I very much appreciated the opportunity to be part of a recent First Nations people and faith leaders gathering at Silver Wattle Quaker Centre that addressed the reality of First Nations sovereignty.
It seems pertinent to ask: what is the heart of the matter? What follows is an (incomplete) reflection in answer to this that arose during and following the gathering.
During the gathering I was part of sessions that informed participants of recent developments including various nations reclaiming sovereignty. There was impressive articulation of Australian legal history in relation to First Nations peoples: the compromises, the errors and blatant racism and self-entitlement that went with much colonial and federal law making. We heard of concerns regarding the Australian government’s Recognise campaign that encourage changes to the Australian constitution to recognise Aboriginal people. We wondered together as to whether ‘No’ voices can be heard properly and what impact recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in the constitution may have on Sovereignty. Would this assist or compromise the work towards a future of meaningful treaty or treaties between First Nations peoples and newcomers? Indeed we do not yet know what the referendum question is and yet the campaign for a ‘Yes’ vote is on ‘roadshow’ around the country.
All this information was helpful and interesting and without doubt has its time and place particularly when speaking ‘truth to power’. However this did not feel like the heart of the matter.
I noticed that when one Aunty spoke what was on her heart and mind that I was touched in a different way. There were certainly hard challenges to both Blackfellas and Whitefellas to become more real about the issues and there were pearls of wisdom. Something in me ‘felt’ her words in my heart and guts. These were not just words to be understood intellectually. Indeed I cannot remember all the words. But these were wise words that are known within from some deeper place.
At one stage she spoke profoundly and painfully of the impact on her and her people of the so-called Intervention on the homelands and the dominating, oppressing aggressive force of control. Those beastly people…I will not call them animals, because the animals are beautiful.
She went on to speak of the True Human. This is what is at stake: our collective and individual humanity. And if our humanity is at stake then the land is most certainly in peril. The ‘true human’ does not behave with oppression, dominance and beastliness.
Earlier in the gathering we had met around the Sacred Fire and introduced ourselves. I was reminded later that in traditional times when another clan or tribe’s land was entered a fire would be lit. Smoke would rise and those entering the land would wait to be received. Then they would be welcomed and instructed in both lore and language and shown safe passage, stories and business would be shared. The lighting of a fire in this way seems an outer sign of an inner attitude. A beatitude. A beautiful attitude. Do we find here humility, patience, respect, trust amongst other human qualities? Possible signs of the True Human? Imagine if one of our former prime ministers and accompanying entourage had come to a homeland, prepared a fire and waited to be received. And then were welcomed and shown how to be in that place. And after a time, maybe days, an opportunity presented to yarn about important business around a big fire with elders and other tribal people. And during this time concerns were shared about violence and abuse on that land and the desire to ‘intervene’ was expressed. What then? What different?
At another moment in the gathering Aunty spoke to the men present. Do not forget about the women’s role in men’s ceremony…I [as female Elder] hand over the boys to the men for the first part of initiation…when they return I name them…’young men’. Who is it that does the naming in our day? Women? Men? Blackfellas? Whitefellas? Are we ready to receive the names that we might be given? Who will name reality in any future treaty?
At another moment Aunty spoke of the Songlines and hunting goannas. We heard that as the hunt unfolds the hunters sing to the goanna. At some stage in the unfolding drama the goanna recognises that its time is near and it stretches out its neck…and willingly gives its life over to the tribe so they can have life. It seems the hunt is no mere butchering exercise but the unfolding of a sacred relationship.
At another moment Aunty spoke of what she had now become. Later in life with the diminishment of sexual desirability she had been given, in ceremony, the male dimension of lore such that she had become a whole human integrating both feminine and masculine. And I understand that this is a path for the male Elder too. I could not help but notice the resonance with an often forgotten Whitefella Scripture: In Christ there is neither male nor female. And in the mostly suppressed Gospel of Mary Magdalene: He is calling us to become fully human. Do we recognise a sacred depth in the people of the land? Indeed a mastery of the sacred that most in our Whitefella traditions rarely, if ever, reach?
A final observation was the relationship between both Aunty and her granddaughter. This relationship represented the teaching relationship of lore, land and ceremony. The circles of belonging and culture still in action. And it was strong and inspiring with an edge of fragility. How quickly these cultural bonds and lines of communication can be lost…and with dire consequences. I couldn’t help but comment later that us Whitefellas had lost our circles hundreds of years ago. Once, we too, would have known where we belonged: to land, tribe, indeed the whole cosmos. Who teaches us now to come into relationship with the land and the creatures, the Spirit and the cosmos? We may have fumbled our way along some ‘spiritual journey’ looking for the people who can lead us into right relationship with all that is. Our spirit craves such knowing. Can we see the process of acknowledging sovereignty and developing treaty as supporting the discovery and recovery of our circles of belonging…both Whitefellas and Blackfellas?
At the conclusion of the gathering our Quaker Elder invited us to greet every other person in the room with Namaste…the God in me salutes the God in you…a sacred gesture. When I came to Aunty we held hands for a time and she spoke in language to me. And then in English: Together we will hold this country together. I could only offer a feeble ‘beautiful’ in response. But I was moved. And as I packed my bag my throat was caught and tears welled in my eyes at the enormity of this statement and the way it was spoken to me. I am so unprepared for this yet my spirit is strong. Somewhere in the spacious depths of my being these words run free and then surface and catch me again: Together we will hold this country together.
Together we will hold this country together.
Amen. So be it.
n.b. The Aunty referred to in the above has encouraged me to share this piece with her stories and insights.