Every year, on the 26th of January, inhabitants from all territories and states of the Commonwealth of Australia celebrate Australia Day. Also known as First Landing Day, Foundation Day or more poignantly as Invasion- or Survival Day, this date is meant to bring together divided residents of the country in all its ethnic and social diversity.
A multitude of festivities on this auspicious occasion include treasured family time, sharing of hearty meals and looking back on the continent’s multi-faceted, cloudy history.
Sydney, the capital of New South Wales, is known to host fast-paced boat races, while the Adelaide community of South Australia organizes flashy parades and discharges fireworks amid the staging of celebratory citizenship ceremonies. Schools, post offices and business even close their doors in reverence to the significance of the revelries.
In other parts of the vast continent, marginalized native communities use this decreed public holiday to revisit the past, to mourn absent souls and to protest the pain caused by the forfeiture of an ancient ethnic civilization. Their remembrances exhibit a more somber tone and put the spotlight on the celebration of local art, native musicians and other unique aspects of their heritage. Check out this article to learn more about how different Australians celebrate this special occasion.
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Australia Day remembers the historic moment in January 1788 when the first fleet of British settlers, under the leadership of Captain James Cook, landed at Port Jackson, New South Wales, to claim the southern land for settlement.
Initially christened New Holland by Dutch merchants in the 16th century, the region was diligently circumvented, surveyed and mapped before being proclaimed to be the largest island in the world. The landmass was only renamed in 1817 but became the prized possession of the British crown by the late 1700s.
For the resident Aboriginal people and their descendants, this instant in history is a stark reminder of the injustices perpetrated against their people in the past. Learn more about the historical day here: australianstogether.org.au/discover/australian-history/australia-day/.
The civilization of Aboriginal people of Australia is said to be the eldest, longest running documented culture in the world. It is rumored that the first indigenous people emigrated from the continents of Asia and Africa seventy thousand years ago, utilizing crude wooden boats to navigate the perilous journey.
The present-day local tribes of the land are purported to be descended from either original Aboriginal inhabitants or related to the Torres Strait Island people, who originated from the islands north of the Cape York Peninsula, Queensland. Today, surviving Aboriginal groups comprise of at least two hundred and fifty different dialects, communities and tribes all over the mainland.
Indigenous people of Australia were traditionally successful hunter-gatherers. They labored and hunted on their ancestral property and lived their lives, spiritually connected to the land, steeped in a rich culture and customs.
One of the customary practices observed, was the hollow log burial ceremony. During this sacred rite, the bones of a deceased person were ritually cleansed and carefully interred in a hollowed-out log decorated with symbols and drawings representative of the life he or she had led. This ceremony was for the eyes of the male tribe members only and regarded as sacrosanct and private.
Sadly, the observation of this ritual is no longer widely and spontaneously observed, and its significance has been lost to many generations.
The introduction of one thousand seven hundred and thirty convicts and an army of British naval officers and emissaries onto the landmass in 1788, unequivocally changed the lives of the native people of Australia.
The inevitable bloody conflict between traditional landowners and the foreign invaders led to murder, rape and the massacre of as many as twenty thousand indigenous people. The rate of redundancy became extremely high and life expectancy drastically plummeted. Between 1909 and 1969, rampant disease, widespread displacement and abject poverty continued the decimation and trauma bestowed on the previously cooperative, responsive populace.
The Stolen Generation
It is estimated that more than thirty three percent of young Aboriginal children were forcibly removed from the midst of their families and their heritage between 1910 and 1970. Placed with adoptive families, the children were renamed and stripped of the right to speak their local language or to observe their own traditions.
Similar practices and restrictions were enforced, even throughout the 20th century, with the Wiradjuri, Barkindji and Yarrabah communities still facing persecution for wishing to communicate in their native tongue. Regarded as outcasts, it was only in 1965 that native inhabitants were given sovereignty, citizenship and the right to vote under federal law.
The detailed list of injustices perpetrated against the Aboriginal people is vast. Generational trauma, social discrimination and disconnection from culture and family are only a few of the myriad issues to be addressed. However, developments in recent years, recognized the need to speak up about inequalities and to make amends. The newly proposed adoption of a unification treaty signed by First Nation People and those who executed the transgressions, is evidence of slow, yet proactive, progress being made.
In 2005, British Prime Minister Kevin Rudd apologized to Aboriginal Australians for the crimes committed against them and their ancestors. Regarded by some factions as unnecessary political postulation and pandering to the quirks of minorities, this was at least a step in the right direction and a sign of more intervention to come.
On 26 January 2013, the black, yellow and red flag of the Aboriginal people was prominently raised for the first time next to the Australian insignia, on Sidney Harbor Bridge. This gesture symbolized an attempt to reconcile and unify the fractured nation. Some Aboriginal communities have since relocated back to their homelands and appear to be happy and more settled than before. However, it remains to be seen whether the national green and gold will ever represent all its citizens in equal measure or whether it will be a case of too little, too late.