Thursday, 13 February 2020

Welcome to Country Fijian style

Written by Rev Eseta Meneilly and Stuart McMillan

“Created in the Image of God – Who am I?” was the theme for the 2020 Uniting Church in Australia (UCA) Fijian National Conference (FNC).

We want to share with you the profound and powerful exchange we witnessed, where First and Second Peoples honour and respect each other’s understanding of country or vanua (land). Indeed of our connectedness in creation.

Uncle Frank in the opening worship on Thursday welcomed those gathered on the land and waters of the Kaurna Nations (marni naa pudni).

For our sisters and brothers from Fiji it is custom to ask permission to come onto a tribal vanua or country that does not belong to them, just as it is for First Peoples of this ancient land.

This is why Fijians honour First Peoples as sovereign custodians of the place where they are meeting. If a Welcome to Country has not been possible, Acknowledgment of country and the sovereign First Peoples is important.

In asking Uncle Frank to bring a Welcome to the Adelaide Country, the FNC was paying respect to the Kaurna Nations sovereignty and seeking permission to be on their lands and waters.

This happens at many UCA gatherings. However, what happened next was deeply moving.

At the conclusion of worship, we walked across the park to Lincoln College where a formal Fijian Welcome ceremony (veikidavaki) was to happen before the evening meal.

This welcome was to honour the President and his wife from the Methodist Church of Fiji and Rotuma, the UCA President and the Moderator of the UCA Synod of South Australia.

You will see from the picture that something more, something greater happened for the first time at a UCA national conference gathering. Namely, the First Nations Elder was included in this welcome and honoured.

Uncle Frank Wangutya Wanganeen (Elder Kaurna Nations), Rev Bronte Wilson (South Australian Moderator), Dr Deidre Palmer (Assembly President) and Rev Charissa Suli 

Uncle Frank in reflecting upon what happened at the FNC said: “It was a privilege and an honour to perform the Welcome to Country for this wonderful event."

"I was overwhelmed by the kind, generous hospitality shown by the Conference organisers.”

Reflecting on the Kaurna welcome he gave and the Fijian welcome he said: “I was reminded of how my ancestors would have done business, that there would have been the Ceremony with exchanges of gifts and sharing of food and songs. It was a wonderful experience.”

This is what we saw - an exchange of respect and honour as ancient as the lands from which all who gathered had come. 

This is one instance where, by observing the sovereign First Peoples’ culture, Fijians recognise elements of their own ancient tradition and respond by intentionally seeking a Welcome to Country on vanua that does not belong to them.

To not seek this permission would be dishonouring the vanua and its sovereign First Peoples. It would be wrong.    

The question of “who am I?” cannot be separated from the land, the vanua which we are part of and which is part of us.

Uncle Frank Wangutya Wanganeen is a Kaurna Elder born at Wallaroo on lands and waters of the Narungga Peoples. He has lived in Adelaide for most of his life. Uncle Frank has been involved in various committees that deal with reconciliation, Aboriginal heritage, native title, social justice and the revival of the Kaurna language. He is a passionate cultural educator and has led the Kaurna Cultural Walking Tours in the Adelaide CBD, including for the SA Covenanting Committee for members of the UCA in 2015.