Ben Underwood reflects on his recent, very cross-cultural exposure trip. Ben is Editor of Essentials and Associate Minister at St Matthew’s Shenton Park.
I’ve just returned from a place of warm tropical waters, populated by friendly dark-skinned people who speak their own exotic languages, but are ready to welcome an outsider, switching to distinctively accented English. In some ways it felt slightly Polynesian, and I met Fijians there. In other ways it felt Melanesian, and I met a Papua New Guinean there. But it was neither Polynesia, nor Melanesia. It was not even overseas. It was Australia. In particular, it was Yirrkala, on the Gove Peninsula, in Arnhem Land, where the Indigenous people are called the Yolngu people.
Although Yirrkala is a modestly-sized place, (809 people at the 2016 census), it punches above its weight in a cultural sense. You may know the band Yothu Yindi, and their front man Mandawuy Yunupingu, who was Australian of the Year in 1992, and who comes from Yirrkala. But you may not know of his father Mungurrawuy who was a signatory to the 1963 Yirrkala Bark Petitions1. These were ‘the first traditional documents prepared by Indigenous Australians that were recognised by the Australian Parliament, and are thus the first documentary recognition of Indigenous people in Australian law.2’ They are a protest against the Government’s action in excising land from the Arnhem Aboriginal Reserve in order that mining rights might be granted to the bauxite mining company Nabalco, and the petitions are a turning point in the story of the recognition of the claims Indigenous people have on the lands they have lived on for millennia. The originals of the petitions are in Parliament, but I saw replicas at the Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Centre, a gallery and museum of art by artists from the Yolngu homelands within a 200km radius of Yirrkala. That art centre is packed with intricately worked bark paintings, larrakitj (memorial poles), woven baskets and yidaki (digeridoos), and as I walked around I saw the address labels on the items: they were headed for galleries in Switzerland, Germany, New York and Sydney. These are works that command a sophisticated international following. This place packs a cultural punch beyond its modest size.
The coming of outsiders to the lands of the Yolngu people has had great effects, especially the coming of Western settlers, missionaries and their descendants who have brought Western thinking and practice to the Yolngu, including Western industry and religion. This raises a great many issues. For example, in the museum (mulka) section of the art centre there is a two-panelled artwork, which used to be in the Yirrkala Church across the road from the Centre. The two panels represent the two halves of the Yolngu view of the world, dhuwa and yirritja. Everything (including each Yolngu clan) is either dhuwa or yirritja. Dhuwa and yirritja are themselves divided into six subdivisions, and so the two panels of this work are also divided into six subdivisions, each sub-panel painted by an elder from that division. They are magnificent pieces of work: detailed, varied, textured representations of the world and its ways according to the knowledge of the Yolngu people. The panels were installed in the Yirrkala church, but were removed after some years by people who felt they were too bound up in a spirituality alien to the gospel to be fittingly displayed in a church. The group I was with was fortunate to meet one of the local elders, Djapirri Mununggirritj, a woman with a local and national profile who is also a lay leader in the Yirrkala church, and whose father was one of the artists involved in painting the panels. She is among those who would like to see the panels back in the church. Her account of the panels—which were installed when she was a girl—is that their production and installation in the church, with a cross set between them, was a kind of covenant-making act on the part of the Yolngu people, bringing their twelve painted panels into the church to create a memorial to God’s dealings with them, as Israel brought twelve stones from the Jordan to make a memorial to God’s staunching the flow of the Jordan for them to cross (Joshua 4). But even as she offered this view, she acknowledged that not everyone shared her view on the meaning of the panels. When art is somehow connected to a worldview, law and spirituality supported by ceremonies both open and hidden, what are Yolngu people who have embraced the gospel of Jesus’ Lordship to do with that art, that representation of ancestral law and knowledge of the cosmos? And what are the chances of the church getting the panels back from the museum? The Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Centre staff member who talked to us about panels envisaged the panels remaining where they were permanently. The church had removed them, and had lost them now to the care of the centre with its government support. Replicas in the church? Yes, gladly. The originals? That’s another question.
