“They stood like Statues, without motion, but grinn’d like so many Monkies.”

As a sign of respect for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, the first inhabitants of this continent and its islands, we need to change the date of our national day.

Since the colonisation of this land in 1788, white Australians have consistently and regularly demeaned and dishonoured the original inhabitants of the land, who had cared for the country over millenia. This isn’t “black armband” history, this is simply the reality of the early decades of white colonisation of the continent.

Continue reading ““They stood like Statues, without motion, but grinn’d like so many Monkies.””

“We never saw one inch of cultivated land in the whole country”

As a sign of respect for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, the first inhabitants of this continent and its islands, we need to change the date of our national day.

Early encounters between the inhabitants of the continent we know as Australia, and seafaring explorers sent by imperial European powers, set the scene for what took place when the British colonised the continent.

These early encounters failed to develop a deepened understanding of each group by the other. Journal records show instances of failed encounter, misunderstood communication, and skewed interpretation (on the part of the journaling explorers) of “the Natives”.

Continue reading ““We never saw one inch of cultivated land in the whole country””

“Endeavour by every possible means … to conciliate their affections”

As a sign of respect for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, the first inhabitants of this continent and its islands, we need to change the date of our national day.

On 26 January 1788, the commander of the First Fleet, Arthur Philip (pictures), placed the British flag into the soil of Sydney Cove. Journals of the time record that the British had already set foot on the land a week or so earlier, at Botany Bay. However, because Philip couldn’t find fresh water there, he sailed further north. In Sydney Cove, he found fresh water in the Tank Stream, and this determined the site of the first British settlement.

At the time, this settlement was an expression of colonial expansion, claiming a new colony as “Britannia ruled the waves”. Today, we can see that it was an act of colonial imperialism, with inherent violence at its heart and aggressive marginalisation of the inhabitants of the land.

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The profound effect of invasion and colonisation

This Sunday, 20 January, Uniting Churches around Australia will be holding services which focus on a Day of Mourning, ahead of a day later in the week (26 January) marked in many calendars as Australia Day.

These churches will be doing this in accord with the decision of the 15th Assembly of the UCA, held last year, “to request members to support a Day of Mourning to occur on the Sunday prior to 26th January each year, and to engage during worship services in activities such as reflection and discussion of the profound effect of invasion and colonisation on First Peoples” (see https://uniting.church/28-day-of-mourning/)

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Learning of the land (2): Ngunnawal, Namadgi and Ngarigo

So, now we are here in the Australian Capital Territory, to take up new opportunities in ministry. We live in a suburb named after an early Australian poet (Adam Lindsay Gordon), on a street named after an obscure Victorian racehorse trainer (Michael Holt). That strikes me as a curious juxtaposition, indeed.

In fact, all the streets in this suburb are named after Australian sports people. Some are well-known people from Australian sports history, like tennis player Harry Hopman, yachtsman Jock Sturrock, athletics coach Percy Cerutty, jockey Darby Munro, horse trainer Tommy Woodcock, footballer Jersey Flegg, and cricketers Jack Fingleton, Sid Barnes, Clem Hill and Bill Woodfull (captain in the Bodyline series).

A number, however, are obscure figures like Lewis Luxton (born in Australia—but he rowed for Great Britain in the 1932 Olympics), Clare Dennis (a swimmer who won gold at those same 1932 Olympics), Noel Ryan (another 1930s swimmer) and Fred Lane, whose name graces the intriguingly-named Fred Lane Crescent. (Fred was a swimmer in the early 1900s.)

But the region in which we live is named Tuggeranong—a word derived from one of the indigenous groups who lived in the area, the Toogoranoongh. And we live in a city named Canberra, quite possibly drawing on an indigenous word (Koyanberra, or Kanberri, or perhaps Gamberri) which means “meeting place”. Which is what it is today. It is the place where, in contemporary Australia, lawmakers from across the country gather on a regular basis to meet in parliament.

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Learning of the land (1): Eora, Biripi, Whadjuk Noongar

Earlier this year, I attended a national Uniting Church meeting where all of the participants were asked to introduce themselves by stating their name and their nominating body, and then by identifying the First People of the land on which they lived and/or worked.

I took a few liberties with the required formula, and introduced myself as “John Squires, from the Synod of Western Australia. I was born on the land of the Gadigal people of the Eora nation; I rejoiced, for some years, to live and work amongst the Biripi people, on their lands, beside their waters; and currently live on the lands of the Whadjuk people of the Noongar nation.”

