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How Do You Spell Reconciliation?

May 26, 2016

A few years ago I participated in a program called “Reconciliation through Sport”.

It involved a football carnival for children around the region, some from schools with predominately indigenous students and others from schools with mostly non-indigenous students. The traditional souvenir T-shirt was given to the participants, but on this occasion there was an unexpected message.

Port Augusta is located in the mid-north of South Australia and is home to the Nukunu peoples. Events for the International Year of Reconciliation included a football carnival for children of the region. Schools had various ratios of non-indigenous and indigenous students, so it was decided to mix up the students to form the teams. Sponsorship was sought and the commemorative t-shirt handed out.

The shirts gave a message for all involved to recall the reason for the carnival – Reconciliation through Sport. What was later discovered was that there was an error in the spelling. The word, Reconciliation, had an “i” omitted! Not to waste a good shirt, we changed our focus. We developed a cryptic message… for Reconciliation to happen: “I” must be in Reconciliation! It’s up to us all.

I now live in the East Kimberley in the home of the Gija people. It’s a different experience, as Warmun is a closed aboriginal community. Reconciliation about which footy team you support would be a greater issue! There are non-indigenous people here, but they are workers for the community – nurses, teachers, police, shop assistants, Sisters of St Joseph and social workers and they all live on the outskirts of the community.

Everyone’s perceptions are different, but as for me, I feel welcomed in a community that is rich in culture, history, family values etc. However, I also live amidst the problems that I’ve experienced in all communities where I’ve lived – violence, disengaged youth, poverty and the effects of alcohol. Indigenous and non-indigenous strive to understand one another.

The school programme is based on two way education where cultural learning is not just another subject in the curriculum but something that permeates all school life. Children learn Gija, the language of their ancestors and still spoken predominately by grandparents, and school work is done in both Kreol – their home language and Standard Australian English – as requested by the elders. The children go on culture trips and we explore together how each aspect of school life can be addressed two-way.

It amazes me how much of my Catholic culture, with its relatively short history, reflects that of the Gija culture where faith is not set apart from the culture… fire, water, blessing, cleansing, ritual to name a few. It all enriches my faith… and I now need a t-shirt with the caption: “Reconciliation through immersion into culture”.

Our recent Easter ceremonies respected both Aboriginal Culture and Catholic ritual. On Ash Wednesday we began a Sorry time for Jesus which led to the cross being placed in a tree (traditional burial way) on Good Friday. A community which has suffered so much hardship required little explanation on the suffering of Jesus and the need for the hope that Resurrection offers. 

Certainly the boy in the picture (mostly hidden behind the tree) as he  touched the heart of Jesus, knew what he was reaching for... love.

Our local ritual on Good Friday also involved the wearing of the Tungkul Strings.  This is a traditional way of showing people that during Sorry Time you were on a fish fast for someone who had died. This fast ended with the burial. (Traditionally the Tungkul Strings were made of human hair dipped in fish fat and red ochre– but we used red wool for our purposes). In our case it was a Sorry Time and a fish fast for Jesus.

On Easter Sunday the strings were broken and we shared a piece of meat at Mass. We also had a manthe - smoking ceremony / Easter fire as part of the service. No wonder that in this community the Gija people are so comfortable with Catholic rituals. Their traditions go back a very long way, to even before Jesus was born, unlike us Kartiya mob (non-indigenous)!

Just before Easter we held our annual swimming carnival. As I watched both indigenous and non-indigenous children enjoy the water, I thought about the water blessing on Easter Sunday by the Elders. It reminded me of something I read recently…

It doesn’t matter what your age, gender, race, religion, political belief or background – the water treats you the same.Author Unknown

There are several Kartiya children in the school. They are the children of the community workers. They thrive on the immersion into an indigenous community with much enthusiasm and openness to learning. Even the cattle enjoy attending our Ngapuny time (mass) which reconciles Gija, Catholic and Katiya culture.

As the theme for Reconciliation Week tells us ….. It’s our history, our story and our future.

Sr Julianne Murphy rsj

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