NAIDOC WEEK and Uniting Church theology (part two)

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

See https://www.insights.uca.org.au/hear-the-statement-from-the-heart/

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.

See

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

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For the first post on this topic, see

NAIDOC WEEK and Uniting Church theology

This week, during NAIDOC WEEK, it is an opportune time to reflect on the situation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in this nation. NAIDOC Week runs from the first Sunday in July until the following Sunday. This year, it starts today (3 July) and goes until 10 July.

The acronym NAIDOC stands for National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee. It has its roots in the 1938 Day of Mourning which became a week- long event in 1975. The week is a time to celebrate Aboriginal and Islander history, culture and achievements.

It’s an undeniable—and unchangeable—fact that the Uniting Church took some time to arrive at the place where it finds itself today, in terms of its relationship with the First Peoples of the continent we call Australia, and the many islands that surround it.

Looking back, we can see the key steps that occurred to bring us to the present position, which places relationships with the First Peoples and advocacy for sovereignty and treaty at the centre of our commitments. It hasn’t always been an easy relationship, and there have been some difficult moments that required careful conversation to resolve, but some significant step have been taken over the years.

The first thing to note is that at the inauguration of the church in 1977, there was little (if any) attention paid to Indigenous matters. In terms of relationships with First Peoples, it was not an auspicious start. The inauguration service had no Aboriginal participation or recognition. There was no mention in either the Basis of Union or the Constitution of Indigenous people.

Whilst the Basis has remained virtually unchanged (apart from the minor wording changes of 1992), the Constitution now includes a revised preamble (adopted in 2009) which recognises the First Peoples, confesses our complicity in how they were treated from the time of colonisation, acknowledges the centrality of spirituality in their cultures, and even declares that the Spirit was already in the land, revealing God to the people through law, custom and ceremony.

Is it still timely for us to consider a parallel change to the Basis of Union? I’ve canvassed that thought in another blog, but I suspect that the appetite for this change in the church at this time is small. See https://johntsquires.com/2018/08/23/what-is-missing-from-the-basis-of-union/

Nor was there any mention of Aboriginal or Islander peoples in the 1977 Statement to the Nation. That Statement mentioned our commitment as a church to be a “sign of the reconciliation we seek for the whole human race”, and stated our intention to “seek the correction of injustices wherever they occur”; but it fails to mention Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islanders in any way.

See https://johntsquires.com/2018/08/20/alongside-the-basis-of-union-there-was-the-statement-to-the-nation/

This was a striking omission, as Aboriginal issues had already been to the fore in the previous decade, leading to the famous 1967 Referendum decision which altered the Australian Constitution to provide for recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the population of Australia. See https://aiatsis.gov.au/explore/1967-referendum

This unfortunate oversight was addressed in 1988, when a second Statement to the Nation was issued for Bicentennial celebrations of the founding of modern Australia. In this Statement, the church declared that “The integrity of our nation requires truth; the history of Australia, as it is taught in educational institutions or popularised in the media, must cease to conceal the reality and nature of Aboriginal society before invasion, what was done to them in colonisation, and what has been the fate and status of Aborigines within the Australian nation. See https://assembly.uca.org.au/resources/introduction/item/133-statement-to-the-nation-australian-bicentennial-year-1988

There had been strenuous debate at the national Assembly in 1985, as to whether the Uniting Church should participate in those celebrations; in the end, we did, although some members joined the 26 January protest held at the same time as the commemoration of the arrival of the First Fleet, marching under a banner that asked, 1988: what’s there to celebrate? See https://www.deadlystory.com/page/culture/history/The_1988_Bicentenary_Protest

Some of the key markers that we can paint to are obvious: in 1985, the establishment of the United Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress; in 1994, the formalising of the Covenant between Congress and the Uniting Church, sealed by the then Chairperson and President of those bodies, respectively.

In 2005, Uniting in Worship 2 included wording for an Acknowledgement of Country to be used in Uniting Church worship services (see p. 239, in the section entitled “Resources for the Service of the Lord’s Day”. Many Uniting Church services of worship now include an Acknowledgement of Country as a matter of course.

