One and free? Why First Nations people struggle with Australia Day

One and free? Why First Nations people struggle with Australia Day

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For many, it’s a day off towards the end of summer. For some it is a day of flag-waving and “Aussie Aussie Aussie, oy-oy-oy” chants. For others, it’s a long-anticipated day of citizenship ceremonies where those not born in Australia are officially welcomed into the family. Australia Day, January 26, is – or it strives to be – an inclusive, multicultural celebration of diversity and a moment, perhaps, to think about what Australia is and could be. For many Indigenous Australians, it is especially complicated, even painful.

As Stan Grant writes in his 2019 book Australia Day, January 26 “for so many of the First Peoples of this continent remains a day of pain, a reminder of a history of segregation, exclusion and brutality”. As a man of mixed heritage, he sees the positives in the day, too – it is, he writes, “a powerful statement of belief and hope in this nation”.

Many of Australia’s more than 800,000 Indigenous people prefer to avoid the day, withdrawing from public life and social media. “It can be a difficult time for a lot of community,” says Joshua Bond, manager of the Indigenous dance troupe Djuki Mala.

Another asked: “How can you celebrate nationhood when historical facts about colonial wars and massacres and the disruption of a thriving culture that had existed for tens of thousands of years have been barely acknowledged, let alone addressed?” Not wanting to be dragged into the debate because of the effect it could have on his professional and personal life, he asked not to be named. But he also asked that non-Indigenous people use the day to ask themselves a question: What must Australia Day feel like for Indigenous Australians?

It seems more of us are open to that question and to reflect on the complexity of the day’s meaning. The growth of Invasion (or Survival) Day marches, the emergence of dawn vigils, the decision by some municipalities to reframe the day as one of mourning as well as celebration, the inclusive and contemplative ad from the Australia Day Council this year, all point to a growing willingness to view January 26, 1788, the day Governor Phillip and the first convicts established a settlement in Sydney Cove, from a different perspective: the view from shore (the colonised) rather than, or as well as, the view from the ship (the colonisers).


The resistance to that shift remains strong, and was typified last week by Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s rebuke of Cricket Australia for dropping mention of the words “Australia Day” in its promotions for games over the long weekend. “When those 12 ships turned up in Sydney all those years ago, it wasn’t a particularly flash day for the people on those vessels either,” Morrison said. His false equivalence was controversial, but he went on to try to explain how he sees it. “Australia Day is all about acknowledging how far we’ve come,” he said.

But, as Grant writes, non-Indigenous Australians struggle with truly understanding the Indigenous perspective, even if it’s not a uniform one. “if you are not Indigenous, it is impossible to really know what it is to carry this history in our bones, to live with the memory of wounds … this [land] was never empty − terra nullius was the lie that haunts us still”.

Here, then, is a glimpse of what January 26 – Foundation Day, Australia Day, Invasion Day, a Day of Mourning – means to some Indigenous Australians.

Kayla Cartledge, founder, Gurrindji woman, Mornington Peninsula
The date needs to change for there to be unity. It is celebrating Phillip’s arrival, which is the start of genocide in Australia. It has more than symbolic value. It would show people are willing to open up their minds to a different history. People need to be open to new ideas, have a willingness to listen rather than having an emotional response to something they feel targeted for. Reconciliation needs to be led by us, but we’re 3.3 per cent of the population and we need to make white Australians feel part of it for change to happen.

Kayla Cartledge runs a web-based business on the Mornington Peninsula.

Kayla Cartledge runs a web-based business on the Mornington Peninsula.

Wesley Enoch, playwright, artistic director Sydney Festival, Queensland
A national day is important, but January 26 is a symptom of a much grander disease. It’s a restatement of colonial importance. Symbolism is important, but it has to be not just tokenism but representative of a bigger body of thought. Noel Pearson talks about three narratives that live alongside each other, and I think we should think about a three-day celebration: We should have one day for Indigenous remembrance, then one for British arrival, then a celebration of the diverse country we are now. Why should we be caught by a 24-hour time period to have a sense of who we are?

Rethinking our national day could help mend bridges, says Wesley Enoch.

Rethinking our national day could help mend bridges, says Wesley Enoch.Credit:James Brickwood

Daniel James, writer and broadcaster, Yorta Yorta man, Melbourne
Australia Day perpetuates the colonial myth that this continent is just over 200 years old, when that is patently not the case. Australia and the collection of colonies that preceded it actively tried to destroy or let die the original inhabitants of this place, and Australia Day diminishes the scope of any conversation we can have about the deep dark recesses at the heart of this nation. As an optimist I like to think that one day we can have something we can all celebrate, but we can’t have a unified day until we have a treaty or treaties. The most obvious way to get to that point would be having a voice enshrined within the constitution.

