Working for a shared Australian identity

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To an outsider NAIDOC Week may seem to be oddly named. The National Aboriginal and Islander Day Observance Committee (NAIDOC) is named after a committee, something that few marketing gurus would recommend. But in hard times movements for change often begin with a committee, and that is the case with NAIDOC week.

NAIDOC Week poster bearing theme words Voice Treaty Truth and an artistic representation of Uluru under a vast starry sky.It arose out of the experience of Indigenous Australians that they were neither respected nor listened to, and from their determination to change things. They thought it inappropriate to celebrate Australia Day on the anniversary of the arrival of the First Fleet, because that was the beginning of their dispossession. In the face of considerable opposition they began to organise.

Although Australia Day is still celebrated on the anniversary of Indigenous expropriation, showing that the committee still has much work to do, NAIDOC Week provides an opportunity for all Australians to join in celebrating the culture and aspirations and hopes of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.

The theme of NAIDOC Week this year is 'Voice, Treaty, Truth. Let's work together.' These words express the heart of the Uluru Statement, an Indigenous account of the current situation of their peoples and of what needs to change. It is a monument to the work of Indigenous activists in the maintenance of language and culture and in advocacy for rights. Voice, Treaty and Truth summarise the proper demands they make on non-Indigenous Australians. 'Let's work together' expresses the joint response for which they hope from the descendants of the First Peoples and of the later arrivals who supplanted them.

Voice is the first word of the NAIDOC theme. For most human beings communication by voice is central to identity. To be unable to speak or to be deprived of your native language is a grave disadvantage and affliction. The possession of a shared language connects people in families, tribes and ethnic groups and is central to their culture. For that reason Indigenous Australians place a high value on the preservation and use of their languages, whose use was actively discouraged in education and in public life. They lost their voice and with it the natural connection to clan, tribe and country.

To have a shared language enables you to join in conversation about the things that matter to you. You have a voice in the decisions that concern you. The experience of Indigenous Australians has largely been of deprivation of that voice.

When traditional forms of hunting, travel and agriculture were interrupted by fencing, shooting and other measures of exclusion, Indigenous Australians became largely dependent on an alien culture in which they were also deprived of the right to vote and other aspects of voice. They were not the subjects in conversation where they had a voice, but were objects of decisions made about them and on their behalf. The Uluru Statement naturally called for the restoration of an Indigenous voice in Australia.

 

"The cry that they should not be treated differently than other Australians is the voice of power, not of decency."

 

The second word of the theme, Treaty, spells out what kind of a voice is sought. In Australia the claim for Indigenous languages and an Indigenous say in decisions has a higher force than that made for other groups, because Indigenous Australians were the first people who were dispossessed and discriminated against by invaders. Their claim to support of their culture and to participation in decision making about them therefore has precedence. The cry that they should not be treated differently than other Australians is the voice of power, not of decency.

Treaty implies a formal agreement between people, usually between sovereign nations. But it can include an agreement between a sovereign nation and a distinctive group within it, particularly a group that preceded the now dominant group. The distinctive feature of a treaty is that the existence of each party as distinctive, if not separate, is acknowledged. It would specify the kind of voice that Indigenous Australians have, and the administrative corollaries of that voice.

Mention of treaties usually brings in the lawyers. The word, however, is connected by derivation with 'entreaty'. It implies that, because of the imbalance of power, the only way Indigenous Australians can win their rightful place is by entreaty. Among nations treaties usually reflect their respective power. Between a dominant and a minority group in a nation they must reflect recognition of the justice of a moral claim. Entreaty calls for decency in response.

The final word of the theme is Truth. Truth embraces the story of the relationship between Indigenous peoples — the first people — and the later people who dispossessed them by force, excluded them from their hunting grounds, stole their children and continue to jail them out of all proportion to the rest of the Australian population.

The relationships also include, of course, the later people who have befriended and defended the First Australians, studied their languages and culture, and sought to build a more just Australia. These truths have often been denied or ignored, and the human story of Indigenous peoples disregarded. They ground the moral responsibility at the heart of the NAIDOC theme.

Finally, the NAIDOC theme returns to the other side of the relationship between First and later Australians — that of unity within a single nation — and invites cooperation in a project that matters to all Australians. At stake is not simply the fulfilment of Indigenous hopes but shared pride in an Australian identity.

 

 

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

In 2019 NAIDOC Week runs 7-14 July.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, NAIDOC, Aboriginal Australians, Torres Strait Islanders

 

 

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Existing comments

NAIDOC week is being effectively celebrated in the visual media. Our two public broadcasters have creatively presented Indigenous stories to the public. I was particularly impressed by the SBS Insight program this week which featured young Indigenous Australians sharing their past, their present and their aspirations. I watched a beautiful, young Indigenous doctor tell her story: a great privilege to listen. How much are people who want to stamp their own agenda on these young, talented Australians missing out? More and more the landscape will change. For the better.
Pam | 11 July 2019


Thanks Andy for this excellent coverage of the importance of NAIDOC week. In my parish of St Joan of Arc Brighton we are celebrating NAIDOC week with a lecture on Aboriginal spirituality, learning from Aboriginal people tonight at 7.30 which has sparked great interest. There seems to be a new consciousness not only about past injustices but also about expanding our knowledge of what has been lost. We’ll let you know how it goes.
Helen Praetz | 11 July 2019


Vic Roads is about to cut down 1000 trees includig many trees up to 800 years old used by the Djab Wurrung people for rites of passage. The Western Highway widening between Buangor and Ararat has viable alternatives but preserving and respecting indigenous heritage is again a low priority for our State Government it seems. - another example of why voice, treaty and truth for indigenous people are needed today. Chris 11 Juli 2019
Chris Dureau | 11 July 2019


The 1840 Treaty of Waitangi between Britain and the Maoris was based on the Maoris having a more developed system of land cultivation, obviously a better developed war machine, their own legal system and the fact that they were not nomadic but lived communally and slept in wharepuni – rectangular sleeping houses. The British were also motivated to keep their great rivals, the French out of New Holland and also the Americans. The law makers in the UK underlined these distinctions and loosely concluded that though Australia was not uninhabited, the Aborigines were not deserving of a treaty because of their nomadic lifestyle, their disparate languages and that they did not employ cultivation for crops. " The sovereign is regarded as the legal personality of the Australian state; Crown land is "reserved, owned for public purposes, or vacant" includes reserves for "nature conservation, forestry, marine conservation, water conservation, mining and defence as well as vacant and other Crown land". 23 per cent of Australia — or approximately 1.76 million square kilometres — falls under this definition. James Arvanitakis 25/3/11, So while we are still saddled with a British Constitutional monarchy, Crown land will prevail over native title and a treaty.
Francis Armstrong | 12 July 2019


Thank you for this insightful description of NAIDOC. About the plea for TRUTH: it will set us free when we can enter into the immense riches of the spirituality that has fashioned the life on this continent from the beginning.
Rose Marie Crowe | 14 July 2019


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