NAIDOC WEEK and Uniting Church theology (part two)

NAIDOC WEEK (3–10 July) is an opportune time to reflect on the situation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in Australia, and to celebrate Aboriginal and Islander history, culture and achievements.

Each year, the National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee (NAIDOC) selects a theme to provide a focus for the week. This year, the theme of Get Up! Stand Up! Show Up! encourages Indigenous peoples “to work for systemic change and to keep rallying around their mob, their Elders and their communities”.

I have noted in earlier posts (see links at end of this post) how previous themes have highlighted the Indigenous commitment to community, the priority of family and the consequent valuing of young people, and the respect for Elders as the custodians, both of the land of this continent and its islands, but also of the many Indigenous cultures—collectively, the oldest continuing culture in today’s world.

In looking back over the past decade of themes, I can note some very clear and strong resonances between what First Peoples have been saying, and what the Uniting Church has articulated and sought to enact.

The 2014 theme referenced the celebrations taking place around the globe relating to the centenary of World War I: Serving Country: Centenary & Beyond. The poster, with artwork by Harry Alfred Pitt, explicitly depicts three Indigenous men in service uniforms.

The 2015 theme provides a clear and strong link to Uniting Church values and commitments, through resonances relating to the land: for land to be valued in its own right, and as an integral part of the very being of the people living on it. From early in the life of the Uniting Church, land rights for Aboriginal people was prominent on the agenda. Resolutions urging the federal government to recognise the land rights of Aboriginal people at the 2nd Assembly (resolution 79.45), the 3rd Assembly (82.50), and the 4th Assembly 85.06). The 5th Assembly agreed to a proposal that added to this wording that sought to have the government “acknowledge the immense and continuing destruction of their people imposed by the adoption of the doctrine of Terra Nullius” (88.22.22(c)).

These resolutions, and other actions, reflect the commitment to the importance of the land in the NAIDOC WEEK theme for 2015, We all Stand on Sacred Ground: Learn Respect & Celebrate.

This commitment is also evident in the 2020 theme, Always Was, Always Will Be.

For my reflections on the 2020 theme, see

Next, there are commonalities which relate to the call for a treaty which has been made by Indigenous leadership many times over the decades. The 2020 theme built on the theme chosen for 2019, Voice. Treaty. Truth. This, in turn, echoes the 2017 Statement from the Heart which was issued by a group of indigenous leaders, meeting at Uluṟu in that year. See https://ulurustatement.org/the-statement/

In 1994, the President of the Uniting Church Assembly signed a Covenant with the Chairperson of the Congress. Although neither body represented a sovereign entity in the way that a state or federal government does, the move signalled that it is possible to conclude such an agreement with the First People.

In the past decade, the Uniting Church has articulated its clear commitment to all three components of the 2019 theme—giving a voice to First Peoples, agreeing to a treaty (or a series of treaties with the various Indigenous nations), and ensuring that truth-telling about our recent history as a colonised country.

In 2015, the 14th Assembly gave detailed consideration to the matter of the doctrine of terra nullius and the claim to sovereignty of First Peoples. This lead, in 2018, to the 15th Assembly making a significant about sovereignty:

In 2019, the Synod of NSW.ACT addressed this theme

See https://www.insights.uca.org.au/hear-the-statement-from-the-heart/

For my reflections on the 2019 theme, see

Reference to the land recurs also in the 2021 theme (see below)

There are connections with story, which sits at the heart of Indigenous cultures in many countries, but especially in Australia; and I am taken by the ways that story is at the heart of both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament. We share this commitment together—although Second Peoples have much to learn about the ways that First Peoples value and practice story telling!

We can see this commitment in the theme for 2016, Songlines: The Living Narrative of Our Nation. Deadly Story says that “Songlines are the Aboriginal walking routes that crossed the country, linking important sites and locations … the term ‘Songline’ describes the features and directions of travel that were included in a song that had to be sung and memorised for the traveller to know the route to their destination.” See https://www.deadlystory.com/page/culture/Life_Lore/Songlines

2017 provided a focus on language, in the theme Our Languages Matter. That’s a message which is integral to the Gospel—the Gospel that says, in the beginning, God spoke … and there was life (Gen 1). The Gospel that claims that “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”, and that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory” in the person of Jesus of Nazareth (John 1).

We know God best of all, most intimately of all, because God speaks, God is word. Language connects us with God. Language matters. Language connects us with one another, enables us to know one another. Languages matter for First Peoples. They communicate, they articulate deep truths. Languages matter.

In the Uniting Church, alongside worship in English, there are worship services held each week in another 40 languages—the mother tongues of many Second Peoples who have been welcomed into our century and now call Australia home. This is alongside the many Indigenous languages which are used by First Peoples as they worship each week.

The revival of languages amongst First Peoples is signalled by this theme, and resonates with the Uniting Church’s commitment. There are also 13 National Conferences, which gather together people of the same linguistic or cultural group: Tongan, Samoan, Fijian, Indonesian, Korean, Tamil, Chinese, South Sudanese, Filipino, Niuean, Vietnamese, Middle East and Ibero-Latino.

2018 invited a focus on women, with the theme Because of Her, We Can! The experiences that Elizabeth and I have had with Indigenous communities in a number of places is always that women are key leaders in those communities, the Aunties have power and draw respect! This is another theme that resonates with countless stories throughout scripture. Because of the faithfulness of Mary, his mother, Jesus came. Because of the witness of Mary of Magdala, exclaiming “I have seen the Lord”, the male disciples believed.

See

Because of the proactive intervention of Shiphrah and Puah, Hebrew midwives in the court of the Egyptian Pharaoh, Moses survived and grew to lead Israel. Because of the fiercely powerful leadership of Deborah, centuries later, Israel survived the onslaught from the troops of Sisera, commander of the army of Canaan. Because of her, we can. And there are many more such women. Throughout the pages of scripture. Women always have, and always will, play key roles in communities of faith, just as they have, and do, in Indigenous communities,

For my reflections on women in leadership in the Uniting Church, see

On the themes of 2017–2021, see

A commitment to sustainable living, demonstrating environmental responsibility, was signalled by the Uniting Church in the 1977 Statement to the Nation. That commitment has become more important—indeed, it presses as urgent—in recent times. The theme for NAIDOC WEEK 2021, Heal Country, underlined this area, and brought together Indigenous care for the land and Indigenous spirituality, which has also been noted in earlier themes.

