As we commemorate National Reconciliation Week we can discover a whole new chapter in Australian history, writes David Goodwin.
The promise of reconciliation begins with the journey of Indigenous and non-Indigenous people approaching the cross of Christ where we sit and share our stories; honouring one another as those made in the image of God. United in purpose, we walk away as partners—reconciled people—committed to being agents of reconciliation.
Illustration by Cindy Alsop.
In many ways Australia has always had an uneasy relationship with history. We’ve made folk heroes out of bushrangers, emphasising their refusal to bow to authority over their bloody-handed exploits, and turned events like the Eureka Stockade into nationalist watersheds rather than disputes over taxation.
Perhaps one of our biggest blind spots, though, is our understanding of the history and heritage of our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. While it is slowly changing, for a long time education focused on a fairly narrow section of this nation’s history—almost as if it only started in 1788 with the landing of the First Fleet from England.
It’s appropriate then that the theme of this year’s National Reconciliation Week (NRW) is ‘Don’t Keep History A Mystery: Learn. Share. Grow’, seeking to encourage Australians to explore some of the hidden pieces of our history, and change some of the faulty perceptions that might be commonly held.
“There is this idea that before Europeans arrived there was only a simple hunter-gatherer culture,” Shirli Congoo, an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ministry coordinator with The Salvation Army, says. “But there is overwhelming evidence of farming practices, as well as agricultural and cultivation techniques which sustained them for thousands of years. And, over the past 200 years there is a whole history of inventors, activists and warriors that many people may not be aware of.”
The body behind National Reconciliation week, Reconciliation Australia, is highlighting a number of these stories, creating awareness of the influence and impact that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have had on this country in every arena, including sports, politics and civil rights.
From Pemulwuy (‘man of the earth’), a warrior who led the resistance against the British in the Sydney region between 1788 and 1802, to David Unaipon, a Ngarrindjeri man and inventor who was the father of the modern shearing equipment that helped make the wool industry the backbone of the Australian economy—these are history makers who should be household names.
And, in a country so passionate about sport, it’s a chance to celebrate athletes like Johnny Mullagh, a member of the first cricket team from Australia to tour England, or Wiradjuri woman and tennis star Evonne Goolagong-Cawley who was ranked as the world number one in two separate years and has used her success as a platform to promote education, health and wellbeing for future generations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people.
“Hopefully, this will act as an arrow that points people towards learning more about our shared history,” Shirli says.
Changing the perception of our shared history will hopefully start to change the way we approach the relationship between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and non-Indigenous Australians. When we acknowledge the contributions made to our society and a history stretching back beyond the First Fleet it can help change the narrative from a one-way concept of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples needing what European ideas and culture has to offer, to one where the rest of Australia has a lot to gain and learn in exchange—a relationship based on mutual respect and sharing.
The Salvation Army realises that, like many other churches and institutions, we haven’t always acted from a position of understanding and we need to improve. This has led to an emphasis on consultation, and asking for help and advice from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples about what we can do, rather
than imposing external ideas and preconceptions.
“The Salvation Army understands that there is gap in understanding that needs to be filled,” Shirli says. “The formation of groups like The Salvation Army National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Reference Group is part of an attempt to meet this need.”
The reference group is just one example of the increasing emphasis on ensuring that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders and members are made a key part of planning for the Army’s future, with the intention that they be involved at every level of ministry and programs.
Currently, The Salvation Army in Queensland, NSW and ACT has an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Ministry Team which is guided by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. This model is being considered as a basis for our national approach. The core function of this team is to build the cultural capacity and competence of The Salvation Army’s social programs and mission expressions, through methods such as facilitating sessions on our shared culture and history.
It should be emphasised that the work of the team is to encourage The Salvation Army to develop culturally relevant and appropriate programs and ways of assisting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, understanding the client’s needs holistically by considering their lives, cultural traditions and commitments so that better outcomes can be achieved.
The Army also continues to run a number of programs especially focused on the needs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth and young people. These include our Sports Leadership Impact Program for primary school-aged youth, which creates opportunities for engaging at-risk youth through an active learning environment that encompasses a variety of physical activities but also applies cognitive learning.
Our Leadership and Resilience Program (LRP) is aimed at Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander male youths aged between 14–15 who are currently engaged in school and sport. It aims to enhance leadership capacity and resilience capabilities through sport, creating better social outcomes and stronger communities—using the ‘hook’ of rugby league.
The common thread with these, and the many other programs the Army is running across Australia, is a desire to work in consultation with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. This includes listening to them and being open to learning from their knowledge and expertise about the best approach to fulfilling our mission of transforming lives, fighting injustice and building healthy communities.
As we commemorate National Reconciliation Week, it’s an opportunity for us to think about the part we each have to play in helping move toward reconciliation between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and the wider community.
As a Christian mission and movement, The Salvation Army will continue to seek to grow in understanding, collaboration and action regarding reconciliation. We do this as part of our vision: Wherever there is hardship or injustice Salvos will live, love and fight alongside others to transform Australia one life at a time through the love of Jesus.
Combined with our organisational response outlined above, reconciliation also needs to occur in the hearts of individuals. One of the first steps for non-Indigenous Australians is to open our hearts to learning about our shared histories, cultures and achievements, ensuring that we acknowledge all of our history, rather than keeping some of it a hidden mystery.
If we are willing to learn from our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples we can begin to build an Australia for everyone, based on shared respect for one another.
What is National Reconciliation Week?
These dates commemorate two significant milestones in the reconciliation journey—the successful 1967 referendum, granting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples the right to vote, and the High Court Mabo decision which marked a watershed in land rights.
It started as the Week of Prayer for Reconciliation in 1993 (the International Year of the World’s Indigenous People) and was supported by Australia’s major faith communities. In 1996, the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation launched Australia’s first ‘National Reconciliation Week’.
In 2000, Reconciliation Australia was established to continue to provide national leadership on reconciliation. Today NRW is celebrated by communities, businesses and individuals at thousands of events across Australia.
You can find resources at www.reconciliation.org.au/national-reconciliation-week