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Why this year’s NAIDOC theme is so significant

In the big picture, NAIDOC Week is a national and annual event during which Australia celebrates Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, cultures and communities and recognises the valuable contributions they make to our country.

On a more personal level, the week presents the opportunity for my community to showcase and share our rich and diverse culture with pride – celebrating together as Aboriginal people and choosing to open our arms and encourage others to participate and understand our value.

NAIDOC Co-Chair Pat Thompson says Indigenous Australians seek recognition of their unique place in Australian history and society today.

“For generations, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have looked for significant and lasting change. We need our fellow Australians to join us on this journey – to finish the unfinished business of this country,” he said.

Under the theme Voice. Treaty. Truth. Let’s work together for a shared future, NAIDOC Week 2019 kicked off on Sunday and will continue until July 14. This year’s theme is reflective of the three key elements to the reforms set out in the Uluru Statement from the Heart – reforms that represent the unified position of First Nations Australians.

The 2019 NAIDOC theme is significant because it challenges all of us to participate in conversations about how we are going to heal this country and work not on behalf of, or for, but with and alongside Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

To listen to our voices, start a process for treaty and seek to enlighten ourselves with the truth as it pertains to the power structures we continue to enable in our society.

“We tell ourselves that racism is about moral values when instead it is about the survival strategy of systemic power.” – Dr Tim Soutphommasane.

It is no surprise there are many misconceptions out there on what the reforms within the Uluru Statement aim to do – in particular, the voice to parliament. So, what do we mean when we talk about voice?

Ultimately it isn’t just about being heard, because we have been speaking about the same issues for decades now. It is about our knowledge being respected and listened to in an attempt to address the failure of government to rectify the damage caused by colonialist policies and the persistent nature of entrenched systemic racism experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

We hope to use our lived experience, expertise and insights to advise government on laws and policy to ensure that they are not inadvertently discriminatory in nature towards or bound to disproportionately affect Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. It is our perspective we wish to share, to assist our government in making a difference.

Dr Tim Soutphommasane, former Race Discrimination Commissioner, explored this further in his keynote address at the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation’s Institutional Racism conference in 2017.

“It’s not always easy or comfortable to hold a mirror up to our society on such questions, but it’s vital that we are honest and open in doing so,” he said.

This leads us to treaty and truth. Treaty, as it relates to the Uluru Statement from the Heart, references The Makarrata Commission. Makarrata is a Yolungu word meaning ”a coming together after a struggle” and it has two roles: supervising a process of agreement-making and overseeing a process of truth-telling.

Essentially a Makarrata Commission would provide support at national and regional levels for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and aims to assist parties to reach agreement.

We are the only Commonwealth nation that does not have a treaty with our First Nations people.

To paraphrase an incredible woman in Rosalie Kunoth-Monks – I am a cultured person, I am not something that fell out of the sky for the pleasure of somebody putting another culture into this already cultured being.

I think the essence of that comment should remind people that Australia has an existing culture and many of us speak our language, practice our cultural ways and seek to repair and cease the damage caused by colonial policy and practices that sought to erase our identities.

The absence of a treaty suggests an ongoing denial of the existence, prior occupation and dispossession of Indigenous people in Australia. Treaty is not just about politics and agreement-making – it is also about human rights, social justice and above all respect and healing.

“Rather than locked into exclusive, restrictive group identities, individuals, previously marginalised in Australia, would be freed to explore the full range of their affiliations, ambitions and desires and identify themselves how they would wish.” – Stan Grant.

One thing I strongly believe is that we are all the sum of our experiences; we are complex and intersectional. Our experiences teach us different things and add depth to who we are, how we navigate our spaces and the way we interact with others.

The truth is, every day I am immersed in a perspective that is not my own and continually exposed to a narrative that is at odds with the lived experiences of my family. My mother, my grandparents and their parents have direct experience with segregation, systemic racism and colonial trauma that has also directly impacted on our culture.

We live in a society where people do not know that Wadjemup (Rottnest Island), where they enjoy a long weekend holiday with their families, is also the location of a mass grave and where more than a thousand people died and their spirits are yet to be set free.

It’s a society where we are aware of the history of slavery in the US and stand aghast at the thought that humans were capable of enacting such violence and violations on their fellow humans. Yet many of us do not know the extent of slavery and slave trading in the pearl industry in Broome or the sugar cane industry in Queensland that helped build the wealth of this nation.

Our ignorance of injustices is detrimental to us all.

For example, did you know that in Queensland, Aboriginal people could be forced to live on reserves until 1971, and could not own their own property until 1975? That in the 1970s the estate of an Aboriginal person who died without leaving a will was automatically put in the hands of the public trustee, rather than granted to the next of kin as is the case with non-Aboriginals? Or that in 1994, the Australian Bureau of Statistics found that 10.1% of Aboriginal people aged between 25 and 44 had been separated from their families and that another 10.6% of those older than 44 had suffered the same fate?

We need to ask ourselves some hard questions which are not meant to assign guilt but enable acknowledgement and healing.

 “The history of our First Peoples is the history of all of us, of all of Australia, and we need to own it – hearing this history is necessary before we can come to some true reconciliation, some genuine healing for both sides.” –  National NAIDOC Co-Chairs Pat Thompson and John Paul Janke.

These honest conversations seek only to add value and depth to our identities as Australians and heal our relationships with our First Nations people, so that we can do better tomorrow than what we are doing today.

It is time.

A sociologist and Cannings Purple’s Senior Consultant in Corporate AffairsJordin Payne specialises in strategic communications and relationships with the community. She is a proud Nimanburr woman and traditional owner from Broome Western Australia with ancestral ties to Yawuru, Djugan, Nyul Nyul and Bardi groups on the Mid Dampier Peninsula. You can contact Jordin directly at  jpayne@canningspurple.com.au.

 More Cannings Purple news:

Ngalla waanginy: The power of Aboriginal-led engagement.
Ngalla waanginy: The power of Aboriginal-led engagement.
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