Today, 26 May, is Sorry Day in Australia. It is a day to remember the impact of past policies of forcible removal on the Stolen Generations, their families, and their communities.
The day is of particular significance to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities in Australia, but it is also an opportunity for all Australians to remember past mistakes and build stronger bridges for a richer, stronger future together.
NAIDOC WEEK is usually held during the first week in July (Sunday to Sunday), ensuring that it incorporates the second Friday of the month.
Historically, it began life as National Aborigines Day, then it became known as The Day of Mourning, before it was taken on by the National Aboriginal Day Observance Committee (NADOC). The first Sunday in July was designated as a day of remembrance and celebration for Aboriginal people and heritage.
Some time later, the National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee (NAIDOC) was formed, and this provides the name to the week. The first National Aborigines’ Day occurred fifty years ago, in July 1972.
Each year, a different theme was chosen to highlight this day (and, later, when it became a week, the theme covered the whole week). The early themes are striking. They reveal a clear understanding, amongst Aboriginal leadership of the time, about the needs of their peoples, and the claims on national policy that thus should be made.
The theme for the 1972 National Aborigines’ Day (organised by NADOC) was Advance Australia Where? The theme played off a line in the refrain of a 19th century song, written by Scots-born Peter Dodds McCormick; the song later became the official national anthem of Australia, in 1974.
The song, Advance Australia Fair, appears to praise the “fairness” of the Australian nation—in its time, perhaps, a reflection of the ethos of the pioneer spirit, but in our time, a direct slap in the face to the First People of the nations that had existed on the continent and its surrounding islands, for millennia.
Advance Australia Where? riffs off the words of the song and poses an important question—one that we have sadly failed to answer with any satisfaction in the ensuing decades.
In thinking about that question from five decades ago, surely it is now time to pay attention to what indigenous leaders from around the country have asked for, in the Statement from the Heart that was issued in 2017 at Uluṟu:
We seek constitutional reforms to empower our people and take a rightful place in our own country. When we have power over our destiny our children will flourish. They will walk in two worlds and their culture will be a gift to their country. We call for the establishment of a First Nations Voice enshrined in the Constitution.
Makarrata is the culmination of our agenda: the coming together after a struggle. It captures our aspirations for a fair and truthful relationship with the people of Australia and a better future for our children based on justice and self-determination. We seek a Makarrata Commission to supervise a process of agreement-making between governments and First Nations and truth-telling about our history.
The theme for the 1973 National Aborigines’ Day was It’s Time for Mutual Understanding. In late 1972, the Whitlam Government came to power after 23 years of turgid conservative governments. The theme is that election was simply, It’s Time. The NAIDOC theme built on that call for change, focussing on the importance of Mutual Understanding between black and white in the country.
The Whitlam Government took this call seriously. The Whitlam Institute reports that “Whitlam’s 1972 election campaign speech was clear on the need to accord Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples the rights, justice and opportunities that had been denied to them for so long.”
Whitlam committed to “legislate to give aborigines land rights – not just because their case is beyond argument, but because all of us as Australians are diminished while the aborigines are denied their rightful place in this nation”. He said Australians “ought to be angry – with an unrelenting anger – that our aborigines have the world’s highest infant mortality rate.”
The Whitlam Government adopted a policy of ‘self determination’, relinquishing the paternalistic control that previous governments had exercised over the lives of Australia’s First Nations Peoples. In 1972 the Whitlam Government created the Department of Aboriginal Affairs. In 1973 they established a Commission into Aboriginal Land Rights. There was a significant increase in expenditure and programme planning in Indigenous Affairs during the years of 1972–75.
After the Whitlam Labor Government, the conservative Fraser Government continued many (but not all) of these reforms. Sadly, in the years since the 1970s, this momentum has stalled. It’s surely time, once more, to renew our mutual understanding and to commit to stronger actions to bring justice to our First Nations.
Whitlam’s gesture of pouring sand into Lingiari’s hands in 1975 was intended to symbolically reverse a similar act in 1834, when John Batman, the founder of Melbourne claimed land in that area from its indigenous people, and an Aboriginal elder had poured earth from his land into Batman’s hands. The image of this moment (above) remains as one of the key moments in 20th century Australian history.
The theme for the 1974 National Aborigines’ Day was Self Determination. This was a matter that was a lively concern at the time.
The Indigenous website, Creative Spirits, notes that “the first expression of Aboriginal self-determination is usually said to be in 1972 when the Whitlam government abolished the White Australia Policy and introduced a policy of self-determination.” This means that the 1974 theme was reflecting changes in government policy, as well as the hopes of the Aboriginal community.
Creative Spirits also notes that “50 years before [the Whitlam Government changes] Aboriginal activists already lobbied for self-determination when they formed the Australian Aboriginal Progressive Association (AAPA) in April 1925.” The AAPA had drawn inspiration from earlier activity by African Americans (what was then called the Universal Negro Improvement Association).
Self-determination reflects an intention for Aboriginal people to organise themselves and make their own decisions about their lives, in their own culturally-appropriate ways. See https://www.creativespirits.info/aboriginalculture/selfdetermination/what-is-self-determination
Article 19 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples outlines three key elements that describe what Self-determination involves:
“States shall consult and cooperate in good faith with the indigenous peoples concerned through their own representative institutions in order to obtain their free, prior and informed consent before adopting and implementing legislative or administrative measures that may affect them.”
Creative Spirits observes that “Self-governance allows Aboriginal people to talk about their interests and goals, exercise their rights and responsibilities, and resolve their differences in a culturally appropriate way. It also means that Aboriginal people can do this free of discrimination from individuals, governments or external stakeholders.”
Back in 1925, the Australian Aboriginal Progressive Association had sought the following: 40 acres of land to be granted to each and every Aboriginal family in Australia; an end to the policy of child removal from their families by the Aboriginal Protection Board; replacing the Aboriginal Protection Board by an all-Aboriginal body to oversee Aboriginal affairs; citizenship for Aboriginal people within their own country; a Royal Commission into Aboriginal affairs; the federal government to take control of Aboriginal affairs; and the right to protect a strong Aboriginal cultural identity.
Some of those demands were subsequently granted—and later still withdrawn. Some remain as matters that still have a claim on our national life. How might we respond today?
In 1975, the day organised by NADOC became a whole week, organised by a committee that included Torres Strait Islanders alongside Aboriginal leaders (NAIDOC). The theme for the 1975 NADOC Week was Justice for Urban Aboriginal Children. The week was built around the first Sunday in July, which was maintained as a day of remembrance and celebration for Aboriginal people and heritage.
This theme clearly identified an issue that was a major concern within indigenous communities. The long history of removing Aboriginal children from their homes, families, and communities, was here identified in the public arena. It would become a strong focus in national public life with the establishment in August 1995 of an enquiry into this matter by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission.
The Commission delivered its report, Bringing Them Home, in 1997, and provided a detailed series of recommendations to address this terrible policy. The 1975 theme was thus (in one way) “ahead of its time”, foreshadowing a critical public discussion; although, in truth, the need for this theme and for such an enquiry would have been well known to indigenous communities decades earlier.