“It’s a week when we as Aboriginal people can celebrate our rich, diverse and ongoing culture, and do that with non-Indigenous folks across Australia.”—Ken Markwell, Executive General Manager of Indigenous Services at Australian Unity.
- NAIDOC Week is a celebration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures, histories and achievements, while National Reconciliation Week focuses more on creating stronger bonds between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians
- Both weeks are an opportunity to not only reflect on past injustices but “to understand, to share and to heal—together”
- Being a good ally means educating yourself about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and supporting them.
Ken Markwell’s sense of self was forged on the streets of Brisbane in the ’70s and ’80s, marching to Musgrave Park as a kid every NAIDOC Week. That’s where he first heard his beloved grandmother call another woman by her tribal name and where he first identified as a strong Mununjali man.
“Social justice – and injustice – were ingrained in me from those marches,” says 49-year-old Ken, now the Executive General Manager of Indigenous Services at Australian Unity. “We all dressed up in our Aboriginal shirts and we came in all shapes, sizes and colours, but we were united by pride. That was a big thing that Mum instilled in me: be black and be proud.”
Held in the first week of July—this year from 3 to 10 July—NAIDOC Week is a celebration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures, histories and achievements, while National Reconciliation Week (27 May to 3 June) focuses more on creating stronger bonds between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.
Ken stresses that he can’t speak for all First Nations people, but National Reconciliation Week for him is an opportunity to not only reflect on past injustices but “to understand, to share and to heal—together”, he says.
Reconciliation Australia CEO Karen Mundine echoes that sentiment. “Reconciliation is about all of us, not just Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples,” she says. “And it asks all Australians to consider what each of us can do to create a better Australia that builds respectful relationships with First Nations peoples.”
National Reconciliation Week is bookended by the same dates every year, marking two of the most important milestones in Australia’s modern Indigenous history.
On 27 May, 1967, in the country’s most successful referendum, more than 90 per cent of Australians voted to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the census and to remove clauses in the Australian Constitution that discriminated against them.
Twenty-five years later, on 3 June, 1992, the High Court delivered its historic Mabo decision, overturning the legal doctrine of ‘terra nullius’ (meaning nobody’s land or land belonging to no-one) and paving the way for native title in Australia.
In 1993, religious groups held the Week of Prayer for Reconciliation, which evolved three years later into National Reconciliation Week. In 2001, around 300,000 people walked across Sydney Harbour Bridge in an act of solidarity.
“We now see a really solid group of Australians who are much more aware of reconciliation,” Karen says. “And it’s not all about big gestures. In National Reconciliation Week, as in every week, we ask everyone to look at where you live, work and socialise, and see what you can do to influence change.”
Reconciliation demands more than lip service, which is why the theme for this year’s NAIDOC Week is ‘Get up! Stand up! Show up!’.
It’s a call to action for non-Indigenous Australians too. “It’s a week when we as Aboriginal people can celebrate our rich, diverse and ongoing culture, and do that with non-Indigenous folks across Australia,” Ken, pictured above, says.
“It’s Aboriginal people being able to share their culture. It’s also non-Indigenous people respecting, understanding and embracing Aboriginal culture as an integral part of Australia’s culture.”
NAIDOC (pronounced nay-dock) Week originally took its name from the National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee but these days just goes by its acronym. It can be traced back to 26 January, 1938, when First Nations Australians came together across the country to mark the 150th anniversary of British settlement.
Protesters marched through Sydney in what was one of the world’s first major civil rights gatherings. Known as the Day of Mourning, it was held on the Sunday before Australia Day from 1940 until 1955, when the date was changed to the first Sunday of July and the event broadened to become a cultural celebration.
As part of the now-week-long event, national awards are presented to 10 inspirational First Nations people, including Person of the Year, Elder of the Year and Sportsperson of the Year.
Both weeks offer chances for non-Indigenous Australians to listen and learn. “They are both starting points, and annual reminders, that we won’t reach our full potential as a nation, until Australia fully embraces Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the first peoples of this land and all that we have to offer,” Karen says.
For Ken, reconciliation rests on relationships—First Nations and non-Indigenous people talking to each other. Being a good ally means educating yourself about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and supporting them. “Don’t wait for Reconciliation Week,” he says. “Reconciliation is every day and it’s everyone’s business.”
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