Respect for our elders


28 Jun 2023

The theme of respect for elders this NAIDOC Week is one that unites First Nations peoples and all other Australians.

As with all the celebrations of Australian identity this year, the National Aboriginal and Islander Day Observance Committee (NAIDOC) Week (2-9 July) falls under the light of the Referendum on the Voice. The Committee has long been a voice speaking to Indigenous and other Australians about our history and about the claims that respect makes on us.

NAIDOC Week was initially a voice of protest, the voice of Indigenous people who recognised that they were neither respected nor heard, and so were impelled to work for change. They saw that it inappropriate to celebrate Australia Day on the anniversary of the arrival of the First Fleet, which marked the beginning of their dispossession. They began to organise in order to find recognition and acceptance by other Australians of their right to participate in society, but faced opposition at every corner. They drew up a petition to send to King George V to ask for Aboriginal electorates, but the government saw it as outside its constitutional powers to provide them.

In 1938 a Congress of Indigenous people met in Sydney. Its members marched on Australia Day, which they called Mourning Day. 

Australia Day is still celebrated on the anniversary of Indigenous expropriation, but NAIDOC Week was born and continues. It provides 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 reaches out to all Australians as we prepare for the Referendum on the Voice. It invites us to reflect on and respect Our Elders. This is a cause that joins First Nations peoples and other Australians in a celebration each of our own roots and in respect for our own wise persons. It is a particularly helpful theme in these days of an often rancorous discussion of the Referendum on the Indigenous Voice to Parliament. It draws our attention to the wisdom figures who represent the deepest, purest streams of our culture and not its gutters. They also hold the living truth of our history. 

NAIDOC Week is about more than protest and a demand for respect. It is about making a more just and decent Australia in which all people can be proud of the society that they have built, in which justice, equality and a fair go are not just words but are expressed in the way people are treated. That is a shared pride. It is what our Elders want. They contributed richly to the Uluru Statement from the Heart. We should honour them by ensuring that the Referendum is passed. 

Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ is an editorial consultant at Jesuit Communications
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