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NAIDOC week: A celebration of First Nations culture and contributions

SBS / By Sarka Pechova, Kerri-Lee Harding, Lowanna Grant


NAIDOC celebrations begin with an awards night. This year, the NAIDOC week award finalists were selected from amongst 200 nominees from across the country. Past winners include tennis star, Ash Barty, and actor, Uncle Jack Charles.

The week then continues with celebrations, festivals, exhibitions and concerts around the whole country. 

Dancers performing at a celebration and launch of a new telescope which was named in honour of the Wiradjuri People. Do you know the Traditional Custodians of the land you are living on? Source: AAP / CSIRO/AAPIMAGE

Different topic each year

This year’s theme is “For Our Elders”. In the Aboriginal culture, Elders are very important. They are cultural knowledge holders, teachers and an ongoing source of inspiration.

Wiradjuri and Gamilaroi woman, Senior Lecturer in the School of Education and Social Work at the University of Sydney, Aunty Dr Lynette Riley, who is the Acting Co-Chair of the National NAIDOC Committee, explained in the NAIDOC official materials.

“Our Elders are our driving force, culturally, socially and economically. They are everything. So, for me, I am being driven by what our Elders have asked us to do in the past, what they are asking us to do now and where they want us to be in the future.”

Each year, a specific design that accompanies the theme is chosen via a competition. This year’s winner is Bobbi Lockyer, a proud Ngarluma, Kariyarra, Nyulnyul and Yawuru artist. Her poster is a colourful depiction of Aboriginal Elders.

When introducing her work for NAIDOC Week, Ms Lockyer said it had been all the Elders who had inspired her.

“With this year’s poster design, I really just wanted to honour all of our Elders,“ Ms Lockyer said.

The 2023 National NAIDOC Week Poster incorporates the Aboriginal Flag and the Torres Strait Islander Flag (licensed by the Torres Strait Island Council).

Not a national holiday (yet), but a day with strong history

NAIDOC day started as a day of mourning before it was a celebration.

It began in the 1920s by two activist groups that held a protest against Australia Day (26 January).

Until the 1940s, the Day of Mourning was held on the day before Australia Day. It then moved to July and the name also changed.

Aunty Dr Matilda House is a Ngambri/Wiradjuri Elder who has dedicated her life to the pursuit of social justice for Indigenous people. She said she remembered the beginnings of NAIDOC celebrations.

“I’ve been around since year dot, so I know and understand how we were doing Aboriginal Day. Back in the day, it was just called Aboriginal Day and those were the times when the struggles, real struggles were going on,” Aunty House said.

“A lot of things have changed since those beginnings. And it was all for the good. And we have done it ourselves,” the Elder acknowledged.

To understand more what about what was happening to the First Nation’s People, watch the SBS documentary “First Australians”.

Kiris An Taran dancers, traditional Torrens Strait Islander dancers, perform during The City of Sydney’s annual NAIDOC in the City event in Hyde Park, Sydney, Saturday, 13 July, 2019. Source: AAP / BIANCA DE MARCHI/AAPIMAGE

In 1955, Aboriginal Day was shifted to the first Sunday in July. Back then, it was called Aborigines Day but this term is no longer used as it has racist connotations from Australia’s colonial past.

It was also at that time that the second Sunday in July was becoming a day of celebration and remembrance of Aboriginal people, and their rich culture and heritage.

From the 1950s, there was increasing support from Aboriginal organisations, as well as state and federal governments, for the formation of the National Aborigines Day Observance Committee (NADOC).

In 1972, the Department of Aboriginal Affairs was formed as a major outcome of the 1967 Referendum.

John Schultz of the Worimi mob plays the didgeridoo for NAIDOC week, before the NRL Round 17 match between the Newcastle Knights and the South Sydney Rabbitohs at McDonald Jones Stadium in Newcastle, on Friday, 18 July, 2022. Source: AAP / DARREN PATEMAN/AAPIMAGE

The 2023 Referendum

Australia is only months away from yet another referendum: about the Indigenous Voice to Parliament.

It has been decided by the government that the Referendum will be held towards the end of 2023.

The Referendum aims to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the Constitution by establishing an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice.

For a lot of Aboriginal people, the Referendum is a welcome move by the government.

Jade Appo-Ritchie is from the Bunda Clan of the Gooreng Gooreng Nation. She is a spokesperson for “yes23” and the General Manager of Business Development at Tellus Holdings.

She explained the Referendum’s positives to SBS.

“By being recognised by the Constitution, it brings us together as a nation. It goes a long way to healing past hurts and it provides an opportunity to heal,” Ms Appo-Ritchie said.

She is an advocate of the Uluru Statement and supports the call for the establishment of a First Nations Voice enshrined in the Constitution.

Minister for Indigenous Australians, Linda Burney, speaks to the media during a press conference at Parliament House in Canberra on Wednesday, 31 May, 2023. Source: AAP / LUKAS COCH/AAPIMAGE

Ms Appo-Ritchie said the Voice made sense.

“In terms of the practical application of the Voice, it just makes sense: if we are heard on the things that matter to us, if we are able to share our lived experience and for communities to be able to provide information on the solutions that they know will work for them. You know, that’s going to bring better outcomes,” she said.

However, there are also voices within the Aboriginal community against the Referendum.

Nyunggai Warren Mundine of the Bundjalung, and descendent of the Yuin and Gumbenga People, is a businessman, political strategist and advocate for Indigenous affairs.

He is strongly against the Voice. “My view on the Voice to Parliament is that it is a total waste of money, you know there is 300 and something million dollars being spent, which could be spent on community projects out there in the regions of remote Australia,” he said.

“It is built on the (assumption) that Aboriginal people don’t have a Voice. We’ve always had a voice.”

According to Mr Mundine, the money should be spent in another way.

“My thing is that we need to get economic development, jobs, education and investment in those communities. That would be the only thing that will make the difference,” Mr Mundine said.

All you need to know about the Voice is also on SBS


NITV. The Point is travelling the country, talking to panellists about life and the challenges people are facing in their locations and the changes the Voice would make.

What will happen with the Voice will unfold in coming months.

But, regardless of the result in the future, this week is a time to celebrate history and the present of the oldest, continuous, living culture on Earth.