The 2022 theme, Get Up! Stand Up! Show Up!, is a call to advocacy, and to solidarity in that cause. The Uniting Church has always been committed to speaking with, speaking along with, and speaking for, the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. We have not always got it right, but there has been a consistent thread of standing with and working to support and advocate for First Peoples, from the Noonkanbah action in 1980, through the years of various land rights claims, alongside the work led by Sir Ron Wilson leading to the Bringing Them Home report of 1997, into the more recent calls for Treaty (Makarratta) and an Indigenous voice to Parliament.

There’s a wonderful collection of resources relating to the papers written and statements made by the Uniting Church nationally, in relation to Indigenous issues, at https://unitingjustice.org.au/justice-for-indigenous-australians

*****

For the first post on this topic, see

NAIDOC WEEK and Uniting Church theology

This week, during NAIDOC WEEK, it is an opportune time to reflect on the situation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in this nation. NAIDOC Week runs from the first Sunday in July until the following Sunday. This year, it starts today (3 July) and goes until 10 July.

The acronym NAIDOC stands for National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee. It has its roots in the 1938 Day of Mourning which became a week- long event in 1975. The week is a time to celebrate Aboriginal and Islander history, culture and achievements.

It’s an undeniable—and unchangeable—fact that the Uniting Church took some time to arrive at the place where it finds itself today, in terms of its relationship with the First Peoples of the continent we call Australia, and the many islands that surround it.

Looking back, we can see the key steps that occurred to bring us to the present position, which places relationships with the First Peoples and advocacy for sovereignty and treaty at the centre of our commitments. It hasn’t always been an easy relationship, and there have been some difficult moments that required careful conversation to resolve, but some significant step have been taken over the years.

The first thing to note is that at the inauguration of the church in 1977, there was little (if any) attention paid to Indigenous matters. In terms of relationships with First Peoples, it was not an auspicious start. The inauguration service had no Aboriginal participation or recognition. There was no mention in either the Basis of Union or the Constitution of Indigenous people.

Whilst the Basis has remained virtually unchanged (apart from the minor wording changes of 1992), the Constitution now includes a revised preamble (adopted in 2009) which recognises the First Peoples, confesses our complicity in how they were treated from the time of colonisation, acknowledges the centrality of spirituality in their cultures, and even declares that the Spirit was already in the land, revealing God to the people through law, custom and ceremony.

Is it still timely for us to consider a parallel change to the Basis of Union? I’ve canvassed that thought in another blog, but I suspect that the appetite for this change in the church at this time is small. See https://johntsquires.com/2018/08/23/what-is-missing-from-the-basis-of-union/

Nor was there any mention of Aboriginal or Islander peoples in the 1977 Statement to the Nation. That Statement mentioned our commitment as a church to be a “sign of the reconciliation we seek for the whole human race”, and stated our intention to “seek the correction of injustices wherever they occur”; but it fails to mention Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islanders in any way.

See https://johntsquires.com/2018/08/20/alongside-the-basis-of-union-there-was-the-statement-to-the-nation/

This was a striking omission, as Aboriginal issues had already been to the fore in the previous decade, leading to the famous 1967 Referendum decision which altered the Australian Constitution to provide for recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the population of Australia. See https://aiatsis.gov.au/explore/1967-referendum

This unfortunate oversight was addressed in 1988, when a second Statement to the Nation was issued for Bicentennial celebrations of the founding of modern Australia. In this Statement, the church declared that “The integrity of our nation requires truth; the history of Australia, as it is taught in educational institutions or popularised in the media, must cease to conceal the reality and nature of Aboriginal society before invasion, what was done to them in colonisation, and what has been the fate and status of Aborigines within the Australian nation. See https://assembly.uca.org.au/resources/introduction/item/133-statement-to-the-nation-australian-bicentennial-year-1988

There had been strenuous debate at the national Assembly in 1985, as to whether the Uniting Church should participate in those celebrations; in the end, we did, although some members joined the 26 January protest held at the same time as the commemoration of the arrival of the First Fleet, marching under a banner that asked, 1988: what’s there to celebrate? See https://www.deadlystory.com/page/culture/history/The_1988_Bicentenary_Protest

Some of the key markers that we can paint to are obvious: in 1985, the establishment of the United Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress; in 1994, the formalising of the Covenant between Congress and the Uniting Church, sealed by the then Chairperson and President of those bodies, respectively.

In 2005, Uniting in Worship 2 included wording for an Acknowledgement of Country to be used in Uniting Church worship services (see p. 239, in the section entitled “Resources for the Service of the Lord’s Day”. Many Uniting Church services of worship now include an Acknowledgement of Country as a matter of course.

Other moments of symbolic significance no doubt come to mind, such as when the appropriate Congress leader was invited to sit alongside the President of Assembly or the Moderator of a Synod, to signal our joint commitment to one another. My special memory of this was the 2011 Synod of NSW.ACT, when each morning began, not only with prayer, but with storytelling from a local Indigenous elder. That was the moment when, in my Synod, Indigenous voices were highlighted, heard, and valued.

There have been Walking on Country opportunities, the development and implementation of Reconciliation Action Plans by Uniting, Synod Boards, and Presbyteries, and the formation in 2018 of the Walking Together as First and Second Peoples Assembly Circle of Interest, which draws almost 300 Uniting Church members together through social media, to share news and develop ideas relating our commitment to reconciliation, to forging a destiny together, as the final, clause of the Revised Preamble to the Constitution states.

As I reflect on this history during NAIDOC WEEK 2022, I am reminded of the ways that the theological commitment of the Uniting Church has been focussed and refined in order to give priority to First Peoples and to crystallise our commitment to working together, seeking justice, advocating for and serving the needs and hopes of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

And as I have looked back over the themes of NAIDOC WEEK over the past decade (see the links at the end of this post), I have been strengthened in my understanding that the Uniting Church has a deep-seated and thoroughgoing commitment to the hopes and ideals expressed by First Peoples through those decades. I’ll reflect on that in my next post in the series about NAIDOC WEEK.

For previous posts on NAIDOC WEEK, see

Get Up! Stand Up! Show Up! NAIDOC WEEK 2022

NAIDOC WEEK is an Australian observance lasting from the first Sunday in July until the following Sunday. This year, it starts today (3 July) and goes until 10 July.

