NAIDOC is usually a fantastic time for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and is celebrated as an opportunity to showcase culture and contributions made by Indigenous Australians to Australia and the world. The 2021 theme of ‘Heal Country’ served to remind us of the beauty of the home of the oldest continuous culture on the planet.
Country is central to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and identity. It is a symbiotic relationship that defies definition, but for culturally grounded Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, Country is where we are from, and to where we will return.
Joe Flick, a mate of mine, has written about the importance of Country; Joe has been visiting the graves of Aboriginal soldiers who died, and who are buried in France and England. Joe’s story is inspiring and comforting, especially to those who’ve lost loved ones while in defence of their country.
Joe writes: ‘I knew that they were so far from mob, and disconnected from Country. After talking to some family members of the soldiers, I decided that I would try to “bring their spirits home” by scattering soil taken from the soldier’s traditional Country on their graves in France and England. By doing this, I hoped that it bought some peace; to the soldiers, their relatives and to Country.’
First Nations sports stars use strength for change
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people also shone in the sporting arena during NAIDOC 2021.
Shaun Burgoyne, a proud Kokatha and Warai man from South Australia, became the first Aboriginal player to reach 400 games, and only the fifth overall in more than 125 years of AFL competition.
Then there was the announcement, coming during NAIDOC week, that Aboriginal basketball player, Patty Mills, will join swimmer Cate Campbell as Australian flag-bearers during the opening ceremony of the Tokyo Olympics. Patty is a great inspiration for all Australian kids, and is fiercely proud of his Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander identity. Patty has used his fame and fortune to give back to community through gifts and donations.
Increasingly, we are recognising how important it is for high profile athletes to lend their name to causes, but it’s taken to another level when such people also share their wealth to initiate respect and change.
Red, black and yellow flag pride
In 2019, Patty reportedly donated his entire annual salary of $1.4m to support the advocacy work of various campaigns in Australia, including ‘Black Lives Matter Australia’, ‘Black Deaths in Custody’ and the work of the ‘We Got You’ campaign, which is supported by some of Australia’s biggest sporting identities. It is dedicated to standing against racism by providing a voice for long overdue racial justice and change.
I read with pride that Patty also carries the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flags with him, and I’m sure that they will make an appearance during the Tokyo Olympics.
Contrast this with how Cathy Freeman was treated when she proudly ran around the arena draped in the Aboriginal and Australian flags after winning the 400m gold at the 1994 Commonwealth Games in Victoria, BC, Canada.
Cathy was castigated by Arthur Tunstall, the Australian team’s chef de mission and she learnt, through the media, that Tunstall had banned her from flying the Aboriginal flag in any other celebration.
Cathy was not denying her Australian identity, but rather she wanted people to know how proud she was (and is) of her Aboriginal identity. Cathy is reported to have said after the 400m race: ‘This was my race, and no one was going to stop me telling the world how proud I am to be Aboriginal’.
Six years later, what Cathy did at the Sydney Olympics is now sporting legend and world history.
Slow but magnificent progress towards equality
Ashleigh Barty’s magnificent Wimbledon victory was played with the grace and humility of her idol and mentor, the mercurial Evonne Goolagong Cawley.
Ashleigh’s victory marked the 40thanniversary of Evonne’s Wimbledon triumph, and came during the early hours of the last day of NAIDOC week 2021, something that Ash acknowledged during a post-match interview.
Also receiving considerable media attention was the support from Australian cricketer, Mel Jones, who was courtside during Ash’s event, wearing a T-shirt with the message: ‘Always Was – Always Will Be’ emblazoned on it. This simple message speaks to unfinished business in our nation. Ash acknowledged Mel Jones and her shirt with a smile and a finger point as she left the court with the Rosewater Dish.
The pace and path toward social and racial equality is painfully slow, and contested, but progress is being made in our country and around the world. The young and future leaders increasingly understand the need for reform, because they are creating their world rather than simply inheriting it.
I remain captured by hope.