it’s NAIDOC week! A celebration of all things Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander! Most people have heard about NAIDOC, as efforts to be more inclusive slowly permeate wider Australian society, but few people know the history of NAIDOC week. For those that don’t, here’s a brief history of how it came to be:
Before the 1920s, Aboriginal rights groups boycotted Australia Day in protest against the status and treatment of Indigenous Australians. Prior to 1967, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people weren’t even recognised as human under the Australian Constitution. At that time we were classed under the Flora and Fauna Act, and weren’t even afforded basic human rights. By the 1920s, the activists were increasingly aware that the broader Australian public were largely ignorant of the boycotts. If the movement were to make progress, it would need to be dynamic and innovative.
On Australia Day, 1938, protestors marched through the streets of Sydney, followed by a congress attended by over a thousand people. This was one of the first major civil rights gatherings in the world, and it was known as the Day of Mourning.
From 1940 until 1955, the Day of Mourning was held annually on the Sunday before Australia Day and became known as Aborigines Day. In 1955 Aborigines Day was shifted to the first Sunday in July after it was decided the day should become not simply a protest day, but also a celebration of Aboriginal culture. In the 60s, the National Aborigine Day Observance Committee was formed; and in 1967 on the back of the referendum, The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) was formed and became instrumental in the evolution of NADOC week, and as such, it became a week long celebration of culture.
With a growing awareness of the distinct cultural histories of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, NADOC was expanded to recognise Torres Strait Islander people and culture. The committee then became known as the National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee (NAIDOC). This new name has become the title for the whole week of NAIDOC celebration. Each year, a theme is chosen to reflect things that are inherent to, and enmeshed within Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture. Last year, the theme was Songlines. Songlines are, in essence, where dreaming and landscape meet. Passages of land woven through country, where creation beings carve their way through the landscape, creating it in it’s wake. These Songlines are specific to the language group that are custodians of that landscape, and are passed down in the form of song, dance, art, and story. The 2017 theme – Our Languages Matter – aims to emphasise and celebrate the unique and essential role that Indigenous languages play in both cultural identity, in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history, spirituality and rites, through story and song.
Some 250 distinct Indigenous language groups covered the continent at first (significant) European contact in the late eighteenth century. Most of these languages would have had several dialects, so that the total number of named varieties would have run to many hundreds.
Today only around 120 of those languages are still spoken and many are at risk of being lost as Elders pass on.
National NAIDOC Committee Co-Chair Anne Martin said languages are the breath of life for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and the theme will raise awareness of the status and importance of Indigenous languages across the country.
“Aboriginal and Torres Strait languages are not just a means of communication, they express knowledge about everything: law, geography, history, family and human relationships, philosophy, religion, anatomy, childcare, health, caring for country, astronomy, biology and food.
“Each language is associated with an area of land and has a deep spiritual significance and it is through their own languages, that Indigenous nations maintain their connection with their ancestors, land and law,” Ms Martin said.
Committee Co-Chair Benjamin Mitchell hopes that the theme will shine a spotlight on the programs and community groups working to preserve, revitalise or record Indigenous languages, and encourage all Australians to notice the use of Indigenous languages in their community.
So I challenge you; a call to action! I challenge you to learn the language group of the traditional owners and custodians of the land on which you live or work. Learn the traditional names for places. Learn to greet Elders in their language. Download the ‘Welcome to Country’ App and educate yourself. Do your bit to ensure our languages live on through our children. I was asked to spend some time this afternoon at my daughters pre-school. They greeted me with the Hello song of the Kaurna people which is the land of whom we live. I taught them a song in Pitjantjatjara and my 3 year olds eyes lit up and she was able to boldly stand up and sing a song that I have sung to her since she was a baby – proudly sharing her language with her peers.
Not just today. Not just this week. Do this always. Celebrate the linguistic diversity of our Indigenous Peoples: “The preservation and revitalisation of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages – the original languages of this nation – is the preservation of priceless treasure, not just for Indigenous peoples, but for everyone.”