The acronym NAIDOC stands for National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee. It has its roots in the 1938 Day of Mourning which became a week- long event in 1975.

Aboriginal and Islander people have a proud history of getting up, standing up, and showing up. They have therefore chosen this as their 2022 theme of Get Up! Stand Up! Show Up!

The NAIDOC Week Committee wants Aboriginal and Islander people to continue to Get Up! Stand Up! Show Up! for systemic change and to keep rallying around their mob, their Elders and their communities. Whether it’s seeking proper environmental, cultural and heritage protections, Constitutional change, a comprehensive process of truth-telling, working towards treaties, or calling out racism – they must do it together.

The Committee also says that the relationship between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and non Indigenous Australians needs to be based on justice, equity, and the proper recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ rights.

See https://www.naidoc.org.au/awards/current-theme

This theme has many resonances with the theological commitments of the Uniting Church, for whom standing against racism, recognising the sovereignty of the First Peoples, standing up for the environment, working to strengthen reconciliation, and supporting the call for makaratta, treaty, are all central commitments as we stand for justice and advocate for justice.

I’ll post more during the week about the ways that the NAIDOC WEEK themes of the past decade resonate with Uniting Church commitments.

My posts on NAIDOC WEEK themes prior to 2014 can be found at

See also

50 years of NAIDOC WEEK 6 (2007–2013)

The Coming of the Light is celebrated annually by Torres Strait Islander peoples on 1 July. It marks the adoption of Christianity through island communities during the late nineteenth century. The Reverend Samuel MacFarlane, of the London Missionary Society, arrived at Erub Island in the Torres Strait on 1 July 1871, introducing Christianity to the region. Since then, Torres Strait Islanders, whether living in the islands or on the mainland, celebrate this anniversary.

See https://www.creativespirits.info/aboriginalculture/people/torres-strait-islander-culture

It might have symbolic resonance, then, that today, 1 July, in my series about the themes of NAIDOC WEEK, we turn to the next series of themes that are from the period of the Labor Government (2007–2013). It was after eleven years of regressive conservative government at the federal level that Kevin Rudd led the Labor Party back into government in December 2007. Although Rudd was a control freak who ultimately undid his own position of leadership, that of Julia Gillard, and then his own government, his time in leadership did shine some important lights onto Australia society.

During the the almost six years of the Labor Government, led by Rudd, then Julia Gillard, then Rudd once again, the National Apology to the Stolen Generation was made. On 13 February 2008, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd stood in Parliament to deliver the National Apology to Australia’s Aboriginal peoples and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The Apology recognised the injustices of past government policies, particularly as they related to the Stolen Generations.

For more than a decade, the Howard government had resisted making any apology. The stance that Howard took when he opened the 1997 Australian Reconciliation Convention, which we noted in the previous post, remained his opinion in the ensuing years. Still today, 25 years after that speech, Howard remains unmoved; he has called the apology that Rudd gave “meaningless” and “an empty gesture”.

See https://www.sbs.com.au/news/article/john-howard-has-criticised-kevin-rudds-2008-apology-to-the-stolen-generations/47t04w7ca

But on 13 February 2008, newly elected Prime Minister Kevin Rudd spoke the federal government’s formal apology to Indigenous Australians. Rudd apologised on behalf of Parliament ‘for indignity and degradation’, declaring it was time to start ‘righting the wrongs of the past’. As he recognised the Stolen Generations, he affirmed that the policy of removing Aboriginal children from their families ‘inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on these our fellow Australians’.

The key words of apology are worth remembering again:

For the pain, suffering and hurt of these Stolen Generations,

their descendants and for their families left behind, we say sorry.
To the mothers and the fathers, the brothers and the sisters,

for the breaking up of families and communities, we say sorry.
And for the indignity and degradation thus inflicted

on a proud people and a proud culture, we say sorry.

See https://www.aph.gov.au/Visit_Parliament/Art/Exhibitions/Custom_Media/Apology_to_Australias_Indigenous_Peoples

The themes of NAIDOC WEEK in those six years were:

2007: 50 Years: Looking Forward, Looking Blak

This theme looks back to 1957, when the National Aborigines Day Observance Committee (NADOC) was formed. It had support and co-operation from Federal and State Governments, the churches, and major Indigenous organisations. Its aim was to promote Aboriginal Sunday as a day to focus community attention on the nation’s Aboriginal people.

In 1940, the National Missionary Council of Australia (NMCA) had given its support to a permanent annual Aborigines Day. The NMCA encouraged churches to observe the Sunday before the Australia Day weekend as “Aboriginal Sunday’. In 1955, the NMCA changed the date to the first Sunday in July.

In 1985, NADOC agreed to change the dates of the week from July to September, and in 1988, the committee’s name was changed to NAIDOC – National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee – to acknowledge Torres Strait Islander people. In 1991, the committee decided to shift the celebrations back to the first week in July (Sunday to Sunday) starting from 1992.

The committee was wound up in the mid-1990s when the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) assumed control of NAIDOC Week, making decisions on the theme, venue and poster.

2008: Advance Australia Fair?

This theme recalls both the 1972 theme, Advance Australia Where?, and, of course, the title of the song that became Australia’s national anthem, Advance Australia Fair. The question mark in both themes is very significant—the themes are asking questions about the direction of Australia as a country (in 1972) and drawing attention to the continuing injustices experienced by Indigenous peoples (in 2008). The questions still stand today.

The artwork used was striking: a large blue SORRY overlaid with a version of the national coat of arms, gesturing the kangaroo and emu, and the five stars of the Southern Cross.

2009: Honouring Our Elders, Nurturing Our Youth

This theme is evocative of the 1976 theme, when Trucanini was remembered and honoured. It sits along with earlier themes that gave recognition, both to the culture of Indigenous peoples: 1978, Cultural Revival is Survival; Take a Journey of Discovery, 1984; Recognise and Share the Survival of the Oldest Culture in the World; 1990, Don’t Destroy, Learn and Enjoy our Cultural Heritage; as well as the importance of young people: 1979, What About Our Kids?; and 1994, Families are the basis of our existence: Maintain the Link.

2010: Unsung Heroes: Closing the Gap by Leading the Way

For the last fifteen years, we have had a national policy known as Closing the Gap. The gap refers to the the inequalities in health and life-expectation that exist between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. This inequality includes: shorter life expectancy, higher rates of infant mortality, poorer health, and lower levels of education and employment.

