After four days of listening to Harley Eagle, a First Nations trauma expert from Canada, members of the Congress are opening up to each other about their pain.
“My wife was the eldest of 14 children and one day her mother and father went to the races on the mission, and the welfare came and took the 14 of them all in one hit.”
“My brother died two months ago. We brought his body home yesterday. He didn’t speak good English, so he didn’t know when he was diagnosed with cancer.”
“I was an unwanted child in the family - in my father’s side family and my mother’s side family… even today my father’s side family don’t see me as their family.”
Aboriginal and Islander members of the Uniting Church have gathered from across Australia for the triennial National Conference.
The theme of this year’s conference is “Trauma and Healing: lessons from Canada.”
For the last few days, Harley Eagle has been telling the Conference about the deep inter-generational impacts of trauma caused by colonialism, sharing his own experiences and creating a safe space for others to share.
Indigenous Australians young and old, urban and traditional are sharing about their own trauma - and the hope that they’ve found in their faith.
A trickle of stories has now become a torrent.
It’s powerful, profound and unstoppable.
Harley’s day job is as a Cultural Safety Facilitator and member of Canada’s Whitecap Dakota First Nations.
His work on Indigenous issues with Canada’s Mennonite Central Committee, ecumenical justice groups and local health services over many years draws direct links between colonisation and ongoing harm to his people.
“The first interactions with Indigenous people and the colonisers were of conflict,” explains Harley.
“It’s never been resolved. Just living with it has been normalised.”
“If somebody has gone through a terrible situation – if that’s not dealt with then your whole life becomes about making sure that you never experience that trauma again.
“So what happens if you’re living in a community where something terrible has happened to everybody and this goes on for generation after generation?”
Harley is a gentle, gracious and generous presenter, acknowledging country, colleagues and companions throughout the Conference, making time for young members of Congress and the many others who seek him out.
It’s his second time in Australia, having attended a postcolonial theology conference at Melbourne’s Whitley College back in 2012.
There is a dreadful symmetry when Harley gives his account of the treatment of First Nations people in Canada.
It’s almost a mirror image of the abuses perpetrated against First Peoples in Australia.
In Canada, resistance to the colonisers was met with deadly force in places like Wounded Knee.
Canada also has its own Stolen Generations.
For more than a century, the Indian Residential School system removed 150,000 First Nations children from their parents. Children were forbidden from using their language, and many experienced physical and sexual abuse.
A class action by survivors led to a $2 billion class action settlement – the largest in Canadian history, and in 2015, Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission described the Residential School system as cultural genocide.
It’s worth noting here that these schools were administered by churches.
Forced relocation of Indigenous families, also practiced in Australia in places like Mapoon, is known in Canada by a rather lyrical name - a “trail of tears”.
On a more affirming note, Harley spoke of the “creative genius” of Indigenous people in ‘going underground’ to preserve their culture.
Members of the Métis Nation, learned how to dance a jig without moving their upper body, due to the church’s disapproval of dancing at the time. That way snooping neighbours walking past their houses couldn’t see their legs moving through the windows.
“Colonisation has affected almost, if not every, aspect of our lives,” says Harley Eagle.
“So many people are carrying all kinds of unresolved trauma which results in many of us just being survivors and we carry that thinking into everything we do.”
“Even when you’re gathered in the name of doing something good you still carry that survival mentality into your processes.
“So when the going gets tough you turn to those ways of doing things, and it’s not about relationship and listening carefully to one another, it’s about protecting yourself.”
Harley referenced the work of US author and anti-racism scholar Ibram X. Kendi who says that the core of racism is actually self-interest, the reflexive often unconscious response to a perceived threat particularly economic, political or cultural.
The remedy Harley prescribes is a “centred-self” to enable healing in oneself and others.
First Nations’ people call this kind of practice ‘land-based healing’, although reconnecting with the land often isn’t an option for Indigenous people locked off their traditional lands.
“My journey is about trying to restore as best I can those older Indigenous ways of doing things, my Dakota ways,” says Harley.
After some deep exchanges with UAICC members, Harley pulled out his Native American flute.
Before he played he told the story about the origin of the instrument.
A father was away hunting when a flash flood swept through his village and his wife and children were lost.
He searched for many days without any success and was despairing and lamenting for the loss of his family.
Exhausted, he lost his voice and couldn’t even cry or mourn any more.
As he was lying on the side of the river he heard a mournful tune coming from a branch on a cottonwood tree.
A woodpecker had pecked holes in the branch and the wind was blowing through it, making a mournful beautiful sound.
Harley tells the Conference that the stories remind us that when we’re full of lament and we’re exhausted from our pain, the creation around you will support you in its own way, and will mourn for you and with you.
As he plays the flute, the melancholy notes drift across the Conference hall, a soft echo of sadness spanning continents and centuries.
It’s as though the UAICC members know the songline, and the flood of stories begins.
Amid the pain, there is also resilience and hope for healing.
Summing up one storyteller says:
“Thank you everyone here for what you have shared. It stirred me up to tell my story.”
“I go back empty not having to take back what I’ve been carrying for long years now.”