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The hard work of making change

Uncle Ossie Cruse MBE AM is a First Nations leader of note and a long time activist for Indigenous peoples and human rights. Uncle Ossie left school at 11, living what he describes as a hard and rough life until the early 1960s. Finding Christianity and overcoming alcoholism, he turned his focus to providing for his family and improving the lives of his fellow Indigenous Australians.

Uncle Ossie’s considerable contribution to the rights of First Peoples began with joining the Federal Council of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in 1963 and accelerated rapidly after the 1967 referendum. He embarked on a landmark tour of post-colonial African countries together with former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam and fellow activist Michael Anderson in 1982, garnering support for a treaty for Aboriginal people. He took his message to the United Nations, subsequently advocating on the global stage through his work with the World Council of Indigenous Peoples and the Pacific Asia Council of Indigenous Peoples.

Uncle Ossie Cruse Desert Pea Media
Uncle Ossie Cruse. Image used with permission of Desert Pea Media.

A man of deep faith, compassion and strength, Uncle Ossie is the Pastor of the Aboriginal Evangelical Church in Eden. Here he has guided the development and delivery of a range of community initiatives – among them an Aboriginal youth camp that is the realisation of a lifelong dream.

Recently he sat down with Tearfund’s Ben Clarke to reflect on his life, faith and this year's NAIDOC Week theme, Get Up! Stand Up! Show Up!

Tell us about your early journey into faith. How did that come about?

When I became a Christian, I became very sensitive to the injustice in the world, in general, and the injustice of things that took place in history. As we know, you can't reverse history. But you can learn from your mistakes and there is a way of making a better world for our children's children. That's what I've worked at for so long.

I have always lobbied for the rights of children and youth. I think we've got to make a better world for them, no matter how much it costs us as older people. I work at making things better from this point onwards, not back in time trying to change history. For example I purchased that land at Jigamy for the development of life and love of Christ for children. Jigamy Farm now has a social program and has become a cultural centre. The focus has been to empower children to have the opportunity of a better world.

I have had a long involvement with the World Council of Indigenous Peoples. In fact, I became the Pacific Asia representative to the United Nations. I reported on activities that were happening in that part of the world not only for Aborigional people but for "Third World'' people generally. I was moved by the plight of the people in Burma. People's communities were being raided and girls were being used as sex slaves. We had to take their story to the United Nations and when the world became aware of that activity change occured.

This kind of advocacy is the only weapon I've got. You can't go over with guns and try to make peace in situations like that. However, letting the world know that there's some injustice in a certain part of the world can bring change. People really sit up and take notice when you make known to the world issues that are hidden within the nations. But the fact is that when we did make things known it slowed down the activity that was taking place.

It's a slow area that makes changes but takes patience, endurance and love. Love must be the motivation of doing things. You must act because you love your country, love your people and you want to see the best for your children's children, because you love your children.

Uncle Ossie Cruse

How has your faith enabled you to keep “standing and showing up”... to keep running the race?

When you join the Christian community and live in Christ, there's a lot of caring and sharing. This means that life is not that hard. I have never seen it as really hard handling issues. The sad thing however is that change takes a lot of time and people suffer because of that.

It is like trying to turn the Titanic around – there's just not enough movement amongst people to make change. That's what you get to work with however. You've got to live with the slow reaction to some things that are really urgent. That goes on everywhere, even in the courts of the land! It's a slow area that makes changes but takes patience, endurance and love. Love must be the motivation of doing things. You must act because you love your country, love your people and you want to see the best for your children's children, because you love your children.

If I had not known Jesus Christ, I would have not known his love, his strength and his wisdom. I owe all to him and nothing to myself. I only went to fourth class in primary school, and I became the leader of the program that was developing what is now known as the Rights of Indigenous Peoples of the World. That was a massive movement, as it dealt with issues right across the world. Taking our concerns up to the United Nations and letting the world know that things were happening and that change needed to take place.

I was heavily involved in developing what we call the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. It took us a long time to deal with words and issues and you've got to keep progressing to create something that is a document rather than a statement. We had to bring together the right words to express the issues that you're dealing with.

Who are some of the “cloud of witnesses” you have been encouraged by?

One of the greatest men I've worked with during this time was Poka Laenui [aka. Hayden F. Burgess] from Hawaii, he was an indigenous barrister. He was able to form the words into a concise statement. I appreciated the opportunity to work with lots of great people. I remember all the meetings we had at Uluru when we came up with The Uluru Statement from the Heart, and the many meetings in Canberra with the federal bodies of the World Council of Indigenous Peoples… converting those conversations into legal processes is a mammoth, mammoth task!

One of the great movements I supported was the black rights movement, civil rights movement in Australia. Even though people saw the young leaders of that movement as radicals I always saw them as people who worked hard at making change in the world.

People like Lyall Munro Jr and his wife Jenny Munro. These people stood up in Redfern and places like that. There was a whole host of other young people there with them that marched in the streets and made demonstrations about the things that were affecting our people. So even though they responded another way, they went into protests. The work I did was the much slower and longer process of getting proper statements made in the United Nations and that would affect change in another way. These two worlds have to come together when making change. The world of the radical youth and the world of the person who has to develop the statements.

When they try to turn civil rights into legal rights it takes a mountain of knowledge and I know that a lot of it boils down to finance and whether they can develop effective legal processes. It is strange because I often used to think this way. The "Australian" people came here and suddenly they became the owners of this country. But they actually took this country by force, not by a legal process of treaty or whatever. There was never any talk of a treaty. It was like genocide to Indigenous people. In fact I remember us using that language of "genocide and cultural genocide" in the Rights of Indigenous Peoples of the World because of a dominant force of Anglo-European colonisation. It is as if “Australia'' was always there but it wasn't always there. A lot of things that have happened in this country were by force and the power of the British Empire.

The Aboriginal Evangelical Fellowship (AEF) was born out of similar [national consultative] work. Because it was and still is a national Christian movement. When we spoke through the AEF, we spoke as a people united and speaking with common sense, not just making radical “off the cuff” statements. AEF is still a major organisation in Australia today.

Prayer by Uncle Ossie Cruse

Heavenly Father, we thank you for the fact that you know and understand the plight of all peoples of the world. And even so Father, we now know that even now, while we're thinking about it, there are people in other places that are suffering, because the legal systems are not conducive to meet the needs of all people. So we ask you blessing and grace upon these situations, particularly Lord, that the children will be spared from a tyranny of law that is not acting on their behalf.

We pray that your Holy Spirit will minister there. And for us, Lord, we pray, help give us wisdom in all that we do and say and that we will always magnify and glorify Jesus Christ, in whose name we pray and for whose sake. Amen.

Pastor Ossie Cruse MBE AM is an Aboriginal Christian leader who has tirelessly fought for justice.