Sean Weetra and Rosemary Rigney are members of the Ngarrindjeri nation, residents of the SA town Raukkan and followers of Jesus. In this conversation they talk about how they understand treaty and what it might mean for them.
Raukkan lies on the Coorong in Ngarrindjeri land at the mouth of the Murray River in South Australia - and in your wallet on a good day! David Unaipon, a celebrated Ngarrindjeri preacher, inventor and author, along with an iconic church, are featured on the $50 note. David Unaipon comes from a long and continuing line of leaders who have never ceded sovereignty of their lands and waters and who have always worked towards a just settlement with the South Australian and Commonwealth Governments.
On December 14th, 2016, the South Australian Government announced that they were going to commence treaty discussions with Aboriginal South Australians as the next step towards reconciliation and building Aboriginal governance in the state. Treaty negotiations were progressing, but the current government paused negotiations soon after coming to office and have not shown any signs of recommencing.
We interviewed Sean Weetra and Rosemary Rigney, both members of the Ngarrindjeri nation, residents of Raukkan and followers of Jesus, to hear about how they understand treaty and what it might mean for their community.
Our conversation kicked off with the theme of self determination. Self determination has been on the agenda since the early 1970s and there are many aspects of life on Raukkan that speak to its history.
Rose: We have not really had self-determination since other people came in. Then we went through that whole period when others determined things for us. We are coming out the other end, but are still in that atmosphere of others determining.
Sometimes people ask, “What do you think about this or that?” To be honest my own thoughts are that we have not been asked. We just don’t know! We've been told what to do for so many generations. It could be seven maybe eight generations! That’s a long time to be shaped by others.
So I say “Let us go!” Let us do what we do. I think that's where we're at as a community. We are going to do what we do because we can't be what you want us to be. So we are going to see were that gets us as we work ourselves out of that hole which you dug for us.
Raukkan has a community run corner store that not only serves as a place to pick up essentials but also as an impromptu meeting place and community hub. In an ironic twist of history, the corner store sits right next to the old ration house. When Raukkan was run as a mission (1859 - 1974) the residents received rations there in exchange for labour. The residents of Raukkan look to their store as a significant step along the road to self-determination.
Rose: Our agenda is starting to come to the forefront. Now we have the opportunity to step back and ask what is Raukkan all about and to ask what do we want to do? What do we want to see happen here in this space? We've never been at this place before, never had this relationship that we have with Australia as Aboriginal people who are allowed to speak up.
Today, nestled in the heart of the community, is the Raukkan Community Council building, which provides the leadership for the community. The current CEO, Jordan Sumner, himself a Ngarrindjeri man and believer, represents another significant step towards self-determination.
The council is relearning Ngarrindjeri ways of governing and leading. They reflect that the ways they have been taught to lead do not work for them and they need to trust that Ngarrindjeri ways will as they have in the past.
Rose: We've always had [governing] structures and then someone came along and told us No no no! That's not how it works anymore - you have to go this way... We tried to do it and it doesn't work.
Sean: With the Raukkan Community Council we've worked in a Western framework, but now the council is trying to find a way to be more Ngarrindjeri.
Rose: In the Raukkan Community Council we are getting rid of the stuff that really is not us. We are re-learning a lot from what the missionaries wrote down about our culture for us. That’s a brilliant thing about Western culture - they like writing things down! So we can go back and say “Oh look it was written here by (George) Taplin…(the first missionary in Raukkan) or was written here by Berndt and Berndt (social anthropologists). All those writings of the day reinforce that what we know who we are.
Many of the residents of Raukkan are Christian, however there is a hesitancy to meet in the famous $50 note church building. Ngarrindjeri have always been a spiritual people and they have ways of reflecting that in worship and reverence that they are beginning to relearn.
Recently the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Congress (UAICC) welcomed them as a “Faith Community” but they are not sure how they are going to continue to explore that. Again, you can see self-determination at work here.
Rose: We have always had faith and we've always been a faith community because we had faith before anyone came here and told us about God. We believed in the Creator, lived by creator's laws. You know our dreaming and our story and all the rules for living - it's all Biblical.
Rose: I think we Ngarrindjeri have a real gift of hospitality. I think we also have a great system of community and structure. We've always had that and then somebody took it away and said “No we are going to do it this way.”
So we sort of fell into that way of thinking but now we're saying “You know what? That way doesn't work for us! Why aren’t we doing what we always did?”
So almost organically we've ended up back at caring for country. That is how we make some of our dollars now. Caring for country, mentoring, hosting groups, housing people for the weekend and looking after them - hospitality. So we are doing what we've always done.
Part of what this looks like is the community buying an old school building and some housing to host groups and events.
They have also taken in members of the Stolen Generation who have not reconnected with their families. Part of offering a welcome is the offer of a safe place to learn and ask questions. Many tourists and groups end up visiting Raukkan. Some book a tour.
Rose: So many people have been fed the wrong information. When we run tours down here there's so many people that say “Oh we never heard it like that before!” “We didn't know that!” We're used to it. We used to think that surely they! They must have known… but the more we hear the more we realise that they didn't know.
Sean: And I think with the tourism stuff it's not just an educational process for non-Aboriginal people. It is an education for us too because we've always felt like people knew and ignored the truth.
Sean and Rose’s views on treaty are nuanced. They can see the benefits of some sort of “agreement”. (The Uluru Statement from the heart called for “a process of agreement-making” and does not use the word treaty itself).
Sean: I struggle with the context and the word ‘treaty’. It's the Western framework. I believe that we could create a new foundation of treaty with a different context, a different meaning of how we can work and live together. Before colonisation we had the Tendi, Ngarrindjeri Government and Yanurumi (Dialogue) and we would sit down together and that's where those agreements would be made.
Rose: If we're going to get to talk treaty there's got to be real talk. You know the “truth stuff”. Let's stop the lies! It's got to stop and we've got to stop talking about “helping the indigenous” No! Let's talk to the indigenous. Let's have a relationship and see how we can do things together.
The treaty might work if it was our voices and our ideas… but we can't do treaty Western cultural way. I think that's where it falls down all the time . It's hard to think both ways. It's tiring!
We don't want treaty for treaty’s sake. We want treaty because it's the right thing to do. The right thing for community.
Sean: I believe that the NAIDOC Theme - Voice Treaty Truth was put in that order for a reason because without a voice in parliament and without a voice in society there'll be no treaty and without a treaty there'll be no truth.
Rose: If the idea is we're working towards treaty then there's got to be the voice, there's got to be the truth. And then that will lead to treaty. But that also means that we Ngarrindjeri are standing up and being able to use our voices again.
Rose: We will look towards a future where we can do things together. Really together - not as white Australians and Indigenous but as one. To do that I think we've got to learn each other's language and understand each other's ways. Then we can work out how best to work together.
If we were to have a treaty with the State or Federal government it needs to reflect Ngarrindjeri needs along with other mobs and what's going to benefit future generations. Treaties in the past and around the world have shown us that they are often broken. They are always seen in a Western way of looking at treaties. There's not one treaty that I know of that's an Indigenous treaty.
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