NAIDOC WEEK (3–10 July) is an opportune time to reflect on the situation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in Australia, and to celebrate Aboriginal and Islander history, culture and achievements.
Each year, the National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee (NAIDOC) selects a theme to provide a focus for the week. This year, the theme of Get Up! Stand Up! Show Up! encourages Indigenous peoples “to work for systemic change and to keep rallying around their mob, their Elders and their communities”.
I have noted in earlier posts (see links at end of this post) how previous themes have highlighted the Indigenous commitment to community, the priority of family and the consequent valuing of young people, and the respect for Elders as the custodians, both of the land of this continent and its islands, but also of the many Indigenous cultures—collectively, the oldest continuing culture in today’s world.
In looking back over the past decade of themes, I can note some very clear and strong resonances between what First Peoples have been saying, and what the Uniting Church has articulated and sought to enact.
The 2014 theme referenced the celebrations taking place around the globe relating to the centenary of World War I: Serving Country: Centenary & Beyond. The poster, with artwork by Harry Alfred Pitt, explicitly depicts three Indigenous men in service uniforms.
The 2015 theme provides a clear and strong link to Uniting Church values and commitments, through resonances relating to the land: for land to be valued in its own right, and as an integral part of the very being of the people living on it. From early in the life of the Uniting Church, land rights for Aboriginal people was prominent on the agenda. Resolutions urging the federal government to recognise the land rights of Aboriginal people at the 2nd Assembly (resolution 79.45), the 3rd Assembly (82.50), and the 4th Assembly 85.06). The 5th Assembly agreed to a proposal that added to this wording that sought to have the government “acknowledge the immense and continuing destruction of their people imposed by the adoption of the doctrine of Terra Nullius” (88.22.22(c)).
These resolutions, and other actions, reflect the commitment to the importance of the land in the NAIDOC WEEK theme for 2015, We all Stand on Sacred Ground: Learn Respect & Celebrate.
This commitment is also evident in the 2020 theme, Always Was, Always Will Be.
For my reflections on the 2020 theme, see
Next, there are commonalities which relate to the call for a treaty which has been made by Indigenous leadership many times over the decades. The 2020 theme built on the theme chosen for 2019, Voice. Treaty. Truth. This, in turn, echoes the 2017 Statement from the Heart which was issued by a group of indigenous leaders, meeting at Uluṟu in that year. See https://ulurustatement.org/the-statement/
In 1994, the President of the Uniting Church Assembly signed a Covenant with the Chairperson of the Congress. Although neither body represented a sovereign entity in the way that a state or federal government does, the move signalled that it is possible to conclude such an agreement with the First People.
In the past decade, the Uniting Church has articulated its clear commitment to all three components of the 2019 theme—giving a voice to First Peoples, agreeing to a treaty (or a series of treaties with the various Indigenous nations), and ensuring that truth-telling about our recent history as a colonised country.
In 2015, the 14th Assembly gave detailed consideration to the matter of the doctrine of terra nullius and the claim to sovereignty of First Peoples. This lead, in 2018, to the 15th Assembly making a significant about sovereignty:
In 2019, the Synod of NSW.ACT addressed this theme
For my reflections on the 2019 theme, see
Reference to the land recurs also in the 2021 theme (see below)
There are connections with story, which sits at the heart of Indigenous cultures in many countries, but especially in Australia; and I am taken by the ways that story is at the heart of both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament. We share this commitment together—although Second Peoples have much to learn about the ways that First Peoples value and practice story telling!
We can see this commitment in the theme for 2016, Songlines: The Living Narrative of Our Nation. Deadly Story says that “Songlines are the Aboriginal walking routes that crossed the country, linking important sites and locations … the term ‘Songline’ describes the features and directions of travel that were included in a song that had to be sung and memorised for the traveller to know the route to their destination.” See https://www.deadlystory.com/page/culture/Life_Lore/Songlines
2017 provided a focus on language, in the theme Our Languages Matter. That’s a message which is integral to the Gospel—the Gospel that says, in the beginning, God spoke … and there was life (Gen 1). The Gospel that claims that “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”, and that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory” in the person of Jesus of Nazareth (John 1).
We know God best of all, most intimately of all, because God speaks, God is word. Language connects us with God. Language matters. Language connects us with one another, enables us to know one another. Languages matter for First Peoples. They communicate, they articulate deep truths. Languages matter.
In the Uniting Church, alongside worship in English, there are worship services held each week in another 40 languages—the mother tongues of many Second Peoples who have been welcomed into our century and now call Australia home. This is alongside the many Indigenous languages which are used by First Peoples as they worship each week.
The revival of languages amongst First Peoples is signalled by this theme, and resonates with the Uniting Church’s commitment. There are also 13 National Conferences, which gather together people of the same linguistic or cultural group: Tongan, Samoan, Fijian, Indonesian, Korean, Tamil, Chinese, South Sudanese, Filipino, Niuean, Vietnamese, Middle East and Ibero-Latino.
2018 invited a focus on women, with the theme Because of Her, We Can! The experiences that Elizabeth and I have had with Indigenous communities in a number of places is always that women are key leaders in those communities, the Aunties have power and draw respect! This is another theme that resonates with countless stories throughout scripture. Because of the faithfulness of Mary, his mother, Jesus came. Because of the witness of Mary of Magdala, exclaiming “I have seen the Lord”, the male disciples believed.
Because of the proactive intervention of Shiphrah and Puah, Hebrew midwives in the court of the Egyptian Pharaoh, Moses survived and grew to lead Israel. Because of the fiercely powerful leadership of Deborah, centuries later, Israel survived the onslaught from the troops of Sisera, commander of the army of Canaan. Because of her, we can. And there are many more such women. Throughout the pages of scripture. Women always have, and always will, play key roles in communities of faith, just as they have, and do, in Indigenous communities,
For my reflections on women in leadership in the Uniting Church, see
On the themes of 2017–2021, see
A commitment to sustainable living, demonstrating environmental responsibility, was signalled by the Uniting Church in the 1977 Statement to the Nation. That commitment has become more important—indeed, it presses as urgent—in recent times. The theme for NAIDOC WEEK 2021, Heal Country, underlined this area, and brought together Indigenous care for the land and Indigenous spirituality, which has also been noted in earlier themes.
The 2022 theme, Get Up! Stand Up! Show Up!, is a call to advocacy, and to solidarity in that cause. The Uniting Church has always been committed to speaking with, speaking along with, and speaking for, the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. We have not always got it right, but there has been a consistent thread of standing with and working to support and advocate for First Peoples, from the Noonkanbah action in 1980, through the years of various land rights claims, alongside the work led by Sir Ron Wilson leading to the Bringing Them Home report of 1997, into the more recent calls for Treaty (Makarratta) and an Indigenous voice to Parliament.
There’s a wonderful collection of resources relating to the papers written and statements made by the Uniting Church nationally, in relation to Indigenous issues, at https://unitingjustice.org.au/justice-for-indigenous-australians
For the first post on this topic, see