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Weaving Kingdom and community through an Indigenous lens

Weaving kingdom and community through an indigenous lens

Alisson Overeem (Smith) talks about what it means to stand up for her community.

Interview by Ben Clarke, Supporter Engagement Officer for Tearfund's work with the First Peoples of Australia.

Hi Alison, can you begin by introducing yourself for us?

Ya pulingina Hello, and welcome. Welcome to the traditional homelands of the Nuenonne people. My name is Alison Overeem (Smith), proud palawa woman from the Southeast nations of lutruwita, Tasmania. I live, work, walk and heal on the lands of the Nuenonne people, and I'm on those lands today. I'm a proud Smith, from the lineage of Fanny Cochrane-Smith from the southeast nations, daughter of respected local Elder Stan Smith. Presently, I'm the state manager for the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress, Tasmania, part of the Uniting Aboriginal Islander Christian Congress national family. I’m part of the UnitingCare board of Australia, Chair of the First Peoples Working Network for Uniting Care and Co-chair of the Vic/Tas Synods Walking Together and Covenant Committee. I like to introduce myself as a proud woman who's proud of where she's from, and wants to leave a legacy for all those who have come before and will come after.

How have you stood up for your community in the kingdom of God?

Standing up for my community and the kingdom of God, to me are the same story. They are just interwoven threads of the same story. In our language to stand up is to “takamuna”, which means to stand and to weave in justice. And I believe that's what I've been called to do. That's who I’ve been for the last 24 years of my work life, and my spiritual life was centred around advocating for Aboriginal children and families, and the importance of children growing up strong in culture, strong in community and connected to each other.

I think a testament to this work is the fact that two staff members that I have as part of the team at Congress Tasmania are two of the children from the Aboriginal Child and Family Centre that I ran for 24 years. Those strong connections and that sense of family and security has travelled with them, and brought us full circle back to each other.

For me, the Kingdom and community are about weaving the call through both a pilgrim and an Indigenous lens. For me they can't be separate. They're interwoven, and one must never come at the cost of the other. I guess that's where my advocacy has always sat. It's about truth telling. That word is thrown around a bit and I wish people would talk a little more about truth “knowing”. For me, it's about leaning into my ancestors and my warriors, to carry on their legacy. To say, "Look, what's come before me, look what made a change for me to grow up strong in culture and strong in community on the lands of lutruwita, Tasmania.”

It's a call to create change on the lands, never ceded by First Peoples, and it's a call to be people of justice, in the kingdom of God. My whole life has been about justice. From the age of five, I was advocating for my sister who didn't have the ability to walk and talk in a system that didn't understand that. I think I was born into standing up for justice and for culture and community in an ever changing call to justice.

I don’t feel like I'm running a race – I feel like I'm living a journey. I sit gently knowing that the creator was ever present in and on these lands and was [here] well before the big boats came and 1788.

Can you tell me something about your spiritual journey?

I guess my “race” has been that I've continued to listen but navigate spaces and places that weave like a "tareena" in our language, and that means basket, the shared stories of theology, faith and spirituality. I don't think it's been a "race" for me, but more of a gentle journey. Knowing who my ancestors are, knowing my heritage, knowing my culture, knowing my country, knowing where I belong, has really been intrinsic in my faith journey and my spiritual call and that of all First Peoples.

I don’t feel like I'm running a race – I feel like I'm living a journey. I sit gently knowing that the creator was ever present in and on these lands and was [here] well before the big boats came and 1788. That is my connection to and with my ancestors, cultures, storylines, “song lines”. It really is my love of community and cultural connection that has sustained me in my spiritual race. If I think of it as a race I think it's a race about maintaining that connection to Aboriginal spirituality at any cost. So, the "race" sits gently with me allowing me to go on the journey.

Has that sense of connection to culture, and to land and to kinship bonds, given you strength as well in the journey?

Absolutely! I know who I am, I know where I'm from. I know what guides me, I know what protects me. I know my storylines and what my song lines are, but I also know about place. Often we talk about people [giving us strength] and we should, but it's connection to place that really sustains my spirituality. For me that means going back down to a little place called Nicholls Rivulet, which is in the southeast of Tasmania, near Cygnet, where sits the only Aboriginal church in Tasmania. It is the church of Fanny Cochrane-Smith, who is my grandfather's grandmother. My whole family grew up in Rivulet. I was born in the Rivulet and we've maintained that connection to place. When I go there, I'm home. And my spirituality is enlightened again. It allows me to continue the race.

I can ground myself back there any time and we, as a Congress, use that church a lot. We are on site down there a lot for cultural appreciation and awareness, but also to remind us who we are, and what our spirituality is founded on and that's a strong Methodist warrior woman, Fanny Cochrane-Smith, who interwove faith, spirituality and Christianity, at no cost to the other one. We call it three eagles flying and flying in unity with each other.

You've mentioned a few times the idea of “living into different spheres at no cost to each other”. Could you unpack that a little bit for me?

For me and for the team here, the Scriptures speak to us in a different way. Do we resonate with the colonised, westernised version of what the scripture is calling us to and what it's telling us? No. But do we see through our lens that the scriptures and our indigenous theology and spirituality is already inherent in those stories? Yes, we do.

My connection to country and culture and to spirituality comes at no cost to the other. Because for me they are one story! They're one narrative. When seen through a First Peoples lens, it's the gift of justice to the wider church and to the wider community. So it fits through a lens that speaks to, and for, my ancestors.