Indigenous Australians have a lower life expectancy than non-Indigenous Australians. Non-Indigenous girls born in 2010-2012 in Australia can expect to live a decade longer than Indigenous girls born the same year (84.3 years and 73.7 years respectively). The gap for men is even larger, with a 69.1 year life expectancy for Indigenous men and 79.9 years for non-Indigenous men

Indigenous women also experience approximately double the level of maternal mortality in 2016. In 2016, Indigenous children experienced 1.7 times higher levels of malnutrition than non-Indigenous children. In 2015, the Indigenous suicide rate was double that of the general population; Indigenous suicide increased from 5% of total Australian suicide in 1991, to 50% in 2010, despite Indigenous people making up only 3% of the total Australian population. The most drastic increase occurred among young people 10-24 years old, where Indigenous youth suicide rose from 10% in 1991 to 80% in 2010.

The employment to population rate for Indigenous 15–64 year olds was around 48% in 2014-15, compared to 75% for non-Indigenous Australians. Median weekly income for Indigenous Australians was $542 in 2014-15 compared with $852 for non-Indigenous Australians.

The Gap (or actually, the many gaps) still exist; despite an annual report on how the federal government is attempting to Close the Gap, there is still much ground to be covered.

2011: Change: the next step is ours

This was an invitation to the whole population of Australia to join and work for change for the better for First Peoples.

2012: Spirit of the Tent Embassy: 40 years on

The Tent Embassy had been established in 1972. See the blog I wrote earlier in the year for the 50th anniversary, in 2022, of the Tent Embassy.

See https://johntsquires.com/2022/01/26/the-aboriginal-tent-embassy-50-years/

2013: We value the vision: Yirrkala Bark Petitions

This theme commemorates events of 50 years earlier. Yolngu people from Yirrkala in eastern Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory sent petitions to the Commonwealth Parliament in August 1963. On 13 March that year the Government had removed more than 300 square kilometres of land from the Arnhem Land reserve, with the purpose of being able to mine the bauxite which had been found there. Work started without talking to the people about their land.

The text of the petition was in two languages, English and Gupapuyngu. It was printed on paper then glued to a piece of bark that had been painted traditionally. The petition, signed by nine men and three women, stated that 500 people were residents of the land that was being removed, and that the whole deal had been kept secret from them.

It also declared that sacred sites in the area, such as Melville Bay, were vital to their livelihoods, and that the area had been used for hunting and food-gathering since time immemorial. The petition asked parliament to appoint a committee to hear the views of the Yolngu. They also asked that no arrangements be entered into with any company which would destroy their livelihoods and independence.

Silas Roberts, Northern Lands Council (NLC) Chairman (left),
and Galarrwuy Yunupingu, NLC Manager (right),
with the Yirrkala bark petition

Two Labor parliamentarians, Kim Beazley (senior) and Gordon Bryant visited Reverend Edgar Wells, Superintendent of the Yirrkala Methodist church mission, in July 1963. Yolngu leaders made plain their objection to the lack of consultation and secrecy of the Government’s agreement with Nabalco, and their concern about the impact of mining on the land unless their voices were heard.

The petitions were not successful; mining commenced in 1968. The Yolngu people began a court case, in which Justice Richard Blackburn ruled against the Yolngu claimants in 1971. He recognised that they had been living on the land for thousands of years, but found that any rights they had before colonisation had been invalidated by the Crown. The Australian legal system had been built around the concept of terra nullius, meaning ‘land belonging to no one’.

The Yolngu eventually received native title to their land in 1978, under the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976, which established a procedure for transferring 50 per cent of land in the Territory to Aboriginal ownership. The mining leases, which they had objected to since 1963, were excluded from the provisions of the Act, and also from the Yolngu native title claim.

The Yirrkala bark petitions were the first example of a native title litigation in Australia. They paved the way for the Aboriginal Land Rights Commission and the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976. In 1992 the concept of terra nullius, which had been used in the Milirrpum v Nabalco Pty Ltd judgement, was challenged by the High Court of Australia. Mabo v Queensland recognised the people of Murray Island as native titleholders to their land.

Information on the Yirrkala Petitions is taken from https://www.nma.gov.au/defining-moments/resources/yirrkala-bark-petitions

See also

50 Years of NAIDOC WEEK 5 (1998–2006)

John Howard came to power in 1996, after 13 years of Labor dominance under Hawke and Keating. We have already noted that the themes chosen for NAIDOC WEEK in the early Howard years, 1996 and 1997, were both incisive comments about our public life.

See https://johntsquires.com/2022/06/03/50-years-of-naidoc-week-4-1991-1997/

The themes that followed in the Howard years continued this stance of naming key issues from an indigenous perspective.

1998: Bringing Them Home

1999: Respect

2000: Building Pride in Our Communities

2001: Treaty—Let’s Get It Right

2002: Recognition, Rights and Reform

2003: Our Children Our Future

2004: Self-determination—Our Community—Our Future—Our Responsibility

2005: Our Future Begins with Solidarity

2006: Respect the Past—Believe in the Future

In his overview of indigenous affairs during the period of the Howard Government, Dr John Gardiner-Garden notes a cluster of immediate changes made by the incoming Howard government—changing terminology, withdrawing support from established initiatives, applying economic markers to the outcomes desired, amending the Native Title Act, and reducing funding to ATSIC (the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission). See https://www.aph.gov.au/about_parliament/parliamentary_departments/parliamentary_library/pubs/bn/1011/indigenousaffairs2#_Toc295218057

Over the ensuing decade, Gardiner-Garden notes that “perceived inactions on reconciliation and in responding to the rhetoric of the new One Nation Party placed a strain on relations with the Indigenous community”, and records a series of decisions and actions which provided ongoing concern within Aboriginal communities: the ultimate demise of ATSIC, the attempt to establish a Special Auditor “to make a determination on whether a prospective grantee was ‘not fit and proper’ to receive public money”, a contentious Ten Point Plan to deal with the Wik decision, alterations to the Native Title Act which were seen as racially discriminatory, a Racial Hatred Act (1996) which fell short of many provisions that had been requested, and finally the Northern Territory Emergency Response, more widely known as The Intervention.

