Amazonia Synod #6: Australian Aboriginal People offer Hope and Reconciliation

Photo: Fr Peter Toohey with an aboriginal woman

This is the sixth Columban article on October's Synod on Amazonia, and the theme is taken from the Synod's preparatory document. The author is Fr. Peter Toohey. ​Fr. Peter is based in Australia and has been a Chaplain in West Australian prisons over the past 23 years. He has come to know many Aboriginal people, especially the Wongi, Noongar and Yamatji people, and has been welcomed into their country and their homes. October’s Special Synod in Rome will transcend the strictly ecclesial-Amazonian sphere, focusing partly on the universal Church, as well as on the future of the entire planet.

In May 2017 over 2000 Aboriginal people met in Central Australia to hammer out an  extraordinary document. They called it the  ULURU  STATEMENT  FROM  THE  HEART. 

It said:

"Our  Aboriginal  and  Torres  Strait  Islander tribes were the first sovereign Nations  of the Australian continent and its adjacent  islands, and  possessed our own laws  and  customs…..  This sovereignty is a spiritual notion:  the ancestral tie between the land, or "mother  nature",  and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait  Islander  peoples  who were born therefrom, remain attached thereto, and must one  day return thither to be united with our  ancestors. This link is the basis of the ownership of the soil, or better, of sovereignty. It has never been ceded or extinguished, and coexists with  the  sovereignty of the Crown. With substantive constitutional change and structural  reform, we believe  this  ancient  sovereignty  can  shine  through  as  a  fuller  expression  of  Australia's  nationhood.….

We seek constitutional  reforms  to  empower  our  people  and  take  a  rightful  place  in  our  own  country.  When we have power over our destiny our children  will flourish. They will walk in two worlds and will be a gift to their country.”

This Statement is an appeal to the nation to give aboriginal people not only recognition in the Constitution, but to make structural changes which will give them  a  voice  in  the  Australian  Federal  Parliament.  They want to advise it in all matters relating to the welfare of their people, their culture, lands, history, and their future. Much of the dysfunction in remote Aboriginal communities stems from the  paternalistic  and  authoritarian control exercised by Government  officials  and  the  failure to involve local people  in decision-making. This creates a sense of powerlessness and hopelessness.

As Fred Chaney, a  former  Aboriginal  Affairs  Minister, said, the Aboriginal  communities  themselves  need  to  be  the  primary  drivers  of  change.  Where  local  people  are  given  responsibility  for  finding  their  own  solutions  to  social  problems  in  their  communities  and  given  on-going  funding  to  enact  these,  when  they  are  given  responsibility  for  environmental  management,  land  care,  and  the  preservation  of  species  of  plants  and  animals,  there  is  a  flow-on  effect  in  areas  of  employment,  health,  education,  tourism.  Where local indigenous languages are taught to the children by the elders and cultural centres  established  for painting,  weaving  and  storytelling,  this  can  contribute  to  a  deep  sense  of  pride  in  their  culture  and  bonding  with  the  land.

Unfortunately,  Governments  have in recent  decades  abolished  the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islands Committee,  a  regionally-structured aboriginal  representative  group,  abolished  the  assets  of  local  community  councils,  abandoned  remote  community  housing  programs,  and put out to tender to  commercial  enterprises  based  many  thousands of miles  away  the  management  of  community  infrastructure  which the communities themselves  had built up over  years.  Privatisation is a disaster, especially in regard  to  indigenous  communities  whose  bonding  is  based  on  sacred  stories,  shared  song  lines  and  sacred  lore.

In the Uluru  Statement, the  elders also insisted on a Treaty or  Makarrata.  Unlike New  Zealand,  with  its  Treaty  of  Waitangi  of  1840,  the  British  colonisers  never  struck any Treaty with Australia's  Aboriginal  nations. The land was simply taken and the  rights  of  indigenous  peoples  ignored.

The story of the struggle for land rights is one of immense courage and heroism in the face of massacres, incarceration, and racist oppression. Aboriginal people were  dispossessed of their tribal  lands  in what were  called the Frontier  Wars. There were  mass killings perpetrated  first  by  British  soldiers, then by settlers and police and  finally by Native Police  working  under  white  officers.  "Many white fellas were too greedy for our land and didn't see  us  as  fully  human"  according  to  Francis  Jupururia  Kelly. To date, over 500 massacre sites have been located. As Europeans established farms and cattle stations, many Aboriginal people were  killed,  others  paid  in  rations  to  work  on  the  stations  or  forced  onto  Reserves,  their  children  abducted  from  their  communities  by  police  and  made  to  live  on  Missions.  There they were forbidden to speak  their  native  languages  or  learn  from  elders  their  sacred  ceremonies. The goal was  "assimilation".

But  Aboriginal  people  refused  to  accept  the  extinguishment  of  their  native  title  rights  or  give  up  their  ancestral  heritage. They refused to simply "die out" and there have  been  many  protests  mounted  by  Aboriginal  activists  decrying  the  discrimination  and  oppression.

In 1967, as a  result of a  Commonwealth  Referendum,  Aboriginal  people  were  first  granted  Citizenship  Rights. A landmark ruling of the High Court of Australia in  1992  declared  that  Australia  was  not,  at  the  time  of  European  settlement,  "Terra  nullius",  that  is,  land  belonging  to  no  one  (with  its  implication  that  it  belonged  to  the  Crown).  Instead, the Court held that the  common  law of Australia  recognises  a  form  of  traditional native title.