Other moments of symbolic significance no doubt come to mind, such as when the appropriate Congress leader was invited to sit alongside the President of Assembly or the Moderator of a Synod, to signal our joint commitment to one another. My special memory of this was the 2011 Synod of NSW.ACT, when each morning began, not only with prayer, but with storytelling from a local Indigenous elder. That was the moment when, in my Synod, Indigenous voices were highlighted, heard, and valued.

There have been Walking on Country opportunities, the development and implementation of Reconciliation Action Plans by Uniting, Synod Boards, and Presbyteries, and the formation in 2018 of the Walking Together as First and Second Peoples Assembly Circle of Interest, which draws almost 300 Uniting Church members together through social media, to share news and develop ideas relating our commitment to reconciliation, to forging a destiny together, as the final, clause of the Revised Preamble to the Constitution states.

As I reflect on this history during NAIDOC WEEK 2022, I am reminded of the ways that the theological commitment of the Uniting Church has been focussed and refined in order to give priority to First Peoples and to crystallise our commitment to working together, seeking justice, advocating for and serving the needs and hopes of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

And as I have looked back over the themes of NAIDOC WEEK over the past decade (see the links at the end of this post), I have been strengthened in my understanding that the Uniting Church has a deep-seated and thoroughgoing commitment to the hopes and ideals expressed by First Peoples through those decades. I’ll reflect on that in my next post in the series about NAIDOC WEEK.

For previous posts on NAIDOC WEEK, see

50 years of NAIDOC WEEK 3 (1984–1990)

Today, 30 May, is Reconciliation Day in the Australian Capital Territory. It is a day to focus on the steps that have been taken—and the steps that still need to be taken—in the relationship between the First Peoples of the hundreds of nations which existed on the continent of Australia, and its associated islands, in the late 18th century, and those who have come to this island continent in the years since.

One way that the First Peoples have articulated how they see things, and what they would like to see happen in terms of such relationships, has been in the annual NAIDOC WEEK. Starting as a national day in 1972, since 1978 a whole week has been designated to remember and honour the First Peoples of Australia.

In continuing my series about NAIDOC WEEK, I turn to the years of the Hawke Government. Bob Hawke led the Labor Party to power in the federal election of March 1983. During the nine years that the Hawke Government was in power, the following themes were chosen for each year of NAIDOC WEEK:

1984: Take a Journey of Discovery—To the Land My Mother

1985: Understanding: It Takes the Two of Us

1986: Peace—not for you, not for me, but for all

1987: White Australia has a Black History

1988: Recognise and Share the Survival of the Oldest Culture in the World

1989: The Party is Over—Let’s Be Together as a Aboriginal Nation

1990: New Decade—Don’t Destroy, Learn and Enjoy Our Cultural Heritage

The themes of the first few years during this period canvassed various motifs. The first in this sequence, in 1984 (Take a Journey of Discovery—To the Land My Mother) is striking in that it referred to the land as “Mother”. In considering the significance of land to indigenous people, the Aboriginal site, Creative Spirits, retells the story of “The Lost Girl”. Separated from her family, separated from the camp, the girl spent the night underneath an overhanging rock, before following a crow which took her back to her people.

“The people laughed and cried at once to see that the girl was safe. They growled at her for her foolishness, and cuddled her, and gave her a place by the fire. Her little brother asked her if she had been afraid; but the girl said – ‘How could I be frightened? I was with my Mother. When I was thirsty, she gave me water; when I was hungry, she fed me; when I was cold, she warmed me. And when I was lost, she showed me the way home.’”

See “Meaning of land to Aboriginal people—Creative Spirits”, retrieved from https://www.creativespirits.info/aboriginalculture/land/meaning-of-land-to-aboriginal-people

See https://www.creativespirits.info/aboriginalculture/land/meaning-of-land-to-aboriginal-people

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The next two years saw themes selected to indicate what work was needed, to ensure that black and white could do-exist together in modern Australia. In 1985, the theme was Understanding: It Takes the Two of Us. The poster also referenced the 1985 International Youth Year, with an image of a smiling younger indigenous person.

