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Rethinking indigeneity in the age of globalisation


On this topic, I speak as a non-indigenous Australian. At this venue, I speak as a Jesuit priest who happens to be a lawyer with a long time commitment to the recognition of indigenous rights in my home country. I come from a country where there have never been any treaties between the colonizers and the indigenous land owners, where there is no bill of rights, and where the entitlements to land rights and self-determination are still being negotiated with government. There is an emerging Aboriginal middle class. Most indigenous Australians now live in country towns or in the outer suburbs of the major cities. There are indigenous communities in remote areas. The contested questions in those communities relate to the expensive delivery of services including health, housing and education. The contested issue in the urban community is over self-identification as Aboriginal by persons of mixed descent. One of Australia's best known journalists, Andrew Bolt, is presently being sued in Federal Court for his recent newspaper columns 'White is the new black' and 'White fellas in the black' in which he speaks of 'a booming new class of victim you'd never have imagined we'd have to support with special prizes and jobs':

They are 'white Aborigines' — people who, out of their multi-stranded but largely European genealogy, decide to identify with the thinnest of all those strands, and the one that's contributed least to their looks. Yes, the Aboriginal one now so fashionable among artists and academics.

Fifty years ago, the Australian anthropologist W E H Stanner wrote his essay 'Continuity and Change' theorising about the 'quite marked disinterest the Aborigines have shown and still show in so many kinds of European activity'. He invited his non-indigenous readers to consider a few of the contrasts:

We are deeply interested in futurity. We try to foresee, forestall and control it by every means from astrology and saving to investment and insurance: the Aborigines are scarcely concerned with it at all; it is not a problem for them. Their 'future' differentiates itself only as a kind of extended present, whose principle is to be continuously at one with the past. This is the essence of the set of doctrines I have called the Dreaming. Our society is organised by specialised functions which cut across groups; theirs on a basis of segmentary groups....Theirs is a self-regulating society knowing nothing of our vast apparatus of state instrumentalities for authority, leadership and justice. Ours is a market civilisation, theirs not. Indeed there is a sense in which The Dreaming and The Market are mutually exclusive. What is the Market? In its most general sense it is a variable locus in space and time at which values — the values of anything — are redetermined as human needs make themselves felt from time to time. The Dreaming is a set of doctrines about values — the values of everything — which were determined once and for all in the past. The things of the Market — money, prices, exchange values, saving, the maintenance and building of capital — which so sharply characterise our civilisation, are precisely those which the Aborigines are least able to grasp and handle. They remain incomprehensible for a long time. And they are among the foremost means of social disintegration and personal demoralisation.

Stanner concluded:

If we tried to invent two styles of life, as unlike each other as could be, while still following the rules which are necessary if people are to live together at all, one might well end up with something like the Aboriginal and the European traditions.

Most indigenous Australians do have a foot in each of these worlds. For the majority, the Market is now more determinative than the Dreaming with the result that there is less straddling to be done. It remains my opinion that it is impossible for most human beings to straddle two such different worlds without a deep, nurtured and nurturing spirituality. Those of us who have never had to straddle two such diverse worlds are not those best placed to advise how to overcome the 'social disintegration and personal demoralisation'. Governments which place a deep faith in the Market and in 'law and order' policies enforced by instrumentalities of the State may be well intentioned, but unless they consult and work collaboratively with local Aboriginal leaders, they will be sure to make big mistakes, wasting precious resources and forfeiting trust.

Today a word about the politics of land rights, self-determination and indigenous rights, and then some reflections on spirituality, hope and identity in the Age of Globalisation.

The politics of land rights, self determination and Indigenous rights

Now that land rights are assured in the north of Australia, it is time for a negotiated arrangement assuring service delivery to sustainable communities, involving all levels of government and indigenous organisations able to strike a balance between living on country and living securely and productively for the future.

Without land rights and self-determination, indigenous peoples in previously colonised societies are treated as the members of one polity without a voice and as people without distinctive rights. With land rights and self-determination they are members of two polities with their own conflicting voices (realist, liberal and idealist), living under two laws which require reconciliation when the indigenous law and the coloniser's law collide or when the indigenous person asserts individual rights against the collective rights of the clan or community. Land rights and self-determination provide the space and the time for these indigenous peoples to live in their two worlds.

