Two cultures meet on Australia Day. Their worlds might touch but their views can be worlds apart.
26th January 1788 - Australia Day
January 26, 1788 was the date on which Captain Arthur Phillip took formal possession of the colony of New South Wales and raised the British flag for the first time in Sydney Cove.
In the early 1880s the day was known as ‘First Landing’, ‘Anniversary Day’ or ‘Foundation Day’.
In 1946 the Commonwealth and state governments agreed to unify the celebrations on January 26 and call it ‘Australia Day’. The day became a public holiday in 1818 (its 30th anniversary).
Why do we celebrate Australia Day?
Since 1994 all states and territories celebrate Australia Day together on the actual day. On this day ceremonies welcome new citizens or honour people who did a great service.
On the fun side are BBQs, contests, parades, performances, fireworks and more.
A National Australia Day Council, founded in 1979, views Australia Day as “a day to reflect on what we have achieved and what we can be proud of in our great nation,” and a “day for us to re-commit to making Australia an even better place for the generations to come”.
Where can I celebrate Australia Day with Aboriginal people?
- Adelaide organises Survival at the National Aboriginal Cultural Institute, Tandanya, at Semaphore.
- Canberra invites you to learn about Aboriginal culture and storytelling with dance and music in Commonwealth Park and at Australia Day Festival at the National Museum of Australia.
- Melbourne holds the Share the Spirit festival in the Treasury Gardens (since 2002), and another Survival Day celebreation in Borthwick Park, Belgrave.
- New South Wales celebrates the Saltwater Freshwater Festival at 10 rotating locations (Coffs Harbour, Taree, Karuah and others).
- Perth has an event called Too Solid in the Supreme Court Gardens. Survival concerts have been held in Perth since 2000.
- Sydney celebrates Yabun since 2003. It means “song with a beat” in the language of the Eora, the original people of the Sydney region. The event is held in Victoria Park.
The meaning of Australia Day for Aboriginal people
To many Aboriginal Australians there is little to celebrate and it is a commemoration of a deep loss. Loss of their sovereign rights to their land, loss of family, loss of the right to practice their culture.
“Australia Day is 26 January, a date whose only significance is to mark the coming to Australia of the white people in 1788. It’s not a date that is particularly pleasing for Aborigines,” says Aboriginal activist Michael Mansell . “The British were armed to the teeth and from the moment they stepped foot on our country, the slaughter and dispossession of Aborigines began.”
Aboriginal people call it ‘Invasion Day’, ‘Day of Mourning’, ‘Survival Day’ or, since 2006, ‘Aboriginal Sovereignty Day’. The latter name reflects that all Aboriginal nations are sovereign and should be united in the continuous fight for their rights.
Mansell believes that Australia celebrates “the coming of one race at the expense of another” .
“Australia is the only country that relies on the arrival of Europeans on its shores as being so significant it should herald the official national day,” he says . “The USA does not choose the arrival of Christopher Columbus as the date for its national day. Like many other countries its national day marks independence.”
From an outside perspective one might think that Aboriginal people embrace the day to protest. But that is not necessarily so.Aboriginal woman Professor Jakelin Troy is the Director of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Research at the University of Sydney. “We shouldn’t have to be marching and protesting and making big political commentaries in order to get recognition - that should be built into this day,” she says. “There should be, in all the advertising that goes out about Australia Day…it shouldn’t be this frivolous, frothy sort of stuff about barbeques and coloured towels and spending the day at the beach. It should be, you know what does Australia Day mean for all Australians?” 
A real Australian is someone who knows where they really, really come from.—Bart Willoughby, Aboriginal musician 
Poem: Australia Day 2014
I am not black I am not white I am not wrong I am not right I am now here Not been before My ancestors Are here no more I am not black I am not white I am not wrong I am not right Their spirit lives in every way Always will unto this day They are so proud and love their land Traditional custodians will stand I am not black I am not white I am not wrong I am not right We have so much to offer all Generations past still call This great land of ours abounds Where harmony and peace are found I am not black I am not white I am not wrong I am not right Proud and true is who we are Some from here and some from far Help each other the best we can That makes us ALL Australian.
Poem by Sandra Hayman.
At the time Captain Cook came to Australia there were three legally recognised principles that governed the taking over or acquiring new land, according to 18th Century English and International common law:
- conquest, by the declaration of war;
- treaty, negotiated after victory in war; or,
- occupation by absence of presence on the land by people, land belonging to no one, also known as the terra nullius principle.