Why am I telling you all this? Well, I was invited to go on a trip to engage firsthand with Indigenous Australians in the Northern Territory, and I was invited because I am a minister in a church. I was invited by Australians Together3, a not-for-profit enterprise which aims to promote mutual understanding and better relations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. Australians Together advocates listening as the best first step for Australians to take towards these aims. As a result of this trip, I have made a beginning on listening, and have no doubt a lot more to do. This article is several things. First, it is a way for me to show my appreciation for the gift that was given to me in being able to go on the trip. Second it is a way for me to process for myself some of what I heard and saw, to reflect on what I experienced and upon my reactions to it, and thirdly, it is a way to pass on to a wider audience the impressions I gained. They are first impressions, and first impressions can be misleading. With that caveat in place, I proceed, hopefully with humility and caution.
One impression I gained was that the life of Indigenous communities is varied and complex. The trip did not start at Yirrkala, but at Jabiru, the mining and tourist town in Kakadu National Park. On the first evening we met people living in the camps around Jabiru, and talking to them it was clear that the young and the old were suffering various health problems. When we drove into the camp the next day wrecked cars, rubbish and broken furniture dotted the camp. One woman we met here was a capable, articulate woman who had a job, but no home of her own. She was further coping with her household possessions being destroyed after she had sought to defend a widow from others who had a grievance with her. She was hoping to move her family away and was facing a fair bit of uncertainty and trauma.
By contrast, we also visited the Buntiji Clan estate which includes the Ubirr Rock Art sites north of Jabiru, and met Jonathan, a son of Bill Neidjie, a traditional owner of the land there, and Dionne his wife. Jonathan spoke about his father’s life, which moved between the worlds of the settlers and the traditional ways of life. Bill learned to hunt and live off the land, and was passed the Gagudju law by the generation before him through teaching and ceremony. But he also worked with the settlers, alongside buffalo hunters, timber millers and pilots of coastal luggers. He served in WWII, surveilling Japanese plane movements, his unit even shooting a plane down. Bill’s successful land claim means that the Bunitj Clan has title to their ancestral lands, and a stake in the revenue generated by tourism in the Kakadu National Park which Big Bill was instrumental in establishing. The family run a business taking tourists up a section of the East Alligator River to see its fearsome crocodile inhabitants and its varied flora and fauna. Our Indigenous skipper and guide commented on local language and uses of the plants and animals of the area as we passed them. Jonathan’s family have a couple of houses, in lovely bush settings. Jonathan carries on his father’s ambitions, although it is a challenge to pass on the old ways to the youth who are attracted to a more global culture of video games and hip hop than hunting and ceremony. Like many others, Jonathan wishes young men would pull their pants up from hanging halfway down their bums.
Another story, different again, was told to us through serendipity, rather than planning. While my group was in the art centre at Yirrkala, a local delivering work to the gallery overheard two of us mention God in their conversation, and he introduced himself, telling them that he had become a Christian about four years previously. He invited the whole group to come and hear his story. So that afternoon we went and sat under a tree next to his house overlooking a beautiful beach and listened as he shared many things about his life. He had been born in Sydney to an Indigenous mother and a white father, which made it hard for him to be accepted and belong in either world. Worse than that, his father was violent and loveless, and so he grew up alienated and filled with rage and pain. Crime was the only thing that dulled his pain, even though he knew it was wrong. He spent eleven years in gaol, lasting at most two weeks free after any given release. Although he felt that to be imprisoned was to be his lot, seeing the Bible in his cell he decided to give God a go. Having cried out to God to do something for him, he experienced a rebirth, and weeks later he walked out of Darwin gaol and never went back. Returning to East Arnhem Land he lived for a time in a mixed way, on one hand living for God, and on the other indulging in marijuana and gambling. Eventually burdened and disillusioned by this life he and his housemate resolved to get to church, at which point a white Pentecostal pastor in a van appeared and asked them if they wanted to go to church! Now he is an elder in the church, and zealous to reach people living the life he used to live. No two lives are alike, and this is of course true for the lives of Aboriginal people as well.
