The need for reconciliation in Australia

By Paul Dekar | 1999-01-01 12:00:00

Aborigines and the Torres Strait* Islanders have occupied the Australian continent for an extraordinary length of time, at least 50,000 years. Initially they occupied the coastal areas. Gradually, over many centuries, aboriginal peoples adapted to changing ecological conditions (altered sea level, volcanic activity, climate change and so on) and settled the outback. Using appropriate technologies (tools of stone, wood, or bone; weaving; musical instruments), aboriginal peoples were efficient semi-nomadic hunters and gatherers. They divided into 500 groups or tribes, each with its own language.

Aboriginal peoples have important stories to tell us about this early time, which they call the Dreamtime. They refer to these stories as the Dreaming, or Law, which provides them a coherent and all-encapsulating body of truth that govern every aspect of living. The Dreaming still shapes aboriginal life. Djiniyini Gondarra explains:

To me as a tribal Aboriginal, dreaming is more than just an ordinary dream which one would dream at night or day. To us, dreaming is reality, because it takes in all the Aboriginal spirituality.

When the religious tribal elders say "This mountain is my dreaming" they are really saying that this mountain holds sacred knowledge, wisdom, and moral teaching, passed on to us by the spirit of the creator, who formed the holy sacred sites and the sacred mountains that exist today. Therefore the Aboriginal dreaming is based on three fundamental areas - religious, social, and political. One cannot be divided from the other: if destroyed or interrupted, it loses the uniqueness of what was designed and entrusted to us by our creator spirit.

As Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders struggled courageously against the dark tide of colonization and dispossession of the land, the Dreamtime legends helped them to resist and to survive. Now, as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island peoples affirm their own unique identity, find their unique place in Australian society and make their unique contribution to the global search for peace, justice and the integrity of creation, the Dreamtime legends offer fidelity to the past and direction for the future.

Captain James Cook first explored Australia's shores in 1770. A Western invasion followed after 1788. About that time, Aborigines speak of a gale which slowly crossed the continent, blowing out countless campfires, covering with drift-sand the grinding stones and fishing nets of Aborigines, silencing their languages, and stripping them of their dignity.

As in Canada, the catalog of crimes against aboriginal peoples is long, punctuated rarely by humanitarian concern on the part of some colonizers. In Australia, these abuses included:

Encouraged by decolonization and by Native Rights and Civil Rights activism in America during the '60s, Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders pressed for their rights. A new outlook on the part of the dominant society was needed to end 150-year period of genocide and ethnic cleansing. Slowly, one can detect such a change. A crucial first step was a referendum in 1967 when Aborigines received citizenship. For Veronica Brodie, a Ngarrindjeri, this meant freedom.

Freedom from a system that we felt we were tied into, that we couldn't get out of. I had seen so much of it. Not a great deal of things changed, mainly just the fact that you felt released from a bond that you was tied to. It meant freedom for us, freedom from seeing the kinds of things that had happened, people who saw their mothers screaming on the roadway while they were being taken away in the car by the Welfare officers. These were the kind of things that stuck in the mind.

In 1988, when many Australians celebrated the bicentenary of British settlement, there was talk about the need for reconciliation among Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians. Groups such as Midnight Oil and Yothu Yindi came to international prominence with freedom songs. A groundswell of support for healing prompted the Australian parliament to designate the 1990s as a decade of reconciliation. This provided people an opportunity to challenge the silence, racism, and intolerance that had so long prevailed. People began to cross a bridge of understanding. The following are key issues to be addressed.

Key Issue 1: The Land

The land, rivers and the sea, and their natural and cultural resources are important to all people, but some care for these in a different way. The land is the centre of culture for Aborigines, just as the sea is for Torres Strait Islanders. Recognition by the wider community of indigenous peoples' connections to earth and sea are essential for reconciliation.

Aborigines imbue the land with great value. Even as they have had to watch the earth come under assault in the name of economic development, dispossession from the land has been one of their most wrenching experiences. As early as 1840, an observer wrote of Tasmanian aborigines in exile on the almost riverless Flinders Island:

The want of the pure, dancing streamlets and rivers of their native country affected them much. [In their settlement] they had no fresh water to drink except such as was obtained by digging holes in the ground. When they spoke of their old haunts beside the rushing rivers they were filled with grief. The rivers were a delight to them in their wandering bush life; their homes were by the rivers and the tribes were called by the names of the rivers they frequented. No wonder, therefore, that they were left sorrowful in a land where the music of the rivers was never heard.

