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Saturday 19 March 2022

Acknowledgement of Country for dummies

Some of the discussions I've had this week with very smart non-Indigenous people have revealed that uttering an Acknowledgement of Country that communicates both respect and empathy is still just a little too tricky for many.

So I've decided to collect together the bits and pieces of guidance I've been handing out over the past few years into a list of dos and don'ts. I hope it is helpful.

Before you draft your acknowledgement
  1. Before you write a thing, develop some empathy for the experience of our people. Read our history. Talk with us.  Find out about our loss, our grief, our pain. Find out what we long for and what we aspire to. 
  2. When it comes to drafting an acknowledgement, talk to us about what will best communicate respect. Check if your organisaiton already has an approved form that has been created out of respectful conversation with us, and use it.  If no such form exists, seeks ways to make that conversation happen.
  3. Wherever possible, seek the guidance of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander people who are already part of your organisation, because they are the ones who will have to listen to your acknowledgements over and over again. If the acknowledgement doesn't work for them, it doesn't work.
  4. If there really are no Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander people in your organisation, seek guidance from local mob outside your organisation. These days, Aboriginal Controlled Organisations often have websites which will get you started. 
  5. If it hasn't happened already, consider starting a conversation in your organisation about the ways in which you will collectively work towards greater justice for our mobs within your sphere of activity or influence. This might be in the form of a 'Justice Action Plan' or something similar. Whatever the case, speak only about concrete commitments and the steps to very specific outcomes. Grand and globalising statements are next to useless.
Drafting the acknowledgement
  1. An acknowledgement should say something about the land on which you are meeting and the Indigenous group which belongs to that land. Note that this is rarely a group of 'traditional owners' in the legal sense, since most mobs do not enjoy complete access to their own lands. 
  2. You should acknowledge that the land is unceded (meaning it has never been given away or sold) but was rather taken by 'settlers' in a violent and often genocidal manner. 
  3. The ancestors who created the land should be acknowledged, because they are the 'old people' who still reside in country and speak to us from it. They are the creator-guardians, and as close a thing to 'divinity' as mob usually have in our cosmologies.
  4. You should acknowledge the elders who have cared for that country since creation, and who continue to care for country (insofar as they are allowed by colonial authorities). Elders, past and present, have a special responsibility to lead our mobs as we seek to stay connected to country and to our responsibilities as people of the land.
  5. Finally, you should give attention to a brief statement of your organisation's commitment to a greater justice for our mobs.

