Two NAIDOC Week conversations brought together Uniting Church members from across the country to hear from our First Peoples on the theme “Always Was, Always Will be”.
Both provided opportunities to hear first-hand about the spiritual and cultural connection to country for First Peoples in our church and led to engaging conversation on what we must do to truly place First Peoples at the heart of Church and our nation.
The Lets Talanoa conversation on Tuesday 10 November invited Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Congress (UAICC) South Australia members and Ngarrindjeri people Sean Weetra, Shawnee Weetra and Jordan Sumner to talk about their stories from country and Ema Bovoro, an Adnyamathanha/Fijian woman to reflect on how the Church can move forward in its covenant relationship with First Peoples.
Jordan Sumner spoke about his family and cultural connection to the small community of Raukkan in the heartland of Ngarrindjeri country, and recalled that while other children played, he would sit and learn from the elders in his community about kinship, ceremony and law.
Likewise, Ema Bovoro talked about growing up in a household which greatly valued culture and language.
“I knew that I didn’t want to go through life with a void, not having a sense of place and not knowing about my identity. I wanted to feel that sense of belonging. I realised that’s a privilege I had and something I wasn’t going to give up.”
Ema recalled being 10 years old when her mother “freaked out” because her Adnyamathanha language was in danger of dying out. Her mother, with the support of non-Indigenous friends, began a project to revitalise the knowledge of her language and pass it on to new generations.
Over the next decade Ema joined her family on trips around the Flinders interviewing Elders and members of community for hours on end and compiling transcripts of the conversations which led to language resources.
“My job was to transcribe and because I was so talkative, my job was to do interviews. The experience made me fall in love with my culture.”
Ema shared her passion for translating hymns into Adnyamathanha language.
“One thing I remembered growing up was that the songs that get your through are the songs that you sing in language, those are the songs that hit and that stick. If I can teach that to people and the younger generation especially, then that’s something I’d be proud of.”
All the young leaders in the conversation challenged the Uniting Church and its members to transform the way they think about covenant with First Peoples.
Ema encouraged UCA members to, “really look at everything you’re doing as an individual, and then think about it as a community, what am I doing that is of detriment to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People across Australia? What is holding me back from that relationship? Decolonising the Church is extremely important.”
“If we sit back and look at those behaviours and mindsets in our household, in our church and our community, we’ll start to realise how different Aboriginal people have been treated and how different Aboriginal people have treated themselves because they think that’s what they deserve.”
Jordan encouraged UCA members to take seriously the commitment to walk together as First and Second Peoples, recalling his father repeating Aunty Lilla Watson, “If you’re come to help me, you’re wasting your time, if you’ve come because your liberation is bound with mine, let's work together.’”
“Don’t come try and help us, work with us, let’s take the journey together.”
Sean added, “We can’t change the past, but we can change the future.”
In the Let's Yarn conversation on Thursday 12 November organised by the Assembly Resourcing Unit, guest host Alison Overeem spoke about her connection to Palawa country in Tasmania.
Alison, who is part of the UAICC National Executive and Manager of Leprena UAICC Tasmania, shared a poem written on the NAIDOC Week theme Always Was, Always Will Be.
In part it reads,
“To know the significance and compass that abounds us, as First Peoples through place, is to know our links to the Land surpasses all time and space.
But in knowing that connection is to know and reflect on dispossession and it’s true realisation,
To hear the land relation is a call to know and reflect on the impacts of invasion and colonisation”
In conversation or kani with those who participated, Alison reflected on what it means to “Welcome to Country”, and how it is much more than a formality or purely a welcome to place, but also an invitation to relationship.
“When you’re welcoming someone to country your welcoming them on and into story and when you become a holder and keeper of story, there’s a certain responsibility that comes with it.”
“It’s a responsibility of the person that’s invited in to know about place, to know about cultural practices and to know about the people of that place.”
She welcomed the commitment of those in the gathering to go outside of their comfort zone when working alongside First Peoples.
“The more Second Peoples engage out on country, around the patrula, around the fire, and listen to local people and hear local stories, the more they will enter that time, that undefined time (of First Peoples) in a way that will lift the light of hope in all they do.”
Alison finished reflecting on how COVID is inviting us into a different space.
“We often talk about we need new ways of knowing and new ways of being. I would suggest that we just take a few steps back and realise that connecting to Aboriginal ways of knowing and being is perhaps the biggest gift that we can give not just the Church but each other and our children and young people.”
WATCH THE CONVERSATIONS IN FULL BELOW