It is a powerful phrase. It tells us at once two things. Firstly it tells us that across Australia and certainly in areas very close to here, the aim of early white settlers was not just to subjugate Aboriginal people. It was to annihilate them and remove them from the land entirely. This is our history. Secondly it tells us that the attempt to do this did not in fact succeed. Aboriginal people not only survived, they went on to contribute hugely to the culture and prosperity of modern Australia. This too is our history, but it is a history filled with struggle, ambiguity and pain that has to be acknowledged if it is to heal. It is a history of massacres, of the poisoning of wells and the deliberate exploitation of the defenceless. It is a history of the systematic destruction of languages, culture and ceremony and the connections that those things provide. It is a 230 year history of colonisation, dispossession and subjugation...
The ten year review this year of the Close the Gap policy, revealed that in fact mortality and life expectancy gaps between Aboriginal and other Australians are actually widening. The called for reparation payments have not been paid at all in many states including Queensland. Deaths in custody and high incarceration rates among Aboriginal Australians remain. The number of indigenous children removed and placed into out of home care has actually doubled since the apology, and is ten times the non indigenous rate. The funding required to address housing quality and access to primary health care is just not being provided, such that the United Nations special advisors describe the response as “woefully inadequate”.
In the face of this brutal and dehumanising history, what can we white Australians do or say that will make any difference? Firstly we can acknowledge its truth and not hide away. Secondly we can seek in every way possible to advocate for change. Thirdly we can seek to build relationships that are based on mutuality and respect and an appreciation of other kinds of history.
This brings me to the picture on the front of our service sheets tonight. It is an unusual picture in that it was created by an Aboriginal artist, Kevin Duncan, who prefers his aboriginal name Gaby, in collaboration with myself. This is how it came about. When I lived and worked In Gosford on the NSW Central Coast, Gaby and his friend Phil established a base at the Anglican church where I worked. In that church, which is a church a bit like this one – on the top of a hill, near a police station, in the old part of town – in that church from time to time different people would report seeing spectral figures of children. I didn’t see them myself but those who did were just regular members of the congregation. They weren’t aggressive but there were a lot of them and the Rector and myself started doing a bit of historical research to see if we could work out why their spirits were so unsettled. So we went to the local library, we consulted what records we could find. We saw the police records of the night that horses went out from the neighbouring police yards to a known place of massacre at a local beach and were signed back in the next day. But there was not a lot to go on. However conversations with local Aboriginal people began to suggest that this particular area had been a women’s place, and a birthing place, and that a local stream was running under the church site. The implication was that children had died on the site.
With this small amount of knowledge, I spent some time in prayer and retreat and out of that came a picture – the picture at the heart of this painting; a representation of the stream and the birthing place. At the time I was also meditating upon those who had died as a result of the poisoning of wells and water borne diseases and when I talked to Gabby about this picture, he talked about representing some of those people as white dots, both along the water streams and as stars in the Mirrambukka, the Milky Way, which forms the background of this painting. For Gabby the streams of living water on the land, were but a reflection of the river of life that is the Milky Way. So we worked together to create this joint picture of the souls of this place. Gabby painted the spirit figures, Biami and Gi, father and mother of us all, and the morning and evening star. He also included a baby’s footprint to represent the children whose lives had been lost. This was not so much an artistic collaboration as a work of the spirit, to acknowledge and name the unspoken and unnamed history of the place. We also had a smoking ceremony to acknowledge and cleanse and it seemed that a peace came.
This is the story of just one small place and a few people who were able to come together. Across our nation there are so many stories – some of healing that has taken place and many where the work remains to be done. It is slow and costly work. Yet it is hopeful work, that allows indeed history to no longer be a mystery, but be brought to light for the healing of all. We can all contribute to this work by our openness to the spirit in prayer and so tonight I invite you to attend to the divine in this place, and to the spirits of all those, Aboriginal and non Aboriginal who have shaped this place. For as we wait and listen in openness and from a place of love and healing, so we open up wellsprings of healing and hope. In the name of the one who seeks to reconcile all, the one whom we call Christ. Amen.
by Penny Jones, for Sanctus, 26 May 2018