Today, 30 May, is Reconciliation Day in the Australian Capital Territory. It is a day to focus on the steps that have been taken—and the steps that still need to be taken—in the relationship between the First Peoples of the hundreds of nations which existed on the continent of Australia, and its associated islands, in the late 18th century, and those who have come to this island continent in the years since.
One way that the First Peoples have articulated how they see things, and what they would like to see happen in terms of such relationships, has been in the annual NAIDOC WEEK. Starting as a national day in 1972, since 1978 a whole week has been designated to remember and honour the First Peoples of Australia.
In continuing my series about NAIDOC WEEK, I turn to the years of the Hawke Government. Bob Hawke led the Labor Party to power in the federal election of March 1983. During the nine years that the Hawke Government was in power, the following themes were chosen for each year of NAIDOC WEEK:
1984: Take a Journey of Discovery—To the Land My Mother
1985: Understanding: It Takes the Two of Us
1986: Peace—not for you, not for me, but for all
1987: White Australia has a Black History
1988: Recognise and Share the Survival of the Oldest Culture in the World
1989: The Party is Over—Let’s Be Together as a Aboriginal Nation
1990: New Decade—Don’t Destroy, Learn and Enjoy Our Cultural Heritage
The themes of the first few years during this period canvassed various motifs. The first in this sequence, in 1984 (Take a Journey of Discovery—To the Land My Mother) is striking in that it referred to the land as “Mother”. In considering the significance of land to indigenous people, the Aboriginal site, Creative Spirits, retells the story of “The Lost Girl”. Separated from her family, separated from the camp, the girl spent the night underneath an overhanging rock, before following a crow which took her back to her people.
“The people laughed and cried at once to see that the girl was safe. They growled at her for her foolishness, and cuddled her, and gave her a place by the fire. Her little brother asked her if she had been afraid; but the girl said – ‘How could I be frightened? I was with my Mother. When I was thirsty, she gave me water; when I was hungry, she fed me; when I was cold, she warmed me. And when I was lost, she showed me the way home.’”
See “Meaning of land to Aboriginal people—Creative Spirits”, retrieved from https://www.creativespirits.info/aboriginalculture/land/meaning-of-land-to-aboriginal-people
The next two years saw themes selected to indicate what work was needed, to ensure that black and white could do-exist together in modern Australia. In 1985, the theme was Understanding: It Takes the Two of Us. The poster also referenced the 1985 International Youth Year, with an image of a smiling younger indigenous person.
In 1986, moving beyond understanding, the theme referenced peace: Peace—not for you, not for me, but for all. The poster, highlighting the colours of red, yellow, and black, had an image of Uluṟu (then known as Ayer’s Rock) at its centre.
A key event during the Hawke period was the bicentenary of white settlement of Australia. Along with the public celebrations planned and held on Australia Day in January 1988, the opening of the new Parliament House took place in May 1988.
The location for Canberra was chosen after much debate in the early 20th century. The region is generally understood to have been a meeting place for different Aboriginal clans, suggesting that there was a reliable food and water supply. So placing the building where representatives from around the continent gathered, to debate and decide the laws of the country, sends a powerful symbol.
The name Canberra is believed to have been derived from a local Indigenous word Kamberri, which identifies the location as a meeting place of these many nations, for a gathering focussed around the bogong moth. See https://johntsquires.com/2019/01/30/learning-of-the-land-3-tuggeranong-queanbeyan-and-other-canberra-place-names/
Three NAIDOC WEEK themes reflect this watershed year. In the year before the bicentenary, 1987, there was a focus on black history, as a counterpoint to the intense focus that there was on the history of Australia since European colonisation from 1788 onwards. Mandandanji descendant and Queensland based multidisciplinary artist, Laurie Nilsen, designed the poster illustrating this theme.
The design features “a rolled paper scroll against a black background, with a large snake forming a silhouette of Australia and an assemblage of indigenous people and motifs spread throughout the composition, with red and blue printed text below”, according to a description on https://culturalcommons.edu.au/white-australia-has-a-black-history/
The site continues, “Nilsen has used a palette of warm and natural earthy tones of ochre, red and black to represent Indigenous figures and iconography including a stockman riding a horse in front of Uluru; a man wearing a dhari (traditional dancer’s headdress); rock paintings; a mother and son watching a tall ship; a soldier in a trench and a portrait of rugby player Mark Ella, recipient of Young Australian of the Year in 1982.”
The 1987 theme, White Australia has a Black History, can be understood to refer to the lack of meaningful acknowledgment, at that time, of past atrocities committed against First Nations people—an attitude which has been reversed in recent years, as it attested by the University of Newcastle’s project to map all massacre sites across the continent. See https://c21ch.newcastle.edu.au/colonialmassacres/map.php
In 1988, the year of the bicentenary, the theme was clear and direct: Recognise and Share the Survival of the Oldest Culture in the World. The image of an Aboriginal face on the poster is made up of dots, coloured in the schema of the Aboriginal flag (red, yellow, black).
This theme provides a strong recognition of a fact that is now accepted without question; that the culture that is evident in traditional Aboriginal groups today has continued without interruption for millennia—at least 60,000 years, perhaps 75,000 years, maybe even longer.
Luke Pearson writes that “Aboriginal cultures are acknowledged as the first makers of bread, the first astronomers, have the earliest evidence of religious beliefs and practices, were the creators of the oldest still standing man-made structure (the Brewarrina fish traps), and more other firsts.”
Yet, he says, a focus on where a particular item was first developed is an inadequate way to assess a culture. He maintains that Aboriginal culture had long been living in accord with principles that “‘modern societies’ are only now fumbling around the edges of trying to understand and attain.”
He cites those principles as “Environmental sustainability; not being in a state of perpetual war; not needing to exploit others for resources and labour; equitable wealth and resource distribution”; but even then, he declares, “this is not the true lens through which other cultures should be viewed, because the true value of Aboriginal cultures is not simply how its practices and philosophies can assist others with the challenges they now face.”
In 1989, after the year of partying throughout the bicentenary, NAIDOC WEEK turned the focus back to a key claim of indigenous leadership: The Party is Over—Let’s Be Together as a Aboriginal Nation. The theme articulated a plea for a way to move forward as a united nation, with true recognition of the foundational and central place of Aboriginal people in the nation. It signalled that froth and bubble of the public celebrations of 1988 (in which many indigenous people felt unable to participate) needed now to be followed by some hard, sustained work, to develop a unified nation.
The poster showed white fellas and black fellas lined up together, symbolising that plea to work towards unity. It’s a plea that has fallen on deaf ears, sadly—and worse, and the following era under the Howard government saw the development of the “history wars”, a retrograde opposition to recognising black history, and a fanning of the flames of racists xenophobia, turned even into the First People of the continent and its islands.
The theme for 1990 recognised the start of the new decade, it the theme New Decade—Don’t Destroy, Learn and Enjoy Our Cultural Heritage. The theme refers back to the 1988 theme, giving it a forward-looking orientation.
Sadly, vested interests have continued to disregard this plea from First Peoples, as various sacred sites have been reclaimed, destroyed, and concreted over in the interests of “development”. The most tragic instance of this was in the disgusting blasting of the Juukan Gorges by Rio Tinto in 2020. This irresponsible act must surely be seen as a criminal act.
The shelters that were destroyed were the only inland site in Australia showing human occupation continuing through the last Ice Age. Their tragic destruction is a clear sign that we refuse to learn, that we continue to disrespect Aboriginal culture. See https://theconversation.com/rio-tinto-just-blasted-away-an-ancient-aboriginal-site-heres-why-that-was-allowed-139466