  6. Here is a simple example of an acknowledgment that would do the trick for churches and church organisations: 'We acknowledge that this church stands on the sovereign and unceded country of the trawloolway, and that this country came into the church's possession by deceitful, murderous and immoral means. We acknowledge the continuing sovereignty of the trawloolway over this country, and the right and responsibility of trawloolay elders, past and present, to care for it according to a wisdom passed down over more than four thousand generations. We give thanks for the ancestors who formed this land and gifted it to the trawloolway to care for. We commit ourselves to work and to pray towards a more just settlement for all Indigenous people.'
  7. Here is another example, which exhibits more creativity by evoking some specifics about the country in question: 'We gather today on ‘cold country’, the land of the Kulin nations. This is where the luk (eels) navigate the rivers and creeks, the waring (wombats) play amongst the ferns and the wurun (manna gums) stand tall.  This the country formed by Bunjil, the great ancestor-Spirit, and carefully managed by wise arweet (elders) of the Wurundjeri and Bunwurrung clans for more than 100 millenia. Today we give thanks for this country, for the rich and complex communion of its people, its animals, its plants. And we pause for a moment to silently pray that future generations will value what the creator has given far more than it is valued today . . .'
Pitfalls to avoid (please)
  1. If there is a recommended script in your organisaton that has come out of an extensive conversation with mob, and has been agreed to by mob, use it. Don't adapt it according to your own wisdom. Just use it.  In my experience, most peronal modifications of existing scripts (out of the arrogant belief that you know more about us that we know ourselves) end up insulting or in other ways disrespecting us. Please, please, please, resist that urge.
  2. Please, don't refer to local mobs on country in generic terms. Don't say, for example, 'we meet today on 'Aboriginal'/'Torres Strait Islander'/'Koori'/'Palawa'/'Murri' country'. Doing so shows that you haven't bothered to find out anything about where you are or whose country it is. This is deeply insulting.
  3. Please, don't refer to mob using possessive phrases such as 'Our Aboriginal people' or 'our Indigenous people'. We don't belong to colonists and never have, except as slaves and indentured servants. Saying that we belong to you tends to reinforce the fact that we continue to live in a colonial society in which the invaders have most of the power and believe they have a right to possess us. Again, it is deeply insulting.
  4. Please don't acknowledge 'emerging elders'. There is no such thing in Aboriginal or Torres Strait communities. You either are an elder, or you aren't, and the extensive use of this phrase is really, really annoying. 
  5. Please don't refer to 'traditional' owners or custodians. This word does little but reinforce the fact that most of us do not 'own' our land in any legally meaningful sense. It communicates little more than the fact that, in the eyes of the colonial law, mob can rarely be more than token owners, 'Claytons' owners, owners that cannot, in fact, enjoy effective control over anything at all. It is a word deployed by white lawyers. Please don't use it.
  6. Speaking of white lawyers, please don't talk about the connection of mob to land in terms of a period 'for', or 'since', 'time immemorial'. This phrase is another invention of white lawyers, and it infers that we do not remember who we are and how we are related to our country. The phrase was invented to represent the fiction that Indigenous peoples do not have a history that stands up to empirical inquiry: a documentary history, a history verifiable because it is written down on paper, preferably in tripilicate, and with the signature of (white) witnesses attached. We do, in fact, remember; we do have a history; we do have a long, long, memory. So, again, this phrase is deeply insulting.
  7. Another really annoying feature of many of the acknowledgments I have been subjected to, is the use of this phrase, or something similar: 'We also acknowledge/pay our respects to any Indigenous/Aboriginal/Torres Strait Islander people who may be with us this evening'.  This kind of thing is insulting on two levels. First, it assumes that a normal gathering of people, or the most usual kind of gathering, does not include mob. This is to normalise the absence of mob from polite, colonial, society and therefore reinforce our marginalisation and invisibility. Second, the phrase assumes that in the unlikely event that mob might actually be present, we are only present as a category of people, not as individuals with names or personal agency. Which reinforces another strategy beloved of colonial societies: abstraction. A phrase such as this refers to mob in the abstract, because abstractions can be dismissed in a way that actual people - with their thoughts and feelings and bodies - cannot. So please, please, please don't use this phrase in your acknowledgements. If you know that particular mob will be present, and you want to acknowledge the fact publicly, by all means do so. But do it by using our personal names, please. Treat us as people, not as abstractions.
Garry Deverell

Friday 18 March 2022

Upon attending a lecture entitled 'Race and Scripture in Australia'

I've just come home from a stimulating and learned public lecture offered at Pilgrim Theological College by a wonderful young historian, Meredith Lake. Meredith writes and thinks about the possibilities for reading the bible 'against the grain' of its racist deployment in 'Australian' society. She draws upon her historical research to offer precedents for doing so from both colonists and Indigenous people. I'm grateful that Meredith is doing this work, since the vast majority of white scholars and theologians within the churchly academy steadfastly refuse to engage that history, even to this day. The conversation Meredith's work provokes is an important one for the colony to have.

That being said, I want to share with you something of my experience of being present at this lecture and the conversation that followed. I do so primary to make make sense of my own feelings. But there may be something of value here for others to reflect on as well.

I came away with a very strong impression that I had somehow stumbled upon a conversation that was not really mine to participate in. It was a conversation for, and between, colonists. It was a generous conversation, to be sure. The participants included more recent arrivals to these shores. But it was not a conversation designed to include our mob, except in an abstract, 'othered', sense.

It was clear from the beginning that I wasn't really supposed to be there, at least not as a trawloolway man. The language of the 'acknowlegement of country' assumed that the attendance of an Indigenous person was normally only a remote possibility. 'We acknowledge any Indigenous people who may be with us this evening'. Now, the person who said this knew I was there and, in fact, I was directly in her line of sight. But she could not bring herself to address or name me personally. I was othered. I was abstracted. I was signed as someone without personhood or agency in that particular room.

And the lecture itself - notwithstanding its undoubted importance for the intra-colonial conversation - did not really speak to or with Indigenous people. Whilst Meredith gave a brief account of the apparently bible-inspired actions of Billibellary, William Barak and Simon Wonga at Correnderk mission (where some of my own family lived as well), and the theological work of (unamed) Aboriginal persons at Wybalenna (where some of my family were imprisoned) their living words were not cited. Nor did Meredith quote any Indigenous scholars, living or dead. So we heard about mob. But we did not hear from mob. Which is what colonists do when they are talking to other colonists.

So this was an occasion for colonists to discuss their crimes with each other and consider how to deal with their guilt and find appropriate precedents for more positive action. An important conversation, there can be no doubt. 

Still, I cannot help but dream of a day when churchly colonists might be able to transcend their self-referential illocution and speak with us, rather than about us. Not just as a one-off nod to the other and the exotic, but regularly, and continually, as if we were human beings equally capable of intelligent agency in the imagining of a shared future which will work for us all.