In 1986, moving beyond understanding, the theme referenced peace: Peace—not for you, not for me, but for all. The poster, highlighting the colours of red, yellow, and black, had an image of Uluṟu (then known as Ayer’s Rock) at its centre.

A key event during the Hawke period was the bicentenary of white settlement of Australia. Along with the public celebrations planned and held on Australia Day in January 1988, the opening of the new Parliament House took place in May 1988.

The location for Canberra was chosen after much debate in the early 20th century. The region is generally understood to have been a meeting place for different Aboriginal clans, suggesting that there was a reliable food and water supply. So placing the building where representatives from around the continent gathered, to debate and decide the laws of the country, sends a powerful symbol.

Michael Nelson Jagamara (born 1945) Luritja/Warlpiri peoples
Possum and Wallaby Dreaming 1985, synthetic polymer paint on canvas, Parliament House Art Collection, Canberra, ACT.
© The artist licensed by Aboriginal Artists’ Agency Ltd.

The name Canberra is believed to have been derived from a local Indigenous word Kamberri, which identifies the location as a meeting place of these many nations, for a gathering focussed around the bogong moth. See https://johntsquires.com/2019/01/30/learning-of-the-land-3-tuggeranong-queanbeyan-and-other-canberra-place-names/

Three NAIDOC WEEK themes reflect this watershed year. In the year before the bicentenary, 1987, there was a focus on black history, as a counterpoint to the intense focus that there was on the history of Australia since European colonisation from 1788 onwards. Mandandanji descendant and Queensland based multidisciplinary artist, Laurie Nilsen, designed the poster illustrating this theme.

The design features “a rolled paper scroll against a black background, with a large snake forming a silhouette of Australia and an assemblage of indigenous people and motifs spread throughout the composition, with red and blue printed text below”, according to a description on https://culturalcommons.edu.au/white-australia-has-a-black-history/

The site continues, “Nilsen has used a palette of warm and natural earthy tones of ochre, red and black to represent Indigenous figures and iconography including a stockman riding a horse in front of Uluru; a man wearing a dhari (traditional dancer’s headdress); rock paintings; a mother and son watching a tall ship; a soldier in a trench and a portrait of rugby player Mark Ella, recipient of Young Australian of the Year in 1982.”

The 1987 theme, White Australia has a Black History, can be understood to refer to the lack of meaningful acknowledgment, at that time, of past atrocities committed against First Nations people—an attitude which has been reversed in recent years, as it attested by the University of Newcastle’s project to map all massacre sites across the continent. See https://c21ch.newcastle.edu.au/colonialmassacres/map.php

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In 1988, the year of the bicentenary, the theme was clear and direct: Recognise and Share the Survival of the Oldest Culture in the World. The image of an Aboriginal face on the poster is made up of dots, coloured in the schema of the Aboriginal flag (red, yellow, black).

This theme provides a strong recognition of a fact that is now accepted without question; that the culture that is evident in traditional Aboriginal groups today has continued without interruption for millennia—at least 60,000 years, perhaps 75,000 years, maybe even longer.

Luke Pearson writes that “Aboriginal cultures are acknowledged as the first makers of bread, the first astronomers, have the earliest evidence of religious beliefs and practices, were the creators of the oldest still standing man-made structure (the Brewarrina fish traps), and more other firsts.”

Yet, he says, a focus on where a particular item was first developed is an inadequate way to assess a culture. He maintains that Aboriginal culture had long been living in accord with principles that “‘modern societies’ are only now fumbling around the edges of trying to understand and attain.”

He cites those principles as “Environmental sustainability; not being in a state of perpetual war; not needing to exploit others for resources and labour; equitable wealth and resource distribution”; but even then, he declares, “this is not the true lens through which other cultures should be viewed, because the true value of Aboriginal cultures is not simply how its practices and philosophies can assist others with the challenges they now face.”

See https://www.sbs.com.au/nitv/article/2016/12/21/what-continuous-culture-and-are-aboriginal-cultures-oldest

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In 1989, after the year of partying throughout the bicentenary, NAIDOC WEEK turned the focus back to a key claim of indigenous leadership: The Party is Over—Let’s Be Together as a Aboriginal Nation. The theme articulated a plea for a way to move forward as a united nation, with true recognition of the foundational and central place of Aboriginal people in the nation. It signalled that froth and bubble of the public celebrations of 1988 (in which many indigenous people felt unable to participate) needed now to be followed by some hard, sustained work, to develop a unified nation.