Continue reading “Learning of the land (1): Eora, Biripi, Whadjuk Noongar”

On Covenant, Reconciliation, and Sovereignty

Earlier this year, the 15th Assembly of the Uniting Church affirmed Australia’s First Peoples as the sovereign peoples of Australia. 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. 

Together, members of Assembly considered the proposal, discussing the meaning of the word sovereignty, considering the implications of this decision for our national polity and for our life as the church, and working towards a consensus view on the matter. The process of discussion and deliberation was important.

The decision of the Assembly recognised that Sovereignty is the way in which First Peoples understand themselves to be the traditional owners and custodians of the land. This land has been cared for and cultivated by the First Peoples for tens of thousands of years before our time. What we have in the land on which we live, represents both the creative forces at work over time, and the careful custodianship of these peoples.

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. Sovereignty looks like a formal, legal term, to those of us used to the Western way of thinking. Not so for Indigenous peoples. Sovereignty has a deep spiritual resonance. We need to ponder that dimension more fully.

This decision built upon the earlier decisions of the Uniting Church in earlier years. There was an early action where Uniting Church people stood in solidarity with the Yungngora people (at Noonkanbah Station near Fitzroy Crossing in WA) to oppose the unlawful and destructive activities of western corporations on their traditional lands. 

There was agreement at a national level to establish a distinctive body for Aboriginal and Islander peoples within the Uniting Church, a body known as the Congress, with its own leadership and decision-making processes. Early in its life, the then National Chairperson of Congress spoke of our gifts of Aboriginal spirituality, our culture, our Aboriginal way of loving and caring, our instinctive concern and … every good aspect about being Aboriginal and Islander. Congress provides a means for those aspects to be highlighted and articulated. 

There was the decision to adopt a process of deliberation and discernment in our meeting procedures which valued and honoured the way that First Peoples meet, talk, listen, and decide. It’s been a process that has challenged the presuppositions and assumptions of a western style of decision-making: propose, oppose, debate, argue, vote, decide, and then enforce the decision no matter what. Instead, we are challenged to listen, pause, seek to understand, look for commonalities, be open to the leading of the spirit, ensure that everyone’s voices are heard, and make a decision only when we are sure that we are able to move on together with consensus, or at least high-level agreement, about the matter.

There was the formalising of a Covenant between the Congress and the UCA as a whole. This recognised the special significance of the First Peoples and urges us to place our relationship with them at the heart of all that we decide to do. Covenant is a rich biblical idea which can inform how we function in our relationships together. In making this Covenant, the then President of Assembly prayed that it might unite us in a multi-racial bond of fellowship which will be a witness to God’s love for us all and a constant challenge to the continuing racism which oppressed you and separates us in this land and that it might move us towards a nation which provides justice and equity for all. That’s a prayer that holds good, still, today.

There was the adoption of a revised Preamble to the Constitution a decade ago, in which the church acknowledged the tragic history of colonisation, and affirmed that the First Peoples had already encountered the Creator God before the arrival of the colonisers, and the Spirit was already in the land revealing God to the people through law, custom and ceremony. That is a hugely important theological affirmation and I sense that we will be working out the implications of this affirmation for quite some time to come.

And more recently there was a gathering in Canberra of Uniting Church people from across the continent, converging in the nations capital to affirm that, as First and Second Peoples, we are hopeful that all may see a destiny together, praying and working together for a fuller expression of our reconciliation in Jesus Christ. Reconciliation is a key matter for us as a church, something that we need to continue to place at the fore of our life together.

This week, the Presbytery of which I am a member in Western Australia met on Noongar country and was led by elders and leaders of the Noongar peoples in a consideration of the implications of the decision to affirm that the First Peoples are sovereign in this land. What does it mean for us to value and hold to the covenant relationship, to affirm the sovereignty of the First Peoples, to shape our church life on the principle of reconciliation based on justice, and to advocate for these values in our national life? There are lots of challenges involved in these matters. The Chair of Congress in WA told us that “what we are talking about today is big business”. 

I’m reading rather carefully through a recently-published book by Chris Budden, Why Indigenous Sovereignty Should Matter To Christians. Chris writes that “affirming Sovereignty is a way [Australia’s First] people can reclaim their place, identity, dignity, access to economy, spirituality, and humanity. It is an action that may contribute to reconciliation.” (p.11)

May we play a constructive and enthusiastic part in ensuring that this process continues!

See also
https://johntsquires.wordpress.com/2018/08/13/affirming-the-sovereignty-of-first-peoples-undoing-the-doctrine-of-discovery/
https://johntsquires.wordpress.com/2018/08/10/the-sovereignty-of-the-first-peoples-of-australia/