Reconciliation among peoples must be coupled with reconciliation with the earth. Unless non-Aboriginal Australians come into a new relationship with the land as well as with those who have inhabited the land for thousands of years, reconciliation will be based on terms established by the dominant culture. I see no basis of reconciliation other than the emergence of a genuine listening to the values of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander societies, especially with respect to the land. This will require cultural and political change and genuine equality in power between people whose values differ.

My perspective may be controversial. I believe the historical roots of the enslavement of Africans, aggression against First Peoples, and our ecological crisis can be traced to Western Christianity, especially to an ethos of growth that has dominated since the later Middle Ages. At that time Western European Christians awakened from a period of impoverishment and came to regard nature as having no reason to exist except to serve humans. They saw earth as a commodity belonging to people and subject to unlimited exploitation. The idea of one people's right to limitless rule of God's order, reinforced by confidence that technology can indefinitely fix any problem, is misguided and the source of a profound evil.

Aboriginal prophets are calling us to a new way of living. Hear the voice of Bill Neidjie, spokesperson for the Bunitj clan of the Gagudji people who live in Kakadu National Park in Australia's Northern Territory:

[White European] people-
they can't listen for us.
They just listen for money-
We want goose, we want fish.
Other men want money.
Him can make million dollars,
but only last one year.
Next year him want another million.
Forever and ever him make million dollars - him die.
Million no good for us.
We need this earth to live.
This ground and this earth
like brother and mother.
Trees and eagle-
you know eagle?
He can listen.
Eagle our brother,
like dingo our brother.
We like this earth to stay,
because he was staying forever and ever.
We donít want to lose him.
We say, "Sacred, leave him."

Neidjie calls into question the assumptions of non-Aborigines and demands a reappraisal of values.

This law -
this country-
this people -
No matter what people -
red, yellow, black, or white -
the blood is the same.
Lingo little bit different -
but no matter.
Country -
you in other place,
but same feeling.
Blood - bone-
all the same.
We only got few left - that's all.
Not many.
We getting old.
Young people-
I don't know if they can hang onto this story.
But, now you know this story,
and you'll be coming to earth.
You'll be part of the earth when you die.
You responsible now.
you got to go with us-
To earth.
Might be you can hang on-
hang onto this story-
to this earth.

A key step forward has been acknowledgment by Australia's courts of aboriginal land claims. In 1992 the Mabo decision recognized as legitimate the land claims of Torres Strait Islanders. Parliament responded by enacting the Native Title Act of 1993. In subsequent rulings, the High Court upheld the validity of the Native Title Act and struck down barriers to Aborigines regaining ancestral lands. In mid-1998, Parliament passed amendments to the Native Title Act. But Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders continue to seek redress of past injustices and participation in the care of protected areas.

Key Issue 2: Recognition of, and restitution for, past injustices

Linked with disconnection from the land has been a cruel policy to erase aboriginality. Between 1910 and 1970, a succession of federal, state, and territorial governments sanctioned the forced removal of aboriginal children from their families.

Donna Meehan's story is typical. She writes of the strangeness and heartbreak when she was taken from her mother to a nearby town:

I was homesick. I felt alone in the dark. The tears stung my eyes and hurt more than the mozzies as I realized for the first time in my life there was no one to sing me to sleep. When I awoke the next time, it was daylight. Suddenly I had this awful pain inside. I couldn't see the ground at all. Mother Earth was covered by hundreds of trees. I felt like a trapped, helpless baby bird.

Aboriginal singer Archie Roach makes the connection between government policy and Christian missions.

Said to us: Come take our hand,
Sent us off to mission land,
Taught us to read, to write and pray,
Then they took the children away, the children away.
Snatched them from their mother's breast,
Said it was for the best, Took them away;
The Welfare and the policeman said:
You've got to understand,
We'll give them what you can't give,
Teach them how to live, they said;
Humiliated them instead.

In 1997, a government-appointed commission of inquiry on the removal of children from their homes produced a report entitled Bringing Them Home. The report documented that as many as 100,000 children were forcibly removed from their families. As in Canada's residential homes, children's aboriginality was denied or denigrated. Their labor was often exploited. They were exposed to substandard living conditions and a poor education. They were vulnerable to brutality. Many experienced repeated sexual abuse.

