January 26: Reflect. Respect. Celebrate.

January 26.

For some a day to celebrate the opportunities of living in a free, multicultural society
For others a chance to reflect on their own citizenship and what it means to be Australian
For many, January 26 is a day of sadness, mourning and a reminder of colonisation

(National Australia Day Council)

For the first time in many years I am spending January 26 in Adelaide. In the city centre they are holding a two day event called “Aus Lights on the River.” It includes Sunset and Smoking ceremonies, a Respecting Country Parade, and a number of interactive activities to engage with Indigenous culture. The events are gathered around two major themes: “Belonging to Country” and “Connecting to Nature.” While we are not actually planning to attend any of the events, I was quietly pleased to see a significant effort to engage with the indigenous community of South Australia.

According to the CEO of the Australia Day Council of South Australia…

The Aus Lights program enables us to reflect on this great land and its peoples, starting with the oldest living cultures, our First Nations, to our most recent arrivals, the refugees fleeing from Ukraine and Afghanistan who now call Australia home.

This Australia Day is an opportunity to reflect on how we can continue to deepen our connection to nature and belonging to Country. Our increasingly fragile world reminds us all of the extraordinary beauty, richness, and expansiveness of our great country and the incredible diversity of its peoples. We can look back at our history, acknowledge the times we are now living through, and manifest our future on the foundations of respect, inclusivity and shared values.

There is a growing sense of disquiet about the celebration of a national day on January 26, a day that actually marks the beginning of the dispossession of our country’s First Nations people. We all have different feelings and understandings about what this day means and represents. Increasing numbers of us feel conflicted about celebrating the national day, knowing that it causes pain to Indigenous Australians. Like all nations, we have a chequered history, but sweeping it under the carpet, doesn’t make it go away.

Reflect. Respect. Celebrate.

In recent years the Australia Day Council has promoted the slogan: Reflect. Respect. Celebrate. I like the emphasis on “reflect” and “respect”, and one day I hope that we will have a national day when we can all come together to celebrate what it means to be Australian. Reflecting on our land and its people means reflecting on our history but we cannot do that if we don’t know. Many of us didn’t learn much about indigenous history or culture at all. Some of us may have been exposed to educational material that was based on assumptions of European cultural superiority and racial prejudice. Unfortunately, attitudes based on inaccurate and biased information can be stubbornly difficult to overcome. This is why it’s important for us to examine our own beliefs and attitudes and reflect on what we are reading or viewing. Where are we getting our information from? Are our attitudes and knowledge based on accurate information ?

Fortunately for us today, there is a wide range of opportunities for us to improve our understanding of Indigenous history and culture, from engaging with interactive cultural displays and activities to the old-fashioned way of reading a good book. I never learnt much about Indigenous history and culture at school, but living in Ceduna, on the far west coast of South Australia was a critical experience in challenging my own preconceived ideas and assumptions. In more recent years I have had the opportunity to continue my education about our First Nations people through my study at USQ. Sometimes it can be quite useful to revisit those old text books, especially in January, and even more in the lead up to the referendum on the Voice to Parliament later this year. So I have just finished rereading Aboriginal Australia by Colin Bourke, Eleanor Bourke and Bill Edwards. Although it was first published in 1994 and much of the research cited is 30 years old now, it is still equally relevant today because its primary goal is to “encourage readers to examine their own knowledge and ideas about Australia’s Indigenous people” by revealing the “cultural and linguistic diversity of Indigenous Australians”.

In many ways it is an uncomfortable read because it chronicles the failure of non-indigenous Australians to respect and care about Indigenous people. Colonisation has impacted Indigenous society in just about every way possible. Assumptions about cultural superiority not only blinded colonists to the diversity of Indigenous culture, values and beliefs, but tragically led to grievous and irreversible damage. The authors also highlight the shameful actions of both state and federal governments who deliberately denied the human rights of Indigenous Australians, only ever seeing them as a cheap workforce for exploitation. There was never any thought of equality or equitable distribution of wealth and opportunities. Quite frankly, as a non-indigenous reader, it is embarrassing and shameful.

It can be difficult for those of us raised in western thought and ways to get our heads around Indigenous ways of viewing the world, life and relationships, but a little mind stretching can be a good thing. Even though we might not fully understand the Indigenous way of being, we can still learn to respect that which is different. Perhaps we might even learn something that can enrich our own lives. There is so much of value in Indigenous culture, from their holistic view towards life and health, their approach to spirituality, and the way they value relationships and the well-being of the whole community. Indeed, one of the central ideas from Aboriginal Australia is the desire for Australia to…

“…move towards a shared understanding of Australian history. Aboriginal perspectives have to be respected and recognised for their value in developing a mature nation willing to face its past.

A text like Aboriginal Australia is a good place to start in educating ourselves about indigenous history and culture, but just increasing our knowledge is not the final goal. As we humbly reflect on our nation’s history, on our own past ignorance and bias, and the ways in which we have erected barriers, even inadvertently, to the full inclusion of Indigenous people, hopefully we will be moved to show renewed respect for our Indigenous brothers and sisters in the way that we think, speak and act.

Wishing everyone a thoughtful, reflective and respectful day


2 thoughts on “January 26: Reflect. Respect. Celebrate.

  1. Love the idea of respecting country and reflection can only really advance understanding for us all. The more I read about First nation ways of thinking the more excited I am about the ideas I encounter, I feel cheated that we did not respect this culture sooner and be willing to learn from a people who had much to teach. Thankfully the times are a changing.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, there are so many wonderful values embedded in indigenous culture – relationships, community, reciprocity and nature. And things are changing, although I do fear what the debate about the Voice will dredge up. I still remember the ugliness of the plebiscite.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s