- Which of the above do you think applies to what happened in Australia?
- In the case that you selected, what are the consequences for Aboriginal people?
- What are the consequences for how non-Aboriginal people in Australia think about their country’s history?
Day of Mourning
On Australia Day’s 150th anniversary, in 1938, William Cooper, a member of the Aboriginal Progressive Association, declared the day a “Day of Mourning”, alluding to the annual re-enactment of Phillip’s landing.
Aboriginal people refused to participate in the re-enactment because it included chasing away a party of Aboriginal people (which, by the way, had been carted to this event against their will).
Cooper and his fellow Aboriginal men Jack Patten and William Ferguson organised a conference to grieve the collective loss of freedom and self-determination of Aboriginal communities as well as those killed during and after European settlement in 1788.
Finally, by 1988, the re-enactments were discontinued. This same year was named a Year of Mourning by and for the Australian Aboriginal people.
On Australia Day Aboriginal people mourn their forbears who suffered and perished during colonisation.
Read what Aboriginal poet and Bayili woman Zelda Quakawoot thinks about the Day of Mourning and Australia Day :
“Historically the 26th of January has always been marked as our Day of Mourning. There is so much mental turmoil about Australian pride on this day. Not all Australians feel that sense of pride[,] and cultural diversity becomes a problem…
“There are layers of arrivals to this country. On Australia Day… it is difficult to identify the pride in the First Nations of this country, or even in the ways other cultures have become a part of this country’s make-up.
“The day historically is often dominated by loud mouthed drunkenness. It never feels like a celebration of cultural and social achievements for my families or other Aboriginal families.
“Aboriginal people did not and have never said ‘no’ to anyone entering this country, whether it was for trade or refuge. History tells us this through the Maccassans from Indonesia, who travelled quite regularly to the northern parts of Australia for trepang, and traded other goods and services many hundreds of years before Captain Cook landed.”
We all still suffer from the life-draining, over-legislated madness called British Australia, which never seems to abate to the reason of sound voices or even democracy. Then they expect us to join in their triumphant dances over our ancestors' graves each January 26.—Phill Moncrieff, Aboriginal musician 
Why Australia Day is a day of mourning to me
Nakkiah Lui is a 20-something-year-old Gamillaroi and Torres Strait Islander woman from Mount Druitt, western Sydney. She explains why she cannot celebrate Australia Day :
I’m an Aboriginal woman in her 20s who cruises dating websites, but it’s only four generations back that my family felt the direct consequences of foreigners invading our land.
There’s my great-great grandmother, who survived a massacre; my great grandfather, who was forced back to the mission after his father died and wasn’t allowed to own land; my grandfather, who was given “dog tags” dictating he was an “honorary white man” after he returned from being a prisoner of war in World War II; my mother, who was encouraged to not finish high school because she was Aboriginal.
This is why, for us, Australia Day is a day of mourning. It is not a day to go over to my friends’ to sit in a blow up pool and get drunk, and it’s definitely not a day to wear red, white and blue while waving a flag with a Union Jack and a Southern Cross on it.
I refuse to celebrate, and every Australia Day my heart is broken as I am reminded that in the eyes of many, I am not welcome on my own land.—Nakkiah Lui, Aboriginal woman 
Survival Day, Invasion Day
Yabun poster advertising Aboriginal music acts. Note the sentence “A no alcohol & drugs event” at the bottom.
In 1992 the first Survival Day concert was held in Sydney. These concerts are often staged at places with great Aboriginal significance, for example La Perouse or Redfern. Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal artists play music or dance, there are information, arts and crafts stalls, and you can buy food and bush tucker.
Survival Day has become one of the biggest Aboriginal cultural events that is staged throughout Australia. In all major cities you can visit alternative concerts where mainly Aboriginal people gather.
The name Survival Day expresses the fact that Aboriginal culture is still strong and many Aboriginal people’s identities are positive and alive despite all what happened since colonisation.
We call it Survival Day. Whitefellas pretty much celebrating invasion and killing our mob off--that's what it feels like for us.—Warrick Wright from the Aboriginal band Local Knowledge
However, to many Aboriginal people there is little to celebrate and it is a commemoration of a deep loss. Loss of their sovereign rights to their land and the right to practice their culture. Many of them rather call 26th January Invasion Day.
Bryan Andy on Australia Day
“I call Australian day ‘Invasion Day’ or ‘Survival Day’. The apology (by PM Rudd) was the first step, but there are still many many steps to go.