Indigenous writer and broadcaster Daniel James.

Indigenous writer and broadcaster Daniel James.

Dorothy Lovett, health worker, Gunditjmara woman, Melbourne
I get sad on the day. There were a lot of massacres, we lost a lot of our family members. Sometimes I go to the Invasion Day march but most of the time I stay home. I’m not in the mood to socialise. I’m patriotic. I love my land, I love my people. My priority is not changing the date but making sure people take their medication; I support our people when they come in to see a doctor or dentist. I recall marching 30 years ago and we’d be lucky to have 100 people. Now we’ve got 100,000 and more. The support is overwhelming. It gives me hope.

Indigenous health worker Dorothy Lovett.

Indigenous health worker Dorothy Lovett.Credit:Joe Armao

Natarsha Bamblett, a Yorta Yorta, Kurnai, Warlpiri and Wiradjuri woman and founder of Miss Soul Inspires, which runs healing workshops and camps
It’s become a celebration that has been promoted to separate a nation. Would it be better to have it on another day? Of course. But will changing the date fix it? No. We have to change the storyline and the day’s purpose and intention. We have to change the voices and the stories so that it has Indigenous history, lens and perspective.
Australia Day marks the colonisation that left communities, families and our culture fractured. It is a day of mourning and also a day that represents the reclaiming of our story. There’s sadness and sorrow but I also get to celebrate myself as an Aboriginal woman and my ancestors. We get to pay respect to the people before us. The strength and the culture and the innovation and the Dreamtime stories and also the fight and survival we have endured.

Natarsha Bamblett, dancer, coach, footballer and mother, in Bundoora Park.

Natarsha Bamblett, dancer, coach, footballer and mother, in Bundoora Park.Credit:Scott McNaughton

Ken Wyatt, Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Yamatji, Wongi, Noongar man, Western Australia
This Australia Day we should reflect, respect and celebrate the Australian journey, more than 65,000 years in the making, with achievements that make us proud and moments of success that should be celebrated. It is also a journey that for some is difficult, it is raw, and it does hurt in parts – but rather than shy away from this, or dismiss our success, we should come together as one. We have so much to celebrate but we can take some time on Australia Day to reflect upon the sacrifices many have made, the challenges we have faced, losses felt and the adversity we have overcome to stand as Australians. We can also think about how we approach each other – through a lens of respect and considered understanding. Acknowledging and reflecting on our past while forging new respect for the many chapters of our story will only strengthen us as a people and a nation into the future.

Ken Wyatt, the Minister for Indigenous Australians, wearing a booka made from kangaroo skin given to him by Noongar elders from Western Australia.

Ken Wyatt, the Minister for Indigenous Australians, wearing a booka made from kangaroo skin given to him by Noongar elders from Western Australia.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

Kaylene Langford, founder Start-Up Creative, Gurin-gai woman, Sydney
January 26 can be quite triggering. It’s a marker that on this day everything changed, and not for the better. It feels like you’re stomping on people’s graves and throwing a party. When white settlers came, our people were moved away from their homes and their languages. There was so much displacement – where does the acknowledgment of that come? Instead, it’s celebrated every single year. I am proud of Australia, but I feel more has to be done to reconcile, to acknowledge how people are feeling, to ask what they need, for some level of conversation rather than the ignorance of “nah, you can never change the date”.

Young entrepreneur Kaylene Langford.

Young entrepreneur Kaylene Langford.

Malarndirri McCarthy, senator, Garrwa and Yanyuwa woman, Northern Territory
For me, January 26 is about survival. Survival of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, culture and language. It’s something I think all Australians can probably relate to this year in the face of a global pandemic. I call on all Australians to reflect and respect. Reflect on what has happened in our nation’s history, the effects of which continue to be felt, and reflect on survival; what that means not just for First Nations people but all Australians. It’s not about changing the date, it’s about changing attitudes.

Malarndirri McCarthy, Labor Senator for the Northern Territory.

Malarndirri McCarthy, Labor Senator for the Northern Territory.

Dr Anne Poelina, Nyikina Warrwa traditional custodian, Fitzroy River, Western Australia
My world view is framed from inter-generational lived experience of colonialism; theft of our lands and waters, physical violence, slavery, and ongoing abject poverty. We are not post-colonial; successive governments continue to legitimise invasive, unjust development as the “greater good”, for the predatory elite. Australia Day should be a celebration of our nation united, but we need to get the story right. It is time to seek justice and equity for all. It is time for truth-telling, reconciliation and healing. It is time to rewrite the Australian constitution, and transition to a just republic. I will spend the day dreaming of this brand new Australia Day.