This latter event was applied to 73 Indigenous communities across the Northern Territory, and involved withholding 50% of welfare payments from Indigenous welfare recipients—-bans on alcohol and pornography—-increased police presence in Aboriginal communities—-compulsory health checks for all Aboriginal children—-and the power for government to take possession of Aboriginal land and property.

The Intervention was a highly controversial policy, with many Aboriginal leaders speaking out against it.

There was some support within the Australian Indigenous community as well as beyond it. Australians Together report that “two of Australia’s most influential Indigenous academics and leaders, Noel Pearson and Marcia Langton, supported several of the more controversial aspects of the Intervention.”

See https://australianstogether.org.au/discover/the-wound/the-intervention/#Interventionreference1a

The Intervention, however, is viewed by most Aboriginal people as yet another instance of white colonial supremacy over blacks. It is perhaps appropriate, then, for this blog to go live on 10 June, which was the day that the infamous Myall Creek Massacre took place, in 1838. This event has come to be a symbol of all that has been wrong about the way that the invading British colonisers treated the indigenous peoples who had been the continuous inhabitants of the land “since time immemorial”.

Creative Spirits describes the 1838 event as follows: “12 heavily armed colonists rounded up and brutally kill 28 Aboriginal people from a group of 40 or 50 people gathered at Henry Dangar’s Station, at Myall Creek near Inverell (NSW). The massacre was believed to be a payback for the killing of several hut keepers and two shepherds. But most of those killed were women and children and good relations existed between the Aboriginal people and European occupants of the station. Seven stockmen are eventually hanged for murder. This outrages the colonial press and parts of the public who cannot understand why anyone should hang for murdering Aboriginal people.”

See https://www.creativespirits.info/aboriginalculture/history/australian-aboriginal-history-timeline/massacres

The Myall Creek Massacre Memorial

A pivotal event took place in 1997, when Prime Minister Howard addressed the Australian Reconciliation Convention, a forum for Australians to discuss Indigenous issues. The conference drew widespread participation, but was overshadowed by the controversy that Howard generated in his opening address on 27 May 1997.

Howard said: In facing the realities of the past, […] we must not join those who would portray Australia’s history since 1788 as little more than a disgraceful record of imperialism […] such an approach will be repudiated by the overwhelming majority of Australians who are proud of what this country has achieved although inevitably acknowledging the blemishes in its past history.

The reference to “blemishes” in Australia history was an incendiary remark. Indigenous delegates who were listening to the lecture stood up and turned their backs on the Prime Minister.

Delegates at the 1997 Reconciliation Convention,
upset by the speech of Prime Minister John Howard,
stand and turn their backs to him

It was a shameful moment, a deliberate aggravation by the elected leader of the First Peoples present. The 1997 theme, Gurindji, Mabo, Wik—Three Strikes for Justice—Celebrating the 30th Anniversary of the 1967 Referendum, offered a striking rejoinder to the mean-spirited assessment of the Prime Minister (see previous post).

*****

In 1998, the theme for NAIDOC WEEK was equally striking. It was a direct reference to the landmark report on the stolen generations which had been issued in April 1997 by the Australian Human Rights Commission. The report was entitled Bringing Them Home, and that exact phrase was used for the NAIDOC WEEK theme in 1998: Bringing Them Home.

Sir Ronald Wilson, former High Court justice and the President of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission at that time, had led the National Inquiry along with Mick Dodson, the Aboriginal Social Justice Commissioner. They heard testimony directly from 535 people and read a further 600 submissions that had been made. Wilson stated that they encountered “hundreds of stories of personal devastation, pain and loss. It was a life-changing experience.”

The report, entitled Bringing Them Home: Report of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from their Families, estimated that “between 1910 and 1970, up to 100,000 Aboriginal children were taken from their parents and put in white foster homes”. The commissioners found that this was in breach of international law, and called for a national compensation fund to be established. They also recommended a national “sorry day”; the first one was held in 1998 and this has remained an annual fixture of growing significance to Aboriginal Australians.

Creative Spirits offers an excellent overview of the issues associated with the Aboriginal people who had formed what became known as “the stolen generations”; see https://www.creativespirits.info/aboriginalculture/politics/stolen-generations/a-guide-to-australias-stolen-generations

They also have a comprehensive cataloguing of the impacts that being removed from your family home as a child can have on such children, running throughout their lives and on into subsequent generations; see https://www.creativespirits.info/aboriginalculture/politics/stolen-generations/stolen-generations-effects-and-consequences

The response of the Howard Government to this report was jarring: Howard refused to make a public apology to “the stolen generations”. Apologies were made by the governments of South Australia (May 1997), Western Australia (May 1997), the Australian Capital Territory (June 1997), New South Wales (June 1997), Tasmania (August 1997), Victoria (September 1997), Queensland (May 1999), and the Northern Territory (October 2001), as well as a number of local governments and churches across the country.

The texts of the above apologies can be found at https://humanrights.gov.au/our-work/bringing-them-home-apologies-state-and-territory-parliaments-2008

The Howard Government did not offer a formal apology; instead, they brought a motion to the Parliament in 1999 which expressed “deep and sincere regret that indigenous Australians suffered injustices under the practices of past generations”, noting “the hurt and trauma that many indigenous people continue to feel as a consequence of those practices”.

The government described this intentional, systemic, multi-generational mistreatment of Indigenous Australians as the “

“most blemished chapter” in Australian history. The understatement of this language (“regret” rather than “sorry” or “apology”; “blemish” rather than “systemic injustice”, for instance) reflected the conservative white preference for minimising—or perhaps removing from sight—the story of Aboriginal people in recent centuries.

Subsequent NAIDOC WEEK themes would speak back to this inadequate and insulting governmental response.

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In 1999, the theme was Respect: Show Some, Earn Some. This was a plea to provide what many Aboriginal people had felt had been missing over the decades: respect.

In 2000, the theme was Building Pride in Our Communities. This connected back with earlier themes in which community had been a motif. It also offered an encouragement to Aboriginal people, to be proud of who they are and what they have to offer.

2000 was the year when hundreds of thousands of people “walked for reconciliation”, a strong statement of the popular support that existed for clear action in the way that Aboriginal and Islander people are treated. The most memorable walk was across the Sydney Harbour Bridge on 28 May 2000, when a quarter of a million people (250,000 people) walked across the bridge.