Indigenous people without land rights and without a modicum of self-determination are individuals and societies denied the place and opportunity to maintain themselves with their distinctive cultural identity in a post-colonial, globalised world. Indigenous people with land rights and a modicum of self-determination are individuals and societies with an enhanced choice about how to participate in the life of the nation state and of the global economy while being guaranteed the place and opportunity to maintain their cultural and religious identity with some protection from State interference and from involuntary assimilation into the predominant post-colonial society. They need to speak for country and for themselves. In the past, their dispossession was accompanied by a patronising voicelessness. With the best of motives by government and the provision of land rights, voice is still not assured.

Consider the 1919 decision of the Privy Council in In re Southern Rhodesia in which Mr. Rhodes' British South Africa Company was a party. This decision related to land transactions between Cecil Rhodes and the natives of Zimbabwe which contributed to young Americans and Australians being able to study at Oxford on Rhodes scholarships, while the indigenous people suffered dispossession and deprivation. The other parties to the proceedings were the Legislative Council of Southern Rhodesia, the Crown and the natives. Lord Sumner in his report of the Privy Council wrote:

By the disinterested liberality of persons in this country their Lordships had the advantage of hearing the case for the natives who were themselves incapable of urging, and perhaps unconscious of possessing, any case at all. Undoubtedly this inquiry has thereby been rendered more complete.

Leslie Scott KC and Stuart Bevan are described as appearing 'for the natives', perhaps the shortest and most generic description of a party ever to appear in the authorised law reports. On the next page of his Report, Lord Sumner writes:

The estimation of the rights of aboriginal tribes is always inherently difficult. Some tribes are so low in the scale of social organization that their usages and conceptions of rights and duties are not to be reconciled with the institutions or the legal ideas of civilized society. Such a gulf cannot be bridged. It would be idle to impute to such people some shadow of the rights known to our law and then to transmute it into the substance of transferable rights of property as we know them.

Lord Sumner observed that there was 'a wide tract of much ethnological interest' between these tribes and other indigenous peoples 'whose legal conceptions, though differently developed, are hardly less precise than our own'. He thought the natives in question 'approximate rather to the lower than to the higher limit'. According to the Privy Council, the maintenance of native title rights 'was fatally inconsistent with white settlement of the country' which 'was the object of the whole forward movement, pioneered by the Company and controlled by the Crown...with the result that the aboriginal system gave place to another prescribed by the Order in Council'. The Privy Council concluded its consideration of the native title claim, 'Whoever now owns the unalienated lands, the natives do not.' The natives were the people of one new polity without a voice, under one new law without rights.

Turning to the dispute between the company and the Crown, the Privy Council decided that the British South Africa Company was entitled to dispose of any unalienated lands using the proceeds to offset the costs of administration. Should the crown terminate the Company's administration of Southern Rhodesia, the company was entitled to reimbursement from the Crown for previous costs — either from the proceeds of further land sales or from public funds.

At the height of colonial expansion by European empires, those indigenous groups who bore some resemblance to their colonial masters were to enjoy some recognition and protection. Those differing from their new masters who could barely comprehend their social reality were to be denied any semblance of land rights and self-determination. Such Eurocentric notions put blinkers on the law's horizons of justice.

No matter which country you survey, no matter what that government's policy, no matter what the present strategy of indigenous leaders, and no matter what the public understanding or sympathy about the position of indigenous minorities, land rights for indigenous people are an essential component in providing indigenous citizens with the choice and the potential to live an authentic indigenous life within the realistic confines of nationality and economy. Land rights are also the cornerstone for the settlement of historic post-colonial grievances in:

  • Providing a land base for some indigenous persons and communities
  • Providing some indigenous communities with economic and political bargaining power, assuring them a place at the table
  • Recognising the entitlement of indigenous communities to maintain and sustain their religious beliefs and practices, without threatening the public order of the society after colonisation
  • Correcting some historic injustices which can be put right without occasioning injustice to other persons
  • Validating the post-colonial legal system, providing a greater coincidence between law and justice
  • Providing a necessary forum for the resolution of conflicting claims
  • Assisting all citizens of the nation state to appreciate the place and entitlements of indigenous people
  • Assisting all citizens of the nation state reach a better understanding of their history and their place in the world.

Though land rights and self-determination provide no utopia for the contemporary indigenous Australian community, they have belatedly put right an ancient wrong allowing traditional owners to speak for country and for themselves. The cost and inconvenience are unavoidable. Terra nullius is no longer an option. The Australian novelist Tim Winton reminds us, 'The past is in us, and not behind us. Things are never over.' The words of Chief Justice Marshall in Johnson v McIntosh still ring out today:

[H]umanity demands, and a wise policy requires, that the rights of the conquered to property should remain unimpaired; that the new subjects should be governed as equitably as the old, and that confidence in their security should gradually banish the painful sense of being separated from their ancient connections, and united by force to strangers.

