A sharp challenge


28 Jun 2021

This year the theme of the National Aboriginal and Islander Day Observance Committee (NAIDOC) Week (4-11 July) is short, sharp and challenging. It is ‘Heal Country!’ It calls on all of us to continue to seek greater protections for our lands, our waters, our sacred sites and our cultural heritage from exploitation, desecration, and destruction.

NAIDOC Week, of course, is built on the determination of many Indigenous people who recognised that they were neither respected nor heard to work for change. They spoke truth to power, a truth that has rarely been acknowledged. The organisation grew out of the recognition that it inappropriate to celebrate Australia Day on the anniversary of the arrival of the First Fleet, an event which marked the beginning of their dispossession. They began to organise in order to find practical recognition by other Australians of their right to participate in society as equal members, but faced opposition at every corner. On the question of Australia’s national day they still face opposition, but have now built considerable support in the wider community.

NAIDOC Week was born out of that movement. It continues to provide an opportunity for all Australians to join in celebrating the culture and aspirations and hopes of Indigenous and Torres Strait Islanders. And to listen to their voice.

The theme of NAIDOC Week this year takes up an issue of concern to all Australians – the protection of country and cultural heritage. It comes at a time when the prevailing apathy, carelessness and vandalism about the destruction of sites central to Indigenous culture and history has been challenged. The reaction to the destruction of the Juukan Gorge caves in Western Australia aroused amazement and outrage outside Australia, and cost Rio Tinto and its investors reputation, money and the service of prominent office holders. Similar threats to heritage on Fortescue claims and on the Burrup Peninsula have also aroused widespread comment and will be difficult to ignore. The protests and publicity given them have shaken the insouciance of Australians to the importance of its history, revealed most strikingly in the blindness to the importance of preserving the national archives. An ancient Roman observer of these things might well suspect that the barbarians had taken over the Empire.

That is why the theme of NAIDOC Week is so timely. Heal Country has many meanings. It can mean healing a country sacred to its people which has been vandalised by exploitation. It might also mean healing a divided nation which treats its original people so disrespectfully. At a deeper level, it might mean healing a blindness and lack of respect for what should be sacred. This blindness sees human beings as no more than individuals in a competitive economy, ignoring their personal value and the complex and subtle relationships through time and space that shape them. It shows a lack of respect in particular for the relationship to environment, which puts at risk the future of all Australians through global warming.

The naming of the week and its emphasis belongs to the Aboriginal and Islander communities. But attending to the theme is the business all Australians, not simply the Indigenous. It is about forming the respectful and decent relationships that engender pride within communities. The Week is a time for engaging with one another, for recognising and celebrating the many ways in which pride has been built in Indigenous communities, and for pressing that in their relationships to people and to the environment governments and other institutions show the respect which opens out to healing.

Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ is an editorial consultant at Jesuit Communications
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