On January 26th Australia celebrates its national day. It was on this day in 1788 that Captain Arthur Phillip raised the flag of Great Britain and proclaimed a colonial outpost of the British Empire in Port Jackson (later Sydney Cove). For many Australians, Australia Day signifies a celebration of the values and freedoms that characterise their country. But for Aboriginals, the indigenous peoples of the island, it marks the day when the colonisers of Australia began to kill, reject and exclude their community. To them, Australia Day is a day of mourning connected to the destruction of their culture. It is known as “Invasion Day”.
On the 150th anniversary celebrations of Australia, William Cooper, a member of the Aboriginal Progressive Association, met with several activists and held a “Day of Mourning and Protest”. This event was aimed at securing national citizenship and equal rights for indigenous peoples, and began a tradition of using Australia Day to remember the history of the Aboriginals. This includes, most significantly, recognition of the violence of the Frontier Wars, a period of conflict between white settlers and Australia’s indigenous population that lasted from 1788 until the Coniston massacre in 1928. This was followed by government policies that imposed assimilation and separation upon the Aboriginals, and saw many people removed from their traditional lands and culture. As Nakkiah Lui, an indigenous actor and playwright, explains: “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 who were denied their humanity, those who were shackled, beaten, sent to prison camps, and made to live in reserves”.
These feelings of marginalisation are also evident when it comes to the socio-economic position of indigenous peoples in society. By every measure, Aboriginals remain the poorest and most disadvantaged people in Australia today. Aboriginal people die younger: an indigenous male born in 2005-2007 is likely to live 11.5 years less than a non-indigenous male. Aboriginal children in “out of home care” is at an all time high, and imprisonment rates for indigenous Australians are around twelve times those of the rest of the Australian population. In fact, an indigenous child is more likely to be locked up in prison than they are to finish high school. In July 2015, an indigenous AFL player Adam Goodes was “hounded” and booed, and told “he was not Australian” when he took to the pitch. Stan Grant recounts how “when we heard those boos, we heard a sound that was very familiar to us… we heard a howl of humiliation that echoes across two centuries of dispossession, injustice, suffering and survival”.
There is still no treaty between Australia and any of its indigenous peoples. Nor does the Australian constitution recognise its original inhabitants. Australia Day will therefore continue to marginalise the Aboriginal community until it is reshaped towards the acknowledgement of decades of genocide and colonisation. This will help begin a journey towards reconciliation and peace. “Many people just want a day to celebrate the place that they call home, to be part of a community, and to guide Australia into the future”, Nakkiah says. “I am one of those people, so why can’t we celebrate this on a day that includes all Australians?”
By Anum Farhan