We Australians belatedly have come to the right starting point on an endless search for justice between indigenous and non-indigenous citizens. There is no getting away from Prime Minister Keating's insight that we white Australians must start with an act of recognition:

Recognition that it was we who did the dispossessing. We took the traditional lands and smashed the traditional way of life. We brought the disasters. The alcohol. We committed the murders. We took the children from their mothers. We practised discrimination and exclusion.

It was our ignorance and our prejudice. And our failure to imagine these things being done to us. With some noble exceptions, we failed to make the most basic human response and enter into their hearts and minds. We failed to ask — how would I feel if this were done to me?

As a consequence, we failed to see that what we were doing degraded all of us.

These sentiments should rightly continue to haunt all citizens of post-colonial societies where indigenous people 'united by force to strangers', still live on the fringes. Governments in post-colonial societies are still minded to pass laws and implement policies specifically for indigenous persons arguing that such laws and policies are for the benefit of the indigenous people, regardless of whether the people affected by the laws and policies have agreed. A year ago, I completed a consultation on human rights for the Australian government. One of the recommendations made by the National Human Rights Consultation in 2009 was:

[T]hat a 'statement of impact on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples' be provided to the Federal Parliament when the intent is to legislate exclusively for those peoples, to suspend the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 (Cth) or to institute a special measure. The statement should explain the object, purpose and proportionality of the legislation and detail the processes of consultation and the attempts made to obtain informed consent from those concerned.

Not only did Government fail to adopt the recommendation, it saw no need to offer a public explanation for its failure.

Spirituality, hope and identity

Just last month, I conducted the funeral rites for a respected Aboriginal matriarch who died in her 80s. She came from a large family and was removed from them in early 1930s being sent to an institution. She did not meet up with her mother for another 47 years. She was widowed with five children in 1963. At the funeral one of her sons gave a eulogy observing, 'She raised all her children to be strong and proud; she would not dwell on the past or talk about injustices she experienced. She would say, 'What are you asking about that for?', and move on.'

For indigenous families like this, the Apology moved by the Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd with the all but unanimous support of the Australian Parliament on 13 February 2008 was a significant act of recognition and commitment to the future. The Parliament resolved:

That today we honour the Indigenous peoples of this land, the oldest continuing cultures in human history.

We reflect on their past mistreatment.

We reflect in particular on the mistreatment of those who were Stolen Generations—this blemished chapter in our nation's history.

The time has now come for the nation to turn a new page in Australia's history by righting the wrongs of the past and so moving forward with confidence to the future.

We apologise for the laws and policies of successive Parliaments and governments that have inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on these our fellow Australians.

We apologise especially for the removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families, their communities and their country.

For the pain, suffering and hurt of these Stolen Generations, their descendants and for their families left behind, we say sorry.

To the mothers and the fathers, the brothers and the sisters, for the breaking up of families and communities, we say sorry.

And for the indignity and degradation thus inflicted on a proud people and a proud culture, we say sorry.

We the Parliament of Australia respectfully request that this apology be received in the spirit in which it is offered as part of the healing of the nation.

For the future we take heart; resolving that this new page in the history of our great continent can now be written.

We today take this first step by acknowledging the past and laying claim to a future that embraces all Australians.

A future where this Parliament resolves that the injustices of the past must never, never happen again.

A future where we harness the determination of all Australians, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, to close the gap that lies between us in life expectancy, educational achievement and economic opportunity.

A future where we embrace the possibility of new solutions to enduring problems where old approaches have failed. A future based on mutual respect, mutual resolve and mutual responsibility.

A future where all Australians, whatever their origins, are truly equal partners, with equal opportunities and with an equal stake in shaping the next chapter in the history of this great country, Australia.

At that time there was no indigenous Australian as a member of Parliament. Ironically, if there had been, the symbolism of the Apology by 'us' to 'them' would have been more difficult to express. At the recent election an Aboriginal was for the first time elected to the House of Representatives. In his maiden speech, Mr Ken Wyatt thanked Mr Rudd and the Parliament:

The apology to the stolen generation has been a powerful instrument in the healing of both our people and our nation. The apology was acknowledged and received in the spirit for which it was offered. When the former Prime Minister delivered the apology on 13 February 2008 in this chamber I shed tears for my mother and her siblings. My mother and her siblings, along with many others, did not live to hear the words delivered in the apology, which would have meant a great deal to them individually. I felt a sense of relief that the pain of the past had been acknowledged and that the healing could begin. At that point, the standing orders prevented an Indigenous response. On behalf of my mother, her siblings and all Indigenous Australians, I, as an Aboriginal voice in this chamber, say thank you for the apology delivered in the federal parliament and I thank the Hon. Kevin Rudd for honouring his commitment to the stolen generation.

