March 26, 2020 March 30th, 2020

Exploring Arnhem Land

Grace Hillier

Watch the video of our time in Northern Australia: WILD Australia

Some of us on the AccessTruth team recently visited the Y people of north-east Arnhem Land (people group name omitted for sensitivity reasons). Although we left there with the impression of dusty red highways, beautiful sunsets, smiling faces…when describing the visit to friends, the word complex came up a lot.

On the long flight north, I read a book “Why Warriors Lay Down and Die”, a history of the traditional landowners. It was enlightening to say the least. It explained why there is such an extremely high unemployment rate among the indigenous population, why children have a 20% attendance rate at school, why many of the local people struggle to communicate with the dominant English-speaking community, why they are five times as likely to die prematurely than non-Aboriginal Australians.

Before my research I wondered, “Why don’t the Y people just sort themselves out, start eating healthily, get a job and send their children to school?” After my research, I wondered how any local people manage to do some of those things at all.

Like many places, the region has a complex history. The local people suffered when the white settlers started taking their land only a century ago. In many cases they defended their territory as best they could but eventually were overwhelmed by superior weapons. The mission stations became something of a refuge.

Unfortunately though, in the process many had no choice but to give up their hunting and gathering lifestyle and they became dependent on the missions for food. As other white settlers moved into the area, the local people were introduced to alcohol and soon many were living on the outskirts of town, with little to do, and dependent on others for survival. The overall result for the indigenous community is often a sense of hopelessness and a loss of any control over their own destiny.

So today there are few indigenous people with jobs and few who send their children regularly to school, because “Why get an education if you’re not going to get a job?” Not to be overly dramatic, there is a sense of hopelessness, or what author Richard Trudgen calls “a total loss of control” that has settled over the entire culture.

So what does that mean for modern mission efforts? For one thing, when you arrive you are immediately back-pedalling from the messy history of missions. The local people assume you want them to give up their culture and become a ‘balanda’, or a white Christian.

The level of English spoken doesn’t appear sufficient to share a clear Gospel message, so it means learning the language is important. But as several missionaries pointed out to our team, the local people speak several indigenous dialects, so which one do you learn? Also, with the people being understandably hesitant to share their language – one of the few things left that is truly theirs – language learning is challenging.

Many call themselves Christians, but with low levels of fluency in English, it is questionable to what extent most have understood the Gospel. It is clear that a retelling in their language is needed…a presentation of God’s Story from the beginning.

Despite the many obvious problems this community faces, we enjoyed being with people who take time to listen, who want to hear what you have to say, who give until they have nothing left, and who value family, nature and their cultural heritage.

I wanted to finish my thoughts here with a good summary, wrapped up nice and tidy. But for the Y people of north-east Arnhem land, there is no simple solution or easy fix. A call to prayer is what we feel is needed right now, for Christians around the world to ask God for wisdom in what may be one of the most complex situations on the globe, reminding ourselves that nothing is impossible for Him.

Watch the video of our time in Northern Australia: WILD Australia

Grace Hillier

Grace Hillier

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