Dhawra nguna dhawra Ngunawal
Yanggu gulanyin ngalawiri, dhunayi, Ngunawal dhawra.
Wanggarralijinyin mariny balan bugarabang.
These were the first words spoken by David Hurley after he was sworn in as Australia’s new Governor General. He used the language of the Ngunnawal people to acknowledge them as the traditional custodians of the land on which Canberra is located. In doing this he reiterated his advocacy for the maintenance and teaching of Indigenous Australian languages: "To see Indigenous people speak in language confidently and know their own cultures is what the country needs to heal itself and to make itself great”. It also served to emphasise his commitment to engagement with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Australians, something which he’d consistently demonstrated during his time as Governor of New South Wales, when he advocated for and mentored young aboriginal men, who initially referred to him as ‘Dave’ and later as ‘Gov’. It was a commitment further exemplified by his decision to make Aurukun, an aboriginal community in north Queensland, the place of his first official visit as Governor General.
At various times I’ve heard people criticise welcomes or acknowledgements of country, promoting Indigenous languages, smoking ceremonies and the like as ‘tokenistic’, as ‘politically correct’ ways of paying ‘lip-service’ to Aboriginal culture. However, as Catholics we well understand the significance and power of symbol, and this is what all of these are. They are signs of a deeper reality: the enduring presence of the Aboriginal culture and spirit in our land. It’s the very reason why this week we have just commemorated, NAIDOC week, is so important. It’s why the Australian Church sets aside the Sunday before this week as ‘Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Sunday’. These scheduled occasions remind us of the importance of Indigenous life, and of our continuing need for reconciliation with this land’s original peoples. They also encourage us to renew our efforts to advance Indigenous issues.
Interestingly Kerry O’Brien’s speech at the 2019 Logies when he was inducted into the Hall of Fame, had a similar theme. Reflecting on his years in television journalism and the significant role it’s played in Australian life he commented:
“But there is one big glaring gap in this nation’s otherwise great story that I want to spend a brief minute on tonight: the failure to reconcile Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia. When I started my career, First Australians were not even counted in the national census. On paper, they didn’t exist. I was first personally exposed to the awful racism this country is capable of when I visited Alice Springs more than 45 years ago, and sadly you don’t have to go too far to see it still today. A trip to any prison will do it. We all have an opportunity together…to understand and support what is embodied in the Uluru Statement From The HeartR A remarkable document, forged in unity by more than 250 Aboriginal and Torres-Strait Islander leaders, representing the oldest surviving culture on the face of the earth. [It’s] a culture that adds a richness that is unique to this continent and yet we, other Australians, are mostly ignorant of it”.
As Christians, we are acutely aware of the Gospel call to compassion. As Catholics, we know of the ‘preferential option for the poor and marginalised’. As Religious we acknowledge the need to be prophetic witnesses.
Justice for indigenous Australians is not something we can ignore. As Christians, Catholics and Religious it’s not possible to be disengaged, silent observers. There’s an imperative in this for us. A starting point could be the acceptance of the invitation extended to us in the Uluru Statement from the Heart: to walk with our Aboriginal sisters and brothers in a “movement of the Australian people for a better future”. It sounds like an invitation to build the kingdom of God. How could we not accept such an offer?
Governor-General David Hurley concluded his commissioning address by referring to the Australian writer David Malouf’s words: "Australia is still revealing itself to us. We ought not close off possibilities by declaring too early what we have already become. Australia is not a finished product". All of us can be co-creators of our nation, and co-creators of the kingdom of God here and now. It’s a privileged and graced invitation.
Br Peter Carroll fms
President, Catholic Religious Australia