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Indigenous Peoples Making an Interfaith Difference

By Marcus Braybrooke

Interfaith History

Indigenous peoples were welcomed to the 1993, 1999, and 2004 Parliament of the World’s Religions and they enriched those gatherings. But the 2009 Parliament held in Melbourne will be remembered for holding up the significant contributions that Indigenous people are making to the interfaith movement.

Aunty Joy Murphy Wandin

Aunty Joy Murphy Wandin

The Parliament began with the haunting sound of a didgeridoo, and the first words of welcome to the six thousand participants were spoken by Aboriginal Elder Aunty Joy Murphy Wandin. She is the Senior Woman of the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin alliance, who are traditional owners of the lands where Melbourne is located. ‘On behalf of the spiritual ancestors and the traditional owners of Melbourne,’ she said, ‘I invite you to Melbourne in 2009, for the Parliament of the World’s Religions to share in the traditions, culture and spirit of Australia.’

Similar welcomes were repeated throughout the Parliament. Numerous workshops focused on Indigenous issues, land rights, their struggle for recognition at the United Nations, and their perspectives on conflict resolution.

Over a year before the 2009 Parliament, the Council for a Parliament of World Religions (CPWR) formed an Indigenous Task Force. This recruited a core group of specially invited Indigenous participants from the Americas, Asia, Africa and Europe to join Australian and pacific Indigenous leaders. A High Priest of Lithuania’s Indigenous People expressed the thanks of other indigenous participants when he said, “Thank you for finding and inviting us… Thank you for finally paying attention to Europe’s indigenous people. Many of these religions are awakening from a sleep that has lasted hundreds of years.”1

At the closing plenary, a statement by the Indigenous Peoples was presented. The Statement explained Indigenous cultures and contributions, the negative outcomes of colonization, and the injustices suffered by Indigenous peoples.

The way that Indigenous peoples honor their ancestors and care for future generations by preserving their lands and cultures was high-lighted. “For thousands of years, Indigenous peoples have maintained a fundamental and sacred relationship with Mother Earth. As peoples of the land, we declare our inherent rights to our present and continuing survival within our sacred home-lands and territories throughout the world,” the statement said.

Uncle Bob Randall, a Yankunytatjara Elder and traditional owner of Uluru (Ayers Rock), spoke at the closing plenary of Australia’s First People’s complete reliance on Mother Earth and their unconditional love for all beings.

Participants at the Parliament were made aware of the terrible abuse and injustice that Indigenous people have suffered in many parts of the world. We heard as well about their way of life, from which we all can learn, which is in harmony with Mother Earth. We all can be enriched by the rich spiritual wisdom and culture they offer.

Historic Indigenous Leaders Made a Difference

The participation of Indigenous people in interfaith events is not entirely new. My first experience of it was at the Vancouver Assembly of the World Council of Churches in 1983, where there was the opportunity to learn about native Canadian culture and a chance to share in a peace pipe ceremony.

Te Whiti-O-Rongomai

Te Whiti-O-Rongomai

Research for some of my books increased my awareness of the injustices that Indigenous peoples have suffered and the richness of their spirituality. In Beacons of the Light: One Hundred People who have Shaped the Spiritual History of Humanity (2009), I included Te Whiti-O-Rongomai, Black Elk, and Patrick Dodson. In each case, I became conscious of the cruelties inflicted on Indigenous peoples and the patience with which they bore them.

Te Whiti-O-Rongomai was the Maori leader of the village of Parihaka in New Zealand. British settlers at the time – in defiance of the Crown – were seizing Maori land. There was some armed resistance to the British, which gave them the excuse to seize more land. Te Whiti-O-Rongomai, however, insisted that resistance should be non-violent. ‘If any come with guns and swords be not afraid. If they smite you, smite not in return... If any man molests me, I will talk with my weapon the tongue.’ In 1881, when a large force of armed militiamen came to arrest the villagers, they were welcomed by gifts of flowers. Eventually a Royal Commission acknowledged the wrong done to the villagers. Gandhi knew of and was influenced by Te Whit-O-Rongomai. The memorial on his grave reads:

He was a man who did

Great deeds in suppressing

Evil so that peace may

reign as a means of

salvation to all people on earth. 2

Black Elk as a young man.

Black Elk as a young man.

I also include Black Elk, a Holy Man of the Oglala Lakota Sioux people. Black Elk’s visionary poem ‘Sunset’ helped me see how one can be loyal to one’s own faith tradition and recognize God’s presence in other faith communities.

I saw the sacred hoop of my people was one of many hoops that made one circle, wide as daylight and as star-light, and in the centre grew one mighty flowering tree to shelter all the children of one mother and one father.

And I saw that it is holy.

Anywhere is the centre of the world.3

The life story of Patrick Dodson, of mixed Aboriginal and Irish descent, tells of the terrible suffering of his ancestors and the ghastly way in which Aboriginal and part-Aboriginal children were seized from their parents and taken to Mission schools. They were not allowed to use their mother tongue or learn anything about the rich culture of their ancestors. Apologies have been made, but past suffering cannot be undone. At least, we should seek justice for Indigenous peoples and be more aware of the blasphemous cruelty of which blind faith is possible.

It was in collecting and editing Indigenous prayers for my 1,000 World Prayers (2003) that I really came to value the spiritual riches from which we all can learn.

Let me give two examples, which voice a commitment and aspiration that we all may share. 4

Patrick Dodson

Patrick Dodson

Creator, open our hearts

   to peace and healing between all people.

Creator, open our hearts

   to provide and protect all children of the Earth

Creator, open our hearts

   to respect for the earth, and all the gifts of the earth.

Creator open our hearts,

   to end exclusivism, violence and fear among all.

Thank you for the gifts of this day and every day.

                                     * * *

Before me, beauty,

Behind me, beauty,

Below me, beauty,

Above me, beauty,

Around me, beauty,

May I speak beauty,

May I walk in beauty always,

Beauty I am.

All is restored to beauty.

The active participation of Indigenous people at every level of interfaith activity will increase awareness of the suffering and injustice from which so many people suffer and which people of faith together need to address. It will also ensure that concern for the Earth is not forgotten. Above all, others of us will be enriched by learning more from the friendship, culture and spirituality of Indigenous people.

1 Professor Jonas Trinkūnasquoted by Kusumita Pedersen, ‘The Parliament of the World’s Religions,’ in Interreligious Insight, Vol 8, No 1, January 2010, pp. 76-7.

2 Marcus Braybrooke, Beacons of the Light, John Hunt, O-books, 2009 pp. 472-477

3 Beacons of the Light, p. 501

4 1,000 World Prayers, ed Marcus Braybrooke, John Hunt o-books, 2003, p. 63: 1,4, 31