Australia Day is a time for mourning, not celebration

The refusal to celebrate Australia Day is part of an ongoing fight for the recognition of the abuse of Indigenous people's rights. If we give up on protesting, we might soon no longer remember the past

Nakkiah Lui 26 January 2014

Aboriginal people protesting for citizen rights. Photograph: Flickr/NSW State Library

I've been using the dating website OkCupid too much lately, and recently decided to reply to persistent messages from a MrNxtLvl - someone I would usually ignore based on his username alone. MrNxtLvl asked me what I was up to on Australia Day. I replied with "Nothing. I don't celebrate Australia Day'". He answered with complete bewilderment: "WTF?! You do nuthin? Not even listen to Triple J's Hottest 100?" to which I could only reply, "not even Triple J".

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.

The author's grandfather, who was told he was an 'honorary white man'. Photograph: Nakkiah Lui

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.

We do not celebrate the coming of the tall ships in Sydney's harbour. Instead, we mourn the declaration of Australia as terra nullius (empty land) as well as those who have died in massacres, those who were dispossessed of their land and homes, those were denied their humanity, those who were shackled, beaten, sent to prison camps, and made to live in reserves. We mourn those who have died in the resistance.

We also mourn the affects of genocide and colonisation which persists to this day. Aboriginal people die younger (an Indigenous male born in 2005-2007 is likely to live to 67.2 years, 11.5 years less than a non-Indigenous male); the number of Aboriginal children in "out of home care" is staggering; imprisonment rates for Indigenous Australians are around 12 times those of the rest of the Australian population; and people in the Northern Territory are still being oppressed under the Northern Territory intervention, a policy which Amnesty International described as "blatantly disregarding human rights".

We mourn whilst the rest of the country celebrates around us.

Protesting against Australia Day is nothing new; it is an ongoing fight for the recognition of what has been happening to us for over 100 years. One of the earliest Aboriginal protest occurred in 1888, when Indigenous people boycotted centenary celebrations. In 1937 William Cooper, a member of the Aboriginal Progressive Association, declared the sesquicentenary a "day of mourning", and a protest was held at the Australian Hall in Sydney.

This doesn't stop here. In 1985, the Sydney Morning Herald noted that:

For the official 1938 Australia Day celebrations, the government brought in "tame blacks" from the Menindee reserve. They were taken straight from the train, locked up in a stable at the Redfern police barracks, and guarded by dogs. On 26 January 1938, they were brought out dressed in leaves to be chased along the shore by British soldiers with bayonets and to parade through the street on a float. The next day they were sent back to their tin sheds on the Darling River.

These days we do the re-enactments without the bayonets, and Aboriginal elders give a Welcome to Country. This welcome happens on the very same spot where Indigenous people who encountered the first tall ships yelled "warra warra" (go away). It is the very same spot where Aboriginal people were murdered purely because this land was their home.

The 1988 bicentennary events was one of the biggest protests held by Aboriginal people from around Australia, and done in the name of survival. Around 40,000 protesters came to Sydney from all over the country to participate in the march. On the same day, Aboriginal people gathered at La Perouse Bay to throw their funeral wreaths into the water.

The author as a child, at a Survival Day march. Photograph: Nakkiah Lui

I was just two years old when my mum took me on this march. I wore a red, black and yellow Aboriginal flag dress, and we held hands as we marched. My mother says it is the cheering she remembers most clearly: the roar of cheers from the massive crowds of non-Aboriginal people who had gathered to support the march as they went through Belmore Park in Sydney's CBD, with many ending up joining the protest in support of Aboriginal people.

There are still protests every year around the country and at the Tent Embassy in Canberra, but for many Australians, the extent of their knowledge of that would be the saga of Julia Gillard's missing shoe incident during the 2012 Australia Day protests. Twenty-six years on from the 1988 celebrations, I do wonder: if Aboriginal Australians were to march through Sydney now in the name of survival, would we get the support we were given then? I don't know if we would get much support, or if our red, black and yellow Aboriginal flags would be welcome amongst the union jacks and south crosses.

Teddy Hopkins, an elder member of the aboriginal community, during a protest at the Queensland Parliament following the evacuation and arrest of members of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy.

Teddy Hopkins, an Aboriginal elder, during a protest at the Queensland parliament following the evacuation and arrest of members of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy. Photograph: AAP/Patrick Hamilton

In Sydney we have Yabun, an Aboriginal event working as an alternative to Australia Day, which has been held for the last 12 years. But has the proclamation of calling it Yabun instead of Invasion Day or Survival Day, and hosting celebrations instead of protest, depoliticised the event?

I'm afraid that if we give up on protesting Australia Day, the blameless myth will continue - becoming richer and fuller, until we no longer remember the past. The Australian anthem, Advanced Australia Fair, says;

For those who've come across the seas?
We've boundless plains to share

In the anthem you'll find no mention of stolen land - everything is young and new. And as I watch people around the country celebrate the myth that is Australia, I am given the option to either join in or shut up. Well 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.

Most people just want a day to celebrate the place that they call home, to be part of a community, and to guide Australia into the future. I am one of these people, so why can't we celebrate this on a day that includes all Australians? Surely there must be another historically significant date that can be trumped up to include every person in this country. But ignorance is bliss, right?