A very long time ago, back when I was a young nun, unwrinkled and still believed I would live forever, that things would only get better and better, I spent 12 years in the Northern Territory. The ink was barely dry on my teacher’s registration when I had been assigned to a place called Port Keats, now known as Wadye.
My idealism wilted momentarily when I stepped out of the plane on the Darwin runway and the heat rose up like a wall. It definitely sagged when the sandflies from appropriately named Sandfly Creek sent out messages that there was fresh southern blood up at the Mission. But I survived, and would eventually move on to football-famous Bathurst Island, back to Port Keats and later on to Daly River.
Life for Aboriginals on reserves and mission stations was very different in the 1960’s. The government was paternalistic, local language was not respected, the original owners of the land had no voting rights and the catchword was “assimilation”. Policies which today we regard as outdated, barbarous, cruel and racist were the norm.
Previously strong family units struggled to survive when school-aged children were accommodated in dormitories and denied daily access to their parents. People were housed in sub-standard huts without toilets or running water. Aboriginal children grew up with low self-esteem and little pride in their culture.
As a missionary nun and a teacher I was living in a ‘them and us’ world. We missionaries unwittingly gave out non-verbal messages that Aboriginal culture was primitive, of no value, to be replaced by religion. It was only towards the end of my years in the N.T. that I started to get a sense of the hidden dignity and richness of the Aboriginal culture. Even then I didn’t have any great appreciation of what the land meant to each and every Aboriginal person.
Australian people are slowly trying to put right the injustices our First Nation people have suffered since the first Europeans dropped anchor in Sydney Harbor. We are just beginning to appreciate their dreaming spirituality and their languages. I thank them for the privilege of living in this great space we call Australia. I am grateful for the skill with which Aboriginal people looked after this land for thousands of years, for the love that underwrites their stories and dance.
Reading as well as listening to Aboriginal people when they speak about their relationship with the land, has freed something unspoken in me, about who I am and where I have come from. When I contemplate the Mallee country that I see as ‘my country’ I have a sense of oneness with that land. It helps me understand how Aboriginal people might feel about their country, even though I know that non-Aboriginal people not assume that Dreaming spirituality can mean the same thing to all people. The last thing Aborigines need is another appropriation by members of the dominant culture of something that is distinctively theirs.
Eugene Stockton, a retired Catholic priest and archaeologist, understands it like this; “If I was born in this land, by Aboriginal belief I have pre-existed here like them from the timeless Dreaming. So, on their reckoning, I have with them a common bond and common spiritual roots in this continent, although racial roots through my parents, lie elsewhere.” (Eugene Stockton : Coming home to our land – 1988)
Whether one comes from the Ireland, the Philippines, Sudan, Vietnam, Afghanistan or wherever, I feel sure that the pull to the land and the landscape of one’s ancestors is embedded deeply within.
And as Ezekiel says, “I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you to your own land……. And you shall dwell in the land I gave to your forefathers. You shall be my people, and I will be your God.” (Ezekiel 36: 2, 28)
Judith ( firstname.lastname@example.org)