A time for all Australians to nurture Indigenous heritage


Poster for NAIDOC Week 2015

The most publicised event of NAIDOC Week this year has been the meeting of Indigenous leaders with the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition.  It initiated a process that all hope will lead to the recognition of Indigenous Australians and their relationship to the land.  

For the Indigenous leaders the process raises contentious issues, and particularly how the freedom of Indigenous people to be involved in the decisions that concern them is to be given institutional form. It is about agency, not simply recognition, something important for all Australians, not just Indigenous Australians.  

NAIDOC week itself embodies Indigenous initiative and decision making.  The initials stand for ‘National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee’. After the institution of Australia Day, Indigenous Australians recognised that they needed a day of the own to celebrate distinctive aspects of their own culture and history that Australia Day obscured. Each year the Committee names the theme for the week.

The theme of NAIDOC week in 2015 has been distinctively Indigenous in flavour, but it offers much for all Australians to reflect on. ‘We all stand on sacred ground: Learn, respect, celebrate’.  It evokes the attachment to land so central to Indigenous peoples, and the corresponding injury people suffer when they see their land violated or they are excluded from it.
The theme calls on Indigenous Australians to value their inheritance and to nurture it. It also challenges other Australians to be curious about the heritage of their Indigenous brothers and sisters, and to respect it in the uses to which their lands are put to.

But more deeply, the NAIDOC theme reminds us that we all stand on sacred ground, and that we lose much if we lose touch with it. Our lives, our connections with place and with our forefathers are sacred and matter deeply.  In a culture that is so much about instant gratification we are at risk of losing sight of the great gift that these deep connection are. The more we treasure and respect our earth and the places that are sacred to us, the better our society will be.

To be asked to consider the ground we stand on as sacred invites us to reflect on how we walk on it. We need to learn the ways in which we can cultivate it in an enduring way, the connections between the ways we exploit it for food or for minerals, and how to preserve the climate and water resources we rely on for life.  We need to respect the limits that bound the satisfaction of our desire for profit, and to see our world as an inheritance we hold in trust for later generations.  We need to take time to celebrate the beauty of sea, forest and mountains, and value the economy of the spirit as well as that of buying and selling.

Our sacred ground is the world on which we depend. But it is also our fellow beings on whom we also depend. We recognise this in our families and friends from whom we learn, whom we respect, and with whom we celebrate.  But we are bound to all human beings, particularly the most vulnerable, by our shared humanity.  To stand on this sacred ground we must stand together in solidarity.

This year NAIDOC week came in the shadow of Pope Francis’ Encyclical on the Environment. The letter comes out of an intellectual culture very different from our Indigenous cultures, but it echoes the themes of NAIDOC week  in insisting that which the natural world is a gift and not an entitlement, that it is given to us in trust, that to despoil it for gain is a terrible thing, and that in any environment all things and people are connected. It recognises that respect for human beings and for the natural world are inextricable.

The continuing struggle of Indigenous Australians for the recognition of their unique place in Australian life and for respect in giving them a say in the decisions that affect them is the business of all Australians.  It is part of respecting and celebrating the sacred ground on which we all stand.

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is a consulting editor of Eureka Street.


Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, NAIDOC Week, indigenous heritage, reconciliation



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Existing comments

Translation of 20th century Aboriginal song: Spinifex Country/Here we all are,/We are all walking,/In this spinifex country.
Pam | 09 July 2015

I wonder how many of the Indigenous leaders at the Kiribilli meeting speak language fluently.
AURELIUS | 09 July 2015

dwarfed in awe, a mere speck before / ancient triplet sisters, petrified primordial plasmas / heavenward-rising majestic above the valley floor / or calmed by twilight incense, Spring's perfumes wafting gently / or uplifted by warbling morning magpies and butcher bird melody / or serene on sunlit sands soothed by the caresses of a docile sea / then visits the Spirit of the Land no white fella's soul can ignore (The Spirit of the Land)
john frawley | 13 July 2015

Thanks Andrew for another thought provoking piece. And in particular, thanks for the focus on this year's theme: We all stand on sacred ground. I wonder if our friend Aurelius actually read the article given his rhetorical question. His need for "instant gratification" seems to have blinded him to the effects of the loss of culture and language on the First Peoples of this land. I suggest one response we can all make to this year's theme is to be more aware of doing the acknowledgement of country when we gather with family and friends for significant events. At our parties,, weddings, funerals, birthday celebrations it is a simple but powerful recognition and show of respect that Andrew points to in his final paragraph. Acknowledgement can be a simple sentence that recognizes we stand on the land of the First Peoples who have been custodians of this place for thousands of years. Respect for Elders, past present and future also honours those who carry the culture to the next generation. With these protocols we also need to build relationships with First Peoples who live in our neighbourhoods and communities.
Tony Robertson | 13 July 2015


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