There’s a saying that white Australia has a black history. It can sort of be taken in the sense that it has been a dark or unfortunate history, but it’s also true in the sense that we were here first. Sometimes people think that Australian started 200 years ago with the invasion.”
“While Australians celebrate a day that represents a history of booze, barbecues, bloodshed and theft, we continue our resistance,” says Jidah Clark, youth delegate of the Aboriginal Provisional Government . “Despite the mindless nationalism of some Australians, we remember the invasion. This is invasion day.”
We won't stop, we won't go away / We won't celebrate Invasion Day!—Chant during protests on Australia Day 2012 
January 26th marked the beginning of the murders, the rapes and the dispossession. It is no date to celebrate.—Michael Mansell, National Aboriginal Alliance spokesman 
Our Survival Day
Another Australia Day has arrived Celebrations across our land Guess they don't think what we've been through Our ancestors tried to hold our land Keep us together to protect our clans Barbecues burning and sweet tasting wine The white man's celebrating what belongs to us But we're here in the background Being proud of who we are Our red, black and yellow unites us all Saying we have survived another century Of white man's invasion
Poem by Raylene Campion . Read more Aboriginal poems.
In a controversial move the City of Sydney Council decided in July 2011 to use the word ‘invasion’ in one of its official documents . Many white Australians were affronted by the word and felt it described the past, not the present.
But, as some commentators pointed out, “if the word ‘invasion’ is to have any meaning, then of course it has to apply to what happened. It does not mean,... [that we have] to ‘uninvade’ this land.” 
Remember, 'invasion' was only used to describe the arrival of the British in 1788, not the whole 200-years plus.—Larissa Behrendt, Aboriginal law professor 
Let's get the facts right and the facts are that this country was invaded.—Chris Lawrence, Noongar man 
An Aboriginal perspective:
“We will mourn the loss of our land”
Aboriginal woman Nala Mansell-McKenna reflects on the meaning of Australia Day for Aboriginal people .
“On January 26 Aborigines from across the country will mourn, just as we do every Anzac Day.
“We will mourn the deaths of the 50 Aboriginal men, women and children who were massacred at Risdon Cove while hunting kangaroo; we will mourn the deaths of those shot in cold blood while bathing in the waters of the Jordan River lagoon; we will mourn the loss of our land, the stolen children, the remains of our ancestors held in overseas institutions and everything else that our people have had to endure since the arrival of the white man on January 26, 1788.
We will also call for the race-based celebrations of January 26 to come to a close and for a new date to be chosen, so that we can all proudly wave our flags and celebrate the wonderful country that we now share.”
Towards a new Australia Day
Many Australians recognise that Australia Day is no longer an appropriate day for celebrations and call for a new day which includes all Australians. Some suggest to rename Australia Day to ‘Arrival Day’.
People happy with the current Australia Day base their arguments often on racist grounds. Surprisingly, many show a lack of knowledge and awareness of the controversy surrounding Australia Day.
They don’t care about the particular date and just enjoy the holiday. Any controversy around moving Australia Day to another day would most likely soon be forgotten.
Aboriginal activist Michael Mansell believes a new public holiday should celebrate an inclusive Australia, but he calls for a treaty first.
“There may come a time… when a treaty has been made between Aborigines and Australia to include a land settlement, designated seats in the parliament and our own assembly… The date of the agreement could mark a new national date for celebration, where both peoples acknowledge each other’s rights and aspirations, thus avoiding the current ‘whites only’ celebrations.” 
Changes to Australia Day might come slowly but surely.
On 24 August 2016 full Fremantle council (WA) voted 11-1 in favour of not hosting the city’s usual fireworks event the next year “as a sign of respect to the local Noongar peoples and in recognition of changing attitudes towards January 26 as the national day of celebration.”  Instead the council wanted to consult with the city’s Aboriginal elders and business community about “the most appropriate way to mark the occasion”.
90% of people are saying Australia Day should be inclusive of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures. I firmly believe that some day we will choose a date that is a comprehensive and inclusive date for all Australians.—Mick Dodson, Aboriginal Law Professor and Australian of the Year 2009 
I would however make a strong plea for a change of date. Let us find a day on which we can all feel included, in which we can all participate equally, and can celebrate with pride our common Australian identity.—Dr Lowitja O’Donoghue, Aboriginal Australian of the Year 1984 
David Beniuk - January 26
David Beniuk questions why January 26th has been picked to be celebrated as Australia Day in his memorable song:
You find plenty of history of Australia Day on the site of the Australia Day Council of New South Wales.