Aboriginal people also face complex issues as their culture changes under the continuing pressures of evolving circumstances. The interaction between Christian faith and the old ways is a case in point. Pentecostal Christians tend to tell this story about the old ways: they must be abandoned as idolatry. A local pastor from the group Yolngu for Jesus spoke forcefully about the need for Yolngu Christians to disengage from the ancestral tribal law and its practices. (He felt ‘tribal law’ was a better descriptor than the more commonly heard term ‘culture’.) This meant for him not attending the main ceremonies of community funerals, and, since he was the son of a tradition owner (a clan leader), this was a step that made him a target of threats and discontent, and put enormous strain on his relationships with family. Other Aboriginal Christians were happy to engage with traditional culture and ceremony to a greater or lesser extent. The attitude of Djapirri Mununggirritj to the traditional art in the Yirrkala church panels, mentioned above, is perhaps an example of an alternative to zero tolerance for expressions of tribal belief integrated into Christian practice. In these attempts to critique and reform culture by the gospel, Indigenous Christians face the same tasks as any other Christians do.
This point was reinforced by Greg Anderson, Bishop of the Northern Territory, when we met him in Darwin. Greg spoke about the many challenges of evangelism and discipleship in a culture which has been described as ‘Fourth World’. This term denotes the uniquely difficult situation of indigenous cultures dominated by a different ethnic mainstream, often the aftermath of invasion or colonisation. Greg’s observation was that the popular ‘three-self’ missionary strategy has not reached its objectives in the NT, and that we have by no means plumbed the mystery of why Indigenous church life moves in such crests and troughs. Being sure abstract concepts like grace are being internalised by Aboriginal hearers is hard when our literacy in their culture is still rudimentary at times. Greg felt non-indigenous partnership in the work of mission with and among Indigenous Australians has a place for some time yet, and benefits will flow both ways in this event.4
Yet another complex issue is the fit between a traditional economy, and the culture that makes it work and a western economy, and the culture that makes that work. Indigenous culture has a strong and definite ethic of your responsibility to share what you have, and to give upon request to people in certain relationships to you. This strong ethic of sharing in the clan it is radically different to the western ethic of private property, and a person’s right to dispose of what is theirs as they see fit. Further, Indigenous culture expects you to honour certain cultural obligations as a priority, obligations which may arise unpredictably, and be somewhat open-ended in the time they will require of you. Funerals are a well known case. They may last days, and may require travel into the bargain. Big Bill Neidjie’s funeral went for a month and a half, and brought people from Elcho Island and all over northern Australia. Again, it is obvious that this contrasts strongly with a western sense that your obligation to a job, and your employer and fellow workers, means a day is a reasonable length of absence for a funeral, but not weeks. Western economic activity relies on a reliable workforce to make its large co-operative enterprises productive. It seems to me that there is still plenty of work to figure out how these two cultures of obligation can be integrated in such a way that Indigenous people can escape suffering because they are caught awkwardly between the two sets of expectations.
