Today, 27 May, is the anniversary of the day (in 1967) when the people of Australia voted in a referendum to change some clauses in the Constitution — to recognise indigenous people as citizens of the nation. The question put to the electorate was: Do you approve the proposed law for the alteration of the Constitution entitled ‘An Act to alter the Constitution so as to omit certain words relating to the people of the Aboriginal race in any state and so that Aboriginals are to be counted in reckoning the population’?
It was a referendum that actually received bipartisan support from the two major political parties, Labor and Liberal; after the referendum showed very strong popular support for this change, the Parliament unanimously agreed to the change to the Constitution.
Such bipartisan support is rare in Australian politics. It was evident in the approaches to what was called Indigenous Affairs in the wake of the change of government in 1972, with the election of the Whitlam Government, and the subsequent change of government in 1975, when the Fraser Government came to power.
During the years that the Fraser Government was in power, the following themes were chosen for each year of NAIDOC WEEK:
1976: Trucanini Last of her People Born 18?? Died 1876. Buried 1976. Received Her Land Rights at Last
1977: Chains or Change
1978: Cultural Revival is Survival
1979: International Year of the Child. What About Our Kids!
1980: Treat Us to a Treaty on Land Rights
1981: Sacred Sites Aboriginal Rights—Other Australians Have Their Rites
1982: Race for Life for a Race
1983: Let’s Talk—We Have Something to Say
On NAIDOC WEEK in the period of the Whitlam Government, see
In their “Overview of Indigenous Affairs: Part 1: 1901 to 1991”, Dr Coral Dow and Dr John Gardiner-Garden observe that “The Fraser Government followed up on the Whitlam Government’s initiatives and passed significant land rights legislation relevant to the Northern Territory but showed no sign of following up with support for a national system of land rights. The Government dropped ‘self-determination’ from Commonwealth rhetoric. A public campaign got under way for a more basic immutable recognition of Indigenous rights in the form of a treaty (‘makaratta’).”
One significant change early in the period of the Fraser Government was that the term ‘self-determination’ was dropped from the Government’s vocabulary and replaced by ‘self-management’ and ‘self-sufficiency’.
The themes adopted for National Aborigines Day, and then NAIDOC WEEK, continue the messaging that was sent from 1975 onwards. The themes both relate to events occurring in the wider society and continue to press claims upon the Australian populace. The centenary of the death of Trucanini in 1896, honoured in 1976, the recognition of the International Year of the Child (a United Nations decision) in 1979, and a theme that reflects the 1982 Commonwealth Games, each indicate the way that the themes chosen reflected current events.
Trucanini was once remembered as “the last Tasmanian Aboriginal”—even though there are many people living today who claim descent from one of the nine Aboriginal nations that lived on country in Tasmania: Oyster Bay (Paredarerme), North East, North, Big River, North Midlands, Ben Lomond, North West, South West Coast, and South East. More than 23,000 Tasmanians claimed this descent in the 2016 Census. Estimates of the population at the time of the British Invasion and colonisation in 1803 vary from 3,000 to 10,000.
Trucanini was a member of the Nuenonne band of the South-East Nation of Tasmania; her homeland included the areas we know as Bruny Island and the D’Entrecasteaux Channel. After a life lived in various parts of Tasmania and Victoria, in 1847 Trucanini was part of a group of 47 Aborigines who were moved to an abandoned women’s prison at Oyster Cove. She died in Hobart, in 1876 aged 64. The 1976 theme and poster honour Trucanini.
The Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery remembers her as “a vibrant knowledgeable young woman, whose life was one of tragedy and betrayal, as a result of the British Invasion … Before her death she pleaded for her body not to be desecrated. However white society committed the greatest betrayal to her, when two years later, the Royal Society of Tasmania had her body exhumed. From 1904-1947 her skeleton was placed on public display in the Tasmanian Museum. It was not until 1976, when her ashes were spread in the D’Entrecasteaux Channel, that her spirit was finally set free.” See http://static.tmag.tas.gov.au/tayenebe/makers/Trucanini/index.hamlets
The theme for the 1976 National Aborigines Day was Trucanini Last of her People Born 18?? Died 1876. Buried 1976. Received Her Land Rights at Last
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) proclaimed 1979 as the International Year of the Child. As a follow-up to the 1959 Declaration of the Rights of the Child, the year was intended to draw attention to problems that affected children throughout the world, including malnutrition and lack of access to education—both of which were issues for Australian Aboriginal communities in the 1970s.
Internationally, this focus resulted in the Convention on the Rights of the Child being signed in 1989. Nationally, the situation of indigenous children remained perilous, with rates of malnutrition and educational achievement continuing to fall below the average for all Australians (and, sadly, they have continued at a far-too-low level over the ensuing decades).
The poster for the 1979 NAIDOC WEEK recalls the International Year of the Child and, with images of a number of Aboriginal children set within the outline of Australia, poses the question in terms of an accusatory exclamation: what about our kids!
The 1982 poster was also topical. In the poster for this year, a black male athlete clad in the Aboriginal flag colours is set against the background of an unidentified Pintupi acrylic painting. The reference is to the Commonwealth Games held in Brisbane in 1982, when there were a large number of Aboriginal demonstrations. The double meaning in the theme of Race for Life for a Race reflects also the sense that Aborigines were racing against time to ensure their survival.
Other themes during this period press the claims of the First Peoples. We can hear the voices asking key questions in these themes. Will they be kept in chains, or will there be change that brings freedom? (1977)
Will there be encouragement to bring a revival of indigenous culture that will ensure their survival? (1978)
Will the nation of Australia enter into Treaty with the First Peoples, as has been done in many other nations where Europeans invaded and colonised indigenous peoples? (1980)
Will “white Australia” be willing to enter into a serious, sustained conversation with “black Australia” and really hear what the First Peoples have to say? (1983)
Tragically, these are questions that remain for us to address and explore, today.
Perhaps the most potent theme in the Fraser years is that of 1981: Sacred Sites Aboriginal Rights—Other Australians Have Their Rites. The triple assonance of sites—rights—rites links three ideas which cover identity, spirituality, politics, and the Aboriginal notion of “country”. These matters, too, remain awaiting a substantial addressing by the Australian government and people.
Land rights were granted in the Northern Territory in 1976 nationally in the Native Title Act of 1983, after the High Court judgement in the Mabo case of 1982. However, the processes to be followed were complex, and in many places the granting of land rights to those claiming descent from the earlier inhabitants was doomed to failure, under the provisions of the law. The 1981 theme presses the case for the granting of land rights, with the clear inference that it is not so much a matter of (European-based) law that should be the determinant, but rather, of the spiritual significance of country to Indigenous peoples.
Perhaps the most well-known, and certainly the most iconic, country that has been returned to Aboriginal “ownership” under Australian law, is Uluṟu, the large sandstone formation at the heart of the continent (previously known as Ayer’s Rock). The title for Uluṟu was officially given back to the Aṉangu, the Pitjantjatjara people who were the traditional custodians and caretakers of the area, on 26 October 1985.
Claims for other land areas across Australia under the Native Title Act have been made and are continuing to this date. Redressing the wrongs of the past takes time.