In our language, “waranta mulatina” means strength within. That strength will guide and protect us as we move through the hardships of life. And so for me, the thing that gives me strength comes from my culture, my community, and the strength of the power of people across lutruwita.

What gives you strength to persevere and keep going?

In our language, “waranta mulatina” means strength within. That strength will guide and protect us as we move through the hardships of life. And so for me, the thing that gives me strength comes from my culture, my community, and the strength of the power of people across lutruwita. That strength comes from the sites of the worst massacres in Australia. Can I say that, again? The worst massacres in Australia.

It's knowing I'm being guided, protected, and called to sit with the struggle and survival of the palawa people of lutruwita. It's knowing that our culture, often denied to us, and, us as people, often denied to us, is the gift to the wider Tasmanian Aboriginal community, to the Uniting Church, and to all mob across the nation.

I am connected to one of the most powerful warriors in Tasmania's history, Fanny Cochrane-Smith, who is the grandmother of my grandfather. She's my faith, she's my strength and she was able to weave Aboriginality spirituality and Christianity into one lens and share her culture, through her commitment to the Methodist faith, so why can't I? She did it in times of absolute hardship. She was a woman who was doing reconciliation and community development capacity building before it was even thought of! So every day, in a system where often we feel alienated, our strength comes from her. We continue her story and her legacy. She's deadly.

Can you tell me about the cloud of witnesses that already challenged and encouraged you on your journey?

I've been encouraged by Fanny Cochrane-Smith as I have already said, but also by local Elder and Dad, Stan Smith, great grandson of Fanny Cochrane-Smith, who left this physical world only 20 months ago. He walked with me in my personal life, my family life, my work life. He was "Poppy Stan" to three generations of Aboriginal children down here through the Aboriginal Children's Centre. He encourages me every day that people matter, and children matter and families matter.

I'm certainly encouraged by the people who seek to walk together with the [Uniting Church] covenanting and the [Uniting Church constitutional] preamble, and who are advocates for that.

Travelling with my culture is my compass, and knowing and being comfortable in who I am and this is a story worth telling. A lot of the history books in Tasmania in past times, and the education in Tasmania, has been that Truganini was the last Tasmanian Aboriginal person. We had a dual fight on our hands not just to have our own land recognised and our culture recognised, but our very identity recognised! I was there in those street marches [advocating for that recognition]. I was there, outside Parliament on the lawns, I dragged my two staff members as children through the streets. So those clouds are witnesses that have followed me and when I feel like they may be disappearing, they seem to come from somewhere, and come again to give me strength.

I'm really encouraged by the candidates for ministry [in the Uniting Church], as an example, from Pilgrim Theological College in Victoria, and one of the first things they want to do is to come and spend time on lutruwita at Fanny Cochrane Smith's church. They believe it is their calling to know the story of the First Peoples of this land they now call Australia.

I see innovative and transformative practices. Maybe whispering, not shouting, and in pockets across our church and our agencies. As long as I can not just hear it, but feel it through a cultural lens I believe I am surrounded by clouds of witnesses.

Grace Williams Image
“A call for action” by Grace Williams - Cultural and Community Resource Officer for Leprena. Image used with permission.

About the artwork:

Grace Williams is on the UAICC team in Tasmania. She is one of the most talented Indigenous artists in the state using a contemporary lens while honouring traditional practices. Grace's interpretation of this picture is that the cross is clap sticks, local clap sticks. And the hands of justice are there and the interwoven threads of stories are there.

A song and a prayer

Go with the spirit of the Creator with all that sits on and with Country and with all that is hardship. This song that I'm about to share with you from Fannie Cochran Smith is a reflection of who we are called to walk with, now, and in the “forever time” that is interwoven through an Aboriginal lens, through a First Peoples lens, through a Tasmanian Aboriginal lens.

For me this song is all about NAIDOC and our time to Get Up, Stand Up and Show Up. That's a call that we have, because we have that wisdom from our ancestors. But then it's our call to second peoples to follow in those footsteps.

Fanny Cochrane-Smith 's song Springtime:

It's springtime.

The bird is whistling,

The spring is calm.

The clouds are all sunny.

The fuschia is out on the top.

The birds are whistling. Everything is dancing

Because it's springtime. Everything is dancing

Because it is springtime.

For me this song is my “cloud of witness.” It's my justice story. It's my perseverance in the hardship. There is hope and there is a new beginning and we can get that through the essence of what spring means.

A Prayer by Alison Overeem (Smith)

Creator guide us, as waranta (we) kanwinrika (to) hear the call)

As waranta (we) nuritinga (to) hold) the call

To mukati (sing out) for justice and truth telling

As waranta taypani (to come) together to tapalti (go) in the footprints of those before us

To uphold and be their perseverance , to have them

beside us

as warriors

In all the hardships

to hold faith

To be with TRUTH in the kingdom of God

Those gone before us, are WITH us

As we tunapri (to know) and lapira (to) look) to paliti (good spirit)

May waranta takamuna (to stand to rise) rrala (strong)

Mana (my) prayer is that we weave the cloud of witnesses , sitting with and amongst us,

To get up

Stand up

Show up

Praise be to the creator and the First People of these lands now called Australia

Thanks be to the UAICC - the heart of the Uniting Church of Australia.

Alison Overeem (Smith) is a proud palawa woman from the Southeast nations of lutruwita, Tasmania.