Working with First Peoples and advocating for them

I recently participated in a workshop on Advocating for First Peoples, led by Nathan Tyson, an Aboriginal man, of Anaiwon and Gomeroi heritage in North Western NSW. (This was part of the excellent Out Of The Box mission conference held in July.) Nathan is currently working as Manager, First Peoples Strategy and Engagement, in the Synod of NSW and the ACT of the Uniting Church.

The workshop had two parts. In the first part, we explored what we know about the history and current situation of First Peoples. In the second part, we considered what actions we might take to work with and advocate for First Peoples.

What do we know?

In the first part, Nathan offered us a series of insights into the experience of the First Peoples of Australia, drawing on what we know about the history, customs, and current situation of Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders across the continent, and in the associated islands linked to this continent.

The five areas were: the impact of invasion and colonisation — the many massacres that occurred, and the almost complete absence of calling British settlers to account for these massacres — the Doctrine of Discovery and the resulting claim of terra nullius about Australia — the Stolen Generations — and the current push to tell the Truth, listen to the Voice of First Peoples, and establish Treaties with the various nations of the First Peoples.

First, there is the story—now becoming well-known and widespread— of the impact on First Peoples from the invasion and colonization that took place from 1788 onwards. (I use these terms deliberately; describing the British colony as a settlement is far too benign; it ignores much of the harsh reality of what took place.)

The period of invasion and colonisation saw innumerable massacres take place. As well as the thousands of Aboriginal deaths that occurred through these massacres, British invasion also led to the deliberate marginalising of people in many of the Aboriginal nations that existed at that time.

There is a powerful visual symbol of these massacres at The killing times: a massacre map of Australia’s frontier wars | Australia news | The Guardian

The map is interactive. The number of massacres that were perpetrated by ordinary people—not soldiers, not government officials—is truly horrifying.

Associated with this is an observation that provides a second area worthy of note. It is the case that virtually no white persons were charged for the acts of violence and murder that they perpetrated. (The Myall Creek Massacre provides one of the rare exceptions to this claim. See https://www.creativespirits.info/aboriginalculture/history/myall-creek-massacre-1838)

Third, Nathan referred to the rationale that was driving both the colonisation of the continent and the massacre of First Peoples—the Doctrine of Discovery, promulgated in medieval times and driving the expansionary colonisation policies of many European nations, including Britain. It was this Doctrine which formed the foundation of the claim of terra nullius—the notion that the there were no people in the land who were settled in the land.

The Uniting Church in Australia has joined with other churches around the world in repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery. See https://johntsquires.com/2018/08/13/affirming-the-sovereignty-of-first-peoples-undoing-the-doctrine-of-discovery/

Fourth, Nathan noted the issue of the Stole Generations, a blight on the history of Australia since the nineteenth century. This matter was addressed in Bringing Them Home, a highly important report issued in 1997. The commission that produced this report was led by Sir Ron Wilson, a High Court judge who had served as UCA Moderator in Western Australia and then as the fifth national President (1988–1991).

See https://humanrights.gov.au/our-work/aboriginal-and-torres-strait-islander-social-justice/publications/bringing-them-home

The continuing saga of Aboriginal children being taken from their homes remains with us today, to our national shame. Even in the 21st century, indigenous children continue to be taken from their families. In fact, there are far more Aboriginal children in out-or-home care now, than there were in 1997 when the Bringing Them Home report exposed countless stories of terror and tragedy amongst the Stolen Generations.

The final area canvassed in the first part of the workshop focussed on the theme of Voice. Treaty. Truth. This was the theme for NAIDOC Week 2019. It consists of a call to give Voice to the First Peoples of Australia by establishing a representative body to advise federal law makers; to establish a Treaty with each of the nations that were in the land before the British sent their invading colonisers; and to tell Truth about the history and the present situation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

See https://johntsquires.com/2019/07/07/giving-voice-telling-truth-talking-treaty-naidoc-2019/

Nathan encouraged all of the workshop participants to learn about First Peoples, their history, their realities, and their aspirations, and to approach First Peoples with an open mind and with a compassionate heart.

What can be done?

In the second part, Nathan then provided a comprehensive set of practical pointers for us to consider. Given what we know about the situation and perspective of our First Peoples, what can we do to support, collaborate with, and advocate for these peoples? Here are the practical steps that Nathan provided for us to consider and adopt:

Put yourself in the shoes of First Peoples and try to walk the journey with them as they experience it

Talk with family and friends about the issues that you hear about, encourage truth telling, stand up against racism

Develop relationships, listen deeply to the needs and aspirations of First Peoples

Respect the right of self-determination of Aboriginal Peoples

Undertake simple advocacy activities to support the needs and aspirations of First People’s (synod, assembly, Common Grace, ANTAR, Amnesty)

Join rallies and marches to show solidarity with First Peoples, eg those advertised by FISTT (Fighting In Solidarity Towards Treaties, a Facebook group)

Pay to undertake a Walking on Country experience with a local organisation

Employ First Peoples in your business, purchase goods from Aboriginal businesses, collaborate in social enterprises and community initiatives

Make your church space available for use by Aboriginal Community, for elders, community, social gatherings

Help with fundraising to support Aboriginal community initiatives

Use the system: help a person to lodge a complaint with agencies such as NSW Ombudsman’s Office, Anti-Discrimination NSW, NSW Office of Fair Trading, Ombudsman for Telecommunication Industry, Energy Industry, Community Legal Services (for civil matters)

There are plenty of practical suggestions in this list. It is worth the effort to start implementing some of them!

