♦ Budgeram means story in Bundjalung language.
This January 2020 Australia is burning. For many Australians, this is the most collectively terrifying moment in our nations’ history. For Indigenous Australians, it is devastating beyond belief as we watch the land – our mother – burn, along with thousands of years of our cultural heritage.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture is considered the oldest continuing culture on the planet. Artefacts identifying the existence of Aboriginal culture have been dated to as far back as 75,000 years.
The colonisation of Australia and its mandated policies and acts of genocide have deliberately disturbed and damaged the practice of Aboriginal cultures in the most devastating way. Yet, culture is something we are rich in. It includes our laws, our respect for our Elders and our stories and songs of the creation of the land. Our languages in which these stories are told, are steeped in the landscape around us, our customs and our beliefs. Cultural heritage is all around us, sites, objects, and places hold thousands of years of stories and practices. There are complex rules around how and with whom it is shared.
As Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, we have an obligation to learn and respect our laws, while we also have to learn the laws and ways of the colonists. We have to learn twice as much, and contribute to two societies, while having access to less than half the resources of your average Australian.
Invasion, dispossession, dehumanisation
January is always a difficult start to the year for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, with the wind down from Christmas and New Year’s Eve. It turns quickly to the national focus on Australia Day on 26 January – the day commemorating the establishment of the first British settlement at Port Jackson in 1788.
In recent years, debates about whether to change the date of this national public holiday have polarised the nation. Activists have pushed the discourse of invasion and genocide and the inappropriateness of celebrating the invasion of Australia as a national holiday. Many community leaders and local governments have heard the call to change the date of Australia Day. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspectives must be included in plans and discussions for Australia Day celebrations – without the reactionary and racist guilt and anger responses from non-Indigenous Australians, which then flood the mainstream media and social media platforms.
January 26 represents invasion, dispossession, dehumanisation, aggressive assimilation and stolen generations.
Mainstream Australians must strive to understand what 26 January represents to us: invasion, dispossession, dehumanisation, aggressive assimilation and stolen generations. It has meant the forced removal of our babies and children, the outlawing of the use of our own languages and outlawing the practice of our own cultures. It has meant deaths in custody, intergenerational poverty – and all that goes with it – and enduring generations of racism within our own country.
Moving forward, together, Indigenous voices need to be a meaningful, not tokenistic, part of the Australia Day celebration. We need to represent our own relationship with this day in our nation’s history. For us, it will never be a day of celebration except to celebrate that we have survived and brought our culture forward with us.
This discussion didn’t start yesterday. Our elders have worked and fought for every right that we have, and for many that we have not yet realised.
National day of recognition
On 26 January in 1938, the first ‘Day of Mourning’ was held to mark 150 years since colonisation. Over a thousand protestors marched in Sydney and attended a congress organised by the Aboriginal Advancement League, founded by William Cooper. It was one of the major civil rights movements in the world, known as Aborigines Day. It was held annually on the Sunday before Australia Day until 1955. In 1955, it became a day not only to protest dispossession and racism, but also to celebrate Aboriginal cultures, and was held on the first Sunday in July.
We have been calling for our own public holiday in recognition of the Indigenous Peoples of Australia – yet successive governments have ignored our calls. Do not give us Invasion Day as our national day of celebration, as it is steeped in the blood of our ancestors, in the policies and the acts of genocide.
On this day, we mourn our collective losses and show our defiance through our very survival. We need a day where we can celebrate the joy in our love of country, law, families and culture.
Join us for Survival Day
A Survival Day event is being held in Byron Bay at Apex Park on 26 January from 11am till 2.30pm. It will be hosted by the local reconciliation groups aligned with Arakwal and other Aboriginal residents.
This event is pulled together with very limited funding from Byron Shire Council and unlimited commitment from community members. Come along and support this event, engage with the people doing this important work in our community.
Belle Arnold is a local dubay of Wakka Wakka descent. ‘Living off country I pay my respect to the Arakwal people and the wider Bundjalung people of this land,’ says Belle.
Belle has worked in community for 15 years, Belle is an artist, dancer and weaver working across many other mediums. Belle is passionate about community and has committed to empowering women and young people through cultural practice. She has worked in government, arts and community organisation to advocate for improved access to land, culture and services. Belle is currently employed at Desert Pea Media as the Projects Manager.
More Storylines articles
January 26. A conflicting date for many Australians. For some, this date reflects over 200 years of destruction and denigration of our traditional customs, values, languages, and cultural landscapes.
There was a time when humans were content with living in harmony with nature, our struggles were elemental and intricately connected to our survival.
Australia, as a nation, is at a crossroads.
It’s fast approaching that time of year when Black Lives do Matter – National Aborigine and Islanders Day Observance Committtee (NAIDOC) Week.
Imagine if we passed laws that were about caring for the land and the people, returning the old ways, bringing back the lores from the first cultures of ‘Australia’.
What is the fear that immerses us to such a degree that we become immobilised? I felt that fear in the initial days of the COVID-19 pandemic. All of the news actually started to make me feel ill, so I turned off the news and tuned in to my life.
Doing the right thing. Staying home. Saving lives. But what if you’re not home. What if you are living off country as it’s too expensive to go home, or there is no work at home. What if you have no home?
The toilet paper, and a measure of our societal maturity, were the first Australian casualties in today’s COVID-19 pandemic. The madness in the shopping centres were an early indicator that the leaders of the nation would need to step up. But as with the bushfire crisis, they did not.
At this particular point in time, I am troubled – troubled by this country, Australia, that is destroying our lifeline, an essential component of all of our existences – Mother Earth. Is it possible for all of us to rise and meet the challenges that are now being presented to us all?
Echonetdaily is proud to launch Storylines – a series of monthly articles by Indigenous writers.