A pilgrimage - but not the usual kind

By Ben Clarke
Ben Clarke works for TEAR Australia in their Australian Education Program and can often be found around Adelaide speaking in various churches on topics of justice and fullness of life. ben.clarke@tear.org.au

Posted in Culture

The following article first appeared on TEAR's forTomorrow website.

I didn’t know that there was an ibis that is an Indigenous Australian bird. I guess that’s probably part of the problem and maybe also a key to the solution.

Today I went on a pilgrimage – but not the usual kind. This was a pilgrimage, not into my own heart, but into someone else’s. Rather than going away, I was walking within my own city. The Uniting Church SA Covenanting Committee hosted this pilgrimage of significant cultural sites of the Kaurna people within the CBD of Adelaide. Rev Sandy Boyce, the minister of the aptly named hosting church Pilgrim Uniting, pointed out that it would be, as all pilgrimages are, a physical journey with a spiritual destination.

We started, as so many Indigenous gatherings do, around a fire. Uncle Nelson Varcoe, a Ngarrindjeri/Narrunga man and a pastor with the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress, sang us a song about how his language is spoken by the land. Then he told us a story, and that’s when I learned that the Glossy Ibis (Tjilbruke in Kaurna) is not only an Indigenous Australian bird, but it’s also a guide and significant connection to land that the Kaurna people hold on to. Yeah, this pilgrimage was going to give me new eyes – I could see that already. 

The first stop was ground zero: the point from which the celebrated Colonel Light “mapped” the land of South Australia. It seems ironic that his starting point was also a traditional and ongoing meeting place of the local Kaurna people. The square, called Victoria Square or Tarndanyangga (Adelaide City Council recognises both names), has recently undergone major reconstruction. It now hosts such iconic SA events as the village for the Tour Down Under, and is a popular venue during Adelaide’s renowned festivals. It’s not quite as hospitable to the Indigenous folk as it once was.

We paid respects to a tree planted in honour of Alice Dixon, who was instrumental in getting the inquiry into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody off the ground after her son died in the Adelaide jail. It’s the third tree planted in her honour. The other two have been destroyed in the Square’s maintenance and renovation.

Uncle Frank Wanganeen, who was our guide, showed us with pride the place where the Aboriginal flag, now recognised around Australia, was first flown back in 1972. That was before I was even born! Then, in the spirit of reconciliation, he also gave us time to listen to the history of the “Australian” flag, available to all at the push of a button on the flagpole (as is the history of the Aboriginal flag, I might add).

In un-pilgrimage style, we then all bundled onto a tram and headed off to the Adelaide Festival Centre. This site was throbbing with children celebrating South Australia’s Come Out Festival. Uncle Frank noted that this site had once been the place the Kaurna people performed their cultural dances and storytelling. Unfortunately, it was also close to the early colonial police station headquarters. The Kaurna were periodically disrupted in their celebrations by mounted police who gathered what artefacts they could and trampled them with their horses. “You can see hoof marks on the shields in the museum if you look close enough,” Uncle Frank noted.

There is a series of public works of art acknowledging the Kaurna culture at the Festival Centre. There is a tile containing beautiful copper plate script of a letter, written by a child, asking the Mission for more toys – written in Kaurna language no less! There is a stone, taken from the quarry that much of Adelaide’s beautiful sandstone was taken from, marked with kangaroo tracks and also divided neatly into blocks. It reminds me that while this was once known as the place of the red kangaroo; it has been tamed, divided and repurposed in so many ways. 

We visited the Aboriginal War Memorial where the names of many Indigenous Australian soldiers are written on pavers. Some of these soldiers were subjected to the “White Australia Policy” and not allowed to return from Australia’s first foray into the world of war, the Boer War. We heard that returning Indigenous WWI veterans didn’t receive soldier’s settlement land as their white comrades did. And there are more recent pavers as well – remembering those who have recently served in Afghanistan. The names on the pavers bear witness to the way Indigenous people have continued to be a part of our story. Their story, and our story, are intertwined. Both are lived on the same land. If we have eyes to see, we will recognise that the language of the land is still speaking to us.

We broke for lunch at this point and I had to leave for other commitments so I missed some of the significant sites dotted along the north side of the Torrens River. As I wheeled my bike back up past the Governor General’s house, I passed a dozen Ibis (Threskiornis moluccus, not the Plegadis falcinellus that the Kaurna people look to) grazing through the parklands. Over their shoulders I could see the sacred, and very recognisable Adelaide Oval. This is undoubtedly a very “spiritual” place for many South Australian Indigenous and non-Indigenous people alike. Thanks to my brief pilgrimage “into the other” I have been given a glimpse of some of the historic and spiritual connections to Adelaide that the Kaurna, and indeed many South Australians, hold dear.

Thank you Uncles Nelson and Frank for graciously guiding us through your country and helping us to hear its story. I will look at you differently from now on Tjilbruke and Adelaide. 

Another Uniting Church SA Covenanting pilgrimage will be held in the Marion area of Adelaide on Saturday 12 September. For more information, please contact the Congress Resource Officer, Ian Dempster on idempster@sa.uca.org.au

The Covenanting team is seeking support, financially and through prayer, for the training of young people to lead future pilgrimages. More information is available here. 

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