Covenanting: living up to the promise

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By Megan Graham

Stories under the ceiling at Narana

Victoria Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress (UAICC) and the Vic/Tas Synod held a Covenanting and Reconciliation Day at Narana Creations last month. The event, titled ‘Ceiling Stories, looking down at us’ – referring to the artwork on the dining hall ceiling at the venue – attracted about 50 people to the cultural centre in Geelong.

Main speaker for the day, Lindi Dietzel, is an educator and trainer for culturally diverse people as well as the daughter of a member of the Stolen Generation. Her ‘on the ground’ experience of the web of issues faced by Indigenous Australians, coupled with the personal reflections drawn from her background, made for a powerful testimony.

“Racism for us [Aboriginal people] is in a heart space not a head space. It’s not just a completely intellectual conversation for us,” she said.

“Aboriginal stories of resistance… in the Aussie spirit, Australians should get behind those stories of strength, but they don’t.”

During her talk, Ms Dietzel showed a half-hour excerpt from the SBS documentary The First Australians. The raw and moving interviews and footage brought many people to tears.

The excerpt told stories of Aboriginal people being used by European settlers as domestic servants in the time after colonisation, and how some families even denied their Aboriginality to escape a painful future for themselves.

One woman spoke about the Christian missions where Indigenous children were taught about Jesus, yet were shown no affection at all by the teachers. In fact, many of the children died of preventable diseases in the missions.

Interviewees also said colonisers believed that Indigenous Australians would simply die out.

Referring to events in recent times, Ms Dietzel mentioned the national apology by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. She spoke of her despair over the fact that little seems to have resulted from the act five years ago.

The Intervention, under a different name but with virtually the same policies, continues in the Northern Territory. The gap in health and life expectancy between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians has not closed.

And the responses of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to legislation that affects them still remains largely ignored when it comes to policy-making.

Ms Dietzel is all too familiar with this long-running trend. Echoing what many others with an interest in the issue have said, she questioned whether consultations with Indigenous Australians are largely carried out in a tokenistic fashion and have no real impact on the resulting laws.

“As with the findings and recommendations from the Little Children are Sacred Report, there is no relationship between Inquiry recommendations and the federal government’s response,” she said.

Ms Dietzel also provided a handout containing several documents including a ‘Massacre map’ showing where numbers of Aboriginal people were killed at the hands of European settlers between 1836 and 1853.

It states: “The deaths of several thousand people are represented. Many thousand more died beyond prying eyes.” The map also gives some detail regarding the ways Indigenous people were killed – shot, poisoned, beaten and even “butchered” (source: Koorie Heritage Trust).

Also contained in the handout was a disturbing Commonwealth of Australia ‘General Certificate of Exemption’ (under the Aborigines Protection Act 1909-1942 Section 18c). The certificate allowed an Indigenous man to ‘live like a white man’, stating it enabled a recipient to: “Leave the reservation or mission at which they live to go to work.”

Additional ‘benefits’ included: “Walk freely through town without being arrested (note: curfews apply). Enter a shop or hotel (you may or may not be served – at proprietor’s discretion).” And there were special conditions that applied: “Speaking in native language – prohibited. Engaging in dance, rituals, native customs – prohibited. Associating with fellow Indigenous people (including family) – prohibited.”

It continued, “If all conditions are met with and satisfactorily upheld, you may also be eligible to live in town unsupervised … This is your chance to be free of the Aborigines Protection Act and live like a white man. Dated the 10th day of March, 1951.” (Source: SBS Television Network).

Such treatment only 60 years ago beggars belief, and reinforces the imperative to not forget how recently in our nation’s history some of the atrocious treatment of Australia’s First Peoples occurred.

Ms Dietzel also emphasised the effects of transgenerational trauma – trauma transferred from the first generation of survivors that have experienced (or witnessed) it directly in the past, to the second and further generations.

The effects of transgenerational trauma, combined with the continuation of policies that are discriminatory and ultimately deny self-determination for Indigenous people, mean that not only is there still healing to be done – further damage is still being inflicted.
John Rickard, formerly a resource worker for UAICC, spoke at the event with passion and some measure of frustration. He called on members of the Uniting Church to more actively engage in covenanting with Indigenous Australians and prioritise the Church’s work with the UAICC.


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