The poster showed white fellas and black fellas lined up together, symbolising that plea to work towards unity. It’s a plea that has fallen on deaf ears, sadly—and worse, and the following era under the Howard government saw the development of the “history wars”, a retrograde opposition to recognising black history, and a fanning of the flames of racists xenophobia, turned even into the First People of the continent and its islands.

The theme for 1990 recognised the start of the new decade, it the theme New Decade—Don’t Destroy, Learn and Enjoy Our Cultural Heritage. The theme refers back to the 1988 theme, giving it a forward-looking orientation.

Sadly, vested interests have continued to disregard this plea from First Peoples, as various sacred sites have been reclaimed, destroyed, and concreted over in the interests of “development”. The most tragic instance of this was in the disgusting blasting of the Juukan Gorges by Rio Tinto in 2020. This irresponsible act must surely be seen as a criminal act.

The shelters that were destroyed were the only inland site in Australia showing human occupation continuing through the last Ice Age. Their tragic destruction is a clear sign that we refuse to learn, that we continue to disrespect Aboriginal culture. See https://theconversation.com/rio-tinto-just-blasted-away-an-ancient-aboriginal-site-heres-why-that-was-allowed-139466

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See also

A Day of Mourning

Every year the Uniting Church marks a Day of Mourning to reflect on the dispossession of Australia’s First Peoples and the ongoing injustices faced by First Nations people in this land.

For the millions of Second Peoples in this country—those whose ancestors arrived on this continent from 1788 onwards—it is a day to lament that we were and remain complicit with the invasion and colonisation of the country, with the massacres of First Peoples that took place in so many locations across the continent, and with the continuing marginalisation and oppression of First Peoples in so many communities.

The observance of a Day of Mourning was endorsed in 2018 by the 15th Assembly of the Uniting Church, arising from a request of the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress (UAICC). At that same Assembly, an affirmation of the sovereignty of the First Peoples was also made.

As an expression of the Uniting Church’s commitment to justice and truth-telling, we keep the Sunday before Australia Day as a Day of Mourning. Today across Australia, people in many Uniting Church Congregations are reflecting on the effects of invasion and colonisation on First Peoples.

In the resources prepared for this day, the President of the Assembly, Rev. Sharon Hollis, and the Interim National Chair Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress, the Rev. Mark Kickett, state: “In marking a day of mourning, we hear the call of Jesus to a love one another. We live into our covenant relationship to stand together with, and listen to the wisdom of First Nations people in their struggle for justice. We affirm the sovereignty of First Peoples and honour their culture and their connection to country.”

See https://uniting.church/wp-content/uploads/2021/12/Day-of-Mourning-2022-FINAL_2_web.pdf

The President and National Chair continue, “We reaffirm our understanding that First Peoples encountered the Creator God long before colonisation. We confess and seek forgiveness for the dispossession and violence against First Peoples, we lament our part, and we recommit to justice and truth-telling.” This echoes the words now embedded within the Constitution of the church, in a Revised Preamble which was adopted at the Church’s 12th Assembly in 2009 and subsequently endorsed by the Synods and Presbyteries throughout 2010.

See https://assembly.uca.org.au/images/stories/covenanting/PreamblePoster-web.pdf

The resources prepared for worship on this day include an expanded Acknowledgement which also draws on words in the Revised Preamble: We acknowledge that the First Peoples had already encountered the Creator God before the arrival of the colonisers; the Spirit was already in the land revealing God to the people through law, custom and ceremony. We acknowledge that the same love and grace that was finally and fully revealed in Jesus Christ sustained the First Peoples and gave them particular insights into God’s ways; and so we rejoice in the reconciling purposes of God found in the good news about Jesus Christ.

