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A Great Spirit

Two Aboriginal women give their first-hand accounts of growing up on Christian missions.

Two Aboriginal women give their first-hand accounts of growing up on Christian missions.

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A White Man’s World

“I do a lot of praying. I just got to hand it over to the Lord. He understands what I’m going through and how I’m feeling. He went through a lot of grief himself and it must still break his heart to see the way some of us live.”

Ngardarb Riches is a Bardi Jawi woman from the West Kimberley Coast of Australia. Aunty Maureen is a Barngala woman from South Australia. They’ve both lived on Christian missions, and they’ve both experienced the good and the bad that Christian missionaries and the government have done for Aboriginal people.

The bad includes the decimation of Aboriginal culture and language, and the removal from their land.

“My two eldest brothers went together to one boys’ home in Adelaide, my three youngest brothers went together to another boys’ home in Adelaide, and my two sisters went to a foster home in Adelaide,” Aunty Maureen says. “The missionary said, ‘could you take the other, the oldest girl?’ And that lady replied, ‘I only want the two pretty young girls.’ That broke my heart because I wasn’t used to being separated from my family.”

Aunty Maureen was eight years old when she was separated from her family. But somehow, she still calls the Christian mission where she lived a “happy place”. She’s emphatic that, in the midst of all her loss and pain, the Christian faith was a source of comfort for her.

“We were just young kids all hurting,” she says. “All we knew was the love of God and God loved us. The missionaries really cared for us and that’s the way they showed their love.”

For Ngardarb, she was born in Derby during a period when her people were separated from their home, on what had been the Sunday Island Mission. It had closed down during the implementation of the Australian government’s assimilation policy.

It was another missionary couple who would later help the Bardi Jawi people return home – and Ngardarb was able to grow up on her people’s land.

“My people are the salt water people, so a lot of our living was in and around the islands and eating seafood, collecting it,” Ngardarb says.

“So as a child, I still had that. Growing up I was so lucky to have those experiences where we would get the poison root from the bush, take it down when the tide went out and put it in the pools – that would stun the fish, it would take oxygen from the water and we were able to do traditional fishing. I was really lucky and it still happens where I come from now, that’s still being passed down to our generation today.”

She says that if Christian missions hadn’t existed, a lot of her people would not be alive today.

“A lot of our families and tribes would have been wiped out because that was the intention of the government, because they said that we were a dying race,” she says. “But we’re survivors, and a lot of the Christian missions gave us that opportunity to have our families survive, and to have that safe haven. We had to stop a lot of our practices and beliefs and stuff but at least it was somewhere safe.”

We interviewed John Briggs, Ngardarb Riches, and Aunty Maureen for our documentary, For the Love of God: How the church is better and worse than you ever imagined – it’s in cinemas NOW. To book tickets, or host your own screening, visit: www.betterandworse.film

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