At a time when making apologies and offering restitution has seemed universally fashionable, it is significant that Prime Minister John Howard of Australia has refused to follow the trend. The report of the commission of inquiry into the Stolen Generation was released during Reconciliation Week, May 26-June 1, 1997. One commission recommendation was that governments should apologize for the wrongs done and compensation should be made. Howard agreed to address a reconciliation convention that was held in May 1997. Hope soared among Aboriginal and Non-Aboriginal Australians. Later, however, Howard pointedly refused and has reiterated his refusal since his re-election on 4 October 1998.

Howard's refusal to apologize to the Stolen Generation precipitated an outpouring of grief and intergenerational trauma. It generated a long-overdue national, grassroots movement. People and communities confessed their role in furthering laws or policies by which Aboriginal children were removed from families. Some million signed Sorry Books, presented to Aboriginal leaders on National Sorry Day, 26 May 1998. Thousands nationwide attended ceremonies. As an example, on May 31, Dr. Lowitja O'Donoghue spoke at the unveiling of a sculpture, The Fountain of Tears, at Colebrook in the hills outside Adelaide, South Australia to which many Pitjjantjatjara children had been removed. As one who had lived at the home during her childhood, she spoke of the healing process. "We are recognizing the tears shed by the mothers, and this begins the healing."

Key Issue 3: Responding to Custody levels

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians are held in police custody at a much higher rate than are non-indigenous Australians. A Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody found in its study of cell statistics that in 1988 the rate of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander detention was 29 times higher than for non-indigenous Australians. Aboriginal women make up a disproportionate percentage of all women in custody. Even more disproportionate is the percentage of Aboriginal deaths in custody.

In its 1991 Final Report, the Commission made 339 recommendations. All governments have responded with a major commitment to implementing change and, indeed, there is evidence of improvement over the past seven years. Police are implementing programs to improve relations with aboriginal communities and to develop alternative dispute resolution measures through the use of mediation and conciliation. Beyond such specific measures, what is needed is elimination of underlying causes of high levels of custody: lack of control by Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders of their lives and an end of poverty.

Concluding Observations

Reconciliation is not a quick fix, but a long-term process, which entails truth telling, recognition, and restitution for past injustices. In October 1998, after re-election of his coalition government to a second three-year term, Prime Minister Howard stated that he intended to put new emphasis on the issue of reconciliation. Many question his resolve, yet grass-roots organizations have fostered significant healing processes. Australians have signaled a new willingness to walk together. They recognize they have a long way to go to reverse history and affirm Aborigines and non-Aborigines as equals. The collective wisdom of both will be needed to achieve reconciliation.

Paul Dekar is a professor of religion at the Memphis Theological Seminary.


Djiniyini Gondarra, Father You Gave Us the Dreaming (Darwin: Nungalinya College, 1988).

Geoffrey Blainey, "Triumph of the Nomads," in Australian Dreaming (Sydney: Ure Smith, 1992), p. 215.

Henry Reynolds, The Whispering in Our Hearts (St. Leonards: Allen and Unwin, 1998).

Rainbow Spirit Theology: Towards and Australian Aboriginal Theology (Blackburn: HarperCollins, 1997), p. 48.

Stuart Rintoul, The Wailing: A National Black Oral History (Port Melbourne: William Heinemann Australia, 1993), p. 317.

Richard Flanagan, A Terrible Beauty: History of the Gordon River Country (Richmond, Vic.: Greenhouse, 1985), 13.

See Lynn White, "The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis," Science 155 (10 March 1967): 1203-7; Stephen R. L. Clark, How to Think About the Earth: Philosophical and Theological Models for Ecology (London: Mowbray, 1993), Ch. 4: "On Not Blaming lato."

Bill Neidjie, Speaking for the Earth: Nature's Law and the Aboriginal Way (Washington, D.C.: Center for Respect of Life and Environment, 1991), p. 35.

Carmel Bird, The Stolen Children: Their Stories (Milsons Point, NSW: Random House, 1998), p. 107.

* The Torres Strait is between Australia's north coast and New Guinea.

Peace Magazine Jan-Feb 1999

Peace Magazine Jan-Feb 1999, page 10. Some rights reserved.

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