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Indigenous flags and days.

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No. 4, 20 August 2002

Indigenous Flags and Days

Flags and commemorative days can have enormous symbolic import. They can both help carry forward a public debate and themselves become the centre of debate. So it is with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flags whose 1995 gazettal as official flags under the Flags Act 1953 was criticised both by the designer of one of the flags1 and by the then leader of the Opposition, John Howard.2 So it is also with those days in the calendar which have particular relevance to Indigenous - non-Indigenous relations in Australia, there being persistent calls over the last decade for Australia Day to be moved from its present date and for a new national day of commemoration for indigenous Australians to be found. The origin of the most significant flags and days is sketched below.

The Aboriginal Flag

This flag was designed by Harold Thomas, an Arrernte man. The black is often said to represent the Aboriginal people, the yellow the sun and the red the earth/land and blood that has been shed. The flag was first flown on National Aborigines Day, July 1971, in Adelaide. In July 1972 it was flown at the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra. Earlier that year the embassy had flown a black, green and red flag made by supporters in Sydney3 and one with a spear laid across a red and black background with four crescents looking inward.4 The new flag, however, soon became the sole Aboriginal flag and in the course of the 1980s was increasingly flown on National Aborigines Day by local

councils, State parliaments and by Federal Government buildings in Canberra where two flag poles allowed it to be flown alongside the Australian flag. On 14 July 1995 the flag gained official recognition 'as the flag of the Aboriginal peoples of Australia and a flag of significance to the Australian nation generally'.5

Torres Strait Islander Flag

This flag was designed by Bernard Namok from Thursday Island. The green is usually said to represent the land, the blue the sea, the black line and the white dhari headdress the people, and the five-pointed star the five island groups. The flag was 'launched' on 29 May 1992 during a Torres Strait Islands cultural festival and received official recognition in July 1995.6

26 January Australia Day Day of Mourning Survival Day Invasion Day

This date marks the landing of the First Fleet in Sydney Cove. In 1938, on the 150th anniversary of this landing, a 'Day of Mourning' was organised—principally by William Cooper (who had founded the Australian Aboriginal League in Melbourne and drafted a petition of Aboriginal grievance which the Government refused to pass on to King George V) and William Ferguson (leader of the NSW-based Aborigines Progress Association). For the protest Ferguson and J. P. Patten wrote a manifesto entitled Aborigines Claim Citizenship Rights

in which they appealed for a new Aboriginal policy, full citizenship status, equality and land rights. The manifesto opened with: 'This festival of 150 years' so-called "progress" in Australia commemorates also 150 years of misery and degradation imposed on the original native inhabitants by white invaders of this country'. The day is marked by Aboriginal people in Sydney with a Survival Day concert.

21 March Harmony Day

This date coincides with United Nations International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination and began to be commemorated in 1999 as a day to encourage tolerance and understanding between Australians of all races and cultural backgrounds.

26 May National Sorry Day

This day marks the anniversary of the 1997 tabling of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission report Bringing them Home. Hundreds of thousands of Australians participated in the first National Sorry Day in 1998. The following year the day was used to launch the 'Journey of Healing', with ten pairs of message sticks which had been despatched from Uluru three weeks earlier being received in the capital cities. Every year since, there have been gatherings and activities across the country—including bridge walks, barbecues, concerts and a Message Sticks Festival at the Sydney Opera House. A National Sorry Day Committee maintains a web-site with an events calendar at

26 May - 3 June National Reconciliation Week

This week begins with National Sorry Day and ends with 'Mabo Day'. On 27 May of the inaugural week national leaders gathered for the

'Corroboree 2000: Sharing our Future' ceremony at the Sydney Opera House—marking the end of the ten year 'Process of Reconciliation' which had begun with the establishing of the Council for Reconciliation in 1990, and marking the release of the Council's Australian Declaration Towards Reconciliation and Roadmap for Reconciliation. On the next day over 250 000 people joined the Walk for Reconciliation across the Sydney Harbour Bridge and many others joined in on walks and events in other cities. Each year since, the week has featured activities across the country.

