Today dawned bleak. Overcast skies. Dampening long weekend camping plans. I lay in bed this morning and pondered the controversy surround today’s celebrations and its significance to everyone who calls Australia home, as I have since 2003.
Indigenous Australians, whose heritage predated the arrival of the first fleet in 1788, were Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. The Aboriginals inhabited the whole of Australia. Torres Strait Islanders lived on the islands between Australia and Papua New Guinea – now called the Torres Strait. 700 languages were spoken by ‘an estimated population of 750, 000’ (Australian Museum).
These indigenous communities made up of people who spoke different languages, held various cultural and spiritual beliefs; and enjoyed the freedoms of being able to speak their language, live in traditional ways and move about the land without censure as they ‘followed their food’ sources from season to season.
Today just 2% of the country’s population identify as Indigenous people of Australia (about 410, 000).
The number of Aboriginal people has changed since European settlement because of the effects of removal of people from traditional lands and the impact of cities and towns on populations. (Australian Museum)
Perhaps they were always there, the undercurrents woven around every 26th January. I am uncomfortable to celebrate a day that signifies so much loss to one nation – the original nation – and so much gain to the new nation – those having arrived since 1788.
We mourn the declaration of Australia as terra nullius (land that belongs to no one) as well as those who have died in massacres, those who were dispossessed of their land and homes, those were denied their humanity, those who were shackled, beaten, sent to prison camps, and made to live in reserves (Invasion Day).
For many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, Australia Day is also an opportunity to recognise the survival of their people and culture. Despite colonisation, discrimination and comprehensive inequalities, they continue to practise their traditions, look after the land where possible and make their voices heard. It is a day to celebrate their survival.
On the other hand today is, to many who call Australia home, a day of celebration of the values, freedoms and pastimes of their birth or adopted country. To others, it is a day to spend at community events or at a barbeque with family, friends and a game of backyard cricket. We are told it is a day to ‘celebrate what’s great about Australia and being Australia. It’s the day to reflect on what we have achieved and what we can be proud of in our great nation… the day for us to re-commit to making Australia an even better place for the future.’
‘The great majority of Indigenous people want to live in one Australia; want to share in its destiny; want to participate in and contribute to its progress; but at the same time, want the recognition and respect that their status and millennia old civilisation so clearly warrant.’
“The great majority of Indigenous people want to live in one Australia”
The increasing controversy about how we celebrate 26th January emphasises the complexities of Australia’s history and the strong emotions that are piqued on 26th January.