Talking about Reconciliation Week with Denise Champion

Hi. My name is Ben and I’m deputy editor at Eternity. I’m also a Christian, a husband, dad, son and brother. I am other things as well, but what I am not is someone who is of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent.

It’s National Reconciliation Week and I am one Australian who doesn’t know a whole lot about this annual focus upon history, problems, trauma and moving forward. I checked out the NRW site and its organising body, Reconciliation Australia, describes how it hopes this week will “inspire and enable all Australians to build relationships, respect and trust between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and non-Indigenous Australians.”

Denise Champion is an Adnyamathanha woman (northern Flinders Ranges area, in South Australia) who, in 2015, became the first Aboriginal woman to be ordained in SA. Denise is a minister in the Uniting Church in Australia, placed with UAICC (Uniting Aboriginal Islander Christian Congress).

I had not met Denise in person but had heard of her. Among other things, Denise has worked in cross-cultural programs for UCA, and wrote Yarta Wandatha (which means “The Land is Speaking, the People are Speaking”). She’s known for being able to tell the stories of her people, and relate them to the gospel story.

So I called Denise and asked if she, a First Peoples woman, would have a conversation with me, an Anglo-Australian man, about what Reconciliation Week means to her. Quickly and happily, she agreed.

“We seem to be able to remember the ‘war stories’ very well [World War I and II], but we still have amnesia about what happened to Aboriginal people.” – Denise Champion

We had a long and honest chat. Denise did most of the talking. I tried not to interject, interrupt or intrude upon what she wanted to say. Unlike many other interviews I have done, I also tried not to do anything that would guide her answers towards a quote or conclusion.

Instead, I listened and asked questions where appropriate. Understandably, given the enormity of what we were talking about, her answers covered a lot of territory as she tried to help me see that the issues, and the trauma and optimism, around Reconciliation Week can’t be neatly packaged. They can’t be easily summarised. But they can be told.

I could not include all that we spoke about here, but I hope what is shared can help your outlook and understanding about relationships between First and Second Peoples in Australia.

Ben: What does Reconciliation Week mean to you?

Denise: “For a start, Reconciliation Week is all about truth telling. It allows the truth to be told. Sometimes, things will happen that will make us stop and listen to the truth. If we are not listening to the truth, other things will continue to happen.

“And … Aboriginal people know there are these things which have happened that have changed the way in which we can relate to one another. Things like the [revised] Preamble for the Uniting Church in Australia; that was a watershed document for us. There was truth telling in it. Also, it gave the opportunity for Second Peoples to say that they were part of the problem – and that they were sorry. There was the apology in it.

“You can read in that preamble where it says that the integrity of the gospel was diminished …

“Australia, as a country, we have copped a lot lately [such as bushfires] … and nationally there have been outpourings of grief – which should allow for the development of empathy with the First Peoples …

“We seem to be able to remember the ‘war stories’ very well [World War I and II], but we still have amnesia about what happened to Aboriginal people.

“As usual, people don’t want that hard-hitting ‘getting at the truth’ stuff … People just want to hear what is pleasant. Not the truth.”

“‘Reconciliation’ means we are all different people but we can live together, and we can share what we have together.” – Denise Champion

Ben: What would more truth telling look like, and what impact should it have on someone like me who is not First Peoples?

Denise: “Well, it’s your history. How much of Australian Aboriginal history do you know?”

Ben: Very little.

Denise: “Well, I rest my case. It’s your history and it’s your responsibility – each Australian – to know who you are. And we can’t just pick and choose: ‘Oh, this is who I am; I’d rather just be …’

“Most of Australia is built on the ‘ocker’ image and colonial past and that’s the only story [Second Peoples] kinda know. It’s pretty sad. And they don’t want to dig any deeper or go any further.

“Lying underneath, you’ve got all this beautiful history, beautiful stories of the land and how Australia was formed.”

Ben: What could reconciliation look like between First and Second Peoples?

Denise: “I think the word ‘reconciliation’ means we are all different people but we can live together. And not only live together, we can share what we have together …

“I think reconciliation means you can be a different people but live together in peace.”

“You’ll know how reconciled the Australian community is if you have truth telling and empathy.” – Denise Champion

Ben: And that will particularly require truth telling and empathy?

Denise: “You’ll know how reconciled the Australian community is if you have truth telling and empathy. You know, you can always find the things that divide … but uniting [also] doesn’t mean conforming. You don’t become like cookie cutters on a conveyor belt, all the same. It’s actually the difference that makes the difference. So, when we can embrace everyone’s differences … And you may not agree with the way other’s live, but at least find some commonality with them so that you can live in unity with them.

“So, don’t let the difference be the difference.

“I can truly say that because I learned to live the White Fella ways. I learned White Fella language. White Fella laws. I can do everything that a White Fella can do. And I can still do my own stuff, you know? I love my language … and for us, it’s retrieving a lot of what has been lost.

“So, a reconciled community will allow freedom to retrieve what’s been lost.

“And we should already have a treaty. I don’t know why the government is not giving us a treaty … Of the countries we know of that were colonised by the British, especially our close neighbours in New Zealand, they have a treaty with the First Peoples.

“You know, I don’t want to ask for a treaty any more because we keep getting knocked back. The Uluru Statement from the Heart was a very profound document. It came after much thinking from Aboriginal leaders from all over and, yet, our current Prime Minister didn’t even give it a second thought. He just said no straight out.

“If it was up to me, I’d ask him to revisit the Uluru Statement again.

“You know, after coronavirus, after being in it all together, I would ask Scott Morrison to re-look at the Uluru Statement.”

