Thursday, 19 January 2012

Welcome to Noongar Country

Working on tall ships is something I have done for years and that I love, but it is also means working on the symbol of invasion of indigenous Australia and the destruction of language and culture.  The ships I have worked on will usually fly the indigenous flag on departure and arrival as a sign of respect and acknowledgement that the land was never terra nullis. When sailing on HMB Endeavour, the replica of Cook’s vessel with which he claimed Australia for the British crown, the symbolism is even stronger.

It is in this context that I experienced a welcome to country when arriving in Albany with Endeavour. The welcome started with our elders sitting down for a yarn and a cuppa. That is, Captain Ross and Uncle Lester sat in the 20th Century Mess and talked over a cup of tea. The rest of the crew kept to our own culture and got on with work, rather than resting during the heat of the day. The yarning is probably the most important part of welcome to country, but it eventually lead to the ceremony part. 

As Uncle Lester, a Noongar elder, stood on the quarterdeck of Endeavour, he welcomed us to the land his people have lived on since ancient times. He acknowledged that ships such as ours brought death and destruction. They brought the diseases, dispossession and alcohol which continue to drag his people into addiction and crime today. Yet he still welcomed us and spoke with hope. 

“If you want to unravel a culture, take away their language”

When Uncle Lester said this, he touched my heart. As we had sailed from Fremantle to Albany, I had been so pleased to be back at sea. Pleased to be sailing Endeavour, which as I child I watched be built in Fremantle and dreamt of sailing on. The winds were against us and 21st century timetables demand prompt arrivals, so we motored most of the way and only sailed a little. Even still, it was so good to be back at sea…back on deck, surrounded by water and sky. I had found myself asking ‘Why am I leaving this profession which I love to go to PNG?’

The short answer to that question is ‘God’. The long answer is well, um… somewhat difficult to define. It is certainly not easy to put into words.  Uncle Lester’s words reminded me of why I am going into Bible translation. They reminded me that translation and PNG is about working alongside people to strengthen and preserve language and culture, to commit to community and faith. It is about helping build the tools for literacy and discipleship and encouraging  a culture and a people group to flourish. 

They are certainly reasons worth spending most of the coming years on land.

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