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September 22, 2021

Storylines: Do not give us Invasion Day as a day of celebration

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Budgeram means story in Bundjalung language.

This article is made possible by the support of Ninbella Gallery.

Belle Arnold

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.

Lolo and Shalai. Photo Tree Faerie.

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.

Aborigines Day of Mourning, Sydney, 26 January 1938. Photo State library of NSW.

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.

Celebrating culture. Photo Jeff Dawson.

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. Photo Tree Faerie.


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.

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  1. Such a well written article Belle,I couldn’t agree more.
    Changes need to be made to this day,we will be there supporting Survival Day!

  2. It was war. They were out to settle the score. D-Day was a bloody invasion a day written in blood.
    On June 6 1944 the Allied forces, mainly British invaded Normandy, France in Operation Overlord during World War II.
    On January 26, 1788, a British force specifically named as the First Fleet invaded Terra Australis, the Great South Land and set up camp at Sydney Cove and proclaimed all land of the east coast as New South Wales in the name of the King of England even though the land was settled by a peace-loving nation of people, the Aborigine. How could it not be an invasion when the whites from England killed and slaughtered the people who lived here and the presiding communication back to England was that the place was empty of human beings.

  3. Brilliant. Thank you Echo.
    This is a great start to 2020 – recognising everyone as our brothers and sisters.
    Our indigenous people still carry the knowledge and memory of the lore, the ancient wisdoms, the culture that engenders respect and dignity for all – something that many 20th century caucasians have long been removed from – and the impact of this distance from our true nature and the sacred laws and wisdoms that once guided humanity is being seen and felt all over the planet in the many faces of devastation and destruction.
    May the day come soon when the jewels of wisdom that the indigenous people still carry are shared in the knowing that they will be received and lived with the respect and care they deserve for the benefit of all life

  4. Good onya Belle. We still got a lot of work to do. So many years of sadness. As a Lismore Shire resident, I would like to know where the Widjabul Survival Day gathering will be held. Do you know?

  5. Sorry . First fleet didn’t arrive on 26 January.
    The first fleet and the Aboriginal people initially got on fine.
    This is a celebration that we are ALL Australian and what it means to live here as one people.

    • How can it be such a celebration when the date itself is offensive to the traditional owners who have been protesting against it and requesting it be changed for over 80 years?

  6. A fine article, but the 1938 Day of Mourning was organised by the Aborigines Progressive Association, led by Jack Patten. Cooper had shared his initial idea with William Ferguson, who brought it back to Sydney for Jack to organise, with help from Pearl Gibbs.

    As an aside, Jack Patten lived for a time on Bundjalung Country, as his wife, Selina Avery was a Bundjalung woman from Baryulgil, and was also active politically.

  7. If it was an invasion then there was a defeat. One must defend one’s country. In this case it did not happen. Look at the history of the world. Constant invasion & defeat. The “defeated“ had to get on with it & do the best they could. Our first people, because they did not have fear or knowledge of history, did not realise the need to be prepared for an invasion & were not prepared. Their only fears were from other tribes & communities & they were adequately prepared for these incidents. The answer is in education,I believe and acceptance on the part of the ”victors”. There are many, many persons of Aboriginal decent who have achieved much in all categories, in fact better than the “invaders”. That is the way it should be and encouragement to achieve must be available to all of us. “Invasion” was bound to occur sooner or later. I respect everyone for who they are & how they respect me.

  8. Well I have read the story and the 9 comments. 1. Not once in the story did I see/read that the First Fleet were under Royal Orders to get along with the locals as friends.
    2. Comment 3 by Emily states “New South Wales in the name of the King of England even though the land was settled by a peace-loving nation of people, the Aborigine.” there wan’t just One Nation but over 250 nations, and as my Aboriginal Elder mate, tells me they were not all that friendly to every nation within Australia.
    3. But, by far the best comment comes from Number 9, authored by Marion, Education is the Key.
    4. I would like to add that one day this decade (Jacinta Price) we will be voting for our First Aboriginal Prime Minister,
    5. Can we not all learn to get along following the Kanyini thought. Check Kanyini on the internet.

  9. We could have an inclusive national day commemorating loss of culture for all indigenous peoples of the countries of the British Empire where invasion, war, murder, rape, slavery and dispossession of language and culture were common. Over the last 500 years this drama has happened to millions of people including on the British Isles. So many people have lost the understanding that their Earth connection with its Nature Wisdom was forcibly taken from their ancestors and that they were consequently trained by the conquerors to disrespect their earth-based spirituality. We need some truth-telling and honest examination of the British Empire and how the embedded psychological structure left behind is still continuing its damage to humans and the environment. We once were all from cultures that had respect, love and protection for the Earth at its centre. By all means still have a day specifically for our own Indigenous peoples but to acknowledge there is pain, loss and trauma as well as unhealthy behaviors and lifestyles left behind in all post-colonial countries and inflicted on the descendants may bring deeper healing, compassion and changed behavior.

  10. Leave Australia Day on the 26th but make clear its true nature! Give real criminals a casual job as actors on the 3 convict ships sailing into Port Jackson. And broadcast the transferral pf the “criminals” back into jail!


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