See https://www.nma.gov.au/defining-moments/resources/walk-for-reconciliation

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For the centenary of Australia as a nation, the theme for 2001 was Treaty—Let’s Get It Right. This was another strong statement to government and public intransigence in the face of a growing recognition that the situation of Indigenous peoples was damaged by injustice upon injustice.

The history of seeking a treaty reveals stalled attempts, negative responses, and inaction by various governments. In 1979, the former Governor of the Reserve Bank, ‘Nugget’ Coombs, had convened a number of prominent non-Aboriginal Australians, working towards the implementation of a Treaty with Aboriginal peoples.

In 1981, the Fraser Government responded by rejecting the notion that a Treaty was needed. Treaties, it was said, are concluded between separate sovereign nations; the Aboriginal people were not a nation with which a treaty could be concluded.

In 1983, the National Aboriginal Conference proposed that, rather than a single national treaty, each individual Aboriginal nation might negotiate its own treaty or agreement. By 1987, the Prime Minister, Bob Hawke, had signalled a willingness to produce some form of agreement for the Bicentenary of 1988. The Barunga Statement was presented to him in June 1988, but no action ensued.

By 1991, a Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation had been formed. In 1996, iconic rock band Yothu Yindi released their single, Treaty, which peaked at number 11 on the Australian charts and number 6 internationally. But no action followed. By the end of the decade, Prime Minister Howard had definitively rejected any notion of a treaty, because “it implies that we are two nations; and we are not, we are one nation”. Thus, the 2001 theme of Treaty—Let’s Get It Right was a clear political statement.

For the history of discussions and proposals relating to a treaty, see https://www.creativespirits.info/aboriginalculture/selfdetermination/treaty-timeline-events-from-1835-to-today?page=2

On what is involved in such a treaty, see https://www.creativespirits.info/aboriginalculture/selfdetermination/what-is-a-treaty

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In the following years, the NAIDOC WEEK themes referenced familiar motifs.

For 2002, the theme continued the explicit political plea of 2001, with the triple alliteration of Recognition, Rights and Reform. In 2003, the theme of Our Children Our Future looked back to earlier themes.

In 2004, the theme had four parts: Self-determination—Our Community—Our Future—Our Responsibility. The poster had a striking indigenous image set within a pair of cupped brown hands.

The 2005 theme, Our Future Begins with Solidarity, reinforced once more the importance of working together, both within the Aboriginal community as a whole, and also with white allies in the wider Australian society.

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Perhaps the theme for 2006, Respect the Past—Believe in the Future, was chosen with an eye to the prevailing “black armband” view of history that had been actively prosecuted in the so-called “history wars” during the Howard years.

The “black armband view of history” had been first suggested by historian Geoffrey Blainey in a public lecture he gave in 1993. A series of polemic interactions from historians and commentators ensued over the next decade, fuelled by comments made by John Howard in a 1996 lecture, soon after he had been elected Prime Minister.

Mr Howard asserted that “the ‘black armband’ view of our history reflects a belief that most Australian history since 1788 has been little more than a disgraceful story of imperialism, exploitation, racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination.”

Howard continued, “I believe that the balance sheet of our history is one of heroic achievement and that we have achieved much more as a nation of which we can be proud than of which we should be ashamed. In saying that I do not exclude or ignore specific aspects of our past where we are rightly held to account. Injustices were done in Australia and no-one should obscure or minimise them. … But … our priority should … [be] to commit to a practical program of action that will remove the enduring legacies of disadvantage.”

The transcript of the lecture is at https://web.archive.org/web/20110727080235/http://www.menzieslecture.org/1996.html

This Prime-Ministerial advocacy added fuel to the fire raging in the debate. It was countered by the patient work of Henry Reynolds in advocating honesty in the public discourse about “The Frontier Wars”, a term which has come into popular usage to describe the series of aggressive engagements and terrible massacres that took place from early in the years of British colonisation, through into the 20th century.

Respect the Past—Believe in the Future was a fine and suitable theme to highlight in 2006. The theme for the following year built on this with its reference to Looking Forward, Looking Blak.

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See also

50 years of NAIDOC WEEK 4 (1991–1997)

Today, 3 June, we remember the day in 1992 that the legal case brought by Eddie (Koiki) Mabo was decided by the Australian High Court. The court effectively recognised the existence of Native Title rights and rejected the concept of terra nullius, which claimed Australia was a land belonging to no-one prior to British occupation. The judgement opened the way for the passing of the Native Title Act in 1993.

See https://www.creativespirits.info/aboriginalculture/land/native-title

This decision of the High Court was one of the highlights in the area of indigenous affairs during the period that Paul Keating led the federal government. The Mabo case was decided just six months after Keating had become Prime Minister (in December 1991).

The other highlight was the powerful speech that Keating delivered a year later, in December 1992, which is known as the Redfern Speech. In this speech, Keating acknowledged the role played in destroying the culture of the First Peoples by those who invaded and colonised the continent in the early decades of British settlement.

Paul Keating delivers the Redfern Speech in December 1992

“The problem starts with us non-Aboriginal Australians”, he declared. “It was we who did the dispossessing. We took the traditional lands and smashed the traditional way of life. We brought the diseases. The alcohol. We committed the murders. We took the children from their mothers. We practised discrimination and exclusion. It was our ignorance and our prejudice.”

See https://www.creativespirits.info/aboriginalculture/politics/paul-keatings-redfern-speech

It was a searing recognition of the multitude of ways in which white Australian society had impacted the long-established cultures of the First Peoples; a recognition of the complicity of white Australia in the devastation of black Australians. It was a clear step beyond anything articulated in public in previous years.

In assessing the period when the Keating Government was in power, Dr John Gardiner-Garden began by referencing Keating’s Redfern speech of December 1992, as well as “his government’s decision to set up a national inquiry into the separation of Indigenous children”. Keating “sought to encourage recognition of past injustices. In his government’s native title and land fund legislation and proposed ‘Social Justice Package’ he sought to advance the process of making amends for the disregard of Indigenous common law rights which the 1992 Mabo judgement had found to have occurred.”

