Australia Day falls on the 26th of January and is considered the day the country was ‘founded’ by many–but the true meaning and history of Australia Day from Aboriginal and Torres Strait perspectives is somewhat different.
On this date in 1788, Captain Arthur Phillip formally took possession of New South Wales on what is referred to as Invasion Day by many Aboriginal community members.
While that does not necessarily mean that some First Nations people do not choose to celebrate Australia Day, it is important to have a greater understanding of the context and reality of the historical events that, for many, denote a period of loss, mourning and reflection.
What Does Australia Day Mean for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People?
Feelings around Australia Day vary considerably and can be complex. It is our responsibility as a nation to honour and respect differing opinions and views, particularly around a topic that, for some, is a day of celebration and, for others, a time to commemorate.
European colonisation brought with it losses of life, land, and liberties, and the traditions such as BBQs, parties, and dancing contradict a period of Australian history that is marred in slaughter and dispossession.
Many groups are concerned with what to do on Australia Day to show respect to Indigenous Australians, and the answer, primarily, is to listen, learn, and become educated about why our perceptions of this day can differ so greatly. While all communities can come together to applaud diversity, achievements, and progress, the way we mark these events must also acknowledge the reason we choose to celebrate and what we are celebrating for.
It is not difficult to understand that events that led to losses of rights to practise cultural beliefs and rights to live on land that formed a core part of family, life and society is a topic that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people may find very challenging to celebrate in a conventional way.
We must also recognise that colonisation is not an event that happened in the past, now forgotten and resigned to the history books. While the British Army may have long since left, the impact on First Nations people continues to be felt profoundly in lived experiences across Australia.
The Origins of Australia Day
Australia Day itself may feel like an annual event for Australian people. Still, it is uniquely unusual and is the only day on any national calendar when the invasion of a country is heralded with such significance. For example, Independence Day in America is not linked with the date Christopher Columbus landed on U.S. soil; rather, the national day is associated with independence.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people can refer to Australia Day in several ways, with some examples including:
- Invasion Day
- Day of Mourning
- Survival Day
- Aboriginal Sovereignty Day
The final name on this list is perhaps the most powerful and signifies the vital importance of reflecting on what Australia Day means for all Australians. All Aboriginal and First Nations people are sovereign; inclusivity and support for equality, unity, and accessibility are key to our future.
What Is the Future of Australia Day?
While some community leaders may choose to turn away from the personal and very emotional challenge of examining our sense of identity and the way we recognise and mark Australia Day, change is coming.
Whether or not Australia Day is moved or renamed remains open for debate, but the core focus should be on unpicking and acknowledging diverse views and exploring opportunities to make this occasion something that is inclusive.
There is no argument against celebrating the contributions every Australian citizen and resident makes to the nation, but there is a significant amount of discussion needed to reconcile what was first a day of celebration for emancipated convicts and is now, for some communities, a national party that falls on a day of profound grief.
In the meantime, the 26th of January is more than just a day. We must hone in on the true meaning of this date, acknowledge the fierce emotion behind protests which have been ongoing for almost ninety years, and sit down collectively around a table of equal participation to find a new way forward.