This week the media has not let us forget that it is NAIDOC week. Occasionally, as Aboriginal issues arise in the media, people who have known me a long time assume that I must be deeply involved in Aboriginal initiatives such as health or social justice. Well, no! Even though I was a teacher on Aboriginal catholic missions in the Northern Territory between 1959 and 1972, the way those NT years are now reflected in my life is much more subtle.
The ink on my teacher registration was still wet when I was sent to Port Keats, now known as Wadye. I arrived with no knowledge of Aboriginal language or customs, and no personal recognition of how dangerous and unjust this actually was. Lots of memorable times and experiences followed – laughing children, swimming in waterholes in the Wet, singing in the Darwin Eisteddfods, John Wayne movies twice a week. But the system was flawed and in spite of myself, I was part of it.
It took me years to realize that the silence, the wide spaces, the rusts and browns and vivid greens, the miles of unmarked coastal sand and the purple of distant hills of the NT had stimulated my inner DNA. While I had contributed nothing of any real value to the communities among whom I worked, just by being who they were, they had gifted me with their spirituality.
Years later I began to ask myself questions like, why do we live clustered around the rim of our land? Might the red-brown harshness and isolation of the NT have had something to say to me?
Do I too, like Aboriginal people, have a personal sacred space, the place where God feels close? Was this why I always felt so at home in the spreading paddocks of the Mallee?
How could I capture some of that deep, NT stillness for my own life?
The word ‘geography’ derives from the Greek words for earth and writing. I read Aboriginal mythology and wondered whether the expression “spiritual geography” could be used to describe the relationship I have with myself and with God. It led me to explore further the spaces and places where God had written and painted my story.
The religious culture I inherited from my English great grandparents was one which for climatic reasons had to be expressed within a building. But we live in a climate more conducive to outdoor living and symbols. From and unknown source I read that “Aboriginal influence on Australian spirituality is a challenge to look again, and more deeply, at our traditions, to re-emphasise the elements in that tradition that are in tune with our time and place.”
The last thing a non- Aborigine like myself should do is to be deluded into thinking that Aboriginal spirituality will mean the same for me as it does for our first Australians. The last thing Aborigines need is another appropriation by members of the dominant culture of something that is distinctively theirs.
And so my exploration of an Australian spirituality goes on. Those long-ago years living on Aboriginal land have opened up more questions and possibilities than I can answer – yet! What I do know is that long before white settlement, God had written a sacred story across our land and is inviting all of us to read it.