In a section known as “Truth-Telling and an Invitation”, the Congregation is invited to reflect: “In a nation, now called Australia, where is truth-telling not always told? To know mourning is to truly know injustice—a struggle for justice. We seek guidance from ancient wisdom of past and present, to hold this mourning in our hearts and minds, to honour, to pay respect, to know, to appreciate and to act on injustice. Layers of mourning unfold in the stories not told.”

At the conclusion of the service, again drawing on the Covenant relationship that the Uniting Church has with the United Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress, the resources offer this word of mission to conclude worship, and to shape the witness and service of those who have shared in these services:

People of God, go from here to live out the covenant into which we, the First and Second Peoples of this land, have entered with one another. Confront and challenge injustice wherever you see it. Act justly yourselves and insist that others do the same. Rejoice in the richness of our diverse cultures and learn from them. Celebrate and demonstrate the unity we share in Jesus our Lord. Commit to worship, witness and serve as one people under God, until God’s promised reconciliation of all creation is complete.

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See also https://johntsquires.com/2018/08/10/the-sovereignty-of-the-first-peoples-of-australia/

International Day of Indigenous Peoples

Today (9 August) is International Day of Indigenous Peoples. Last Wednesday (4 August) was National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children’s Day.

The theme for National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children’s Day 2021 is proud in culture, strong in spirit.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families and communities have provided love and care for their children, growing them up strong and safe in their cultural traditions, for thousands of generations.

For our children, safety, wellbeing and development are closely linked to the strengths of their connections with family, community, culture, language, and Country.

The continent of Australia and its surrounding 8,222 islands have been cared for since time immemorial by the indigenous peoples of these lands. When the British began their colonising invasion and settlement of the continent, it is estimated that there were over 400 nations across the continent and its islands, with about 250 languages being used at this time.

The land was not terra nullius (nobody’s land), despite the action of “claiming” the continent for Great Britain.

See https://johntsquires.com/2021/05/31/whats-in-a-name-reconciliation-ruminations/

The situation of our First Peoples merits particular and ongoing attention. In Australia, we have NAIDOC WEEK in July to celebrate the survival and continuing culture and language. We have National Reconciliation Week, running from 27 May, the anniversary of the 1967 referendum which recognised the indigenous peoples of Australia and gave them the right to vote, through until 3 June, the day in 1992 that the legal case brought by Eddie (Koiki) Mabo was decided and the lie of terra nullius was laid bare by Koiki in the Australian High Court.

We also have Sorry Day, a time to pay respect and acknowledge the many thousands of Aboriginal and Torries Strait Islander children who were taken away from their homes, whom we now know as The Stolen Generation. And for indigenous peoples, 26 January is commemorated as Invasion Day, or Survival Day, as they remember the invasion that led to countless massacres and their systemic marginalisation as the imported European culture grew and dominated the land.

See https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/26/saying-sorry-seeking-justice-walking-together-working-for-reconciliation/

These occasions are very important for focussing our attention on the wonderfully rich heritage of the First Peoples of Australia. They also help us to remember the ways that we can work together with our First Peoples, to ensure a better future for the present and future generations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

This year, the theme for International Day of Indigenous Peoples is Leaving No One Behind: Indigenous peoples and the call for a new social contract. That is particularly relevant in Australia, where the call for a Treaty (or Makarratta) with the First Nations of this continent has been growing in strength in recent years.

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

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, with the Synod of NSW and the ACT of the Uniting Church.

The workshop had two parts. In the first part, Nathan offered us a series of insights into the experience of the First People’s of Australia, drawing on what we know about the history, customs, and current situation of indigenous peoples 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.

You can read my reflections on this part of the workshop at https://johntsquires.com/2021/08/04/working-with-first-peoples-and-advocating-for-them/. On the Doctrine of Discovery, see https://johntsquires.com/2018/08/13/affirming-the-sovereignty-of-first-peoples-undoing-the-doctrine-of-discovery/

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:

Learn about First Peoples, their history, their realities, their aspirations, with an open mind, with a compassionate heart

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 Peoples (synod, assembly, Common Grace, ANTAR, Amnesty all have resources)

Join rallies and marches to show solidarity with First Peoples

Pay to undertake a Walking on Country experience with a local Aboriginal 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 the 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 links to many resources relating to First Peoples at https://nswact.uca.org.au/first-nations-resources/

The UCA Assembly has produced a study guide based on the UCA Covenant with Congress, available at https://assembly.uca.org.au/walkingtogether/item/download/881_c020cd5241975ded067ba11194535b24

The Spirit was already in the land. Looking back on NAIDOC WEEK.

