2022 Francis Xavier Conaci scholars: ‘Traditional custodians’ of the land
By Francesca Merlo
As First Nations people, Hayden Kubler and Jedda Ellison have been “the stewards of creation, or at least of Australia, for a very long time”. They specify that they like to say they are “traditional custodians”, as opposed to “owners”, because the land is “almost a part of our family”.
Hayden is a Gurreng Gurreng and Tanna Island person, Jedda is a proud Yuwibarra woman, and both are the winners of this year’s Francis Xavier Conaci scholarship, granted by Australian Catholic University, ACU, and the Australian Embassy to the Holy See. The Conaci scholarship is named after a young Aboriginal student who travelled to Rome to train as a Benedictine missionary in 1849. Robed as a Benedictine by Pope Pius IX, he died in Rome shortly before his 12th birthday and was buried at the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside-the-Walls. The scholarship is awarded to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students every year. This year, after a two-year break due to Covid, Hayden and Jedda had the “honour” of receiving it, together.
The two scholars said their trip to Rome helped solidify their culture and beliefs and that they felt honoured to have followed in Francis Conaci’s footsteps.
Both scholars are studying to become teachers, and they are convinced that “including culture in the classrooms” is the way to build the respect that they feel is somewhat lacking in Australia and a way “for all Australians to be proud of our country’s history”, just as people are in Rome.
After three weeks studying in Rome, Hayden and Jedda have noticed the pride people take in the history of the city and the respect they show to the ancient places and those of worship.
“It’s really important for us, personally, to have our culture in the classroom, both as students, ourselves, and as future teachers, because that is how we build respect for future generations and allow Australians to be proud of our country’s history”, Hayden explains. Indeed, he adds, “like Catholicism, we like to think of our culture as a living one, always breathing and evolving, rather than just a stagnant thing of the past. This also means having our students speak our language, which, like every other language, too, is always evolving”.
Australia has two First Nations groups that make up the main indigenous people there: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. One of the most important aspects of preserving the culture and identity of the people is that it allows for “the preservation of the cultural practices that allowed us to live on the land in a sustainable way”, Hayden notes. Australia is suffering the consequences of the climate crisis. In recent years, in particular, bushfires have destroyed bushland and forests, as well as homes. However, the scholars point out, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have always been part of the ecosystem, never damaging the goods of the land for their advantage. “We have a practice in Australia of traditional back burning which prevents a lot of these fires. We’ve done it for so long, in fact, that a lot of our trees or our natural native plants depend on fire and even our animals participate in burning, like the Firehawk which uses fire specifically to hunt”, Hayden said.
On top of the fires, Jedda added, “our Torres Strait Island brothers and sisters are slowly going underwater with the rising sea levels”. The Torres Strait Islands are a collection of islands just north of Queensland, and “like the rest of the Pacific”, they are particularly vulnerable to rising sea levels. “It’s really starting to have a very real, physical impact and, unfortunately, because it’s only happening to a certain kind of people, it doesn’t garner the respect and emergency it deserves”.
“Being able to preserve our identity will, in turn, preserve the Australian climate, which is a part of integral ecology as well, as Pope Francis mentions in his Laudato sì”.
And just like the climate, Jedda and Hayden feel that they do not feel protected in Australia. “We’ve had private mining companies destroy our sacred sites and destroy our places of history”, Hayden said, noting that his island, K’gari, in Queensland, the largest sand island in the world, has only regained its traditional name after years of being called Fraser Island. The island had been named after Eliza Fraser, who was shipwrecked on the island in 1836 and who lied about being mistreated by the Butchulla people. Although her tales were later disproved, her narrative reinforcing the stereotypes of Aboriginal people as “savages” and “cannibals” had a detrimental effect.
Coming here has been refreshing, Hayden said, expressing his amazement at the number of different countries and how crossing a border reveals a completely different culture. “I think as Aboriginal people, we get grouped into just one Aboriginal group, whereas we’ve got like hundreds of different mobs there or different countries in Australia. So we can’t always just say Aboriginal”, he pointed out, because like in Europe, cultural differences include culture shock. Life on The Western Coast of Australia, for example, is very different from life on the East Coast.
It was refreshing and interesting, he concluded, to have our classmates identify with us. “Coming here”, he said, has “made me feel more Aboriginal”.