Two weeks ago, the Roman Catholic Church canonized the first Australian saint, Mary MacKillop, the founder of the Josephite sisters who have provided education and welfare services to the poor, especially in remote and rural parts of the vast Australian continent. Indigenous Australians played a key role in the celebrations. I was sitting with an Aboriginal group at the Mass of Thanksgiving at St Paul's Outside the Walls. Aboriginal dancers participated in the Offertory procession. Aboriginal deacon Boniface Perdjert assisted the Cardinal at the altar. The Aborigines around me were very proud of the Aboriginal participation in the liturgy. It was their participation which rendered the celebration most Australian, even for those of us who were not indigenous. Evelyn Parkin an Aboriginal woman originally from Stradbroke Island beamed a wonderful smile as she surmised about her people completing the circle: Italian missionaries had come and ministered to her people in 1843, establishing the Catholic Church's first mission to Aborigines. 167 years later, her people had come to Rome as people of faith proclaiming their faith to the Italians just as the Italians had done to them.

Before the mission was established on Stradbroke Island, the local Aboriginal community of 200 persons was forced to host more than 1000 convicts from the mainland. A prison was run there from 1831–1839. I daresay not all the convicts and their warders were easy-going beachcombers.

There is a plaque on the island commemorating the first recorded meeting between Aborigines and Europeans. Matthew Flinders was sailing past in 1803. He and his sailors were short of water. The Aboriginal traditional owners not only invited them ashore. They joyfully showed them where to find fresh water and farewelled them on their way.

The first missionaries arrived in 1843. Archbishop Bede Polding the English Benedictine had just returned from Rome where he convinced the Pope to establish the Australian hierarchy. He became the first Archbishop of Sydney. In Rome he had also convinced the Passionist Order to provide four men who could establish the Church's first mission to Aborigines. He had his eye on the talented well connected Fr Raimondo Vaccari who was 40 years of age and was said to be one who 'enjoyed great fame as a preacher, and had many influential friends among the laity, the upper ranks of the clergy, and the cardinals at the Vatican'. The Superior General was most unwilling to let this man go to the other end of the earth. But in the end, he surrendered to all those persons of influence. Vaccari was joined by Luigi Pesciaroli (aged 36), Maurizio Lencioni (28), and the French born Joseph Snell (40). They could speak no English but that did not matter; neither did the Aborigines.

Vaccari wrote to Polding saying that his men were 'free from anxiety and full of hope for the conversion of these my aboriginals'. We can all be forgiven for thinking that the language sounds more than a little patronising these days. The local people had obviously not lost their natural hospitality as displayed to Flinders 40 years before, despite the presence of so many convicts for so long. Vaccari reported to the Archbishop: 'They hold us in veneration and show us great affection, this being quite the reverse of their treatment of other Europeans, for, these, they say, do not act kindly towards them but betray them and deceive them, so that they have lost all confidence in them.'

Last year we celebrated the establishment of the mission as part of the 150th anniversary of the colony (now State) of Queensland. One of the participants at the liturgy was Mrs Rose Borey. I will never forget her waiting for Pope John Paul II to walk down the Dreaming Track in 1986 when he came for the meeting with the Aboriginal people at Alice Springs. The organisers had been told that the Pope was not allowed to wear the Aboriginal colours. That was no problem. They vested him with a crocheted stole in the distinctive black, red and gold when he reached the track. He knew better than to take it off.

As he got close to us, Louise Pandella thrust her three month old son Liam into his arms and he held Liam to the skies with such love and respect. Rosie was jostling to get close. The tussles all around us made some of those manoeuvrings by nuns in the Vatican look orderly. But Rosie got there and presented the Pope with a framed copy of the Our Father in the Gurumpul language.

She was so proud that a catechist descendant of the first Australians evangelised on Stradbroke Island was able to present the Lord's Prayer in language to the Pope. Fr Vaccari once told Archbishop Polding that the local Aboriginal people did admit the existence of a Supreme Being. They had told him, 'We have not yet spoken to Him, for He has not yet spoken to us; but we expect to see and speak to Him after death.' And now Evelyn Parkin was at St Paul's Outside the Walls expressing delight at being able to proclaim the gospel to the Italians.