Dr Anne Poelina, Nyikina Warrwa traditional custodian, from Fitzroy River.

Dr Anne Poelina, Nyikina Warrwa traditional custodian, from Fitzroy River.

Paul Briggs, president of the Rumbalara Football Netball Club, Yorta Yorta man, Shepparton, Victoria
Australia Day is a very unsafe space for Aboriginal people to be involved in, literally. Mainstream Australia wants us to get with the program, but we’ve never had the opportunity to negotiate that program. Aboriginal people are really wanting to be a part of the display of nationhood and national pride, but I believe we have the right to sit and negotiate an inclusive model of symbolism. We consistently talk about closing the gap, and people want to be included, but not at the expense of their own culture and identity. We have an inherent right to our ancestors and to future generations.

Aboriginal people want to be part of a day of national pride, says Paul Briggs, but the terms need to be redefined.

Aboriginal people want to be part of a day of national pride, says Paul Briggs, but the terms need to be redefined.Credit:Verity Stubbs

Witiyana Marika, Rirratjingu elder and actor, Arnhem Land, Northern Territory
We hope the nation can have a day when we all celebrate as one but I believe it’s for First Nations to decide what date that should be. There should be a process to change the date, like a Makarrata of sorts, part of a bigger process in this country, to work out how to recognise all Australians. We can’t change the past, but we can shape the future. We need to support the call in the Uluru Statement from the Heart for Voice, Treaty, Truth, for all these things, and we need a First Nations voice to Parliament enshrined in the constitution. I want unity and for future generations to walk together as one.

Witiyana Marika in High Ground, a film that does not flinch from Australia’s dark history.

Witiyana Marika in High Ground, a film that does not flinch from Australia’s dark history.Credit:Madman

Nyoka Hrabinsky, Yidinji woman and co-owner of The Lillipad Cafe in Glebe, Sydney
When I was younger my school celebrated Australia Day and I thought it was all about the Union Jack on the flag and “oy oy oy”. But as I got older I realised I didn’t like the day. It’s a day of mourning for our ancestors. We protest peacefully through our menu. On Invasion Day, we encourage people to buy our Indigenous-inspired special or the meals with native ingredients that are always on our menu. Last year we brought out a kangaroo burger and there was a lot of controversy around that. This year it will be a wattleseed waffle with wattleseed and lemon myrtle ice-cream. The date should be changed. It’s not fair that Indigenous people still have to struggle with this trauma. It’s a really difficult day, especially for our old people.

Nyoka Hrabinsky’s Lillipad cafe makes its point through food.

Nyoka Hrabinsky’s Lillipad cafe makes its point through food.Credit:Louise Kennerley

Bevan Mailman, Bidjara and managing principal of Jaramer Legal, Melbourne
When I look to Australia Day, I see a bridge half built. As an Indigenous lawyer with knowledge of Australia’s rich ancient Indigenous history in trade and enterprise, and also of English legal frameworks related to constitutional law, land title and nation, it is difficult for me not to recognise there are matters that remain unaddressed. The second half of the bridge will be completed when we truly recognise and make space for the settled and long ancient history of our nation on Recognition Day, and also recognise what has been built since, and cross over that completed bridge together.

Bevan Mailman, Bidjara lawyer and managing principal of Jaramer Legal

Bevan Mailman, Bidjara lawyer and managing principal of Jaramer Legal

Thomas Mayor, the Maritime Union of Australia’s national Indigenous officer, Torres Strait Islander
It feels like Groundhog Day every time January comes around – journalists are calling, panels are set up with speakers with different views – but my opinion isn’t going to resolve this issue any more than any other Indigenous public figure’s. It all comes back to the Uluru Statement. We need to establish a national, constitutionally enshrined First Nations voice so that we have this discussion, negotiate and move forward as a nation and celebrate who we are. In the absence of this First Nations structure, you get situations where the Prime Minister changes one word in the national anthem, which does absolutely nothing. The truth is, it was the day that invasion began. It was the day that opened the gates to genocide and forced assimilation for more than 200 years. It’s a day that began all the intergenerational trauma that causes so many issues today.

Thomas Mayor, author and signatory of the Uluru Statement from The Heart.

Thomas Mayor, author and signatory of the Uluru Statement from The Heart. Credit:Getty Images

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