indigenous cultural sensibilities and requests, she believes hikers are conquering the land for their own enjoyment, not revering it for what it already is.
This viewpoint is not unique to Australia’s Indigenous communities. In 2022, Geographical Magazine interviewed Sherpas in Khumbu, Nepal, who lived in the shadow of the world’s most famous mountain, Chomolungma, otherwise known as Mt. Everest. Renowned for their mountaineering prowess, they have long been reluctant to climb their own sacred peaks, believing that the summits are the abodes of the gods.
Many stated that they climbed solely because their livelihood depended on guiding foreign tourists. “If people are economically secure, then they shouldn’t climb to the summits. But if they have no other financial option, then the gods will accept it,” said one monk, who had summited Everest twice. A nun, who lived across the valley from Ama Dablam, another sacred mountain, remarked that there was no spiritual benefit to climbing the peak.
“We are here to protect the land, nurture the land, and ensure its longevity,” Anne Pattel-Gray, an Indigenous theologian and professor of Indigenous Studies at the University of Divinity, explains to me. “Our relationship with the land is that we coexist. It is a spiritual being that our identity is forged from.”
Jalamala views her spirituality as part of her physical relationship with the land. “Spirituality in the eyes of non-native people is not tangible,” she echoes. “But you can touch it, you can see it. It’s everywhere.” She gestures to the eucalyptus tree in front of her, its sprawling leaves obscuring the mountain behind it. “They think that climbing will give them an intrinsic reward. But walking around the base of the mountain, that’ll give you a reward too,” she says. “What’s wrong with accepting what you already have?”
Jalamala’s worldviews couldn’t be more incompatible with those of John Locke, the philosopher. Despite a token disavowal of imperial politics, the liberal consensus doesn’t give credence to centuries of violent dispossession, precisely because it is built on systematically excluding those who cannot — or choose not to — “productively” use the land to, for example, produce agriculture and goods or build housing and dedicated places of worship.
Now, the world is struggling to keep up with this ever-quickening cycle of production and ownership. “We certainly wouldn’t have the climate change problem we have today, if they had embraced or learned some of the Aboriginal people’s knowledge,” argues Pattel-Gray. “To begin with, the laws in Australia would be vastly different, because we wouldn’t see land as a commodity.”
In the West, the political consensus broadly recognizes that the current ecological crisis we face stems from the commodification of land. However, even calls for conservation, driven from a place of environmental concern, often adopt the Lockean distinction that separates the “civilized” from the “natural.”
Indigenous wisdom, on the other hand, embraces our inalienability from nature and in doing so, encourages us to think of ourselves as parts of, rather than masters of, our ecosystems. The larger and more important question we must ask is how we can integrate this conception of land into our spiritual and political frameworks.
Since the hikers’ activities create little structural and environmental damage on the peaks themselves — compared to mining, for example — they, along with the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service policymakers who have permitted the reopening, claim that they are not endangering the mountains.
This misses the point, Jalamala says.
“They climb her because they need to deal with whatever is going on in their head,” she tells me, back at the carpark. “Well guess what: You are the mountain. Maybe you need to shift your perspective.”