Sitting behind Evelyn was Agnes from Kununurra in the Kimberley, the other side of the vast Australian continent. At the beginning of the liturgy she whispered to me: 'Father, this a sacred place?' I answered, 'Yes'. 'Then I could take off my shoes?' 'Of course', said I thinking of Moses at the burning bush:

So Moses said, 'I must turn aside now and see this marvelous sight, why the bush is not burned up.' When the Lord saw that he turned aside to look, God called to him from the midst of the bush and said, 'Moses, Moses!' And he said, 'Here I am.' Then He said, 'Do not come near here; remove your sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.' He said also, 'I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob ' Then Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God. (Exodus 3:3-6)

At the conclusion of the liturgy, some of the Aborigines invited those gathered around them to join them outside the entrance to the church. They had visited the church the previous day, concluding their researches and ascertaining the burial place of Francis Xavier Conaci. They led us in the most moving prayer for Francis, the Aboriginal boy who left Western Australia on 9 January 1849 for training as a Benedictine monk. Francis died on 17 September 1853 aged about thirteen and he lies buried outside the front of the basilica of St Paul Outside the Walls. Gathered around his burial place, we were moved to tears. The didgeridoo was played; a traditional dance was performed; Graeme Mundine and Elsie Heiss led the prayers; and Vicki Walker led the singing of 'The Old Wooden Cross' (the hymn which is sung at most Aboriginal funerals) and the Aboriginal Our Father.

Little is known about Conaci other than what is found in the memoirs of Bishop Salvado who departed for Europe with two Aboriginal boys on 9 January 1849. He had come to Perth from the New Norcia mission a hundred miles away in order to sell produce there.

The two boys had only been a couple of months in the Mission, so that when they reached Perth everything made them gape. But the thing that most astonished them was a boat — they thought it was a large fish or some animal that could walk on water! We could not manage to convince them that this animal was guided from the rear, for horses, they insisted, have the bit in their mouth and not in their tails (they thought the ropes attached to the rudder were reins). Then, when they saw the large ships, they thought they were the fathers of the boats, and wanted to know if these grew as big as the parent ships later on. Poor lads, everything was new to them!

He was then to stay on and offer the Christmas masses in Perth. No sooner had Salvado celebrated Christmas in Perth and the bishop Brady thought it would be best for Salvado to go to Europe given that a ship had arrived in port unexpectedly 'from Sydney on its way to Europe'. Salvado tried to argue his way out of it, but to no avail.

When the two boys heard of my imminent departure, they begged me to obtain permission from the Bishop for them to go with me to Europe. The Bishop was happy to meet their eager wishes, and so I got the approval of their parents and made everything ready for the voyage. On 6 January the boys were baptized by the Bishop with the names of Francis Xavier Conaci and John Baptist Dirimera, which I had earlier given them at the Mission. The Secretary of the Colony, Dr R R Madden, and his wife were the godparents.' Salvado surmises that the tribal name 'Conaci' would have been bestowed by the father who traditionally would choose a name suggested by something that happened at the time of the birth. A black cockatoo (manaci) may well have passed by.

They departed Perth on 9 January 1849. On 17 April 1849, they reached Swansea, Wales. Salvado immediately had the boys inoculated for smallpox 'since the malady was quite unknown in their part of the world'. Salvado then took the boys to Dublin and then back to London: 'If my boys had been astonished at the sight of steamships, there is no need to say how they felt when they saw themselves whirled from one place to another at lightning speed by train. 'Why not bring this kind of fire to Australia', they said, 'so that we can go backwards and forwards between the mission and Perth?'

One night in London, Dr Madden who also happened to have travelled on the same ship as Salvado, invited him 'to attend a meeting of learned and philanthropic men in which the subject of the Australian natives was to be discussed'. A letter from New South Wales describing the primitiveness of the natives was read out to the assembly. Salvado expressed a contrary view:

Some claimed that the Australian natives were incapable of intellectual formation, of understanding the benefits of civilization, or the right of property, and there were other absurd statements which there would be no point in repeating here. My only answer was to trace the story of the Mission of New Norcia ... and specious allegations simply collapsed before the facts.

They then went on to Paris where there was still civil disruption on the streets following the workers' revolt of the previous year. Soldiers were pursuing some rioters through the streets on 13 June 1849.

One of my boys, agitated by this extraordinary display, asked me what it was all about. I told him that some of those who had just rushed by shouting were bad men, and that the soldiers were going to fire on them if they failed to keep the peace.

'But I see', said the boy, 'that the others have rifles too. Who will win?'

'There are only a few of the bad men,' I replied, 'and so the soldiers will win.'