See https://www.aph.gov.au/about_parliament/parliamentary_departments/parliamentary_library/pubs/bn/1011/indigenousaffairs2#_Toc295218057

During the years that the Keating Government was in power, the following themes were chosen for each year of NAIDOC WEEK:

1991: Community is Unity—Our Future Depends On Us

1992: Maintain the Dreaming—Our Culture is Our Heritage

1993: Aboriginal Nations—Owners of the Land Since Time Began—Community is Unity

1994: Families Are the Basis of Our Existence—Maintain the Link

1995: Justice Not Tolerance

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In 1991, the focus on community in the theme, Community is Unity—Our Future Depends On Us, echoed the earlier themes that referred to community: talking together in the 1983 theme, Let’s talk—we have something to say; seeking understanding in the 1985 theme, Understanding: it takes the two of us; and working towards peace in the 1986 theme, Peace, not for you, not for me, but for all of us. The theme also had a future orientation, expressing hope for what might lie ahead for Aboriginal people: Our Future Depends On Us. That “us” clearly included white and black together, working in common in community.

The 1992 theme, Maintain the Dreaming—Our Culture is Our Heritage, looked back just a couple of years, to the 1990 theme, Don’t Destroy, Learn and Enjoy our Cultural Heritage, and to the 1988 theme, Recognise and Share the Survival of the Oldest Culture in the World. It also referenced the 1978 theme, Cultural Revival is Survival. All four years focussed attention on the long-exisiting culture that was maintained and passed on by indigenous peoples around the continent.

In addition, the 1992 theme included a reference to Dreaming; this is a term, somewhat contentious amongst First Nations people, which has nevertheless seen widespread acceptance and adoption in the wider Australian society. It is generally understood to be a way to refer to the collection of stories that form the foundational mythology of Aboriginal peoples.

Reconciliation Australia, on its website shareourpride.org.au, states that “it is impossible to find words that adequately capture this core element of who we are but it’s something you feel when you sit with us on our country and hear our stories with an open mind and heart.”

The website affirms that “Dreaming is more than a mythical past; it prescribes our connection as Aboriginal people with the spiritual essence of everything around us and beyond us. Dreaming stories are not in the past, they are outside of time – always present and giving meaning to all aspects of life.”

See https://www.shareourpride.org.au/sections/our-culture/index.html

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The 1993 theme, Aboriginal Nations—Owners of the Land Since Time Began—Community is Unity, incorporated three distinct phrases. The final phrase looked back by incorporating one phrase of the 1991 theme, Community is Unity. However, the full theme included a clear reference to the struggle that had culminated in the 1992 Mabo decision. It identified Aboriginal people as Owners of the Land Since Time Began. This was the principle underlying the High Court’s Mabo decision, and which then enabled the development of the Native Title Act of that year (1993).

Furthermore, the 1993 theme included a clear declaration that Aboriginal people had not simply been “one nation” before British invasion and settlement commenced in 1788; the reference to the plural, Aboriginal Nations, was highly strategic. It had been the custom in the 19th and 20th centuries for Aboriginal people to be described and treated as a single cultural and historical unit.

By contrast, today, two decades into the 21st century, the claim made by the 1993 theme is widely accepted and commonly spoken. British settlers have dispossessed people from well over 250 different nations right across the continent and its associated islands. The clearest example of this recognition is the map published by the government agency AIATSIS (the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies).

On a website explaining this map, AIATSIS explains that it “attempts to represent the language, social or nation groups of Aboriginal Australia. It shows only the general locations of larger groupings of people which may include clans, dialects or individual languages in a group.”

The map presents a clear lesson in a graphic manner: there were many, many nations across the continent prior to 1788.

See https://aiatsis.gov.au/explore/map-indigenous-australia

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The NAIDOC WEEK themes of the next two years continued to articulate core beliefs within Aboriginal culture. The 1994 theme, Families Are the Basis of Our Existence—Maintain the Link, alluded to the 1979 theme, What about our kids?, and would provide a prophetic looking-forward to the key findings of the Bringing Them Home report issued just a few years later, in 1997.

The 1995 theme, Justice Not Tolerance, was a plea to move beyond ideas of merely tolerating indigenous people, and adopt the principles of justice that would see them treated equitably, with wrongs righted and reparations made for past errors.

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In March 1996, John Howard’s Liberal Party, in coalition with the National Party, was elected, and formed a government that lasted for the next 11 years. The 1996 and 1997 themes for NAIDOC WEEK continued to provide sharp insights into what was needed in Australian society, even with a more conservative government at the helm. In 1996, the theme was Survive—Revive—Come Alive.

In 1997, the theme was equally pointed, as it,celebrated the 30th anniversary of the 1967 referendum,

Dr John Gardiner-Garden notes the many retrograde steps taken by the new Howard Government: they “dropped the terms ‘social justice’ and ‘self-determination’, withdrew support from many of the initiatives and institutions for which these terms were the raison-d’etre and declared its new priorities to be ‘accountability’, ‘improving outcomes in key areas’ and ‘promoting economic independence’.”

He furthered noted that “Government actions such as creating a Special Auditor, reducing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) funding, amending the Native Title Act and perceived inactions on reconciliation and in responding to the rhetoric of the new One Nation Party placed a strain on relations with the Indigenous community.”

See https://www.aph.gov.au/about_parliament/parliamentary_departments/parliamentary_library/pubs/bn/1011/indigenousaffairs2#_Toc295218057

The three events referenced in the 1997 theme, Gurindji, Mabo, and Wik, were pivotal moments in the advancement of Aboriginal claims in the 20th century.

The Gurindji Strike of 1966 was led by Vincent Lingiari. A protest against the Wave Hill station managers resulted in the return of some traditional lands to the Gurindji people under a lease arrangement in 1975, and later led to the granting of inalienable freehold title to this area in 1984.

In the Mabo decision of the High Court, handed down on 3 June 1992, the court recognised the land rights of the Meriam people. They were the traditional owners of some islands in the Torres Strait. Marked on the map as the Murray Islands, the Torres Strait Islanders called these islands Mer, Dauer and Waier). The case is significant because it rejected the view that at the time of colonisation, Australia was terra nullius, or land belonging to no one.

The case had initially been brought in 1982 by five indigenous people. Because Eddie Koiki Mabo was the first plaintiff in the case, it became known as the Mabo Case. In its judgement, the High Court acknowledged that “Indigenous peoples had lived in Australia for thousands of years and enjoyed rights to their land according to their own laws and customs.” See https://aiatsis.gov.au/explore/mabo-case

On Eddie Mabo, see https://aiatsis.gov.au/explore/eddie-koiki-mabo#toc-the-mabo-case

The Wik judgement of 1996 built on the basis of the Mabo decision. The case related to the right to hold native title in an area where there were pastoral,leases in place. By a majority of 4–3, the High Court agreed that the pastoral leases did not extinguish the native title of the Wik and Tahyorre people of Cape York.

