Nation Building practices in an on-going colonial era

Jules and Jayne Christian

1 June 2024

Aunty Julie Christian (Baramadagal), Jayne Christian (Baramadagal), Tara Lloyd (Baramadagal). Private Community Smoking Ceremony on Baramada lands, at what is now known as Elizabeth Farm); photo: Joseph Mayers

Jules and Jayne Christian share their journey to bring Dharug people together as mob on Country to help contest ongoing colonisation.

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(A message to the reader in English.)

We are Julie-Ann (“Jules”) Christian, born in 1957 on Wiradjuri Country, and Jayne Christian, daughter of Jules Christian, born in 1987 on Ngunnawal Country and raised on Wiradjuri Country. We are Baramadagal women of the Dharug language-speaking peoples (Reid/Goldspink), with European heritages including Danish (Christiansen), Irish (Kelly, Clyde, Orr), Scottish (Stewart Clan) and English (Goode, Perfect). Jules has previously written about what it is to be Burramattagal / Baramadagal in the Garland article, The eel as a totem and symbol of resilience (2021). While we primarily identify as set out here, we acknowledge that the sum of these identities informs our nationality of being “Australian”, and we use the words Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, Indigenous and First Nations relatively interchangeably throughout this article to speak to more broadly held experiences as a macro-identity which has micro-layers within it, not a homogenous identity in and of itself.

We are of family line that, due to colonisation, was disrupted by the early times of invasion on these lands now known as Australia. Due to the extent of the genocide perpetrated against the tribal peoples of lands belonging to Dharug-speaking peoples, much of the reckoning about what has already been done and its ongoing impacts on mob (Iyura) and Country (Ngurra) is still taking place, as is the healing processes we go through as individuals, family groups and Community members.

What are we re-building from?

Before delving into how nation-building looks to us, it is helpful to consider what it is first that First Nations are building / re-building from, in an ongoing reign of colonialism.

The work of Dr Gregory H Stanton gives us a framework for understanding the stages of genocide. It never “just happens”, here is always a set of circumstances that occur or are created to build the climate in which genocide can take place (Holocaust Memorial Day Trust).

Dr Stanton’s research articulates ten stages of genocide. While the stages are seen to build on each other, we know they often continue to be perpetrated simultaneously and continuously in settler-colonial countries. The stages are; Classification, Symbolisation, Discrimination, Dehumanisation, Organisation, Polarisation, Preparation, Persecution, Extermination and Denial.

Due to the severity of these stages and the systemic ways they have been embedded into Australian society, we understand that our family, like many others, live in an ongoing structure and legacy of genocide.

Because of the nature of trauma on our survival, it can understandably take generations for families to understand the impact of what has taken place, what has been fractured and what has been lost. Equally, we inherit intergenerational knowings grounded in the good-spirit of our old people, that continues to guide us in learning what our place is now in the rebuilding efforts.

What is re-building?

Aunty Cathy Leane (Cabrogal), Inés Reid (Cabrogal), Linda Sainsbury (Baramadagal) Aunty Julie Christian (Baramadagal) – March 2024 Photo Credit Cynthia Ma

We were introduced to Miriam Jorgensen’s work, from the Native Nations Institute at University of Arizona, as part of Nation Building efforts of Community members on Wiradjuri Country circa 2010. This was integral to our understanding of the Nation Building ideology and how such a framework could be applied to the Nation we belong to, as it is globally, given that settler-colonialism is perpetrated globally.

There is much academic research behind this ideology and courses to help formalise one’s knowledge as a Nation Building practitioner. However, many of the relationships and opportunities that have held significance in shaping the trajectory of our “Nation Building journey” have come about in “coincidental”, timely and organic ways.

To build/rebuild a nation, one person cannot do so alone, nor does one initiative or experience constitute an entire rebuild. Rather it is the consistent efforts of mob, when enabled to “be” in spaces together that are held by cultural protocols, and when taking action toward mutual objectives and visions. These build the steps for more people to then come and take the next steps, guided by those who’ve done the work.

Nation Building is ultimately a way to change the relationship between Indigenous peoples and the colonial government(s) that operate on our lands. Our focus to date has primarily been on cultural healing beginning within ourselves, our broader family groups, our Country and the broader Community. For generations, we have been denied cultural agency and self-determination, so it is only natural that people are at different stages of practicing racial sobriety on these microlayers. However, building this strength is what allows us to be effective in being strong Community members ourselves. This enables us to then share that strength, so that we can do the work that is altering the power dynamics that continue to be weighed against us.

As part of altering the power dynamics, we have formed relationships with local government and multiple museum and arts institutions, who are committed to walk this journey with us where they can, in support of our nation-building aspirations, as they sit on our lands.

An example of this type of relationship is the one we formed with Powerhouse Museum Parramatta in 2022, which will continue in the form agreed for five years. The partnership is an agreement that sees Powerhouse Parramatta manage the financial expenses that allow us to bring together a limited number of family members of the original family lines of the Dharug-speaking peoples, so that we can bring our family who are living as Aboriginal people off-Country, back on-Country, and we are able to spend time with Dharug family who live on-Country via this type of gathering.

We see this experience as creating a form of “stolen-generations justice”. Parramatta, “the cradle city of Australia”, is known to us as the birthplace of the policies and practices that saw assimilationist and genocidal measures performed for the first time against us. This shaped how laws were made that still achieve the same goals today and entrenched a system of societal conditioning which many remain ignorant of.

Opportunities to gather allow for meaningful relationships to form and develop and create a healthy sense of belonging among those who come, as well as reprieve. It is difficult for our mob who are being of service in other First Nations communities, but have limited opportunity to recharge with their own mob on their own Country.

