Despite the government and the church implementing wrongful and discriminatory policies and practices that resulted in disadvantage for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, Richard and Louise still have a relationship with the Catholic Church.
“The churches need to understand they aided and abetted the government policy that resulted in the stolen generation,” says Richard. “But I still have a relationship with the Church because I am baptised as a Catholic. I have friends who are priests and nuns and I have a love of painting that reflects stories.” It’s Richard’s painting on the cover of this Aurora.
Art and the synergies of the Dreaming and the Old Testament brought the separated siblings together. Louise asked Richard for help telling the stories of the Bible to a class she was teaching. “I did not get to know her until then,” he says.
When he was placed in care aged nine, he was not only discouraged from, but punished for, celebrating indigenous culture. But he never lost his ancestral heritage.
“My culture was everything to me and I never forgot it,” says Richard. “My mother and father and my cultural mothers’ and fathers’ grandfathers and grandmothers were my greatest teachers. I had a role in this kinship community, and I loved it every day. I get many of my grannies now to do what I did then. I am old now and hopefully they will teach their children.”
In one sense, Louise’s experience in care was no different. At times you could say, it was more harrowing – her identity was stolen.
“I learnt what I had from my mother’s fathers and grandparents,” she says. “There were many of them who contributed to me learning about who I was and where I came from. But unfortunately, this came to an end when I was removed in 1965. The teachers and the learnings were taken away.
“As a result, I was forced to learn another culture and its language, eat different foods and live a different life. I was taught by others who were not my family. The thing that impacted on me most was the loss of the cultural continuum of the learnings from my family. There was an interruption and space where I had nothing to do with my culture and what that brings with it.”
She describes the experience of re-establishing relations with her siblings as “scary and daunting”.
“It took a long time,” she says. “I would have been in my 20s before I got to know most of them. But I was still looking throughout that time. Once I got over that scariness and acceptance by all of us, then it was great getting to know them again.”
Richard’s artworks incorporate Dreamtime and Christian symbolism, highlighting synergies between the two belief systems. “Our old indigenous stories have been told for many, many, many generations, since time immemorial,” he says. “The Christian story told as it is today is part of our own story but expressed in a way where those cultures understand it. Louise and I believe they are the same.”
The sharing of art is significant in Aboriginal culture. “It helps those who do not have words in front of them to tell the stories,” says Richard. “It reflects our lore, values, roles and responsibilities. I never incorporated eyes in my paintings, preferring an abstract representation, but when I have placed a face to the figures, they seem to change my people.
“For example, when I presented the Last Corroboree to my elders in an art exhibition back home in Bowraville for their blessings, my great aunties and grandmothers hid their eyes, covering them with their arms. They couldn’t look at it. They sat at the front and cried. There were about 10 of them and Louise and I went to speak to them and asked why they did that. They all said they couldn’t look at that painting because they would be looking at their fathers and uncles who were there at the last corroboree on the island. They were there as little girls and it reminded them of that night.”
Artwork is one important way of disseminating Aboriginal culture, but Louise says we can share through all sorts of creative expressions. “We can teach in the education sector, like I do,” she says. “Including First Nations peoples in decision-making processes is important. Include them at every table in the company. We have a lot to contribute but we are completely absent from many things. A whole cultural shift needs to occur for First Nations people to be included, let alone worrying about whether the community is going to support indigenous culture in any way.”
Richard encourages tolerance and celebrating diversity. “Australians need to be educated about our First Peoples and that they looked after this land for thousands of years and did it well,” he says. “We should be valued. We have a contribution.”
Both say they still experience racism. “Every day,” says Richard. Louise says it can be subtle, but sometimes so glaring she has to remove herself from the situation and not call it out. “It is a way of protecting myself and trying to survive,” she says. “But this must change.”
The Black Lives Matter movement has led to increased attention on Aboriginal deaths in custody. Louise says it has been a horrific way to wake the world up, but black livers do matter.
“All of us need to call out what this is and why it is and how it will impact on people who are not included or disproportionately being singled out,” she says. “In Australia, First Nations people have been fighting and protesting for basic human rights for decades, to no avail. These challenges are not taught in our schools. Future generations will not get to know any of this, and this is where is starts.
“Black Lives Matter has started the discussion about statues of people who were part of the colonisation sweep. We need to be talking more openly about these issues. People are very sensitive to discuss because they feel they may offend. But I say ‘don’t feel that you may offend. Just say what you want to say’ and we can discuss this and work through the issues.
“We have made small steps for First Nations’ rights in Australia. But we need to make more, and this can happen through discussions and openness. Truth telling and healing are also part of the process. When are we going to allow this to happen? We need to work harder because for more than 200 years we still have the disproportionate numbers in all social indicators, which says we have not changed the status quo.”
The number of Aboriginals in Australia identifying as Catholic is increasing, which is interesting given the overall population of Catholics nationwide is decreasing.
“But how do we harness these numbers to encourage our families to be a part of the wider network that being Catholic brings to them?” asks Louise. “When we pray and worship, do we see our families sitting in the pews? What does our workforce in our Catholic agencies say and do about First Nations? How can we encourage our people to see that our Catholic world is one that is a welcoming world for our First Nations?
“We have many opportunities to bring this to the fore, for example our Plenaries currently being conducted. Do we have a voice in the themes? The questions keep arising and answers to them are quiet. Jesus spoke to many people who felt they were marginalised, and they listened because he came to give hope, love and welcomed them as part of his own. Are non-First Nations Catholics in Australia ready to welcome First Nations?”
Richard hopes that all Australians gain an understanding of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ceremonies, stories, history, communities and attachment to the land. “We had a wonderful and beautiful culture,” he says. “There may have been parts of it that people frown upon, but it worked for us for many millennia.”
And Louise? “I have seen too much and been part of much over many years,” she says. “I am getting to the stage in my life where I am old and weary and I would like to leave this world where society is tolerant, knowing about its First Nations, and celebrating them in everything we do as Australians, indeed Australian Catholics.”