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NAIDOC Week is about shared pride


This year, the special days and observances relating to Indigenous Australians are particularly important. Following the nastiness of much of the Referendum campaign and the distress its loss caused to so many Indigenous Australians, non-Indigenous Australians owe it to their First Nations brothers and sisters to reflect on the many reasons offered to explain why the Referendum was lost. We must also treasure and respect their history, their culture and their festivals. For that reason, the National Aboriginal and Islander Day Observance Committee (NAIDOC) Week is especially timely. It commemorates an initiative taken in hard times, an act of defiance and an invitation to be heard. The Week is a time to celebrate the fire that they lit, and to work with them to keep it burning.

NAIDOC Week was built on pride: the pride that led Indigenous people, who recognised that they were neither respected nor heard, to work for change. They saw how inappropriate it was to celebrate Australia Day on the anniversary of the arrival of the First Fleet. That date marked the beginning of their dispossession. They began to organise in order to find recognition and acceptance by other Australians of their right to participate fully in society, but faced opposition at every corner. They drew up a petition sent to King George V to ask for Aboriginal electorates, but the Government saw it as outside its constitutional powers to provide them. In 1938, the 150th anniversary of the landing, January 26 was made a national holiday. In response to this affront, the same year a Congress of Indigenous people met in Sydney. Its members marched on Australia Day but called it Mourning Day.

Australia Day is still celebrated on the anniversary of the beginning of Indigenous expropriation, but out of the struggle NAIDOC Week was born and continues. Its date was changed to expand the occasion beyond protest to include the celebration of the Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander heritage. This generous decision to light a candle rather than curse the darkness provides an opportunity for all Australians to join in celebrating their culture, aspirations and hopes. And also to listen to their voice and support those who fight for their rights.

The theme of NAIDOC Week, to Keep the Fire Burning, is appropriate at many levels. It echoes the importance that lighting and controlling fire had in Indigenous cultures. Fire lay at the heart of the meals, the feasts, the care for the land, and the community life of Indigenous Australians. To keep it burning was a communal task of mutual service and of service to the land. It was the difference between a thriving and energetic community and one that had lost hope and was dying out. This year the theme of NAIDOC Week marks the determination to honour the fire in the heart that led to the birth of the Week, and to ensure that the fire continues to burn.

For non-Indigenous Australians NAIDOC Week is an occasion to honour the culture of our First Peoples and the tenacity with which they have insisted that their culture and their rights be respected. It is also a time for sober reflection on where our nation is going and on what we want it to be. It is about reaching out to form the respectful and decent relationships that engender shared pride within diverse communities. It is a time for engaging with one another, for recognising and celebrating the many and often painful ways in which pride is being built in Indigenous communities, and for pressing for respect in all the personal and institutional relationships that link non-Indigenous to Indigenous Australians.

The theme of NAIDOC Week reminds all of us Australians of the urgent need to shape a world that offers us enduring shelter, renewal and sustenance, built on the harmony between people and land. The First Peoples developed a mastery of the technology of fire in a way that both renewed the bush and helped sustain both animal and human life. The settler culture developed far more sophisticated technologies as part of a wealthier society. Prosperity, however, has incurred the heavy cost of damaging the natural world and of threatening the lives and welfare of our descendants. The NAIDOC week call to keep the fire burning is also a call to respect the ancient wisdom that respected the environment and the delicate relationships on which human flourishing depends. It invites us all to enter a culture of participation and leave behind one of exploitation.      




Andrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street, and writer at Jesuit Social Services. 

Main image: A woman takes part in the annual NAIDOC march in Melbourne, Australia. The march marks the start of NAIDOC Week, which runs in the first full week of July each year. NAIDOC Week celebrations are held across Australia to celebrate the history, culture and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. (Photo by Darrian Traynor/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, NAIDOC, Indigenous, Pride, Australia, AusPol



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Existing comments

Thank you Andrew for raising the issue of NAIDOC Week and the need to value the First Nation peoples of this country.

It was a tragedy that the Indigenous Voice to Parliament referendum was defeated because it has caused a backward step in the Reconciliation process.

The loss was also a victory for the right wing elements in this nation who do not want to recognise the long history and the culture of our Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders. Obviously, many non-indigenous Australians voted NO because they were confused by much of the scare campaign that was orchestrated by Peter Dutton and groups like Advance Australia that were cashed up to publicise their negative views and disinformation far and wide.

Despite this, though, we know that during the campaign in the lead-up to the referendum, that tens of thousands of non-indigenous Australians worked extremely hard to show their solidarity with their Indigenous brothers and sisters. There are many who want to keep this process alive.This was acknowledged by Michael Mansell – a very prominent Tasmanian Indigenous person – who actually worked for the NO vote.

In addition, I see many positive signs on the horizon. The South Australian Government has established a Voice in that state and there should be no reason why other states and the Federal Government could not do the same in other states and nationally – even though it would not be recognized in the Australian Constitution. There was one before and it was abolished by John Howard.

Many councils around Australia have listened to Indigenous peoples who understandably do not want to celebrate our national day on the date of the original invasion of this land by the British colonisers.

I also see more non-indigenous Australians supporting NAIDOC Week and other Reconciliation events and developments. There is greater support for having a national flag that has an Indigenous symbol on it rather than the Union Jack, many organisations have continued to retain welcome to country statements at the beginning of their meetings and being involved in other initiatives to advance the Reconciliation process.

Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 17 July 2024  

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