Updated: Feb 1
Artwork used with kind permission of Victorian Naidoc
On Tuesday, I sat alone in the pre-dawn dark and watched a livestream of the Day of Mourning dawn service here in Melbourne. I watched a dignified and passionate young Wurundjeri and Dja Dja Wurrung woman, Stacie Piper, preside as MC. I watched Senior Wurundjeri Elder Aunty Joy Murphy Wandin provide a heartfelt Welcome to Country and historian John Patten, a Bundjalung and Yorta Yorta man, share the history of this Day of Mourning. I watched the Djirri Djirri Dancers and Elders, and Maori First Nations people offer their support and solidarity.
I watched grief flit across faces between warmth and welcome. I caught a glimpse of the pain that has shattered lives for generations, that is always there. Just imagining this pain caught me by the throat and yet here they were, light on their feet as they stepped between deep grief and smiles and back again, like flicking between two fluent languages they’ve had to learn to survive for 233 years.
I watched as eight people stepped up to the podium in turn to read a roll call of massacres that took place in Victoria in the 1800s. This leaden litany only included massacres that were fully referenced by robust historical process, and was the tip of the iceberg. We were told this in an almost weary, matter-of-fact way. Some of the readers had to pause and breathe deep before they could continue.
My tears trickled like the rain that soaked everyone there and it wasn’t even my pain. I was feeling it vicariously, seeing how it shaped the landscape of these lives before me, and thousands before them, as surely as the rain shapes the land it falls on. I was seeing how their pain jutted like bones beneath the skin, still there under a smile, a joke about not wanting to get up so early, slipping from deep mourning to humour and back in a second, because they have learned to live with this. It is never not there.
The loss experienced by First Nations people is profound and ongoing. It encompasses mass murder, the theft of country, culture and language, the targeted destruction of close-knit family structures in the Stolen Generations and systemic racism. The continuing impact on communities is immense. Sitting there and watching them mourn with such dignity and depth - being invited to sit with them - is confronting for a wadjela. We peer into their experience and are swamped by the enormity of it all. The scale of the loss and grief and the continuing reverberations of it, still loud today. We are visitors in this landscape and much more than that, we are complicit beneficiaries of the pain we see.
No, this is not easy for us, and nor should it be.
John Patten talked about the work blackfullas have been doing for decades to fight for justice. In 1938, January 26th was not yet the official National Day - that wasn’t the case until 1994, just 26 years ago - but it was celebrated to mark the anniversary of the arrival of the First Fleet. To help with these celebrations, twenty five Aboriginal men were taken from Menindee Mission in NSW and ordered to perform a re-enactment of the arrival of the settlers, playing the role of retreating Aborigines. Unsurprisingly, they refused - until they were told that their rations would be withheld from their families back on the mission unless they took part.
1938 was also the first time that Aboriginal activists marked January 26th as their Day of Mourning. Over 80 years ago they told anyone willing to listen about the pain this day caused First Nations People. This is not something new, and the fact that so many people still dismiss this is indicative of the low regard we have for First Nations voices and the deep division that is already within Australia.
January 26th has always been a day of sadness for Indigenous Australians. For white Australians, it’s just one more barbecue in a summer full of barbecues. Australia Day was celebrated on different days throughout the years and I have no memories of it at all, growing up. Before I’m accused of being unpatriotic, I can’t see how it’s remotely patriotic to celebrate this particular day - the day a penal colony was established. It wasn’t particularly flash for anyone, as our Prime Minister so eloquently observed. In fact, on that first January 26th in 1788, only the male convicts were sent ashore. It wasn’t the day we became a federation of states or a nation in our own right. Every other former British colony celebrates the day they stopped being a colony - not the day they became one.
I never saw a flag wrapped around a body or painted on a face until I returned to Australia in 2010, after years away. I didn’t know this jingoistic nationalism; had never seen plastic flags in the supermarkets, or this jaw-clenching celebration of January 26th. I was disorientated by this new fervour around Australia Day. Had I missed something? Forgotten my own childhood?
It turns out I hadn’t. It’s just that Australia Day wasn’t really a big thing back then. It was a holiday we took, in the middle of summer holidays. That was it. I have literally no memories of any Australia Day before I went away the first time in 1990. January 26th celebrations have become embarrassingly jingoistic, but I guess it’s much easier to whip up a bit of misty-eyed nationalism than it is to face hard truths about our history.
It’s incredible to me that after all they have experienced, after everything they’ve lost, that Indigenous people still stretch out the hand of welcome to us wadjelas. They invite us to sit with them, to enter into their culture and stories. They share their six layers of Country with us, so that we can make sense of their Day of Mourning, and they sometimes even thank us for supporting their efforts. They ask for recognition and respect, instead of revenge.
Would I have the resilience and grace to do that in their place? That question hangs.
But one thing I do know. It’s not divisive to call for change to this day. It's not hard to understand why many First Nations people want to abolish it altogether. How can they celebrate, especially on this day? The division is already there and finding a different way of acknowledging the commencement of Australia would symbolise the tiniest move towards understanding and healing. It would symbolise that Australia as a whole recognises the first inhabitants of this country and values their perspective - that we want to walk with them into the future.
It would symbolise that, finally, we are starting to understand our real history. Who we really are and where we have come from, so we can start to move towards a healthier future together. One where we can discard the easy, shallow jingoism of flags wrapped around bodies or painted on faces, and instead work towards a National Day that truly unites us as a nation - because surely this is the first and most essential demand we should make of any National Day?
It’s time to grow up, Australia. We have work to do and it's well overdue.