Even as I write that I hear the voice of Chelsea Watego in my ear saying something like 'Stop kidding yourself Garry. It'll never happen. Consider this another day in the colony and be done with such unrealistic and naive hopes.' Oh that I could, Chelsea, oh that I could! Unfortunately I'm afflicted with some of the same biblical dreams and nightmares as many of my fellow Christians. And I can't get them out of my head. I don't think I could repent and turn back, even if I tried. So, for the moment at least, I continue in longing. And I hope, against hope, that my yearning is conditioned and put into play not only by the oracles of holy writ, but also by country and by the ancestors who whisper to us from her gnarled and fragile forms.
Garry Deverell 

Since writing this little response, I've received conciliatory notes from Dr Lake, and from Associate Professor Melanchthon, who did the acknowledgement of country. Our correspondence included apologies as well as an acknowlegement that colonial attitudes and assumptions insert themselves into almost everything we do, even when be believe we are being vigilant against them. I am grateful to them both for their willingness to reflect and apologise, but also for their forebearance in the face of my determination to say out loud what most mob merely suffer in silence.

Sunday 13 March 2022

Enemies, real and imagined

 Genesis 15.1-12, 17-21; Psalm 27; Philippians 3.17-4.1; Luke 13.31-35

Enemies. We all have them. And, if we don’t have any real enemies, we make them up. Or else we paint them in more dramatic terms than is strictly necessary. Observe, for example, what is happening in Ukraine at present. One of the key reasons Putin has publicly offered for invading Ukraine is that Ukraine’s national leadership has been taken over by fascists, even ‘Nazis’, who are oppressing the people. Now, from the point of view of the Ukrainians themselves, this seems entirely false. But from the point of view of Putin, who has in mind the restoration of a past, mythical, Orthodox, Russian empire, the Ukrainian leadership are indeed the evil bastards who are keeping their people from participating in this glorious restoration.

We need to be careful whom we call an enemy. Perhaps we should not call anyone an enemy, even if they explicitly choose that path, and that designation, for themselves. ‘Love your enemy,’ said Jesus in his famous sermon, ‘do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who abuse you.’ (Luke 6.27, 28).  This is really tough teaching. If your neighbour is your enemy, what then? If you are the Ukrainian whose house is being raided by the Russian army, what should you do?  If you are an Aboriginal woman who has been raped by a British soldier, and your children killed before your eyes, how should you respond?

Let’s mine our lectionary readings for some wisdom.

The Genesis story talks about the deal or treaty YWH makes with Abram to preserve his legacy against every threat, real or imagined. If Abram is prepared to trust his future, and the future of his descendants to YWH, then YWH will make them prosper ‘as the stars in the heaven’ and the land on which he stands, stretching from Egypt to the Euphrates, will belong to them. Now, if you read this passage in its context, there are probably both good and bad reasons for Abram to feel anxious about himself and his clan’s future. Since arriving in that place, he’d become rich and inclined to feel that others wanted to take what he had. The story of his wife Sarai being given to Pharoah as a concubine is a horrific tale about the lengths that patriarchal culture will go to fight its own paranoia about losing wealth and influence. On the other hand, Abram also got caught up in a regional conflict between various Canaanite city-states in which his nephew Lot was genuinely taken into captivity.

With this background in mind, perhaps we must conclude that the treaty between Abraham and YWH comes about partly at God’s initiative and partly because of Abram’s male, patriarchal paranoia about the preservation of his legacy – legacy here understood as wealth and prestige for one’s descendents – against the indigenous tribes of Caanan. An earlier version of the covenant (in chapter 12 of Genesis) promises something rather different: that Abram’s descendants will become a blessing to all nations. Not their conquerors, but a source of their blessing. Perhaps that is what the covenant is supposed to be about, really. But this later, Genesis 15, version seems more concerned with the ways in which the indigenous nations, the people already there in the land to be taken by Abram’s seed, should be seen as enemies, and therefore a threat to Abram’s patriarchal ambitions. This is an ambiguity that has been played out in that region from the time of Abram right through to the current conflicts between Arab and Jew in Israel/Palestine. And, of course, there are tragic echoes of all that in what has happened here in the colony of ‘Australia’ as well.