In the light of all this, the  Uluru Statement is  an  extraordinary  gift that the  First  Australians  are  offering  the  nation,  one  that,  if  accepted  and  acted  on,  could  lead to a healing of the wounds which continue to bleed and  disturb  the  nation's  psyche.  It could lead to a kind of Truth and Reconciliation process which would acknowledge the crimes committed since colonial settlement and the great sufferings of those whose ancestors inhabited this land for over 60,000 years. This in turn could go a long way to expurgate some of the "demons" which plague our nation and feed its fear of outsiders -  the "Asian  Invasion",  "boat  people"  and refugees in general.

In a remarkable speech  to Aboriginal people at Alice  Springs  in 1986, Pope  St  John  Paul  II  said  that  the  Church  in  Australia  can  never  become  the  Church  that  God  intends  it  to  be  until it has recognised and  welcomed  the  unique  contribution  of  its  Aboriginal  brothers  and  sisters. Something similar could be said of the  Australian nation. We cannot "Advance  Australia  Fair"  as  our  national  anthem  proclaims  until  we  have  accepted  and  welcomed  the  contribution  of  black  as  well  as    white  people  -  along with all the other races that  make  up  our richly multicultural  nation. But, obviously, the people who have cared for the land and celebrated its sacred  meaning  from  the  beginning  of  human  habitation  hold  a  unique  place.

Genuine  reconciliation can only come about if the  truth  is  told -  the  truth  of  the  Frontier Wars, the theft of Aboriginal  lands, the attempt to wipe out Aboriginal  cultures,  the  separation  of  Aboriginal  children  from  their  parents, and  so  on.  These   realities   need   to  be  mourned  and  lamented.  And  the Christian  Church  could  play  a  significant  role  in  all  this.    Much depends upon the genuine desire of  the  Australian  people  to  listen  to  our  indigenous  brothers  and  sisters,  to  understand  something  of  what  they  have  suffered,  to  acknowledge  the  crimes  committed,  the  injustices  of  the  past  and  of  the  present  and  to  listen  to  their  voices.  Hence the need for  a  First  Nations  voice  in  Parliament.

They  have  much  to  teach  us  surely  about  ourselves,  our  arrogance,  about  our  sense  of  cultural  and  moral  superiority. As a nation we need to lament our willful blindness, and  step  back,  allowing  them  to  shape  their  own  destiny.  Only  this  way  is  it  possible  to  heal  the  wounds  of  the  past.

Galarrwuy  Yunupingu  put  it  this  way:

"What  Aboriginal  people  ask  is  that the modern world now make the sacrifices  necessary to give us a real  future - to relax  its  grip on  us, to let us  breathe,  to  let  us  be  free  of  the  determined  control  exerted on us to make us like you.  Let us be who we  are  -  Aboriginal  people  in  a  modern  world  -  and  be  proud  of  us.  Acknowledge that we have survived the worst that the past could throw at us, and  that we are here with our  songs, our  ceremonies,  our  land,  our  language  and  our  people  -  our  full  identity.  What a gift this is that we can give you,  if  you  choose to accept us in a meaningful way."

In many cities, however, the languages, the songs and sacred dances celebrating the Great Ancestral Spirits have been lost.  Aboriginal people are  3%  of  the  Australian  population,  yet  they  make  up  26%  of  the prison  population.  Suicide is all too common, even  among  children. Many First  Nations  people  however do not  want  to  be  seen  as  victims.  They are survivors, proud of their culture and history and determined to make their mark and assert their identity. In literature, drama,  music and the arts,  and  in  sport  they  bring  together  the  richness  of  their  culture  and  the pain of  their  exclusion - but also their ability to laugh at  themselves and at us. One of their great gifts is  the extraordinary ability to forgive.

Clearly, the nation is at a crossroad.  We  have  spent  the  last  200  years  or  so  trying  to  deny  the  shadow  side  of  our  birth  as  a  nation.  Coming  to  terms  with  this  history  is  vital  for  the  future  not  only  of  indigenous  people  but  of  us  non­aboriginal  people  as  well.

The Uluru Statement of 2017 calls for a voice in Parliament, truth-telling about the appropriation of tribal land and about the savagery of the invaders and their crimes against humanity. The anthropologist William Stanner has spoken of the  Great  Silence by historians in regard to the atrocities of the  past. He called it "a  culture  of  forgetfulness", adding that, "the  destruction  of  Aboriginal  society  was  not the consequence of European development but its price".

The historian Mark McKenna points out in his  Quarterly  Essay  69  entitled  ‘Moment  of  Truth’: "It is precisely this recognition - that  the  material success of Australian society was  built upon the dispossession of indigenous Australia, a history that clearly demands  treaty and settlement  -  that causes so many to avert their eyes."  He goes on to point out that it was not just the massacres that the nation wanted to forget about:  "It is  the forgetting of a whole  culture, a  whole way of seeing the land. Aboriginal  people had a name for every  plant,  creature and landform in the continent. Much of the detail of that cultural knowledge, embedded in ceremony, songlines and every aspect of their daily lives, has been lost forever in many parts  of  the  country.''

There were of course those who would not allow this rich lore to be forgotten - who showed genuine concern about the appalling treatment of Aboriginal people. These included Christian missionaries, some of whom, along with anthropologists, did much to help local people to preserve Aboriginal languages and who respected their customs and sacred stories. Catholic missionaries - ordained, religious and lay - have done a lot to promote Reconciliation and to help the communities they work with to deal with alcohol and drug abuse, encouraging them to integrate their traditional beliefs with their belief in Jesus.  As one man in Warmun Eastern Kimberley’s used say: "We are two way people - we have Jesus ‘dreaming’ and the ‘dreaming’ of our Spirit Ancestors".

The Uluru Statement from the Heart is a sign of hope and reconciliation which we Australians need to embrace and act on if we are to find our identity as a nation.  And the Christian Churches are playing a significant role in this conversation.

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The full text of the Uluru Statement, May 2017, can be found here.

This article was originally published by Independent Catholic News