The call to put First Peoples first
As part of a wide consultation process taking place through the Act2 project, the Assembly President and General Secretary held a series of conversations with the Assembly Circles. Nathan Tyson, Anaiwon and Gomeroi man and Manager, First Peoples Strategy and Engagement with the Synod of NSW and the ACT, shares his reflections from the Walking Together as First and Second Peoples Circle. Below is also a video from Nathan on the occasion of the Uniting Church's Day of Mourning.
Act 2 presents an opportunity to re-imagine, to be better, and to ensure we reflect the Gospel in all we do. In this conversation, and across the work of the Church, we must ensure we put First Peoples First.
We must incorporate covenanting, and actions to put the principles of Covenanting into practice, into all aspects of the Church’s identity, business and decision-making. We need to find ways of centring this work without expecting the United Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress (UAICC) to always initiate or lead. UAICC is very busy supporting ministry and mission in local communities with limited staff, resources and capacity.
The wider Uniting Church has (relatively) significant staff and resources it could and should be using to support and stand in solidarity with the UAICC and all First Peoples, particularly in terms of advocacy and the ongoing need for justice.
We are doing some good things, particularly at Congregation level where there are some great stories, but we don’t share these stories enough. And we still have much more work to do.
The church acknowledges the negative impacts of colonisation on First Peoples – for example in the Covenant Statement and the Preamble to the Constitution. Yet the Church in many ways remains fundamentally an organisation founded on a colonial theology. For example, all Church buildings are on land taken from First Peoples. This is rarely mentioned, and almost never addressed in terms of restorative justice. Is the Church ready to acknowledge injustice if it also means addressing the practical cost and implications of its commitments?
The Church broadly supports the principles of the Statement From the Heart – Voice, Treaty, Truth, which would establish a strong and effective mechanism to ensure First Peoples have an equitable say in things like the development and implementation of legislation that impacts our peoples and communities. How will the Church ensure that First Peoples have a strong and effective voice in the structures and decision-making of the Church?
The Church working to help address the disadvantage that impacts First Peoples and their communities will help lessen the Ministry load on UAICC. This is because the challenges relating to disadvantage tend to make things like developing on-the-ground ministry/mission initiatives much harder as people living in crisis have other understandable needs and priorities.
As part of this Act2 conversation the question has been posed: ‘What are you willing to give up?’
First Peoples have already “given up” (involuntarily) so much.
- We’ve had our land stolen.
- We’ve had our children stolen.
- We’ve had our peoples subjected to genocidal practices by a colonial regime.
- We’ve been prohibited from using our languages and engaging in our cultural practices.
- We’ve had our human dignity stripped from us.
- We’ve been dispossessed, enslaved, persecuted, marginalised and oppressed.
What is the Church willing to give up to action the Covenant Statement?
- Recognise the needs and challenges within the UAICC. Commit to resourcing its capacity, strength and ability to participate in and impact the structure and decision-making of the Church.
- Ensure our theological and mission work is always inclusive of the theological perspectives of First Peoples and addresses disadvantage.
- Recognise the special and unique qualities of First Peoples as the traditional and ongoing custodians of this country who have lived sustainably on this continent for millennia. First Peoples have invaluable wisdom and knowledge of Australian ecology and how to live sustainably, which can help inform discussions and decisions around climate change and related advocacy. The cultures, wisdom and knowledge of First Peoples are a national treasure and should be recognised as such.
- Assist the UAICC to restructure into a fully-fledged and well-resourced agency of the Church governed by First Peoples (elected UAICC members). I’d suggest a simplified structure, a more centralised National model, including elected representation on the Governing Board/Committee from each State/Territory UAICC membership, along with co-opted experts to help guide decision-making and growth. I acknowledge though that any decisions relating to UAICC are for the UAICC to make.
- Resource National and Synod led advocacy (engaging and supporting Presbyteries and Congregations) in these critical areas:
- The call for a Treaty between Australian Governments and First Nations.
- The ongoing issue of Aboriginal deaths in custody.
- The ongoing issue of the over-representation of Aboriginal people in custody.
Synods might do this by providing information and resources, such as info/data/statistics about the issue, templates for press releases/media statements and liturgical and advocacy resources for use in support of the campaign (eg merchandise, banners).
Finally, we need to support First Peoples leaders, both in UAICC and across the Church. Advocating for fundamental human rights and justice, day in and day out, while dealing with complex community issues and the impacts of disadvantage, can be exhausting and frustrating. Knowing we have the support of our church, and of senior church leadership, is really important to help leaders keep on keeping on.