NAIDOC Week

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Words || Wayne Charters

NAIDOC stands for the National Aboriginal and Islander Day Observance Committee. It is an important week in the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. It is a week to rejoice, to share our beliefs and customs, celebrate our history, join our diverse communities, and to show the rest of the nation that we have survived and revel in our culture. NAIDOC Week generally happens each year between the first and second Sundays in July. While there were some activities in July, November 8th-15th will be the official 2020 celebration week. This is due to the fear that Covid-19 might spread rapidly in communities and devastate our precious elders. 

NAIDOC Week events are held in various towns and cities where music performances, art showcases, cultural workshops, talks, and activities for children take place.

Before the 1920s, Aboriginal rights groups shunned Australia Day in protest against the ongoing marginalisation of Indigenous Australians. By the 1920s, they were progressively aware that the wider Australian public were mostly ignorant of their embargoes. If Aboriginal rights groups were to make progress, they would need to be more active.

The Australian Aborigines Progressive Association (AAPA) in 1924 and the Australian Aborigines League (AAL) in 1932 emerged to promote Aboriginal rights. Their efforts were largely unheeded and due to police persecution, the AAPA abandoned their work in 1927.

In 1935, William Cooper, founder of the AAL and a Yorta Yorta man, drafted a petition to send to King George V, asking for special Aboriginal electorates in Federal Parliament. The Australian Government denied responsibility believing that the petition fell outside its constitutional responsibilities. The petition was rejected and thereby not presented to King George V. 

One of the first civil rights events in the world was the 1938 Australia Day March in Sydney, when more than a thousand people marched and attended a congress. It was known as the Day of Mourning.

Following the congress, a delegation led by William Cooper, who was born in Yorta Yorta territory, presented Prime Minister Joseph Lyons with a proposed national policy for Aboriginal people. This was again rejected because the government claimed that it did not hold constitutional powers over the Aboriginal people.

After the Day of Mourning, William Cooper failed to gain support for an annual event after writing to the National Missionary Council of Australia. William was a Christian and achieved the creation of Aborigines Sunday, which was observed in Churches across Australia from 1940. 

Until 1955, the Day of Mourning was held each year on the Sunday before Australia Day. It was known as Aborigines Day. In 1955, Aborigines Day became a celebration of Aboriginal culture as well as a protest and was moved to the first Sunday in July. The National Aborigines Day Observance Committee (NADOC) was formed in 1956 and the second Sunday in July became a day of remembrance for Aboriginal people and their heritage.

After the 1967 referendum, the federal government took formal responsibility for Aboriginal People and began counting them in the national census. Researcher Matthew Thomas surmises on the Parliament of Australia’s website that: 

“The significance of the 1967 Referendum has been somewhat obscured by a number of myths. These include the misconceptions that the Referendum granted Aboriginal people citizenship, the right to vote, wage equality and access to social security, among other things. In terms of its practical significance, perhaps the main achievement of the Referendum was to raise the expectations of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people regarding Aboriginal rights and welfare.”

Following this, in 1972, the Department of Aboriginal Affairs (DAA) was formed by the Whitlam Government. It sought to foreground self-determination when it came to policy making regarding Aboriginal affairs. 

In 1974, the NADOC committee was composed wholly of Aboriginal members for the first time. In 1975, it was determined that NADOC should cover a week, from the first to second Sunday in July.

Since 1984, there have been calls for National Aborigines Day to be made a national public holiday, to help commemorate and appreciate the rich cultural history that makes Australia unique. 

In the early 1990s, due to an increasing recognition of the diverse cultural histories of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, NADOC was extended to acknowledge Torres Strait Islander people and culture. NADOC then became known as the National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee (NAIDOC). This new acronym has become the title for the whole week. 

Each year, a theme is chosen to signify the key issues and events for NAIDOC Week. For example the 2018 theme celebrated the strength and wisdom of ATSI women with ‘Because of her, we can!’ The year 2019 saw the theme of ‘Voice. Treaty. Truth.’ and in 2020 the theme ‘Always Was, Always Will Be’ “recognises that First Nations people have occupied and cared for this continent for over 65,000 years.”

The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) took over the management of NAIDOC until it was dissolved in 2004.

The current NAIDOC committee makes decisions about themes, events, and activities for NAIDOC Week.

 It can be found at:  https://www.naidoc.org.au/about/naidoc-committee