Sci-Fi Twist on Reconciliation


Terra coverClaire G. Coleman, Terra Nullius, Hachette Australia 2017
(304 pages)

$20 paper, $5 e-book

Reviewed by Ted Witham

Set in occupied Australia, Terra Nullius tells three inter-weaved stories: the first is a residential school for Natives run by Settler Nuns headed by a fearsome Mother Superior, Sister Bagra. In this school, Native children have been forcibly taken from their families and are given a basic education so that they will graduate to domestic service in Settler households.

The second story is the escape of Jacky from a similar place. Jacky is determined to find his birth family. He is told that they may be at the former town of Jerramungup, so proudly takes the name ‘Jacky Jerramungup’.

The third group of Natives live fearful lives in a series of squalid camps, always on the run and moving to a new location as the Settlers drive them into the desert. The only advantage of this is that the Settlers cannot live in the desert.

First-time novelist Claire Coleman, a West Australian Noongar, drops little hints that this is not the occupied Australia we know when the British Settlers occupied the land and treated the indigenous people with cruelty. About half-way through the book, she reveals that these Settlers come from a space-faring Empire, and these Natives are black and white survivors of their arrival.

The Settlers are nicknamed Toads by the Natives because they need moisture to survive. Because of the ever-present threat of Settler violence, the name ‘Toads’ is never used in their hearing.

The three main characters, Sister Bagra, Jacky and Esperance, the de facto leader of the ever-moving camp, are vividly drawn, as well as a big cast around them: Sergeant Rohan the indefatigable hunter of runaway Natives; Johnny Starr, the outlaw Settler whose little gang gathers up Jacky Jerramungup on their way to an eventual show-down with Settler power, and Father Grark the reluctant Inspector sent to Sister Bagra’s mission.

I liked Terra Nullius very much. An atmosphere of dread induced both by the Settlers and the difficulty of surviving in the desert pervades the book. The West Australian settings are familiar but changed. The characters are never reduced to caricatures: most Settlers genuinely believe that the Natives were not human; the Native characters are clear individuals.

The pacing is well-handled. Towards the end, I couldn’t put the book down I was so afraid for Jacky and Esperance, and with reason!

It is a didactic novel. I suspect that Australians sceptical of Aboriginal claims will not be convinced by its premise, and may even be annoyed by its ideas. However, it will appeal to people looking for reconciliation and deeper insights into our shared history, settler and native.

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Easter Hymn


My new Easter hymn had its premiere at St Mary’s Busselton at the 8 a.m. Eucharist this morning. Apparently it went well.

New Eternal Breath

Christ is risen! He’s been sprung
from the once locked prison of death.
Christ is risen to be sung
With our new eternal breath.

Christ is ris’n! Women and men;
animals on farm and wild,
Christ is ris’n! Magpie and wren,
voice of life, sing to God’s Child.

Christ is ris’n! With cosmic power,
the old order overturned,
Christ is ris’n! Aleph and Taw,
For us endless life has earned.

Christ is ris’n! Noongar* and white
in Christ’s death are reconciled.
Christ is risen! All made right,
God’s life-giving power has smiled.

  • * or Koori, or black folk
    Ted Witham  2018
    7777 (Savannah TiS 219(i), Easter Hymn (with alleluias))

This, and others of my hymns, can also be found at http://www.franciscanhymns.wordpress.com

 

 

 

Invasion, Survival or Celebration: A Native Australian’s Day


Ngaala kaaditj Noogar moort keyen kaadak midja boodja

We acknowledge Noongar people as the original custodians of this land. In particular, on this Australia Day in this place, Busselton, I acknowledge the Wardan people, the Noongar sea people, who have walked this part of Noongar boodja for tens of thousands of years.

Reconciliation Australia puts before Australians three options for marking January 26: for many Indigenous Australians, this date can only be remembered as the anniversary of the British invasion, with the arrival of the First Fleet at Sydney. For others, they celebrate the survival of their culture despite every hostile attempt to destroy it. For others, it is a day of celebrating the rich culture brought to this country by Europeans and shaped as well by indigenous and later migrant influences.

As a wedullah man, I tread carefully in this conversation. I am a native, but not indigenous. I have held positions of authority, and as a white man with a privileged education, I can make no claims to share the lot of the powerless.

January 26 also happens to be the anniversary of my baptism in 1949, so today is also coloured by being claimed by Christ. My formation in Christ leads me to seek confrontation only if it will lead to reconciliation, and to rejoice in human culture only if it reflects in some way divine creativity.