3 June Mabo Day

This day commemorates the anniversary of the 1992 High Court decision in the case brought by Eddie Mabo and others which recognised the existence in Australia of native title rights. On the 10th anniversary of this day in 2002 there were many calls for the day to become a public holiday, an official National Mabo Day.

1 July Coming of the Light Festival

A day when many Torres Strait Islanders both in the Strait and on mainland Australia commemorate with religious and cultural ceremonies the day in 1871 when the London Missionary Society first arrived in the Torres Strait.

First full week of July NAIDOC Week

This week grew out of the National Aborigines Day (also referred to as National Aborigines' Day and sometimes as National Aboriginal Day). On 31 January 1939 William Cooper, following up on his successful 'Day of Mourning', wrote to the National Missionary Council of Australia (NMCA) asking for help in promoting a permanent annual Day aimed at improving attitudes towards Aboriginal people. The

NMCA favoured the idea and encouraged churches to observe the Sunday before the Australia Day weekend as 'Aboriginal Sunday'. In 1955 the NMCA secured the support of Sir Paul Hasluck, then Minister for Territories, for a national day on the first Sunday in July.7 In 1957 the National Aborigines Day Observance Committee (NADOC) was formed with the support of the Federal and State governments, the churches and major Aboriginal organisations. In 1974 all members of the committee were Aboriginal or Islander, and in 1975 it started to promote not just a Day but a Week (usually referred to as National Aborigines Week or National Aborigines' Week but sometimes as National Aboriginal Week).

The week became a time to celebrate the survival of indigenous people, to increase awareness of indigenous heritage, to recognise the indigenous contribution to the national identity and to articulate the continuing need for justice and equity. In 1985 the National Committee agreed to change National Aborigines Week from July to the second week in September. In 1988 NADOC became known as NAIDOC to include Islanders and the day became National Aboriginal and Islander Day. In 1991 it was decided to move the week back to July, starting in 1992. In 1996 the National NAIDOC Committee was wound up. The States and Territories have since had their own organising committees and taken it in turn to host national celebrations. Every year has had a different theme. In 2002 the theme was Recognition, rights and reform, the title of ATSIC's 1995 Social Justice package submission.

4 August National Aboriginal and Islander Children's Day

This day was first observed in 1988 and each year has a special theme. The Secretariat of National Aboriginal and Islander Child Care has always produced a poster to celebrate the Day.

9 August International Day of the World's Indigenous People

This day was designated by the General Assembly in 1994 to be observed each year throughout the International Decade of the World's Indigenous People (1995-2004). This day, on the anniversary of the first meeting in 1982 of the Working Group on Indigenous Populations, was to be an opportunity for intergovernmental and non-governmental groups to work with indigenous people and others to organise activities that contribute to a greater appreciation of indigenous history, culture, languages, rights and aspirations. The Decade's theme is 'Indigenous people: partnership in action' and its purpose is to recognise the value and diversity of indigenous cultures and to strengthen international cooperation for the solution of problems faced by indigenous people. Two central objectives have been the establishment of a permanent forum for indigenous people and the adoption of the draft declaration on the rights of indigenous people.

1. Harold Thomas, Land Rights News, July 1995, p. 3: 'The Aboriginal flag ... doesn't need any more recognition'. 2. Media release, 4 July 1995, arguing official status would be interpreted 'by many in the community not as an act of reconciliation but as a divisive gesture'. 3. Canberra Times, 2 February 1972. 4. A photograph of this flag appeared in the Sun, 13 September 1972. It is now kept at the Cowra Cultural Centre. 5. Commonwealth of Australia Gazette, 14 July 1995. 6. ibid.

Dr John Gardiner-Garden Social Policy Group Information and Research Services

Views expressed in this Research Note are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Information and Research Services and are not to be attributed to the Department of the Parliamentary Library. Research Notes provide concise analytical briefings on issues of interest to Senators and Members. As such they may not canvass all of the key issues. Advice on legislation or legal policy issues contained in this paper is provided for use in parliamentary debate and for related parliamentary purposes. This paper is not professional legal opinion.

 Commonwealth of Australia ISSN 1328-8016

7. ATSIC, Media Release, 5 July 1997.