Last Wednesday night I had a dream. I dreamt I and many others were in a compound ruled over by a powerful white bureaucrat. There were so many people there they could not all be accommodated. Some 200 were killed to make room and those left behind were made take the bodies into the hills and leave them. As we watched a black cloud began spiralling into the sky. It took the shape of wedge tailed eagles and black crows. The female and male totems of my clan hovered as the spirits of those who died rose into the sky.
Some began a protest and were taken to a police station accused of crimes we had not committed and, believe it or not, of the crime those in power had committed. All the while the spiral of spirits connected the heavens and the earth, both devastatingly sad and infinitely hopeful.
This is a hard dream as it highlights the destruction of indigenous peoples by people who worshipped in our churches. It raises modern issues as income management, the Northern Territory Intervention, The Closing the Gap policies, the campaign to assimilate indigenous people into the constitution along with the return to countries such as India of long serving citizens who came here on 457 visas and our treatment of refugees, Muslims, the LGBTI community and others.
And it explains why I paint. I paint for the recognition of all people and cultures and for the reclamation of the place of country, languages and culture in this place. Coming from a place where the aborigines were marked for extermination, I have no language and no culture. William Cox, landowner and Anglican at a Public Meeting in 1824 stated the following, “The best thing that can be done is to shoot all blacks and manure the ground with their carcasses. That is all they are fit for! It is also recommended that all the women and children be shot. That is the most certain way of getting rid of this pestilent race.” By 1876 the last tribal aborigine, Tom Penney had died, and in 1900 those who were left in a camp at Wollar were forcibly moved to a mission at Brewarrina, never to return.
Why do I paint? Thomas Merton wrote, “Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.” Art is where I find myself. I have been lost to my story and myself and have needed a process in which I can reclaim my identity. The paradox is that once I begin to paint I lose myself again, but this time with a sense of becoming something mysteriously new. I have no country to walk but my canvas. My father would use the indigenous idea of walking country and listening deeply (dadirri) as the means of discernment. I have no such land but I do have a canvas and as I sit or stand before it I begin to hear and respond to the stories hidden within it and those deep within my hidden and ancient self.
Thomas Berry, encapsulates the experience of aboriginal people in particular when he says, “We can no longer hear the voice of the rivers, the mountains, or the sea. The trees and meadows are no longer intimate modes of spirit presence. The world about us has become an ‘it’ rather than a ‘thou.’” My art is an attempt to hear the voice of rivers, mountains and sea, and the voice of those who went before us. My art is an attempt to honour that voice and to amplify it into the world that has forgotten them. My art is an attempt to transform creation and people from an “it” to a “thou”.
Jesus says in our gospel reading; ‘I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one.’ My art is an attempt to make this a reality in a world created to surge towards wholeness though compassion and respect. It is a project with no beginning and no end but is embodied in Jesus the Christ as the Alpha, the still point of creative power in all things, and the Omega, a point far in the ever-evolving future we are yet to see.
It is important tonight to refer to the Uluru statement and the hope it appears to offer. While it is hopeful, the reality is our political leaders are not committed to it and have already begun the process of watering it down as witnessed in their initial responses. Many non-indigenous Australians are ignorant of the issues Indigenous Australians face and of which we who identify as indigenous can attest to on a daily basis, in the world and in the church.
We must understand this statement doesn’t fully express the will of the First Nation’s people, having been crafted with an eye to securing a future referendum. It is disappointing there is not a stronger call for treaty and for a body with legislative recognition to act on behalf of indigenous people. This maybe a start and we will work and wait until we get what is just. As Vincent Lingari of the Wave Hill walk-off said, “We know how to wait.”
While we are waiting, let’s consider what this Diocese can do to further this cause.
I would call upon the Diocese of Melbourne and the Anglican Church of Australia to:
- Publicly affirm the Uluru statement and it’s faint call for treaty, self-determination and sovereignty, and commit itself to translating these objectives into the life of this Diocese and the Anglican Church of Australia and not to settle for a minimalist position of recognition only.
- To work to ensure the National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islanders Anglican Commission is fully funded and empowered in the spirit of the Uluru document as the fully representative body with authority to speak into Anglican policy.
- To work to fund a First Nations person to educate parishes in this Diocese.
- To appoint a First Nations person as a Bishop or Archdeacon with oversight of First Nation people and clergy, and to speak on behalf of the diocese and across the province on indigenous issues.
These are moderate but necessary steps if we are to take seriously our task of putting right the wrongs we as a church have been party to in the history of our country. These are moderate but necessary steps if we are to release the souls of our ancestors to soar in the sky with the wedgetail eagle and the black crow.