The sovereignty of the First Peoples of Australia

In the middle of my office desk, underneath the main computer screen, I have a small card, in red, yellow, and black, with the words

Ngaala kaaditj Noongar moort keyen kaadak nidja boodja

That is a daily reminder, in the Noongar language, for me to acknowledge the Noongar people, the first inhabitants of the land where I live and work. The Noongar people have been the custodians of the large southwest area of this land from time immemorial, and my respect is due to their elders, past and present, and those still to come, for this careful custodianship over millennia and millennia.

It also reminds me to acknowledge with gratitude the members of the United Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress, with whom the Uniting Church stands in solidarity, in covenant relationship as brothers and sisters in Christ.

These acknowledgements are important to me. Their significance has been underlined by the recent decision of the 15th Assembly of the Uniting Church, to recognise the sovereignty of the First Peoples of this continent.

You can read about this decision at https://uniting.church/uniting-church-recognises-first-peoples-sovereignty/

Former President Stuart McMillan introduced the proposal, calling it an opportunity to bring moral leadership to the nation, and noting that this decision could lead to a new way to live together in this land, based on mutual respect. This speech, and that of the General Secretary of Assembly, when they presented this proposal, can be read at https://uniting.church/presenting-on-sovereignty/

I did not know any indigenous people (that I was aware of personally) when I was growing up. I lived on their lands, but knew nothing of their stories. But as an adult, I have had opportunity to engage with indigenous people of this continent in various ways, to get to know them as individuals and to learn the communal stories of some of our First Peoples.

For a time, I was teaching people from the Northern Territory who were engaging in intensive study in Sydney. Over the last decade, I came to know many young people, and some of their parents and grandparents, from the Biripi and Dunghutti nations on the mid north coast of NSW. And for the past 18 months, I have been connected with some of the Noongar peoples of the Southwest area of the continent.

I have learnt, from this engagement, that our continent is greatly blessed by the long and faithful heritage of these people. They have called this country home: for millennia, across this continent, and in the adjacent islands, they have cared for the land, nurtured their law, and showed resilience. 

They are gracious enough now to seek continued relationship with those of us whose forbears have invaded, colonised, and decimated their lifestyle. We are living in the midst of a people of persistence and determination, and of abundant grace. For this, we give thanks.

From their stories, we can learn the importance of caring for country, of honouring the land in which we walk and live. This is something that has been so important from so long ago; it is something that is so important in our own time, as we respond to the challenge of climate change, with global issues such as rising sea levels, widespread deforestation, the destruction of species and a deliberate blindness to the perils of continuing to burn fossil fuels with impunity; and the pressing personal demands of environmental responsibility and sustainable lifestyle.

From the stories of First Peoples, we can learn the importance of welcoming the stranger, of providing warm hospitality for the sojourner in our midst. This is something that was so important from so long ago, as people from the numerous nations across this continent met, yarned, traded, and shared with each other; it is something that is so important in our own time, as we respond to the challenge of millions of displaced peoples, seeking the safety of refuge in another land; and as we protest the horrors of enforced incarceration in islands off our mainland.

It is this care for country and commitment to hospitality that we recognise and honour, when we affirm their Sovereignty. It is not simply a white person’s legal term; it is the term that the indigenous people themselves have offered, as the best way to describe their long and deep connection with the land.

The Assembly approved a proposal which defines Sovereignty as the “way in which First Peoples understand themselves to be the traditional owners and custodians” of the land. This draws on language in the revised Preamble to the UCA Constitution.

The proposal also referred to the Statement from the Heart which was adopted in 2017 at Uluru, which indicated that Sovereignty is understood by the First Peoples as “a spiritual notion, reflecting the ancestral tie between the land and the First Peoples.”

It was heartening that members of the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress spoke positively from the floor of Assembly, to affirm the proposal as a way to move forward in the covenant the Uniting Church has with them. Whilst it has symbolic significance, it can certainly provide a platform for action that will be positive for the future, together, of First and Second Peoples in our nation.

The Assembly has affirmed the First Peoples as sovereign. The people of the Uniting Church, as a fellowship of reconciliation, are called to continue and strengthen our work with indigenous people, as we seek a destiny together.

If you want to keep this to the fore of your discipleship, you are able to join the Walking Together circle of interest, at https://uniting.church/circles/

I’ll see you there!

Author: John T Squires

My name is John Squires. I live in the Australian Capital Territory. I have been an active participant in the Uniting Church in Australia (UCA) since it was formed in 1977, and was ordained as a Minister of the Word in this church in 1980. I have served in rural, regional, and urban congregations and as a Presbytery Resource Minister and Intentional Interim Minister. For two decades I taught Biblical Studies at a theological college and most recently I was Director of Education and Formation and Principal of the Perth Theological Hall. I've studied the scriptures in depth; I hold a number of degrees, including a PhD in early Christian literature. I am committed to providing the best opportunities for education within the church, so that people can hold to an informed faith, which is how the UCA Basis of Union describes it. This blog is one contribution to that ongoing task.

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