The Time has Come

A good friend of mine, Joan Hamilton, has stories that I need to hear. Joan lived among First Peoples in Redfern in the ‘old-days’ with Mum Shirl; she then shared in the struggles of the Barkindji people in Wilcannia for many years. She learned what it means to battle against grim odds and later in Victoria formed close bonds of friendship among Yorta-Yorta, Wurundjeri, Mutthi-Mutthi and Wemba-Wemba people.  This small thin woman with an immense appetite for justice is lovingly called ‘Joan the Bone’ by them all. She treasures their memory and their stories. Though Joan has outlived many of these dear friends they live on in the yarns she can tell.

Such is the story of Mutthi-Mutthi woman Joyce Smith who has passed away. Joan was with Joyce on the outskirts of Alice Springs in November 1986 when Pope John Paul II stood in the swirling red dust and spoke to a delighted group of Aboriginal women, men and children. He wore Aboriginal colours a woman from the crowd gave to him. He affirmed their culture and spirituality.  He knew their pain. The Pope told a parable of a tree ablaze in the bushfires, leaves scorched, bark seared and burned while inside the sap still flowed and the roots held strong. He told these people that the ‘genius and dignity’ of their race must never disappear. They understood.

Pope John Paul II had the rapt attention of the crowd pressing around him; they delighted in his acknowledgement that it was necessary for their unique contribution to be joyfully received by all. Joan recalls this clearly. ‘I will never forget the excited nudge I received from Joyce as the wind and soft rain buffeted us.  Joyce said … Listen Bone. His Holiness is speaking to you fellas. You’re to accept our contribution and accept it joyfully’.

This Pope acknowledged that his listeners had never surrendered their land, that what must be done to remedy the deeds of yesterday must not be put off till tomorrow. He called for ‘just and mutually recognised agreements.’ He understood that ‘country’ and the reverence towards all its creatures was a vital part of their spiritual tradition.

‘The hour has come’, said John Paul II before he left Alice Springs. But recognising the rightful place of the First Peoples has remained a long and difficult struggle. There have been disappointments and setbacks, but the roots of the First Nations have held even stronger with time. The sap flows in unexpected ways. The hearts of many of ‘us fellas’ have softened; we have become grateful for the gift of 60,000+ years of history.

‘We cannot live in the past but the past lives in us’, wrote the poet, Oodgeroo Noonuccal.

Five years ago, a ‘Statement from the Heart’ was proclaimed at dusk on the red earth of Uluru. It was a call to unity. ‘‘Our sovereignty is a spiritual notion: the ancestral tie between the land, or ‘mother nature’, and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples …we believe this ancient sovereignty can shine through as a fuller expression of Australia’s nationhood’. This was a moment rare in the history of colonisation anywhere in the world, an invitation to all Australians to receive the spiritual and cultural heritage of our shared land. ‘How could it be otherwise?’ it asked. 

Before this historic document was proclaimed at Uluru more than a thousand of First Nations people had offered their opinions through 12 formal gatherings, rural and urban.  After Uluru the discussions continued. In December last year Ken Wyatt, Yamatji Wongi Noongar man, Minister for Aboriginal Affairs in the Coalition Government, presented to the Cabinet the document Indigenous Voice Co-design Process Final Report. This consultation, which he had commissioned, was co-chaired by Professor Dr Marcia Langton AO and Professor Tom Calma AO prominent Aboriginal leaders. All of this is interesting reading for those who seek details. 

When government changed hands the newly elected Prime Minister Albanese pledged support for a referendum so that all Australians could have the opportunity and responsibility to endorse a First Nations Voice to Parliament recognised in our Constitution.

On November 19th this year the Uluru Statement from the Heart was awarded the 2021-22 Sydney Peace Prize. Aunty Pat Anderson, Alyawarre woman, Professor Megan Davis Cobble-Cobble woman, and Lawyer Noel Pearson Bagaarrmugu, Guggu Yalanji man, accepted this peacemaker award. Their interviews and speeches emphasise a coming together after struggle. They claim that a distinctive but not separate place for First Peoples of Australia could weave the First Nations heritage learned from ‘country’ during more than 60,000 years, with the British legacy of law/governance/language and with the diversity of multi-cultural migration. A fuller expression of Australia’s nationhood.

Can we dare to hope? Could this be an opportunity to achieve the identity and unity that our nation needs? All Australian people will have the chance to endorse this; all over the age of eighteen years will be called to vote in a referendum. ‘Read the website, be fully informed and follow your conscience’, says Aunty Pat Anderson.

We wait for the date.

The time has come.