Sovereignty and Treaty for Australia’s First Peoples

Dr Richard Smith, from the Uniting Church WA Covenanting Commission, offers us this reflection on a workshop on Sovereignty and Treaty, which was led by Stuart McMillan at the recent Presbytery of WA Meeting.

Stuart McMillan, Assembly Consultant Covenanting and Ex President of the Uniting Church in Australia, shared the church’s prophetic vision of Sovereignty and Treaty in a workshop at the October Presbytery of WA Meeting.

My imagination came alive when  Rev Robert Jetta, Chair of the Uniting Church WA Covenanting Commission, shared the First Peoples’ belief, we are in the land and the land is in us.”

This is a belief forged by their survival for some 60 000 years, including a major ice age in which lakes dried up, forests disappeared, deserts expanded, animals went extinct and vast swathes of the Australian land mass became uninhabitable. As the ice caps expanded, sea level dropped by 120m, enabling the local First Peoples to move to Rottnest Island, but they left as the sea level rose to its present level.

What First Peoples had learnt is what Ecclesiastes had concluded and we are still learning:  “Stand in awe of nature and do what it requires of you, for this is the whole duty of humankind. For everything we do nature will bring to judgement, even everything hidden, whether it be good or evil.(Translation from Such is Life: A close encounter with Ecclesiastes, by Lloyd Geering.)

First Peoples survived by discovering the natural law where there’s no mercy – only law and grace. If you don’t understand that law and you don’t abide by that law, you suffer the consequences. By obeying the natural law, the First People earned their Sovereignty, which in the Uluru Statement from the Heart is described as:

“a spiritual notion: the ancestral tie between the land, or ‘mother nature’, and the … peoples who were born therefrom, remain attached thereto, and must one day return thither to be united with our ancestors. This link is the basis of the ownership of the soil, or better, of sovereignty which has never been ceded or extinguished, and co-exists with the sovereignty of the Crown.”

In just 230 years the Second Peoples – whose governments claim exclusive sovereignty – have, by ignoring this same natural law, brought upon us the existential crisis of climate chaos by promoting an economy of colossal waste, pollution and resource consumption believing it could continue indefinitely without consequences. National recognition by Treat of the Sovereignty of First Peoples would be a prophetic moment of addressing this climatic chaos, a moment the church was born for.

Richard Smith




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