Who Designed the Australian Aboriginal Flag?

Among initial cultural awareness training benefits is a deeper understanding of the rich Indigenous culture of Australia. This is gained partly through history lessons about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. 

One of the first things you should learn on the topic is the story behind the Australian Aboriginal flag. The flag was designed by artist Harold Thomas, a member of the Stolen Generations

Who is Harold Thomas?

Born in Alice Springs, Harold Thomas is the son of a Luritja woman and a Wombai man. At the age of seven, however, he was taken from his family–an experience that would later on heavily impact his life and work.

Thomas’ passion and love for painting and art began in his teenage years. At the age of seventeen, he won a scholarship to the South Australian School of Art, where he became known as the first Aboriginal person to graduate from an Australian art school.

In 2016, Thomas won the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island Art Award with a painting about the Stolen Generations. He also won Australia’s major Aboriginal art prize in the same year. He continues to paint today.

The History of the Australian Aboriginal Flag

The year after Thomas graduated from the South Australian School of Art, he designed what’s now officially recognised as the Australian Aboriginal flag. According to him, the flag was brought about by his experiences as an art school student and inspired by Aboriginal materials at the South Australian Museum. 

He created it to lead a demonstration at the National Aboriginal Day Observance Committee (now known as the National Aboriginal and Islanders Day Observance Committee; NAIDOC) march. He hoped to make it a symbol of unity and pride.

The flag was first flown at a land rights rally during “National Aborigines Day” in Adelaide in July 1971. By 1972, it was displayed at the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra. From then on, it has become widely recognised, embraced, and used to represent the Aboriginal people of Australia.

In 1994, the Commonwealth took steps to give Thomas’ flag legal recognition. In the same year, it was proclaimed a ‘Flag of Australia’ under the Flags Act of 1953. However, it wasn’t until 1997 that the Federal Court of Australia officially attributed its authorship to Harold Thomas, after years of dispute stemming from non-Indigenous producers using the emblem for profit for more than twenty-five years. 

This decision protected the flag’s design under the Copyright Act of 1968, stipulating that it could only be reproduced per the legislation or with permission of Thomas. In 2022, Thomas agreed to transfer the flag’s copyright to the Commonwealth–though he retains moral rights over it–including the right to be properly attributed as its creator and the protection of his work from derogatory treatment.

Now, the Australian Aboriginal flag can be used freely by all Australians. It can be put on apparel, included on websites, incorporated in other artworks, used digitally, etc. without having to ask permission or pay a fee.

The Meaning behind the Australian Aboriginal Flag

The Australian Aboriginal flag features a horizontal block that’s divided into a top and bottom half, with a yellow circle at the centre. But what does the Aboriginal flag represent exactly? The top half, which is coloured black, represents the Aboriginal people. 

The bottom half, which is coloured red symbolises the earth and the people’s relationship to the land; it also stands for the ochre colour that’s used in many Aboriginal ceremonies. The yellow circle represents the sun as the constant renewer of life. 

The Torres Strait Islander Flag

Besides the Australian Aboriginal flag, there is also a separate emblem used to represent the Torres Strait Islander people. What does the Torres Strait Islander flag represent? It stands for the unity and identity of the Torres Strait Island community of Australia.

The Torres Strait Island flag shows three horizontal panels; the top and bottom green panels represent the land, while the middle blue panel symbolises the sea. These panels are divided by thin black lines, which stand for the Torres Strait Island people. A white Dhari (traditional headdress) sits at the centre of the flag, with a five-pointed star underneath to symbolise the five island groups of the Torres Strait.

Learn More About Australian Aboriginal Culture

Evolve Communities’ cultural awareness and ally training programs shed light on Australian and Torres Strait Islander people’s history and culture. Check out our website to learn more!

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