Heal Country: the heart of the Gospel (for NAIDOC WEEK 2021)

This week is NAIDOC WEEK (4-11 July 2021).

NAIDOC WEEK is usually held in the first week (Sunday to Sunday) of July that incorporates the second Friday. Historically, it began life as ‘National Aborigines Day’, then it became known as ‘The Day of Mourning’, before it was taken on by the National Aboriginal Day Observance Committee (NADOC). Some time later, the National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee (NAIDOC) was formed, and this provides the name to the week.

Each year, NAIDOC WEEK has a theme. Two years ago, inspired by the Statement from the Heart that was adopted in 2017 at Uluru, the theme was Voice. Treaty. Truth.

In that same year, the NSW.ACT Synod of the Uniting Church adopted a proposal to lobby the commonwealth government to establish a Makarratta Commission and to advocate with state governments that they make treaties with the indigenous peoples of their region.

In the Uniting Church, as we have drawn on the voices of Indigenous peoples, we have named the settlement of this continent as a colonising movement, generated by foreign imperialism, manifesting in violent invasion and genocidal massacres, spread from north to south, from east to west, of this continent. The commission and these treaties would have Voice to the First Peoples, ensuring that their Truth was known.

See https://www.insights.uca.org.au/what-synod-support-for-the-statement-from-the-heart-means/

The next year, building on the call from the Statement from the Heart, was the theme of Always Was. Always Will Be. (It was held later in the year, because of the COVID-19 pandemic.)

This theme recognised that these lands of the continent of Australia and its surrounding islands had not, indeed, been terra nullius. Rather, a complex interrelated web of nations had been living on the land, and the islands, fishing in the seas, meeting in ceremony and trading with each other, and caring for country in a deeply spiritual way for millennia upon millennia.

In the Uniting Church, the National Assembly adopted a proposal in 2018 that affirmed “that the First Peoples of Australia, the Aboriginal and Islander Peoples, are sovereign peoples in this land.” The proposal noted “the Statement from the Heart’s acknowledgment that sovereignty is a spiritual notion, reflecting the ancestral tie between the land and First Peoples”. Connection to country is deeply important, profoundly spiritual, amongst all of the First Peoples of this land.

We have continued to strengthen the covenant relationship with the United Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress (UAICC) and we have worked hard to give priority to the Voice of First Peoples in our church. See https://uniting.church/sovereignty/

This year, the theme is Heal Country.

This theme takes us to the heart of the Gospel. In scripture, Paul offers his vision of hope for the whole of creation, “the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Rom 8:18–22). Because he can see that those who are in Christ are “a new creation”, he charges the followers of Jesus to commit to “the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor 5:16–19).

That includes reconciliation with people, but it also points to “that coming reconciliation and renewal which is the end in view for the whole creation” as articulated in the Uniting Church’s Basis of Union (para. 3). Such a vision is offered in a highly imaginative, and much more detailed way, in the final book of scripture, where “a new heaven and an new earth” is described (Rev 21:1–2, 21:9–22:5, drawing on the vision of Isa 65:17–25).

These visions are built upon the affirmation that the land, earth, sea and skies which God created, are indeed “very good” (Gen 1:1–31; so also Neh 9:6; Psalm 104:24–25; Job 26:7—14), and that human beings have a responsibility of respectful care for that creation (Gen 2:15; and see the laws that command respect for the land, such as Lev 18:26, 28; 25:23–24; Num 35:33–34; Deut 20:19).

Further to that, scripture tells of the ancient Israelite understanding that God made a covenant, not only with human beings, but with “the beasts of the field and the birds of the air and the creatures that move along the ground” (Hosea 2:18; see the narrative of Gen 9:8–17). The eschatological view of scripture is that God will “heal the land” (2 Chron 7:13–14), “renew the face of the earth” (Psalm 104:29–30), at the time when God will restore everything (Acts 3:21) or bring universal reconciliation (Col 1:20; Eph 1:10).

So the theme of Heal Country is a central motif throughout the books of scripture. And we can see how, in our time, it draws together environmental concerns with indigenous matters. This theme recognises that respect and care for country has been integral to the life of indigenous peoples for millennia, and there is a need to recapture that care and respect in the present time. The impact of just two centuries of western living on this ancient country has been incredibly damaging. It is time for us to listen to the wisdom of the elders, and Heal Country.

Our continent is greatly blessed by the long and faithful heritage of the people of those nations which 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, and 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. Something that has been so important from so long ago; 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.

The theme of Heal Country is important for the life of the whole of Australia at this moment in time. It is also a theme that draws deeply from the scriptural witness. It is a theme that people of faith should embrace, proclaim, and live with all our being—this week, this year, and on into the future.

*****

A whole series of statements and policies relating to the environment have been produced by the Uniting Church, at national, regional, and local levels. The national statements and policies are collected at https://www.unitingjustice.org.au/environment.

Many local churches of various denominations have participated in projects promoted by the Five Leaf Eco-Awards, which has its own website at https://fiveleafecoawards.org

There are links to many resources relating to First Peoples at https://nswact.uca.org.au/first-nations-resources/

There is a prayer for Healing Country at https://www.commongrace.org.au/healingcountry_prayer

The Roman Catholic Church has been guided by the papal document Laudato si’, which provides an extensive exploration of environmental issues from a faith perspective. I’ve posted a series of reflections on this important statement at

https://johntsquires.com/2019/03/09/laudato-si-mi-signore-1/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/03/09/laudato-si-mi-signore-2/

“Laudato si’, mi’ Signore” (3)

“Laudato si’, mi’ Signore” (4)