In the revised Preamble to the Constitution of the Uniting Church, adopted at the 2009 Assembly meeting in Sydney, our church made the affirmation that “the First Peoples had already encountered the Creator God before the arrival of the colonisers; the Spirit was already in the land revealing God to the people through law, custom and ceremony.”

That statement articulates something deeply important. The Spirit had been at work, long before the time of Jesus, millennia before the time of Israel, revealing God, through ancient indigenous stories, customs, and ceremonies.

What our First Peoples have long known about God, is consistent with what Christian people are discovering about God through Jesus. “The same love and grace that was finally and fully revealed in Jesus Christ sustained the First Peoples and gave them particular insights into God’s ways”, the revised Preamble continues. So we listen to the voice of the First Peoples. We listen, and learn. We hear resonances with the Gospel. And in this way, we encounter God.

I am writing this at the end of NAIDOC WEEK (4-11 July 2021). Each year, NAIDOC WEEK has a theme. And as I reflect on the themes of the past few years, I realise that each of them articulates something that is central to the faith that we hold and the Gospel that we proclaim.

In 2017, the theme was 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 2018, the theme was the inspired message: Because of her, we can. That 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; just ask the people who took part in Elizabeth’s Bible Studies last year, on women in the Bible!)

Two years ago, inspired by Statement from the Heart that was adopted in 2017 at Uluru, the 2019 theme was Voice. Treaty. Truth. The Statement called us to listen to the Voice of Indigenous peoples. As we do so, we realise that the settlement of this continent was 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. This is the Truth we must hear.

The Voice of First Peoples speaks Truth. And truth is something that we value in our Christian faith. Jesus said, “I am the truth” (John 14:6); and he declared that “the truth will set you free” (John 8:32). Truth liberates. Truth is important.

The next year, 2020, building on the call from the Statement from the Heart, we heard the theme of Always Was. Always Will Be. This 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.

We know the importance of land in biblical stories—the identity of Israel is completely bound up with land. The land where Jesus walked, we call “The Holy Land”. Land is important.

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).

This vision of reconciliation is built upon the affirmation that the land, earth, sea and skies which God created, are indeed “very good” (Gen 1:1–31), and that human beings have a responsibility of respectful care for that creation (Gen 2:15). Furthermore, 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).

And the view of scripture is that God will ultimately “heal the land” (2 Chron 7:13–14), “renew the face of the earth” (Psalm 104:29–30), at that time when God will restore everything (Acts 3:21) and 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.

The Spirit was already in the land, “revealing God to the people through law, custom and ceremony”. The Spirit had been at work, long before the time of Jesus, millennia before the time of Israel, revealing God, through ancient indigenous stories, customs, and ceremonies, Indeed, “the same love and grace that was finally and fully revealed in Jesus Christ sustained the First Peoples and gave them particular insights into God’s ways”, as the revised Preamble states.

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. From the testimony of the First Peoples, to care for country, we are challenged.

So we listen to the voice of the First Peoples. We listen, and learn. And we encounter God. Thanks be to God!

What’s in a name? Reconciliation ruminations

Today we are in the middle of National Reconciliation Week. The week runs from 27 May, the anniversary of the 1967 referendum which recognised the indigenous peoples of Australia and gave them the right to vote, through until 3 June, the day in 1992 that the legal case brought by Eddie (Koiki) Mabo was decided and the lie of terra nullius was laid bare by Koiki in the Australian High Court.

Today, in the middle of this week, is Reconciliation Day in the Australian Capital Territory. Reconciliation Week was initiated in 1996 by Reconciliation Australia, “to celebrate Indigenous history and culture in Australia and promote discussions and activities which would foster reconciliation”. Reconciliation Day was only gazetted for the ACT in 2018. It’s another public holiday for Canberrans—but the ACT government reminds us that it provides “a time for all Canberrans to learn about our shared histories, cultures, and achievements, and to explore how each of us can contribute to achieving reconciliation in Australia”.

