Image courtesy Brooke Prentis. Tree at Poatina Terra Populus.
There are over 300 nations of Aboriginal peoples, with over 600 dialects of language, in these lands now called Australia. Aboriginal peoples are the world’s oldest, living, continuing cultures. This is a precious gift, to the world, and to Australia, but sadly a gift often still waiting to be embraced by Australians. Aboriginal peoples were once 100% of the population of these lands now called Australia. Today we are 2.8% of the Australian population, with our population levels still not recovered to those pre-1788. Most of us are Christian—according to the 2016 Census, 54% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples identify as Christian, which is on par with non-Indigenous peoples, at 55%.
There is so much to learn from Aboriginal peoples. This includes learning about cultural diversity and family. Aunty Jean Phillips, one of the most senior Aboriginal Christian Leaders in Australia today, has for decades been inviting people to ‘come on the journey’ with Aboriginal peoples: getting to know Aboriginal peoples, supporting our leadership and ministries, understanding and recognising injustice, and learning the true history of these lands now called Australia. Non-Indigenous people often ask ‘Where do I start?’ If you’ve been to a session, a seminar, a prayer gathering, a church service, with Aunty Jean, or myself, or any other Aboriginal Christian Leader, you have already started. Another good start is through the AIATSIS map of Indigenous Australia. It is not a perfect representation of all the Aboriginal nations, so comes with a disclaimer, as some Aboriginal nations are missing and some nations’ boundaries are not accurate. However, I encourage individuals, schools, churches, and businesses to purchase and display a copy as I have found it a helpful tool to see a picture—a picture that is thousands of years old—of these lands now called Australia.
As a next step I point people to three core resources that I’ve come to after much reading and deliberation: Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu (2018); the SBS video series ‘First Australians’ (2008); and Aunty Rev Denise Champion’s book Yarta Wandatha (2014). I pray these will assist Australian Christians to form a foundational knowledge of Aboriginal peoples which includes pre-colonisation, the period 1788-1992, and Indigenous theology. But whatever your learning journey is, you must never forget about the actual people.
Many non-Indigenous Australians don’t know the Aboriginal nation they live on. I encourage Australian Christians to learn the names of three Aboriginal nations. I actually learn the name of every Aboriginal nation I visit, and encourage you to do the same by looking up the local Aboriginal organisations, the local government council, and asking local peoples. Coming on the journey means being intentional and listening deeply.
I have called Australia to listen deeply. It’s a practice Aboriginal peoples are taught from a young age and one that exists in every Aboriginal nation, with each nation having their own word in their own language. More recently it has come to wider understanding through Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr’s work on ‘dadirri’. My application of dadirri, or deep listening, is to explain that an Aboriginal person does not just listen with their ears, but with their ears, eyes, minds, and heart—in fact their whole being. When we practice ‘deep listening’ by engaging with the AIATSIS map of Indigenous Australia, what do we learn about cultural diversity?
We look at borders and boundaries, starting with the understanding of nations. Yes, these are nations just like the nation of Australia, with systems of governance, leadership, and economies. However, their economies were in harmony or rhythm with the ecological, social, and political systems—one was not prioritised at the expense of the other. Aboriginal peoples did not choose profit and greed over caring for country (caring for all creation— human and non-human). The closest example we have in the world today, with many nations side by side, is Europe with its 44 nations. Or we can look to the Indigenous peoples of other colonised nations, such as the lands now called the United States of America, and the lands now called Canada—or what many of us are now learning is Turtle Island. However, the country borders of Europe were forged by war and negotiation, through human hands and endeavours, and are indeed borders. In contrast, the boundaries of the Aboriginal nations are embedded in the landscape through geographical features such as mountains, rivers, lakes, gorges. Our boundaries were put in place by the Creator who instructed us to care for all creation and to live in right relationship with it, including with our neighbours. Aboriginal peoples have a deep understanding of the words of Moses’ song in Deuteronomy 32:7-8
Remember the days of old;
consider the generations long past.
Ask your father and he will tell you,
your elders, and they will explain to you.
When the Most High gave the nations their inheritance,
when he divided all mankind, he set up boundaries for the peoples
according to the number of the sons of Israel.
and Paul’s sermon to the Gentiles in Acts 17:24-26
“The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands.”
For when Aboriginal peoples experience the reality of the AIATSIS Indigenous map of Australia, it is about recognising the Creator, understanding geography, knowing our identity —an identity shaped by thousands of generations, story passed down from Elder to Elder through the generations. It is also about understanding our neighbours—all of our neighbours. Bruce Pascoe describes it as a ‘jigsaw mutualism’. Each nation is like a piece of the puzzle—each responsible for its own piece, but in a way that ‘added to rather than detracted from the pieces of their neighbours and the epic integrity of the land’. You might never visit the other lands but had to ‘imagine how the whole picture looked’, knowing that the whole jigsaw puzzle made sense.
The whole picture still makes sense today— this is the Creator’s story embedded in the landscape of these lands now called Australia.
We have survived, many cultures of Aboriginal peoples from many nations, and also our culturally diverse Torres Strait Islander brothers and sisters of many islands. That survival is a miracle—no-one else’s miracle but God’s. We are still here, and we are still here for a reason.
In churches, at Christian conferences, and at workshops I often ask people to look at the AIATSIS map of Indigenous Australia while I read these words from Revelation 7:9
After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.
There is a saying ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’. But it actually goes deeper than words—to story. It’s about deep listening. Will you allow your heart to be unsettled by the great ‘un-settler’, Jesus, to listen deeply to a picture that is thousands of years old and that continues today? It is a picture that the Creator, Holy Spirit, and Jesus have been part of since time immemorial. It’s my prayer that you do, and my prayer that collectively, as the peoples of these lands now called Australia, we all do. Maybe then it won’t just be a picture of cultural diversity, but one that gives us a deeper sense of family.
 2071.0 - Census of Population and Housing: Reflecting Australia - Stories from the Census, 2016 LATEST ISSUE Released at 11:30 AM (CANBERRA TIME) 28/06/2017 www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/Lookup/by%20Subject/2071.0~2016~Main%20Features~Religion%20Article~80
 www.youtube.com/watch?v=tow2tR_ezL8 (All URLs accessed October 2020.)
 www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/turtle-island. Cf. Native Land, native-land.ca/
 Bruce Pascoe, Dark Emu (Magabala Books, 2018), p199.
 Torres Strait Islander peoples are 10% of the Indigenous population of Australia, according to the 2016 Census, and the Torres Strait is comprised of over 100 islands with about 20 of those islands being lived on and part of the individual culture identities of the Torres Strait Islanders, grouped in five regions as symbolised by the five pointed star on the Torres Strait Islander flag.
 B. Prentis and S. Crowden, ‘Learning to be Guests of Ancient Hosts on Ancient Lands’. Thought Matters Volume 7, 2017. The journal of The Salvation Army Tri-Territorial Forum held 29 September - 1 October 2017. Edited by Coralie Bridle. others.org.au/news/2017/09/29/learning-to-be-guests-on-ancient-lands/
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