August 9 is International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples
The way in which a nation treats its Indigenous peoples is often said to be a test of its humanity. If that is true, the test has often been failed. In many places where there has been wave upon wave of settlement, the peoples who arrived most recently have the most wealth and the best land near rivers and sea.
Those who arrived earlier are pushed back into poorer agricultural land, and the earliest arrivals live on the mountain heights. Nation building has been achieved on the basis of winner takes all.
The newcomers, too, often regard Indigenous people as primitive and make them the object of jokes. In contrast, they see themselves as civilised and consider their own culture and religion to be a gift to the Indigenous people.
Colonists from Christian kingdoms sometimes enslaved the Indigenous people. In some cases, they even doubted that they were fully human and endowed with a soul. They spoke of themselves as discovering lands whose inhabitants never realised that it had been lost, and as exploring country through which paths had long been made.
Sometimes, as in Australia, the relationship between Indigenous peoples and later supplanters remains unreconciled. It is an unhealed wound in national life, with memories of massacres, discrimination, eugenic experiments and neglect.
The communal memory of the early relationships continues to enslave people today. The history told about the nation is not a shared history, but fragmented between different groups.
The Day for Indigenous Peoples reminds us that this is not simply an Australian problem but one experienced in many different lands. Some societies such as New Zealand, where a treaty was made between groups equal in military power, have handled it much better than have Australians.
The recognition of Indigenous Peoples rests on a foundation of acknowledgment of the truth of the history of encounters between them, and on the mutual recognition that each has a place in the land.
This implies a respect for Indigenous culture, reflected in recognition of their right to land and to live in communities where their culture can flourish, in acknowledgment that the culture of a good society is not homogeneous but varied, and in respect for the culture of the first people who lived there, and in deployment of the nation’s resources in a way that benefits all people.
In a healthy society the wisdom of the first inhabitants is respected and drawn upon. It does not express the arrogance of one group over others but a mutual interest and respect.
In Jesuit Social Services, where we include many Indigenous people in our staff and among the people with whom we work, this is our vision. It is one that commits us to the demanding and lifelong task of embodying in our relationships and practices.
Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ writes for Jesuit Communications and Jesuit Social Services.