The psalmist describes his fear of an enemy that has surrounded him on every side, and his appeal to the Lord for refuge and help. Most every suburban Christian I know usually reads this psalm as if they, themselves, are the psalmist and someone else – whatever or whomever we are afraid of, probably – is the enemy.  But what if that isn’t the case? Have you ever tried to read a psalm, or any other biblical passage, as if you weren’t the hero in the story but the enemy? Have you every considered the ways in which you might be the enemy? An enemy of the earth and of its flora and fauna, for example, or an enemy of the indentured classes of labour who make our clothes? Or an enemy of Indigenous people, because you stole our lands and benefit from our dispossession and hardship? How would that make a difference to your reading of sacred scripture?

The writer to the Philippians is incredibly circumspect in the way that he talks about enemies. He says that the enemy is not so much opposed to particular people, or even to Christ, but rather to the ‘cross of Christ’. Here the enemy is constructed not as someone who wants to steal your possessions or kill you. The enemy is someone who is allergic to suffering in the cause of righteousness or justice. Indeed, this enemy’s ‘god is their stomach’, an ancient way of speaking about the sin of gluttony or personal acquisitiveness. The sin of accumulating all things to yourself at the expense of many others, the sin of narcissism, we might even say. There is a sense, here, in which the writer wants, actually, to critique the acquisitive nature of the covenant we read about in Genesis 15. Here, it is Abram who could be understood as the enemy, for he seems concerned only about his legacy, the land he steals from others, and the prosperity of his own family and clan.  The writer to the Philippians prefers a citizenship that is not so attached to such things, but participates in the sufferings of Christ for the sake of a commonwealth that is ‘in heaven’, that is, in a place and a time that has yet to arrive. In that ‘heaven’ which – I hope you will agree, is a figure for some more hopeful and just future – Christ will transform the humiliated bodies of all who have suffered injustice and degradation and marginalisation, into the form of his own glorious body. In other words, all that is wrong and unfair will be put right. All that is broken will be restored. This is good news for all who suffer, or who are broken and marginalised. But you have to take a leap of faith.

Finally, in Luke’s gospel, it is instructive to learn something about how to regard the enemy from Christ, whose enemy is Herod, the puppet-king of the Roman occupation, who is obviously so afraid of Christ’s teaching that he has put out a ‘hit’ on him. Christ’s response to this news is quite extraordinary. Rather than go into hiding, rather than gathering a militia to protect himself, what Christ does is offer a lament over Jerusalem, a city divided against itself, a city that will at once listen to a prophet’s preaching and honour a prophet’s office, but also, in time, kill that prophet for speaking inconvenient or uncomfortable words.  Jesus himself, as indicated in the final verses of this passage, will himself be welcomed by the Jerusalemites as a prophet and even a messiah, but a week later be killed by those same Jerusalemites. Here the enemy is within. Not the other, someone from another group or tribe, ethnicity or religion. The enemy is your friend, your comrade, your congregation, your synagogue, your church, your ethnic group. Those closest to you and about whom you care the most. In the face of enemies such as these, Christ teaches us simply to lament, which is an ancient way of naming the evil and injustice of which we are capable, and then simply living, with tears, in the truth of it.  Here there is no hint of revenge or strategizing towards getting the upper-hand. There is a simple acceptance of the awful truth of the situation and a deep-down trust that if anyone can make this better, it is certainly not ourselves. It is God alone.

That’s kind’ve how I see the situation here in the colony known as ‘Australia’ as well. I long ago abandoned all hope that we, as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander nations, could ever dig ourselves out of the hole we find ourselves in. We are too busy imitating the coloniser by fighting with each other to present a united front. Although the Uluru Statement from the Heart piques my interest. A deeply compromised and conservative document, it yet represents the closest we have yet come to speaking to our colonisers with one voice.

Certainly, there is little political will towards justice from the coloniser, at least insofar as the political class can be said to represent the will of the people. Colonisers, and particularly the mining, forestry and agricultural companies that continue to enjoy extraordinary levels of subsidised support from the taxpayer, benefit enormously from our dispossession and marginalisation. And they continue to destroy, wound, and maim country in order to make their squillions. In my estimation, we have little to look forward to from these sectors but an endless charitable paternalism, breadcrumbs from the imperial table.

 What can the person of faith do, then, except to be as honest and as truthful as one can be, to name what is actually the case in the presence of the colonising powers, to lament that it is so, and place oneself and one’s people in God’s merciful hands? In this there is a hope, against all evidence to the contrary, that our bodies of humiliation will one day be transformed into bodies of glory. How that might come to be remains, for me at least, a profound mystery. But without the leap of faith which Christian called ‘resurrection faith’ there is nothing to look forward to at all. The last enemy, after all, is death.  And its sting is fierce. Unless . . .  unless God is for us, and not against us.

Notes roughly approximating a homily delivered at Koonung Heights Uniting Church on the 2nd Sunday of Lent, 2022.  The live homily can be found here.

Garry Deverell