Learning from Indigenous perspectives
Review: Statements from the Soul, Damien Freeman and Shireen Morris (eds), La Trobe University Press
Everywhen: Australia and the Language of Deep History, McGrath, Rademaker and Troy (eds), UNSW Press
Statements from the Soul is a timely collection of essays from religious leaders and people of faith lending their – er – voices to the ‘yes’ campaign for a First Nations Voice, building on the moral force of the Uluru Statement.
Their various arguments might be separated into two aspects: addressing the past and addressing the future. There are wrongs to account for. Many of these writers make clear the moral case. But the Uluru Statement is also, as Catholic Archbishop Peter Comensoli suggests, a gift all Australians would do well to accept, as the wisdom within our Indigenous culture is a benefit for those who live on the land and for the land itself, which is increasingly showing us that the majority of us are not living on it rightly.
It is widely recognised that the land was ‘taken’. It is less recognised that this actually went against British government policy to seek consent and to protect the original inhabitants, sentiments abandoned fairly quickly in the colonial project. Indigenous people were of course dispossessed, but they were also treated unfairly subsequently, putting them in a unique position, one that can be partly addressed by them having a unique position in the Australian constitution. Antonios Kaldas writes that, if it were not obvious, Indigenous people don’t need special consideration because of inherent backwardness, but because of the damage done. (The details should now be widely familiar, but the scope and recentness are scandalous.)
This doesn’t put Indigenous people in a uniquely powerful position; rather, it just gives them a unique voice. As a group they would be like the states, which are recognised in the constitution as distinct interest groups. This is especially important because like any large group, Indigenous people don’t always agree (including on reconciliation), and constitutional recognition would allow us to hear, rather than just the loudest voice, an Indigenous voice that is polyphonic, wide, democratic.
As Kanishka Raffel says, the words ‘from the heart’ indicate that the Uluru Statement is more than a legal statement focussed on past wrongs. It is a welcome, an invitation to collaboration and sharing, and the sense throughout these essays is that the land can only be healed, and society be as it should be, when we learn from an Indigenous perspective.
There is closeness to land, which gives the ability to cope with change. Longevity of Indigenous culture, says Bhikkhu Sujato, shows resilience through adaptability, as compared to the often tone-deaf, rigid European structures that were set down on the land at colonisation. European colonists grew to love the Australian countryside, but often the ways of working they brought with them were not compatible with it. Rowan Williams sees similarities between the attitude to land in the Jewish scriptures – that it is not ours to do as we please – and Indigenous notions of people carefully listening to, rather than dominating, the land.
There is also a similarity between the Christian concepts of Chronos and Kairos – strict time and time that is infused with spiritual meaning – and Indigenous perspectives on time, which is the subject of the book Everywhen. Liturgical time is a different way of viewing the passing of time. It was thought that Indigenous people were stuck in a perpetual past and needed reorienting to a better (Christian) future. But the Indigenous attitude to time is more like the past continually informing the present, close-by, like the way in Judaism, at Passover, all Jews have and do, in a way, go through the Exodus. Anthropologist Ted Strehlow believed the word ‘tjukurrpa’, traditionally translated as ‘Dreaming’, is better translated as ‘eternal’. For some Indigenous people who are also Christian ministers, Indigenous Creation stories resonate with biblical ones and make an understanding of Christianity richer, and there is growing acceptance of this in churches.
Indigenous time is not abstract, but refers to the sun, moon and seasons. It is directly related to what is happening in Country – to what plants and animals are doing, meaning the inseparability of human and non-human activities. Events are oriented to where they happened, and with whom. Right relationships are paramount. This orientation is manifest in the style of these essays. While many are academic in tone and detail, many are also written as first-person narratives and, in contrast to much scientific writing, personal histories are mixed with objective facts.
In the north-west of the country, ‘liyan’ is a word that means both a good feeling and good management of Country. There is a sense that science and emotion are linked, that nature, culture, history, past and present, time and space, fact and story are woven together. This should be obvious from the book’s title, and the value of this holism to all Australians should be obvious too.
We might contrast this with the Western consolidation of time as a result of the Industrial Revolution, its acceleration of travel, its attempt to bend nature to a scientific version of time, and its legacy of ‘business’ time, which gives us the sense that we must extract from the world as much as we can in the time allocated. (We can even see this in Western attitudes to holiday travel.)
All this offers a way to think about Australia’s past and future, and relation to land. Two contributors, Marie-Eve Ritz and Maia Ponsonnet, caution us that while Indigenous languages of time differ to the way we speak of time in English, reflecting attitudes, there are also similarities to other (English and non-English) languages. So we can’t assume that Western and Indigenous concepts are so different as to be mutually incomprehensible. Rather, a meeting of voices provides a dynamic space in which we can forge a future together.