Wangkangurru man Raymond Finn, Wiradjuri man Johnny Huckle, and non-Indigenous Australian Andrew Flynn were supported by Initiatives of Change Australia (IofCA) to participate in the 6th annual Samvaad Tribal Festival in Jamshedpur, India from November 15 -19. Kirsty Argento spoke with them about their experience.
Samvaad is a five-day annual conclave of indigenous communities, supported by the Indian multinational company Tata Steel, through its corporate social responsibility (CSR) program. The theme of Samvaad 2019 was ‘Tribalism Today’ and the festival explored the interaction of tribal communities with climate change, technology, and constitutional frameworks. The Australian delegates’ hot days were filled with workshops, story sharing, radio interviews, meetings, and cultural events. The festival drew 1200 people from 13 countries and 28 states across India. Five thousand people attended the final evening celebration.
On the third day of the conference, with only two hours’ notice, Raymond, Johnny and Andrew were asked to speak about Australia to a crowd of approximately 600 people. It was hard to know what would be the most valuable knowledge to share, and the three hurriedly pooled their expertise.
Land rights and constitutional change
Raymond, a former stockman from Anna Creek, South Australia, and a military history enthusiast, took part in the 2017 re-enactment of the Australia Light Brigade in Israel as his way of highlighting the contribution made by Aboriginal men who fought alongside British-Australians during the First World War.
He presented an overview of British colonisation and the process indigenous Australians have taken, leading up to the release of the ‘Uluru Statement from the Heart’ - a milestone in calls for constitutional reform. The Statement, launched by a nation-wide Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Referendum Convention in 2017, calls for a First Nations voice in the Australian Constitution and a Makarrata Commission to supervise a process of agreement-making and truth-telling between government and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
‘You guys managed to get the British out, we still have them,’ he concluded, to cheers from the crowd.
Andrew mustered the technology needed to present a First Nations map of Australia to the crowd, and Johnny, an accomplished musician from central New South Wales, finished the presentation with the song ‘Spirit Man.’
‘The song was written for Mabo, it’s about how he showed us how important land is to us,’ explained Johnny, before launching into the heartfelt lyrics that featured in his fourth solo album. Invoking the presence of Eddie Mabo, the Torres Strait Islander who successfully challenged the State of Queensland to recognise the land rights of traditional owners, he crooned:
‘I can hear the voices of my elders, their ancient sounds echo in my mind…
Standing there, a tall black man… Spirit Man, reassure me now,
There’ll be no more pain and no more sorrow…’
It was a hit - and the evening ended with the crowd coming up on stage to join them in dance.
Story sharing in Nagaland
After Samvaad, Raymond and Johnny went on to Nagaland in northeast India to stay with long-term IofC workers Niketu and Christine Iralu at his Kerunyu Ki (‘House of Listening’). Naga elder Visier Sanyu, a retired academic and community worker from Australia, welcomed the pair, first at an open-air meeting space, where he had hoisted a huge Aboriginal flag to greet them, and then to his 12-acre ‘Healing Garden’, a space for reflection and thoughtful conversations.
Attending a service at the local Baptist church, Raymond shared his life story with the congregation. ‘The stories, conversations and Johnny’s music were moving,’ said Niketu, a peace activist, social worker, and former Chair of the Naga Reconciliation Commission. ‘Raymond said he had come to the conclusion that hate and violence could have no place in his fight for the rights, dignity and self-respect of his people, because if you justify hate and violence, you simply make things worse. Just the right message needed in Nagaland!’
Looking back on their time together, the trio recalled moments of stress amid the crazy streets of Jamshedpur, as well as moments of appreciation and understanding.
Johnny remembered an indigenous woman he had met in Jamshedpur, and reflected on the power of persistence. ‘This lady slogged year after year to get basic human rights and services for her people until she got heard…how much does life matter in the forest? For her to continue that struggle for years, after every time she knocked on the door and got the same ‘no’ answer. Much like we are with consecutive Australian governments with all our Australian issues, deaths in custody, et cetera...It was the most poignant moment for me in the whole thing.’
For Andrew, ‘The most moving part for me was travelling with Uncle Raymond and Uncle Johnny and hearing their stories for six days straight. I learnt so much about Indigenous history in Australia that I won’t forget. Something moved inside me, that will be a guide for me in my future life.’
- IofC Australia is seeking opportunities to support indigenous Australians in the struggle for Treaty. Contact Athalia Zwartz