NAIDOC Week is more than just a cultural showcase

4 Jul 2017

To many, NAIDOC week is a week for family fun days, celebrations, flag-raising, the NAIDOC Ball, and other similar events. The origins of NAIDOC speak to much more though, and perhaps it is time that we thought about taking it back to its roots.

Image: A crowd gathers for a flag raising ceremony outside the St Kilda town hall, Victoria for NAIDOC Week 2017. Photograph: Jack Latimore.

To many, NAIDOC week is a week for family fun days, celebrations, flag-raising, the NAIDOC Ball, and other similar events. The origins of NAIDOC speak to much more though, and perhaps it is time that we thought about taking it back to its roots.

NAIDOC Week grew out of the 1938 Day of Mourning, when William Cooper requested support for creating an annual event. This event was originally held on the Sunday before what some people call “Australia Day”. It became known as “Aborigines Day” and was a day of commemoration and community. It was eventually moved to the first Sunday in July, in an attempt to move it away from a day of protest and make it more of a day of celebration. Despite this intent, National Aborigines Day retained a heavy political focus consistent with the political movements of the era fighting for civil rights.

In 1970, the National Aborigines Day Observance Committee released an aspirational list of themes for National Aborigines Day that spoke to political and cultural aspirations. The list included 18 themes, including:

  • To survive – to come to satisfactory terms with today’s Australia and our place in it
  • To have it recognised that basic human rights do not have to be earned
  • To see that throughout Australia we have the same legal rights as other Australians
  • To strengthen rather than destroy our traditional emphasis on human relationships and responsibilities to the group
  • To maintain the strengths of our culture, with its stress on spiritual and human values, discounting the material ones around us
  • To see that our sacred places are protected

36 years later and they are still entirely relevant. Even though many now see NAIDOC Week as being little more than a cultural showcase, every year the themes for NAIDOC hint at so much more. Since 1970 these themes have included self-determination, the Barunga statement, Treaty, the Tent Embassy, cultural maintenance and revival, and many others.

As the funding for many NAIDOC events is now given to government agencies and local councils, the protest and advocacy elements of NAIDOC Week have slipped off the radar of many events and instead they focus on providing a cultural showcase for the wider community. This is not in itself entirely a negative thing as there are countless artists, performers, entertainers, and workshop providers who take advantage of such events to promote elements of their culture and advocate for increased awareness of culture and issues affecting Indigenous people. Not only that, it is important to celebrate. We sure as hell need it every now and then. It is important to have times to catch up with friends, to have safe spaces to celebrate our cultures, communities, and our identities. It is also important for the wider community to have points of entry to start to learn more, and for their children to have experiences that create positive associations with Aboriginal people and our cultures through these activities.

I say all of that to ensure that you don’t mistake this article as naysaying NAIDOC Week, or calling for people to boycott it, or making white people even more uncomfortable than they already make themselves around Indigenous issues. I assure you, I do not.

However, as we see a continual dismantling of essential frontline services, Indigenous peak bodies, Aboriginal community controlled health services and legal services, and various others, it may be time to reflect and reconsider just what messages we are able to promote (during those all-too-few moments) throughout the year when we have the opportunity to engage both our own communities and the wider community as well.

What else can we do to take advantage of this limited window of opportunity to begin things that will go much further than the week itself?

What can you do to bring people together? To advocate for change? To educate, connect, collaborate, agitate, and inspire?

What can you do to support those who are already striving to do this?

If I was to update the statement made in 1970 for today, it would sound an awful lot like the Redfern Statement that was released last year by over 55 peak bodies and organisations.

  • Commit to resource Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander led-solutions, by:
    – Restoring, over the forward estimates, the $534 million cut from the Indigenous Affairs portfolio in the 2014 Budget to invest in priority areas outlined in this statement; and
    – Reforming the Indigenous Advancement Strategy and other Federal funding programs with greater emphasis on service/need mapping (through better engagement) and local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations as preferred providers.
  • Commit to better engagement with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples through their representative national peaks, by:
    – Funding the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples (Congress) and all relevant Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peak organisations and forums; and
    – Convening regular high level ministerial and departmental meetings and forums with the Congress and the relevant peak organisations and forums.
  • Recommit to Closing the Gap in this generation, by (in partnership with COAG and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people):
    – Setting targets and developing evidence-based, prevention and early intervention oriented national strategies which will drive activity and outcomes addressing;
    – family violence (with a focus on women and children);
    – incarceration and access to justice;
    – child safety and wellbeing, and the over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in out-of-home care; and
    – increasing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander access to disability services;
  • Secure national funding agreements between the Commonwealth and States and Territories (like the former National Partnership Agreements), which emphasise accountability to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and drive the implementation of national strategies.
  • Commit to working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders to establish a Department of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs in the future, that:
    – Is managed and run by senior Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander public servants;
    – Brings together the policy and service delivery components of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs and ensures a central department of expertise.
    – Strengthens the engagement for governments and the broader public service with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the management of their own services.
  • Commit to addressing the unfinished business of reconciliation, by:
    – Addressing and implementing the recommendations of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation, which includes an agreement making framework (treaty) and constitutional reform in consultation with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and communities.

This would be a start.

NAIDOC week 2017 stresses the importance of our First Nations languages

NAIDOC week 2017 stresses the importance of our First Nations languages

So this NAIDOC Week, please do attend an event in your area. Buy a book to educate yourself, family or friends, or your children. Sign up to the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples, even non-Indigenous people can sign up as friends of Congress.

This year’s NAIDOC Theme is, Our Languages Matter – find out what that means if you don’t already.

And support IndigenousX. We are drastically under-resourced for what we already manage to achieve, but even more-so for what we aspire to become. Support any Indigenous-owned charity, business, or campaign – just take the time to make sure it is actually Indigenous-owned and operated first. Do whatever you can. Sign a petition. Lobby a politician. Support Indigenous media. Indigenous arts. Indigenous businesses, peak bodies and organisations. And stand up to racism when you encounter it. But whatever you decide to do, just don’t stop when NAIDOC Week does.

This article has been updated from original publication during NAIDOC Week 2016.

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