Australia Day. Survival Day. Invasion Day. All of these are different titles given to the 26th of January, depending on your identity, depending on your perspective, depending on which side of history you find yourself.
Many Australians love Australia Day and feel angry that a recent focus on the significance of the date to Aboriginal Australians has had an adverse impact on their celebration of our beautiful country. Some other Australians have painful associations with celebrating the date when the British first invaded and took this land, and would prefer to celebrate our nation on some other day. Still other Australians agree with this idea, even if the painful associations are not their own.
A relative of mine recently attended a pre-Australia Day church service, which was designed to acknowledge the culture and traditional land ownership of the Wadjuk Noongar people of the Perth region. The speaker was Noongar, there were Noongar people providing music and dance, and there was an interview with some of the Noongar people, about how they felt about Australia Day. This happened at the church of which my relative is part – they didn’t go somewhere special to attend. My relative described the service, at first with some sense of objectivity. As the description went on, it started to include criticisms of the dance and song, questions about why the congregation needed to be subjected to this. Wouldn’t a shorter program have been enough? Why do we always need to hear this kind of ‘acknowledgements of country’ again and again? They finished with the summary that Aboriginal people’s lives had improved so much with European settlement, that they should be grateful.
I am a non-Aboriginal Australian, who has grown up mostly around others like me, hearing pretty similar statements to these. My relative is perhaps more vocal than some, but in my experience, these opinions would be pretty common amongst a lot of Australians at some level.
There is a level of ‘casual racism’ in our society which is pretty frightening, precisely because it isn’t – it is normal. A lot of people have some level of judgment for Aboriginal people and very little understanding of Aboriginal culture or history.
I was one of them, knowing nothing about our history, until a few years ago.
Growing up in the 80’s and 90’s we learned nothing about Aboriginal people at school. I considered myself to be a very open-minded person, with a strong lean towards caring about social justice. But despite living here in Aboriginal land, I confess I didn’t even stop to think or wonder, about an Aboriginal perspective.
In 2012 I somehow happened to watch the documentary series First Australians, and heard Professor Marcia Langton talking about the myth of Terra Nullius. I had heard this term before, but had never stopped to think through what it meant.
At the time of European settlement, there were three ways that a land could be taken: if the inhabitants of the land ceded it voluntarily, if it were won in battle as part of an acknowledged war, or if it were Terra Nullius – a land belonging to no-one. This final justification was the one chosen by the British.
While I had heard this term before, it wasn’t until I heard Marcia Langton describe it that I understood what it meant. I saw the pain on her face as she spoke of it; pain that was still there despite being an academic and probably having spoken about this concept a thousand times; despite just doing an interview straight to camera in a factual way. Terra Nullius meant that the British stole this land, in a way that was considered illegal even at that time, and they did so by declaring that the people who owned it were no-one. They were not even worth being considered as human beings.
I can’t imagine many things that would be more degrading and hurtful than that. Countless devastations were brought upon the nations of Aboriginal Australians after the Europeans settled, from mass sickness to massacres and even a form of unacknowledged apartheid, where for many years Noongar people were not allowed within a geographical boundary around the city nor associate with non-Aboriginal people. All of this was history I had never learned that I have learned since, but all of it began because our ancestors deemed them inhuman. And this is something that has never been revoked, never acknowledged. Kevin Rudd apologised for the Stolen Generations, but we have never legally, politically, economically, or for most people, personally, acknowledged this.
Back on that day in 2012 I realised that my whole lifestyle: growing up near the beach with a swimming pool for our great Australian summers; camping with my family under the stars; freedom to pursue my hopes and dreams – it was built on the back of a lie, the negation of the humanity of all the Aboriginal people. It’s a lie continued today.
What can we do about this? I’m still working it out, on a practical level I’m not entirely sure. And I’m not saying we shouldn’t celebrate what’s great about Australia. But as in 2012, I remain profoundly disturbed that the foundation of our country, our wealth, our lifestyle, is built on the lie that Aboriginal people were not considered human beings. In the words of Common Grace, “Acknowledgement is the act of noticing something and honouring it with our attention.” So perhaps this Australia Day I can start by acknowledging the privilege of my position, and pray for the healing of our beautiful land, which would not be ‘our’ beautiful land was it not for gross injustice. As more people can truly acknowledge our traditional land owners, perhaps we can be set free by the truth, and start to move forward honestly as a nation.