Performer Laura Nobel with her music students at NAIDOC Day in Lismore yesterday.
Story & photo Melissa Hargraves
Provisions for wet weather payed off for the 2013 National Aboriginal and Islander Day Observance Committee (NAIDOC) celebrations at the Lismore Showgrounds yesterday, which saw the indigenous community celebrating their culture with non-indigenous folk.
More schools than ever before stretching across the region participated in the revelry that included singing, dancing, painting, weaving, puppetry and stalls from over sixty service providers.
Part of the celebrations included a reading by local author Aunty Bertha Kapeen of her story Henry the Mullet whilst Krinkle Theatre Company performed puppetry. The show was such a hit an encore performance was presented. Aunty Bertha sits on the Bundjalung Elders Council and shared her respect for the acknowledgment of the 1963 Yirrkala bark petitions, a major theme of this year’s celebrations.
It is 50 years since the Yolngu people of Yirrkala in northeast Arnhem Land sent two bark petitions to the House of Representatives to protest against the commonwealth granting mining rights on land excised from Arnhem Land reserve and to request recognition of the rights of the Yolngu people to their land.
The 1963 bark petitions began to shape legislative and constitutional reforms including the 1967 referendum, land rights recognition in 1976 and the revolutionary MABO case, which saw the High Court overturn the concept of terra nullius in 1992.
‘Legislation has gone further now, but it is important to acknowledge the bark petitions as that is how it was done and how it first started,’ Aunty Bertha told Echonetdaily.
‘[The responsibility for] reconciliation now needs to fall to the non-indigenous people,’ she said.
‘This is only my viewpoint, but I believe that non-Aboriginal people should reconcile with us. Of course we will do our fair share too but the emphasis should not be on us,’ she said.
Aunty Bertha questioned why Aboriginal people have had to learn the way of the white settler and questioned how much learning is going the other way.
Lismore mayor Jenny Dowell, with an Aboriginal flag painted on her right cheek, said she recognises the broader implications of acknowledging the 1963 bark paintings.
‘If an Aboriginal community, wherever they might be, feel that they are recognised and valued, that helps with self-esteem. That goes on to affect health, confidence and even employment possibilities. The young people can then grow up feeling proud of their culture. So the ripples of recognition go much further that the original event that is being recognised,’ she told Echonetdaily.
The fact that this year’s celebrations were held on culturally significant land at the Lismore showground was not lost on mayor Dowell.
‘Until about three years ago there was a tension between the show society and Aboriginal people because of the history of this land, and that Aboriginal people did not feel welcome back to the site. This has begun to shift with the show society opening up an elders’ area at the show and NAIDOC celebrations moving to the site,’ she said.’
Lismore City Council (LCC) has recently adopted the first Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP) in the Northern Rivers. Mayor Dowell reflected on other areas of local government that have become culturally sensitive.
‘I have served on LCC for nine years and before that we did not fly the Aboriginal flag outside nor did we have it inside, we didn’t have acknowledgement of country at the start of our meetings, we now have a framed section of the apology on the wall and most significantly and recently is our adoption of the RAP.
‘I am not saying that all attitudes of staff and councillors are as informed and up-to-date as they should be, but we are setting a standard. The official recognition of council that started under the previous general manager, is now so much better than years ago when for instance, Rabbit Proof Fence came out and the mayor refused to go to a screening, so we have come a long way, but still have a long way to go.’
Songs and storytelling
Local esteemed jazz and blues singer Laura Nobel has been involved with NAIDOC celebrations for six years and brings schoolchildren to the stage for performances. Ms Nobel works weekly with students from Casino High School and Cabbage Tree Island School to develop their song writing and learning of instruments.
‘Some of these kids write beautiful songs and come up with fantastic ideas,’ she told Echonetdaily, ‘but to get them out there, it all comes down to funding. So to see them get up there on days like today is beautiful for them and their families to see.’
‘It is through stories that our experiences come to light, that is how we remember that we are all human,’ she said.
‘We had a beautiful day at Cabbage Tree Island School last year when elders came and talked and let us all ask questions. We wrote everything down and turned it into a song. The children performed it yesterday to the elderly at St Andrews Village in Ballina and it brought tears to eyes it was so moving! Some of the stories were hard stories and some were beautiful, but now these children have a deeper understanding of what their elders and family went through. They sing it with incredible respect.’
Ms Nobel is passionate about NAIDOC celebrations.
‘This country owes a huge debt for what we have, the Aboriginal culture needs to be brought up into the light so we can all participate in a positive way. There are too many negative statistics that haven’t gone away yet. Days like this are about the kids feeling good and the family coming together. It is my favourite day of the year actually!’ she said.
NAIDOC and the bark petitions
NAIDOC Week celebrations are held across Australia in July each year to celebrate the history, culture and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. NAIDOC Celebration Day is brought forward in Lismore for the inclusion of schools before they go on winter vacation.
The 1963 bark petitions are symbolic as they are the only petitions to be formally recognised out of petitions presented in 1968, 1988, 1998 and 2008. Earlier petitions seeking representation in parliament and a department for native affairs were presented in 1935 and 1937. NADOC (which later became NAIDOC to include Torres Strait Islanders) was founded in 1938 out of the lack of response from these early petitions.
To read further about the history of the bark petitions go to http://australia.gov.au/about-australia/australian-story/bark-petitions-indigenous-art