Noongars had a different experience of white settlement than Aborigines in the Eastern States. Firstly, contact with individual ships of explorers and lost traders was earlier than on the East coast and it seems that Noongar elders developed some strategies for welcoming wedulahs into their midst. While they didn’t count on the level of violence the wedulahs would bring, it seems they were not so much on the back foot as were the Sydney mob. The Noongars lost land – and that was and is a calamity – but they did not entirely lose the initiative. They can be proud of Yagan and others who resisted the newcomers.

Because Western Australia was not founded as a convict settlement, ownership of land was open to all classes of people. In the 19th century, some aborigines owned farms. It was only in the early 20th that discriminatory laws deprived most Noongar farmers of those properties.

Those who see today as Invasion Day, whether Aboriginal or whitefella, tend to have an Eastern States-centric view of history. The predominant emotion of their history-telling is anger. This anger provides energy in the search for social justice, in the genuine attempts to close the gap, in the attempts to empower Aboriginal and Islander people to take a prime role in Australian society. Australia needs to feel the fire of that anger and to be moved by it to make a more equal community.

Those who want to mark today as Survival Day are conscious of the extraordinary achievements of Aboriginal culture. I am constantly thrilled by new (to me) rock paintings and dance that are dazzling, complex, ancient and contemporary. Some proponents of Survival Day are upbeat and invite people to celebrate the glories of Aboriginal culture and its resilience against the odds. Others mark Survival Day with a grudging pride, a sense of “You have to admit it: Aboriginal culture has something special. How sad that it was nearly lost.”

Others want to celebrate the possibilities of Western culture and the tempering influence Aboriginal culture can have on it. It took courage for Jessica Mauboy to sing “Advance Australia Fair” at the Award Ceremonies last night. I am sure some will bring out choice epithets to describe her acceptance of the invitation to sing as a betrayal. But I’m sure Mauboy saw it the other way around: people would be impressed the quality of her singing regardless of her race, but, even so, she brought to her rendering of the Anthem resonances from her background.

Jessica Mauboy sings the national anthem – a brave gig? Photo courtesy Crikey.com.au

It’s true that whitefellas in particular can celebrate today in a spirit of forgetfulness as if the first inhabitants don’t exist. They mark Australia with the ongoing tag of terra nullius. They should be called out for their hypocrisy.

But as an Australian native, I want to celebrate much about this country: its natural attributes, and its people, some of whom have fled from fear and oppression in 2013, some whose great-great-grandparents made the dangerous boat trip from Britain 200 years ago, and others who ancestors crossed the land-bridge from Indonesia 60,000 years ago. It’s a rich mix and a beautiful blend.

I respect people who choose to mark today as one or other – Invasion Day, Survival Day or Celebration of a Nation. But personally I want the three together – the anger, the pride and the joy all make sense, and I hope extend my hand to Noongars and Aboriginal people around Australia.

I am sorry – Podcast for National Sorry Day


Image from the web site of the Pinjarra Massacre Site

Podcast for National Sorry Day

National Sorry Day will be marked on May 26. Some small thoughts to listen to are here.

Information about National Sorry Day is at http://www.nsdc.org.au/.

My review of Cavan Brown’s book on John Gribble is at https://thoughtsprovocateurs.wordpress.com/2013/05/21/rugged-and-painful-past/.

The story of the Pinjarra Massacre is told at http://www.pinjarramassacresite.com/.

PS: A written version of the podcast is on the web-site of the Anglican Parish of Dunsborough. Go to http://dunsboroughchurch.com.au/ and click on the brown folder marked “BLOGGING”.

Vignette III of Peace


VIGNETTE III OF PEACE

The email screamed, “Nine thousand Muslims are coming! Keep them out of our Christian country! They will pervert our children and destroy our way of life.”

The chaplain should not have forwarded the email to me, her boss, whether or not she knew my views on immigration and on Islam.

I should have ignored it.

But I had a gnawing unease. Unless I did something about it, I would go on thinking that way about that chaplain. She had lost my respect, and it was important for me to restore it.

I started refuting the email line by line. Bad plan. That made me angry and made me write angrily. That way inflamed the situation. My first intuition to ignore the email had reason. I stopped writing. I waited a day. I prayed.

Then I wrote back to her, “I am sorry I cannot agree with your email,” I said, “but is it not possible that God wants 9,000 Muslims to come to Australia so that we can share our Christian faith with them?” I sent the email and waited two days.

She sent one more email, “I hadn’t thought of that. You may be right.” And then she apologised, “I am sorry I sent you that email without thinking first.”

Next time I saw her, I thanked her publicly for the commendable work she was doing in a difficult school. In praising her, I felt good about myself.