He was silent for a few minutes, and then he went on: 'Why don't you go between the soldiers and the bad men, take all their weapons away, and lock them up in this house and stop them from fighting — and the two of us will help you?'

'Because this is not my country, and I don't know anyone here', I replied.

'That doesn't matter. You don't belong to my country either, and you didn't know the natives, but when they were getting ready to fight or had already started, you went in among them, took their gidjis, shut them up in the Mission house and it was all over. Why don't you do the same here?' This argument, which was so much to the point and so unexpected from a boy who eight months before was wandering naked in the bush and was as uncivilized as only a native can be, left me bereft of a satisfactory reply. I did not want to tell him that in a case like this, it was easier to get good results from natives than from those who boasted they had reached the acme of civilization.

The boys were then delivered to the Benedictine Monastery of the Holy Trinity in Cava, Italy. In late July 1849, Salvado took the boys to Gaeta to present them to Pope Pius IX. The Pope asked, 'What are these two boys carrying?'

'Holy Father', I replied, 'each one of these white linen bags contains a monastic habit, and as these two lads are going to become the first Benedictines of Australia, indeed, or a whole fifth of the world, I humbly ask you to let them have the great honour of receiving the habit from your hands.' 'I am only too happy to do so', he replied, and taking the habit for the older boy, he clothed him with it and blessed him. Then he asked his name. 'John Baptist', he replied. 'Well, from henceforth he will have the name of John Mary.' IN the case of the second boy, he retained the name of Francis Xavier, saying: 'Australia needs a second Francis Xavier; may the Lord bless this boy, and make him into one!' He presented them with a silver crucifix and me with a fine set of rosary beads, and gave us his blessing.

The boys then entered the noviceship at Cava on 5 August 1849. Salvado then set about his business and was promptly appointed a bishop. So he headed for Spain before preparing to return to Australia. He went to Cava to say goodbye to the boys.

I asked them if they were happy and well, and they told me that they were better off than at the Mission, which I am sure was true.

'I am leaving tomorrow', I told them. 'Do you want to come back with me?'


'And why not?'

'Because we have not done our studies. When we go back to Australia our parents and friends will ask us if we understand the 'talking papers' [books and letters], and if we can make them ourselves [know how to write], if we can make horses and trees [know how to draw] and many other things; and if we tell them that we can't do these things, they will tell us that we are still jun-ar [yung-ar], or bush people, as they are. So it is much better for you to leave now; in the meantime we will study a lot, and when we can understand all the 'talking papers', can sing, and play with the fingers [play musical instruments], and say Mass, which we like very much, we will make you a 'talking paper' and you will come to meet us at the water with two horses. Then we will leave the walking house [the ship], and us tow boys will go off into the bush in different directions, and we'll bring all the boys to the Mission school. Just now we don't know anything, and we can't teach school to others; but soon we'll be able to — you'll see!'

This line of reasoning, surely above what one could expect of their age and condition, filled me with joy. How much good will these two boys not be able to do for their compatriots, whose blood and language they share, whose beliefs and way of life they understand? May God bless them for His greater glory, and for the good of the souls of the poor unfortunate natives!

Later in his memoirs when describing the physical and intellectual qualities of the Aborigines, Salvado quotes two letters he received from the boys, the first being from both of them, dated 24 June 1850 and the second from Francis, dated 18 July 1851. Francis was clearly progressing much better at his studies than was the older John Mary. Salvado was assured by their teacher that the boys had composed and written the letters themselves.

In the first letter, they wrote:

Very dear Rosendo,

We very glad get your letter, and we very glad you well. We plenty pray God for natives and you. Why you not come monastery new moon? You come quick, quick, we like very much. Us very well and happy. Me, Francis, study well; John, not bad, but him get better. You kiss Pope foot, for Francis, John, Father Master, who three. You pray for Francis and John at Mass. We want picture, too. Father Master kiss your hands, and all my friends.

Kiss your letter, kiss your hand, you give blessing.

Francis Conaci

John Dirimera

Francis displays remarkable progress with his next letter a year later:

Your Lordship,

It is with great pleasure that we received your welcome letter, dated 1st July, by means of which we learnt that you are in good health, and we assure you that we are, too. We hope that your occupations will leave you free at least for a few days, so that we can have the consolation of seeing you again and kissing your hand.