There are many other issues that cluster around this intrusion of the West upon the Indigenous culture. It seems to me that the old way was a mobile life that consumed what the land and water yielded as it became available. Indigenous culture learned not to waste anything, learned to promote the growth and yield of the land in season (by burning, or conserving, for example). You took what was available as it was available, feasting when there was plenty, conserving the resource that is the land with its flora and fauna.5 The Western way is a way that seeks to take a harvest from the land and store up these resources for the future, consuming them bit by bit from our store rather than bit by bit directly from the environment. It developed in a different world, where you laid up for long winters of scarcity, as well as feasting in season, and this storing up of the products of labour has become concentrated in the institution of money. Stewardship exists in both cultures, even if it takes different forms in the different cultures, however we were confronted at times by a boom and bust existence in Aboriginal communities where the skills of stewardship seem to have been lost among some. One of our party who had lived in Jabiru told of a woman having thousands in the bank one week, and asking him for money for food the next week. We were told by an ex-participant in the card games that went on in picnic shelters next to the oval at Yirrkala, that the bets mounted up to hundreds of dollars per hand, and you could make or lose thousands in a few moments. Our western sensibilities reeled at this, but people in our party felt uneasy about expecting Indigenous people to behave just like us. We did not want to be guilty of white paternalism, and yet we were confronted by a boom and bust existence that seemed fraught with vulnerability and limitation to at least some of us. The traumas of Indigenous peoples being disrupted, dispossessed, reduced, institutionalised and turned out again to make their way in a society that was not always helpful or hospitable is no doubt a large part of the story.
Lots of outsiders, moved by the problems they see afflicting Indigenous communities, want to know what can be done: how can the problem be fixed? Churches, governments, individuals, charities and agencies have been and still are working hard to ‘close the gap’ and reset the relationship between Indigenous Australians and non-Indigenous Australians. It is obviously a gnarly problem that defies good intentions, money and sacrificial commitment to Aboriginal people by parties on both sides. Someone once came to our church staff meeting and argued that it was the moral issue for Australians that demanded our engagement with it as an absolute priority, because it was our history, our mess. This got my back up. Was there no freedom for Australians to make it their priority to help the homeless, or those caught in sex-slavery, or the newly arrived refugee, or those starving in famine overseas, or those who need the gospel, or persecuted Christians, or Bible translation or a myriad of other efforts we might make to love our neighbour? Why did the situation of Indigenous Australians demand that I get personally involved in making things better? We did not thrash this issue out fully, but one thing is true—I remember that staff meeting! And it made me think about the situation of Indigenous Australians, and how it is the product not just of some long ago moment in 1788 when the First Fleet landed, but of a rolling and growing experience of western settlement, and consequent displacement and alienation that has been ongoingly traumatic and the effects of which are not but by any means past. ‘The past is never dead. It’s not even past’ seems an apposite quotation for us to meditate on.6
And yet the future does lie before us and we can hope and pray that progress can be made, that bridges can be built, that wounds can be healed, that cultures can adapt to one another, that wrongs can be faced, owned and turned away from, that forgiveness can be received, that mutual respect and friendship may grow and that we can in time look back on a shared past that has more good stories and fewer bad ones in it than it does at the moment. It seems to me that there are powerful voices in our culture urging us in this important direction. It also seems to me that there is a special opportunity for Christians to form relationships with Indigenous people who are also our Christian brothers and sisters, and that our common sharing in Christ might be a thing that positions Christians well to build relationships of trust and understanding across the Indigenous/non-Indigenous divide. Australians Together seem to me to be getting into that endeavour with thoughtfulness, commitment and care.
The week we went to the Northern Territory was NAIDOC week, and it had a focus on language, and keeping it strong. It was really something to hear Aboriginal languages spoken as first languages all around you in the NT, and there is no doubt that language is culture, the best medium of culture. Further than that, learning someone’s language conveys respect and opens the door to seeing the world in which that language is spoken. If you want my idea for a way to open a door of listening, understanding and legitimation of Indigenous cultures to mainstream Australia, here is one: teach an Aboriginal language to every school student in Australia for at least a year, with the aim of thereby further opening the ears and the minds of non-Indigenous Australians to the voices and perspectives of Indigenous Australians. Discuss.
1. http://www.australia.gov.au/about-australia/australian-story/bark-petition-1963 accessed 11 July 2017
2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yirrkala_bark_petitions accessed 11 July 2017
4. See, Greg Anderson, The Fourth World in the First World: Missiology and Aboriginal Churches in the Northern Territory (2016, Mathew Hale Public Library).
5. See, e.g. Bill Neidjie, Gagudju Man (2007, Gecko Books)
6. From Requiem for a Nun by William Faulkner (1951, Random House)