Relationships with such institutions do not come without “rocky patches”. So far, we have experienced this due to communication breakdowns stemming from our presumption that the spoken word holds the same clarity and value as the written. However, this has taught us that such relationships must fundamentally remain transactional, even if being used to serve our own relational purposes.

We must acknowledge that having staunch mob, not those susceptible to taking on the inherent behaviours of institutions themselves, working on the inside of such places, has been critical to creating space to name behaviours, hurts, expectations and in working with us to find actions that help to align the practice of our mutually held intentions.

We write of these realities because they are inevitable to some degree. Institutions should not be deterred from partnering with First Nations peoples because of what might be perceived as “failures” or “rocky patches”, but rather be brave in forging new ways to work with First Nations peoples in creating forms of “justice”, and by being committed to the ongoing improvement of best practice standards. This is ultimately done by making sure that lessons learned result in changed behaviour in how the partnership runs.

I, Jayne Christian, was one of the inaugural Galang Residency recipients in 2023 based at the Cite Internationale Des Arts in Paris, France. On residency, I began work on the exhibition Djiriyay and Révolution: woven yarns of ongoing resistance, which debuted at Blacktown Arts on 16 April 2024. The exhibition includes two Wiradjuri Aunts from the lands I grew up on, and collaborations with five other Baramadagal family members.

As an exhibition telling our cultural stories and reflecting on the broader human condition, it was important to me to embed our cultural ethos into each layer of the process, thus creating a Nation Building initiative. During the opening week of my exhibition, a group of us gathered in the gallery. This included Baramadagal family, including a couple of family members we met for the first time, broader Dharug community members whom we performed ceremony with, along with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander mob, friends and allies, and representatives from the City of Sydney, City of Parramatta and Blacktown City Council.

The weaving brought together the people and created an environment that allowed for an integrated experience to occur, for the community members to hold the space on our terms, and for this to include Elders, community leaders and members, along with those beginning their re-connection process, and for the broader community who know us in different capacities to see our relational connections foregrounded in that space. It was empowering and gave everybody the opportunity to experience a space where the dominant culture was ‘Blak’.

Cultural practices are essential

We believe cultural practices are essential to frame our time together, as they carry the lessons of our ways of being, which both teach and remind the young and old how to be together. It is a rewarding exercise to see not only family and mobs come to the circle, but also our allies who participate in the ceremonies when invited and learn the proper ways of being welcomed under our protocols. Nation-building in partnerships means that we have an ongoing responsibility to teach and educate others who come to live on our Country about our Country and its specificity. We share stories and food, and this creates laughter and goodwill.

A further binding part of nation-building is creating a setting where family members can share cultural stories and practices. Those with knowledges share and teach those who do not know, but want to learn. We have so far leaned into each other to share practices including; weaving, bush-dyeing, dance, thought leadership / debate and meditative grounding / cultural deep listening exercises. We are fortunate enough to be guided in walking together on Country, collecting natural materials for cultural practices, and this has created a family adhesive.

Why are we committed to re-building?

Country is hurting from this ongoing colonial era, and so are those who belong to it, consequently this adversely affects those who now call these lands home.

Our options as Aboriginal people today are either to; (a) become assimilated into settler-society and reject the knowledge and placement of who we are, along with the responsibility that comes with being First Nations peoples or; (b) be committed to connecting, sharing knowledges, and learning ways to exercise cultural responsibilities in these current times; like the old ones did over many thousands of years before us.

We know that First Nations ways of knowing, being and doing provide the ways for Traditional Owners to maintain healthy relationship with Country, and for Country, and these ways of being ultimately benefit the wellbeing of non-indigenous allies who seek healthy relationship to with First Nations peoples and Country.

Many of our family members work in therapeutic practices and First Nations support services. While there is a real need for mob to support mob in need of assistances, we must also be creating spaces where mob are working with and for mob and partnering with others on our own terms and conditions, in building communities grounded in culturally appropriate economic growth. This ultimately has the power to free our peoples from the cycles of disenfranchisement that keep us disempowered.

How we approach Nation Building on our tribal lands

Being a relational people, building relationships is at the heart of Nation Building practices.

We have always been committed to connecting with our Baramadagal family-line members. We have also worked with mobs from the original family lines of the Dharug-speaking peoples and the broader Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Communities to reconnect our stories and selves to the place of our ancestors.

…leaning into the cultural practices and skills we have between us

Through our commitment to be in connection with Country, we have been able to secure relationships with government and non-government institutions to resource our Nation Building aspirations, which focus on providing opportunities for mobs descended from the original Dharug-speaking peoples to be on-Country with each other, leaning into the cultural practices and skills we have between us, and calling-in the knowledge and relationships we need to capacity build our Community.

Our strength as a Community is building “propa way” between ourselves, and teaching institutions how to work with us as Traditional Owners, through equal-footing partnerships, not through the deficit dynamics they are accustomed to. To Think Sovereign Act Sovereign is a mantra of our gatherings, that keeps us anchored in the knowings that build the next steps.

Authors: Julie Christian BA (CSU), GradCert (CSU), GradDip (DEAKIN) and Jayne Christian B.A LLB, GDLP, FDRP and NMAS accredited, Baramadagal women of the Dharug language-speaking peoples.

About Jules and Jayne Christian

Jules Christian is a Baramadagal woman of the Dharug-speaking peoples, living on Wiradjuri Country in Wagga Wagga. Jules is on track to submit her PhD thesis in Indigenous Research and Knowledge Systems by 2025. Jules is active in her family and inter-clan nation building initatives and enjoys her weaving circle with the Aunts on Thursdays.

Jayne Christian is a Baramadagal woman of the Dharug-Speaking peoples. Jayne is a Lawyer and Mediator and runs her own creative and consultancy business, Barabirang Projects. Jayne’s current exhibition is on show at Blacktown Arts until 29 June:

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