To give you a proof of my behaviour in study, I send you a certificate that I got in the public examinations of September, with the mark 'Very Good', together with the silver medal, which the Father Master of Novices is keeping for me. We thank you for the picture cards of saints that you have sent us, and we ask you to bring a little book of prayers containing Preparation for Holy Communion. We kiss your hands affectionately, as do all my comrades, especially Brother Silvano. Asking your holy blessing,

I am

Your affectionate son in Christ,

Francis Xavier Conaci

The translator E J Stormon SJ notes that a comparison of a facsimile of the original letter with Salvado's translation reveals that 'Salvado has tactfully omitted a couple of sentences in which Francis rather lords it over his companion John, who so far has not learned to read, and can only copy out set handwriting.' The Novice Master added a note to Salvado: 'The above letter, composed and written by the boy himself, shows how proud he is, and how little attention he pays.'

Having quoted these two letters, Salvado concludes his chapter on the physical and intellectual qualities of the natives with the observation: 'I think I have said enough by way of proof of the physical and moral character of the Australian natives.'

When Francis fell ill at La Cava, he was taken to St Paul's Outside the Walls to take the fresher air. There he died on 17 September 1853; and there he was buried. John did not fall gravely ill until May 1855 whereupon he was returned to Australia, dying three months after his return on 21 August 1855.

Many of us who had arrived at St Paul's Outside the Walls knew nothing of this story. The simple Aboriginal ritual over the burial site of Conaci was in stark contrast to the pomp and hierarchical ceremony in St Peter's Square the previous day. Here were indigenous people not only finding voice but leading those of us who are the descendants of their colonizers, teaching us the history, sharing the story, and enabling us to embrace the mystery of it all in prayer. Our role was to follow, to join in prayer and to express thanks for the gracious sharing and leadership of the indigenous people.

Two nights before the canonisation the Vatican Museum opened a display of Aboriginal artifacts and works of art which had been sent from the missions to the museum in 1925. Indigenous Australians placed their indelible mark on proceedings with song and dance in the Vatican Gardens. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Catholics from across the land mixed with bishops, donors, politicians and pilgrims accompanying the Josephite sisters wearing not brown veils but their light blue pilgrim scarves. William Barton on the didgeridoo joined his mother Delmae and a string quartet under the lights of the dome of St Peters. Four years ago Delmae had lain uncomforted with a stroke at a university bus stop for hours as hundreds passed her by, prompting a national reflection reminiscent of the parable of the Good Samaritan. This night she and her son gave all Australians a place of belonging in this sacred place. The Vatican Museum put on display Aboriginal art sent from the missions back in 1925, predating by 50 years most of the Aboriginal art on display in galleries back home.

Just before going to Rome, I had the chance to check out the wonderful new galleries at the National Gallery in Canberra. They are spacious, making great use of natural light. In one gallery, there are two paintings by the late Hector Jandany from Warmun in the Kimberley. One painting is entitled 'The Ascension', and the other is entitled 'Holy Spirit in this Land'. Hector's description of 'The Ascension' appears in the gallery catalogue:

The two spirits on the right make the fire; the two spirits on the left get the meal of fish ready; Jesus' friends (are) at the bottom of the picture.

Jesus said: 'We all have supper; This is my last day I have supper with you, I got to go away, I go longa way 'Ngapuny Ngarrangkarrinjl'.'

His friends did not know that the fire would make a big smoke.

It make a big smoke and come up behind the hill and took Jesus up to Heaven.

That smoke bin come and lift him up and take him away to Heaven.

Hector was encouraged to paint in his home community by the Josephite sisters who had established a spirituality centre nearby. They also ran the community school and assisted at the old people's home. The sisters were not trained anthropologists or art advisers. Like Mary MacKillop they came amongst the poor in a remote area, shared what they had, educating the children and encouraging the adults. None of the sisters would claim any of the credit for the art of Hector and his school of Turkey Creek painters. But for the sisters' presence at Warmun all those years, I doubt that Hector's paintings would now be hanging in the National Gallery. But for the selfless dedication of the sisters all these years throughout Australia, I doubt that there would have been 8,000 Australians in St Peter's Square two weeks ago attesting the holiness of Mary Mackillop.

Such celebrations confirm that indigenous identity is still strong and resilient though ever adapting for individuals and communities who have endured much by way of dispossession, dislocation and disempowerment.

With a confident identity and secure sense of belonging in both worlds, indigenous people might 'gradually banish the painful sense of being separated from their ancient connections'. Those citizens who are recent migrants are joined with the descendants of the colonisers, accepting the national responsibility of correcting past wrongs so that the descendants of the land's traditional owners might belong to their land, their kin and their Dreaming in the society built upon their dispossession.

Land rights and self-determination are necessary but insufficient entitlements for indigenous minorities wanting to belong in post-colonial societies coming to terms with their history. Just because the indigenous people amongst us also need work and education, that is no reason to deny them their land rights and self-determination. The challenge is to heed the voice of those speaking for country and for themselves as we decide together how best to provide work and education.

