Welcome to Dig Deeper, a content series allowing you to dive as deep as you like into topics that are underserved in the current media landscape but need and deserve more coverage and attention.
Its purpose is to shed light on important community-based issues facing minority groups. To start with, we’re having honest and open conversations around January 26, the national mood and changing the date.
January 26th is symbolic of unimaginable loss for Indigenous people. It marks the day that in 1788, Arthur Phillip raised the British Flag at Sydney Cove, formally beginning the process of colonisation.
While Australian settlers have marked Australia Day as a celebration since, uh, 1994, Indigenous people since at least the 1930s have held counter-events, and refer to the date as Survival Day, the Day of Mourning, or Invasion Day.
January 26th marks the beginning of a long and painful process of colonisation, genocide, and erasure of Indigenous peoples, languages, and culture. It’s a process that many see as ongoing to this date and, for many, certainly not a date that calls for celebration.
Below, we’re bringing you a guide to the facts of January 26th.
Language Is Important
The way we discuss Indigenous issues, history, and culture is important. Language has been used to subjugate and categorise people for centuries and a simple phrase or name can signify or represent issues in a way that perpetuates harmful narratives or stereotypes.
Take Aborigine, for example. This might be the term that many, particularly older generations, will use to refer to Indigenous people. It’s problematic however as it has been used historically to subjugate and perpetuate racism, particularly in its shortened form.
Aborigine is a word of Latin origin that means original inhabitants. It doesn’t refer to the original inhabitants of this land. When referring to Indigenous people in Australia, it’s best to give their clan name as a descriptor and use Indigenous, First Nation, or Traditional Owners / Traditional Custodians as general references. Aboriginal, or Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander for all Indigenous people from both the mainland and neighbouring islands, is also okay.
The name Australia too is a hotly debated subject. While there has been movement for a long time to rename New Zealand to its indigenous name, Aotearoa, Indigenous people here never had one name for the land as a whole. First Nations people were made up of roughly 500 separate clans or nations and never thought of themselves as a homogenised whole.
Instead, people have begun using the Indigenous names of the lands they currently reside in and the phrase “so-called Australia” to refer to the nation. Australia Post somewhat legitimised the practice by accepting Indigenous place names on letters. It’s done so to serve as a reminder of the complex and non-consensual manner in which our nation was created as well as to pay respect to the traditional custodians of the land from whom sovereignty was never ceded.
Indigenous Culture Was Highly Developed
Australia has been inhabited for over 60,000 years, a time that keeps on growing into the past as more and more is discovered about the ancient people that first came to this land, likely on boats or land bridges from present-day Indonesia.
Popular history has held that the Indigenous people were primitive, poor, and with few cultural achievements to speak of. This false belief made the process of colonisation easier to stomach and justify as it was presented as a ‘civilising’ process.
Bruce Pascoe made headlines, and a fair few enemies, when he released Dark Emu in 2014. The book’s main premise holds that Indigenous culture, rather than being a simple hunter-gatherer society, was highly developed and incredibly complex. After all, how could it not be in order to survive in the harsh and unforgiving environments of this island for so long?
Indigenous peoples used processes like fish traps, agriculture, and engineering to create permanent settlements that were rich in food and resources and highly adapted to plentiful survival. The suppression of this information and physical history, Pascoe claims, has been in service of the philosophical understanding of Australia as “Terra Nullius”, an empty land that, in the eyes of the law, was fair game for occupation. This legal precedent was challenged, successfully, by Eddie Mabo, after a decade of struggle in 1992.
That’s not even to touch on Indigenous culture, much of which revolves around song, storytelling, and a cosmic understanding of the intertwined, harmonious relationship between people and Land.
To give one example, the entire country is crossed with songlines, paths taken by creator Dreamtime spirits, that have been followed by Indigenous people for thousands of years, passing the songs down through generations in oral history. Repeating the songs while walking allows for safe navigation through the roughest terrain on Earth.
Colonisation Was Not Peaceful
The myth of peaceful colonisation is one that has been taught in our schools and repeated in our films and TV shows for decades. It suggests that white settlers simply tamed the wilds of the Australian outback, creating order from chaos in a natural “progressive” historical trend. Largely these stories focus on the grit and determination of early explorers as they charted the empty land.
Unfortunately, much of the real nature of what took place has been edited and revised for family viewing. The real nature of colonisation was anything but peaceful.
Australian historian Henry Reynolds writes:
“During the first half of the 20th century the Aborigines (sic) were written out of Australian history. This had the convenient effect of hiding much of the domestic bloodshed, allowing the celebration of what came to be viewed as a uniquely peaceful history of settlement… For generations weaned on this soothing syrup the new history of the frontier came as an unwelcome revelation and one often stoutly resisted.”
Visit any number of regional towns and places in Australia and grim stories of massacres, poisonings, and enslavements are recorded everywhere on plaques and in visitor guides. Taken as an individual incident, they might not inspire epiphany, but when considered as a whole, the myth of peaceful settlement is apparent.
It’s Still Going On
One thing to consider when discussing Indigenous history in Australia is that the process of colonisation and subjugation is still ongoing. While policy names and practices may have shifted over the years, Indigenous people believe that the larger overall project of white supremacist dominance — where white settlers are held as the right and proper authorities of the land to do as they wish with it — continues to this day.
Examples are everywhere, but we can look at Indigenous incarceration rates for a clear sign of these ongoing practices. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander people make up almost 30% of the incarcerated population while representing only 3.3% of the population as a whole.
While this data gives us only a rough picture, the reasons behind it are clear. Socio-economic factors like poor education levels and high unemployment along with intergenerational trauma and intergenerational economic disadvantage are key factors in criminality, irrespective of race. It is evident that government policy continues to fail our Indigenous people.
In addition, the disregard for Indigenous sovereignty and rights are still very much a part of everyday life. In 2021, the Juukan Gorge, one of the oldest sites of continuous inland inhabitancy on the planet, with evidence that it has been lived in through the last Ice Age, was destroyed. Mining giant Rio Tinto blew up the 46,000-year-old site with ministerial consent, despite protests from Traditional Owners, the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people, and information that this was one of the most significant archaeological sites in the country. Rio Tinto currently holds 1,780 approvals to destroy further significant Indigenous sites.
Similarly, the Andrews Government of Victoria took the decision on the day the Victorian lockdown ended to start cutting down sacred directional and birthing trees of the Djab Wurrung people to make way for a new highway. Officials defended the felling, saying the trees were not on a protection list, which further speaks to the issues with Australian cultural heritage laws.
Finally, we can turn to another grim reminder of the continuing problems white Australia has with its Indigenous history when looking at the sorry facts of Indigenous deaths in custody.
Since 1991, when a Royal Commission into Indigenous deaths in custody found that Indigenous people were 16.5 times more likely to die in police custody than other ethnicities, more than 434 Indigenous people have died in police custody. Not a single person has ever been convicted for any of these deaths. It’s a shocking record that The Guardian has reported on extensively and calls “shameful“.
While people will be out there celebrating with a BBQ and a VB on January 26th, remember that this is a day of mourning for so many people across the country and using the information here should give you some ideas of how to engage meaningfully in conversations with those people.