Sadly, the remembering of these three key events during the early years of the retrogressive Howard government, strikes a note of pathos. These advances were not built on by the Howard government. In the ensuing decade, due to the intransigence of the government, things would actually go backwards.

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See also

50 years of NAIDOC WEEK 3 (1984–1990)

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

See https://www.creativespirits.info/aboriginalculture/land/meaning-of-land-to-aboriginal-people

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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.

Michael Nelson Jagamara (born 1945) Luritja/Warlpiri peoples
Possum and Wallaby Dreaming 1985, synthetic polymer paint on canvas, Parliament House Art Collection, Canberra, ACT.
© The artist licensed by Aboriginal Artists’ Agency Ltd.

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

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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.”

See https://www.sbs.com.au/nitv/article/2016/12/21/what-continuous-culture-and-are-aboriginal-cultures-oldest

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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

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See also

Fifty Years of NAIDOC WEEK 2 (1976–1983)

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’).”

See https://www.aph.gov.au/about_parliament/parliamentary_departments/parliamentary_library/pubs/bn/1011/indigenousaffairs1#_Toc293318916

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.

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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

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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!

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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.

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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.

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See also

Fifty years of NAIDOC WEEK 1 (1972–1975)

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.

See https://ulurustatement.org/the-statement /

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.”

See https://www.whitlam.org/whitlam-legacy-aboriginal-and-torres-strait-islander-peoples

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.

A ceremony to officially hand back traditional lands in the Northern Territory to the Gurindji people took place on August 16th, 1975 at Daguragu.
Prime Minister Whitlam made a short speech, took some sand, and poured it into the hands of Vincent Lingiari, the leader of the protest movement.

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.

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See also

The Aboriginal Tent Embassy: 50 years

On 26 January 1972, four Aboriginal men—Billie Craigie, Michael Anderson, Bertie Williams, and Tony Coorey—set up a beach umbrella on the lawns opposite the Parliament House in Canberra. The men were protesting the resistance that the conservative Liberal-Country Party federal government were exhibiting towards granting land rights to Aboriginal people.

Even though Aboriginal people had lived on the land of the continent of Australia for millennia, they had no rights to land in most places across the continent. The British Invasion of Port Jackson in 1788, some years after Lt James Cook had imperiously claimed the land of New Holland for the British Crown in 1770, led to expanding colonisation of the land over the ensuing decades. Each new colonial settlement was associated with battles between the local indigenous people and the invading British. Massacres resulted in almost every location.

The men sitting under the umbrella in Canberra in 1972 described it as the Aboriginal Embassy, alluding to the fact that the city of Canberra was home to scores of embassies from the governments of overseas nations. Indeed, the city had been established early in the 20th century with the guarantee that those nations could have a piece of territory in the new capital city where their diplomatic staff could live and work.

By the late 1970s, seventy nations had embassies in Canberra (see https://openresearch-repository.anu.edu.au/bitstream/1885/115002/2/b11766608.pdf), but there was no formal channel for relationships with the First Peoples of Australia. Somewhere around 400 groupings of Aboriginal people were believed to have lived across the continent and on the surrounding islands, including the Torres Strait Islands, with at least 250 languages being spoken.

But decades of British colonisation had seen the indigenous people marginalised from “mainstream” white Australian society. Numbers declined, living conditions deteriorated, especially in towns and cities, and racist attitudes towards “the blacks” predominated. Of those 250 languages, less than a half had continued into the 20th century, and many of those continuing languages were in peril of dying out completely.

Aboriginal leadership had been agitating for their people for some time. The YES vote at the 1967 referendum augured well, it seemed. Yet the Prime Minister of the day (and arguably one of Australia’s worst leaders), William McMahon, and his conservative government colleagues exemplified the cultural arrogance and racism that held sway across the nation at that time.

The National Museum of Australia reports that “On the eve of Australia Day 1972, the McMahon government announced the implementation of a new system that rejected granting independent ownership of traditional land to Indigenous people in favour of 50-year general purpose leases for Indigenous communities, provided they could demonstrate a social and economic use for the land and excluding any mineral and forest rights.

“After the ongoing disappointments of the land rights struggle, this announcement sparked action among many Indigenous groups and directly contributed to the founding of the Tent Embassy.” (see https://www.nma.gov.au/defining-moments/resources/aboriginal-tent-embassy) The time was ripe for Aboriginal leaders to step up and speak out on behalf of their peoples.

The initial demands of the group which established the Tent Embassy read today as a sensible set of actions which, although achieved in part, are sadly yet to be completely fulfilled. Those demands included:

• Complete rights to the Northern Territory as a state within Australia and the installation of a primarily Aboriginal State Parliament. These rights would include all mining rights to the land

• Ownership and mining rights of all other Aboriginal reserve lands in Australia

• The preservation of all sacred sites in Australia

• Ownership of areas in major cities, including the mining rights

• Compensation for lands that were not able to be returned starting with $6 billion and including a percentage of the gross national income every year.

See https://www.creativespirits.info/aboriginalculture/history/aboriginal-tent-embassy-canberra

In the ensuing years, there have been legal challenges, removal of the embassy, reinstitution of the embassy, arson attacks, moves to other sites in Canberra, and eventually, the registration of the embassy site with the Australian Heritage Commission as a part of the National Estate.

The Embassy has been maintained continuously since 1972 by First People leaders, and this month the 50th anniversary is being celebrated. (The recent incident at the front of Old Parliament House was not associated in any way with the Tent Embassy, nor with any responsible Aboriginal leadership.)

Professor Bronwyn Carlson, Director of The Centre for Global Indigenous Futures, Macquarie University, writes that “Nowhere else in the world have we seen such longevity around a site of protest. The Aboriginal Tent Embassy is an impressive achievement that demonstrates the tenacity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and our continued fight for the reclamation of our lands and sovereign rights as First Nations peoples.” (see https://theconversation.com/a-short-history-of-the-aboriginal-tent-embassy-an-indelible-reminder-of-unceded-sovereignty-174693)

See also https://johntsquires.com/2018/08/10/the-sovereignty-of-the-first-peoples-of-australia/

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