May 26 is Sorry Day. National Reconciliation Week starts on May 27.
May 26 begins a week-long commemoration of significant events in the encounter between Indigenous people and later arrivals in Australia. Sorry Day, which honours the Stolen Generation of Indigenous children stripped from their families, bookends Reconciliation Week with the Referendum and the Mabo decision that marks its close. The week is one for all Australians to participate in and reflect on.
It may be helpful to look at the week as a period of Sorry Business, the period devoted in Indigenous cultures to grieve death. Sorry Business gathers the whole community of which the dead person is part – not merely the nuclear family but all those associated to them in kinship and other ways. It imposes an obligation upon people bound to the dead person to greet the immediate family in their house and support them in the funeral. It reflects the belief that the spirit of the dead person may rest only if they are present. The funeral is not an event to be done and moved on from but a time to be spent together.
Seen through the lens of Sorry Business, Sorry Day and Reconciliation Week belong together and involve all Australians. It is an invitation to the whole Australian Community to do Sorry Business for the death and diminishment which Government policies brought to the Stolen Generations. The removal of children from their parents was bound up with death in its beginnings and its consequences. It developed from the conviction that Indigenous culture was dying out. It was designed to accelerate that process by assimilating the snatched children to their dominant culture. It brought death to the spirit of people separated from their families and culture and often untimely physical death to them and their descendants.
We at Jesuit Social Services include many Indigenous Australians among the people we serve and those who accompany them. They are at the heart of our vision of Australia as a network of relationships between people and with our environment which are marked by respect. In our relationship to the natural world our Indigenous brothers and sisters are our teachers. In our relationships with one another as Australians, they call us to reconciliation that is built on respect and on recognition of the harm they have suffered through European settlement.
This is something for which all Australians can do sorry business. Indigenous Australians grieve the suffering and alienation that the children and their later families suffered through separation from their family and loss of their cultural traditions. Descendants of the Settlers can grieve the history of contempt for Indigenous culture and willful ignorance that lay behind the death-dealing practices of separation and has coloured the subsequent treatment of Indigenous peoples in Australia. The beginning of reconciliation is to take time for Sorry Business.
Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ writes for Jesuit Communications and Jesuit Social Services.