This year, as I reflect on the importance of reconciliation for the people of this nation, I am struck by the names we use, and their significance. I am thinking particularly of place names. There are many, many locations around the continent which bear names that have been imposed on those locations by invading colonisers without any regard for what names were already used by the people living there before the British began their colony at Port Jackson.

The suburb where I live, Gordon, bears the name of a man who was born in England but came to Australia where he was a jockey and police officer, and for a short while also a politician—Adam Lindsay Gordon. (Who knows why??) The suburb where I grew up as a child, Seaforth, bears the name of a loch in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland (perhaps, bizarrely, because it reminded someone of that locality?).

There are other locations which bear names that refer to local indigenous people, or to specific incidents that took place in past years, involving indigenous people. You may have driven past Blackfella’s Gully, or Slaughterhouse Creek, or Nigger Creek, or similar names. They sound innocuous. They may not necessarily have been so.

Some sites identify specific massacres during the Frontier Wars. There is The Leap, in northern Queensland, where an Aboriginal woman leapt with her child, choosing suicide to avoid capture or killing by European vigilantes and Native Police. There is Red Rock, in NSW, where the name recalls the Aboriginal blood shed in a conflict there. There is Battle Hole, and Skull Hole, and no less than eighteen Skeleton Creeks, named for obvious reasons. (See https://press-files.anu.edu.au/downloads/press/p286811/html/ch08.xhtml?referer=&page=11)

There are other locations—quite a significant number of locations—that bear the name that has long been given to that location by the indigenous people of the area. The region where I live, Tuggeranong, bears a name which is said to be derived from a Ngunnawal expression meaning cold place. And at the moment, that feels like an entirely appropriate name!

From the earliest colonial times, the plain extending south into the centre of the present-day territory was referred to as Tuggeranong. The indigenous name was kept. I understand there is a rock shelter just a few kilometres from where I live, which dates Ngunnawal activity here at 20,000 years ago into the last Ice Age. They may have lived here much longer than that, possibly 60,000 or more years.

From the front of my house, I look out across to the Brindabella ranges—a formation bearing a name which is said to derive from an Aboriginal word meaning two kangaroo rats. However, another account claims that brindy brindy was a local term meaning water running over rocks, to which “bella” was presumably added by the Europeans as in “bella vista”. The British who invaded and colonised the area did such a comprehensive job of removing the indigenous locals from the area, that knowledge of the precise origin of the name has been lost.

The local nation, the Ngunnawal, shared the region we know as Canberra with a number of neighbouring nations, gathering during late spring for the arrival of the bogong moths. It was a time of feasting and ceremonies for those who joined with the Ngunnawal people.

The Ngambri came from the Limestone Plains (the area on which central Canberra sits today), although they are seen by some as a clan within Ngunnawal. The Namadgi people was a group inhabiting the high country to the west of modern-day Canberra (the area is gazetted as the Namadgi National Park). The Ngarigo people inhabited areas in the north and to the east of Canberra. There are also suggestions that some from the Wiradjuri people from the Central West participated in these regional gatherings.

These nations gathered at the place that today we call Canberra. The region is generally understood to have been a meeting place for different Aboriginal clans, suggesting that there was a reliable food and water supply. The name is believed to have been derived from a local Indigenous word Kamberri, which identifies the location as a meeting place of these many nations, for a gathering focussed around the bogong moth. See https://johntsquires.com/2019/01/30/learning-of-the-land-3-tuggeranong-queanbeyan-and-other-canberra-place-names/

So names are important. Names reveal much about those who bequeath the name. And names that have existed for millennia—indigenous names, the spirit names for the places—need to be honoured and remembers—and used! May that be one of the ways that we work towards reconciliation, this week, and long into the future.

See also https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/26/saying-sorry-seeking-justice-walking-together-working-for-reconciliation/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/11/08/always-was-always-will-be-naidoc2020/

https://www.smh.com.au/culture/books/welcome-back-the-recovery-of-australia-s-indigenous-languages-20201120-p56gfp.html