Ben: Why is a treaty so important to reconciliation?

Denise: “Well, it’s a recognition of prior … Well, you know what? In this modern day and age, you don’t have to be a rocket scientist. We don’t really have to spell it out what ownership means to people. You know? And the truth be known, this land was stolen. First Peoples were prior owners.

“It may not have been in a document, written up all nicely in the archives of the parliament but it was in our parliaments. But, of course, the way Western Peoples think of parliament and First Peoples think of parliament are two different things. It’s the same thing as far as land ownership …

“[First European settlers] came out and saw with ‘nothing’ with their Western eyes. All they saw was lots of land and trees and, you know, they couldn’t see anything or anyone else. They immediately claimed it Terra Nullius – belonging to no one, which was convenient and we know that was overturned by the High Court during the 1990s.

“But they were there – the bush markets and bush pharmacies. You know, they were all there … And, of course, with the dwellings they couldn’t see nice little white picket fences or brick buildings. But the brush dwellings were there, that Aboriginal people lived in.

“They were there. They were always there.”

“During Reconciliation Week, I would love it for all of our local councils to engage. At the moment, it’s still ‘just an Aboriginal thing.'” – Denise Champion

Ben: Are you suggesting that I stop looking through Western eyes and change my perspective? Is that a good first step to actual reconciliation with First Peoples?

Denise: “That’s right … It’s not about the Aboriginal people getting over it and learning to live like everyone else.

“You can imagine that if you were wronged to the point of massive things like taking your kids and raping your women, you know … you’re not going to forget that in a hurry.

“You’ve got to be able to process that …

“There are people like myself who have become storytellers and truth tellers [of Aboriginal history].

“On the whole, during Reconciliation Week, I would love it for all of our local councils to engage. At the moment, it’s still ‘just an Aboriginal thing.’ It’s seen as an ‘Aboriginal thing’ – let the Aboriginal people do their thing over there in the corner.

“Same as Australia Day as well, you know? There is no coming together on Australia Day because the Aboriginal people will see that as a ‘white thing’.

“We still have to plead our case. Be strong in our voices to be heard … My hope is that all Australians will begin to learn their true Australian identity. Learn Australia has a ‘black past,’ and we have to embrace who we are fully – as a nation …

“We always need to hear the message that we are a reconciled community and we can live together, but that means embracing one another’s stories. That means we make time to hear other people’s stories too. I’m thinking of Multicultural Week and people who are ‘second generation’ – they sound Australian but they don’t ‘look Australian’ – and we need to let them tell their story, who they are.

“It’s not just about the black/white, Aboriginal/non-Aboriginal. It’s about being free to accept anyone who is different from us.”

“We are able to embrace people from other cultures. But we must embrace the First Peoples first. We still don’t do that well enough.” – Denise Champion

Ben: Do you have hope for reconciliation in Australia between First Peoples and those, like me, who are not?

Denise: “Yeah, there’s always hope but you’ve got to know the true story. If you are not working from the truth – because Australia has many narratives … and the dominant story is this colonial story, that’s what Australia has accepted.

“I think Australia has a real chance of building a community of peace. We are going a long way to it by being a multicultural society; we are able to embrace people from other cultures. But we must embrace the First Peoples first. We still don’t do that well enough …

“Holding certain opinions about people can be very damaging … In our schools, in our churches, we have to work really hard to make sure we are addressing those issues. We’re not just tickling people’s ears and telling them what they want to hear. We actually have to address the hard stuff, the justice issues.

“Why do we have to put things right? Why does a certain group in our community have a special day or week? What’s so important about them? Why is it so important to have this special recognition of First Peoples? Well, firstly, there was a lot of stuff that went on that wasn’t right …

“A lot of Aboriginal people have given up. They can’t see any way forward …

“But I love the trilogy of The Hobbit because in that little story is a great message of hope. And I use those stories now because I know it’s what people understand … I’m not quoting it word for word, but it says there is some good in this world and there are people who will fight for that good.

“When [hobbits] Sam and Frodo are at the base of the mountain [in the finale] and Frodo’s strength fails him, Sam says to him: ‘Well I can’t do it for you, Mr Frodo, but I can carry you.’ So he picks up Frodo and starts to carry him to the top of the mountain.

“That’s as good a picture of empathy as I can think of – someone who will pick you up and carry you through the hard times, until you are able to regain your strength.

“They are the kinds of communities we should have. We need to work towards building communities that are ‘helping communities’ …

“It’s when you start seeing goodwill towards those who don’t have anything, that’s the test of a true reconciled community, I reckon.”

Ben: During Reconciliation Week and beyond, what is it like for you to share your Christian faith with First Peoples in your community?

Denise: “It makes my job very difficult as a minister because I have to go to my people – the Aboriginal people I am responsible for in my community – and still be able to speak the gospel of peace to them, telling them about Jesus. But the community folk still hold the church accountable for working side-by-side with government policies …

“I’m not sure of how damaging that period has been, but I think there are a lot of Aboriginal people who just don’t want to talk about it. Too hard; with good reason, because they were traumatised as children. Just being taken away from their mum and dad; that’s trauma enough. Never being allowed to play with your own brothers and sisters.

“So, it’s very hard for me as a minister to go to them and say ‘God loves you.'”

Ben: Why do you do it?

Denise: “I do it because I do believe … [And] I use my Indigenous thinking around matters of faith. And I trust that, because it’s been around a lot longer than 200 years. I trust Aboriginal spirituality that has been in this country as long as the First Peoples have been here.

“The same Creator that formed the mountains and the hills and the rivers and the valleys … is the same God that is still here now, that gives people freedom.”