Why NAIDOC Week Matters

An image of an Indigenous traditional tool to illustrate why we celebrate NAIDOC Week 2023

From the first Sunday in July each year, Australia celebrates NAIDOC Week. The week is dedicated to honouring the contributions of and recognising the culture of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Why we celebrate NAIDOC week should need no explanation. And yet, it does.

Around this time, and around any date or event that seeks to champion Indigenous causes, you get detractors. Sky News, for example, has said that Indigenous Elders requesting people hold off climbing Tibrogargan or the Glass House Mountains in Queensland during NAIDOC Week is ‘divisive’.

“We are asking visitors to please consider not climbing the culturally sensitive summit of Tibrogargan as a sign of respect to the traditional owners – the Kabi Kabi people and to give nature a rest,” Principal Ranger Justin Enslin said.

“Tibrogargan and many other peaks in our region are not only sacred but also hold significant cultural, spiritual and natural connections to the traditional owners.

“There are excellent alternative walks for visitors to the Glass House Mountains to consider, including the Trachyte Circuit and Yul-yan-man walk.”

It’s reminiscent of when Uluru was closed to hikers out of respect for the wishes of the traditional custodians. Apparently, minor inconvenience for a very limited group of people is too much to ask for.

An image of the Glass House Mountains in Queensland, an area of spiritual significance to the Indigenous people that has been the subject of debate this NAIDOC Week
Image: Tibrogargan / Glass House Mountains / Getty Images

Similar lines of argument are trotted out whenever somewhere reverts to the name it’s had for tens of thousands of years. The ‘Fraser Island/K’Garri’ debate saw the same, with online discourse veering into white nationalist rhetoric from people aggrieved that somewhere they’ve probably never been will be called something else.

NAIDOC Week is the perfect opportunity to reflect on the positions we afford Indigenous people in our society. Much of it is celebratory, which is an excellent thing. But it’s primarily celebration in the context of generations of pain, something that does not vanish once this week is over.

Later this year, Australia will be asked if it wants to recognise Indigenous people in its constitution and create a non-legislative branch of government that can take the concerns of Indigenous people right to the halls of power on topics that affect them. That it’s even a debate says a lot. South Australia went ahead and did it earlier this year without a referendum and, so far, the sky remains aloft. Whether the lives of Indigenous people have or will dramatically improve in SA is another question.

So, here’s what NAIDOC Week is all about and why it’s so necessary to celebrate in 2023.

NAIDOC Meaning

The acronym NAIDOC stands for National Aboriginals and Islanders Day Observance Committee. It’s a bit of a jargonistic term that reflects the fact this used to be a single day, held in opposition to Australia Day.

The idea grew out of the protest movement in the 1920s in which Indigenous Rights groups simply demanded equal treatment. This was a time when none of them had the right to vote and were basically unrecognised by the state. Indigenous people were however not covered under the mythical ‘Flora and Fauna’ Act.

The day took on various forms throughout the 20th Century. In 1955, it was moved away from protest and towards celebration when the day it was shifted to July. In 1975, NAIDOC became a week long celebration, although it was then called NADOC.

The name NAIDOC was eventually coined in 1991 and the name of the Comittee became synonymous with the week.

Theme of NAIDOC Week 2023

Each year, NAIDOC chooses a theme to coalesce celebrations around. The theme of NAIDOC Week 2023 is ‘For Our Elders’.

The National NAIDOC Committee co-chair, Dr Lynette Riley, has said that this year’s theme is about highlighting the importance of traditional community structures within Indigenous culture.

“It still drives everything that we do. Our Elders are our driving force, culturally and socially and economically. They are everything,” she said.

In a video explaining the theme, NAIDOC emphasises that community Elders are their lifeblood. The struggles they have been through have defined the parameters for today’s battles for equality. We couldn’t be having the conversations we are if they had not fought.

“Everything has been about what my Elders want me to do to create change to make Australia a better place – not just for my kids but for everybody elses’ kids,” Riley said.

Last year, Australia lost a number of significant Elders, including Archie Roach and Uncle Jack Charles. This year, the country has some big decisions to make about its future. The 2023 NAIDOC theme could not be more poignant.

Why We Celebrate NAIDOC Week

NAIDOC is there to give space to all the incredible things Indigenous people have accomplished.

The annual NAIDOC Ball is a centrepiece of these celebrations. It’s a platform for Indigenous trailblazers who otherwise may not get the recognition they deserve. It’s the epitome of why we celebrate NAIDOC week.

This year’s winners of the 10 prizes for Indigenous achievements included Australia’s first Indigenous surgeon, one of the first Indigenous pop stars, and a titan of the film and TV industry.

“Our culture, it is so wonderful,” said Worimi man Professor Kelvin Kong, an ear, nose, and throat surgeon.

“For our Elders who have done so much for us — I stand here before you because of the opportunities you gave to us and it is so pleasing to be here representing what you’ve done.”

Australia is largely a transplanted European society. It is built on ancient land that has been lived harmoniously with by its traditional custodians for tens of thousands of years. The dominant culture has an awkward and embarrassed relationship with its original inhabitants. If events like NAIDOC Week were not there to shout their achievements from the rooftops, it’s unlikely anyone else would. All the benefits of identification with success flow from there.

NAIDOC Week Events

Across the country, hundreds of NAIDOC Week events are taking place. The ABC, SBS, and NITV have a dedicated week of specialist coverage, while schools, workplaces, and local councils typically host their own workshops, events, and displays.

You’d be hard-pressed not to come across some kind of NAIDOC goodness this week to get involved in.

A very limited list of highlights this week includes:

NAIDOC in the City – Sydney

Hyde Park will be taken over on Saturday, 8 July, with Indigenous markets, dancing, music, and games. You’ll be able to buy authentic art, crafts, and produce from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander businesses at the stalls. You can also hang out and listen to prolific Indigenous storytellers and performers. The event runs from 11.00am to 3.00pm.

Melbourne is also running its own version in Federation Square

Sounds of Country – Melbourne

GPO Bourke Street is hosting a week of free lunchtime gigs throughout NAIDOC Week. Indigenous performers will be showing off their skills at these free events that make a perfect office getaway. Gigs start on Tuesday, 4 July, and run through to Sunday, 9 July. They start at 12.30pm and finish at 1.30pm.

Virtual Reality Activation – Brisbane

During NAIDOC Week, Kooma virtual artist Brett Leavy will be bringing Bilbie XR Lab’s immersive activation to Brisbane. Using nothing but your phone, the company allows you to experience what the city would have been like prior to colonisation. See dolphins swim in the Brisbane River, warriors paddling canoes, or a Yuggera women’s gathering under Morton Bay Figs. Head here for all the details.

A full lineup of NAIDOC Week events can be found by going to the NAIDOC website here.

Related: How to Be An Indigenous Ally This NAIDOC Week

Related: 10 Iconic Australian Films Made by First Nations Directors

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