For many indigenous people, the attempt to live between two worlds is too difficult. A reason to live, a reason to live well, a way to live authentically eludes them. Jonathan Lear's book Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation provides reflections of universal import on the life of Plenty Coups, the last great chief of the Crow Nation. Plenty Coups had shared his life story with a white hunter Frank Linderman who had settled in Montana at the end of the nineteenth century. Lear, a philosopher from the University of Chicago, was haunted by Linderman's note at the end of his book:

Plenty Coups refused to speak of his life after the passing of the buffalo, so that his story seems to have been broken off, leaving many years unaccounted for. 'I have not told you half of what happened when I was young', he said, when urged to go on. 'I can think back and tell you much more of war and horse-stealing. But when the buffalo went away the hearts of my people fell to the ground, and they could not lift them up again. After this nothing happened. There was little singing anywhere. Besides,' he added sorrowfully, 'you know that part of my life as well as I do. You saw what happened to us when the buffalo went away.'

I happened to be reading Lear's book on my trip to Rome. Its resonances contributed to my tears when the Aborigines led the simple ceremony at the grave of Conaci. They had reclaimed his story. His story was a vehicle for communicating their own ongoing struggle with straddling the divide of belonging and meaning. Their liturgy, like the funeral I had attended one month previously, provided the means for communicating meaning, dignity and hope despite all that has occurred. Reflecting on Plenty Coups' vindication of life, Lear says:

Plenty Coups' dream — and his fidelity to it — also enabled him to live what Aristotle would call a complete life. In spite of the devastation to traditional Crow life, Plenty Coups's dream became a thread through which he could lead his people through radical discontinuity: and at the end of his biological life, he was able to see his life as having a unity and a purpose that was confirmed by the unfolding of events. Indeed, the repetition of his story to Linderman is its completion. In telling his story, he presented himself as having a complete life; and he was able to pass on to a future generation what he thought was still essential to the Crow way of life.

At the liturgy at St Paul's Outside the Walls, some Aborigines thanked me for accompanying them and for sitting with them during the Mass. I would not wanted to have sat anywhere else. It was such a privilege to share the fullest liturgical expression of indigeneity colouring and leavening the universal, globalised Roman ritual. They, and only they, are able to bridge the radical discontinuity of their lives and history, finding a place of belonging in a globalised world where the Market can attribute value to everything, except that which is most important and valuable to the human person — that radical hope which allows us to weather the worst storms of the Market in all its manifestations. Indigenous people know this better than most of us because they have endured the market forces of empire which denied the value of all that their ancestors held dear. 

Frank BrennanThe above text is from Fr Frank Brennan SJ's address 'Rethinking Indigeneity in the Age of Globalisation' at the American Academy of Religion, Sunday 31 October 2010. Images are from his Flickr photostream.

Topic tags: Father Frank Brennan, Rethinking Indigeneity in the Age of Globalisation



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Existing comments

By the end of this year, there will be a total of more than twenty six thousand Indigenous university graduates across the country, with around 1500 new graduates every year, the equivalent of four a day. The vast majority have graduated since 1990, and in fact there could be fifty thousand by 2020. Fifty thousand graduates, plus their families, that's starting to add up to a huge proportion of the Indigenous population. Many Indigenous people do seize the opportunities that are continually available, so it's not all doom and gloom.

Joe Lane | 03 November 2010  

I'm wondering how it can be possible for Australia to build a better future whilst 'Validating the post-colonial legal system'.

In what other circumstance would we deem it appropriate to validate the outcomes of theft, murder and rape?

In the overturning of terra nullius the invalidity and illegality of the entire Australian legal and political system was revealed.

Our forebears had no right to invade, and so the whole edifice that we call 'Australia' is inherently invalid. No brighter future is available to us while we continue to lie to ourselves about that.

The sovereign rights of Aboriginal peoples need to be acknowledged. The current setup where land rights are assessed by the system that stole the land in the first place perpetuates the usurpation of Aboriginal sovereignty.

Since when do thieves get to decide what should be returned to their owners? I wonder whether we don't think in this way because the system is so big, it seems impossible to change? But if our forebears built the system then we can change it. And as Christians a thorough reading of the minor prophets should motivate us to ensure justice for Aboriginal peoples.

Rebecca Walker | 04 November 2010  

Just letting you know that the Aboriginal politician should read Ken Wyatt and not Cedric Wyatt

Donella Brown | 05 November 2010  

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