Source: Charles Perkins

While many relish the public holiday and various associated activities, not everyone sees January 26th as a reason to celebrate. Some First Nations Australians refer to January 26 as “Invasion Day” while to others it is “Survival Day”.   In fact, the number of people choosing to celebrate it specifically are declining (if you trust media polls).

This year there are growing reports of organisations allowing their employees to choose another day to celebrate.

Around the world, many countries celebrate a national day of importance. Most of them celebrate a new beginning: independence from a colonising country (e.g., United States of America, Brazil), becoming a republic (e.g., France, Iceland), abolition of slavery (e.g., Martinique, Mayotte) or reunification (e.g., North & South Yemen, East and West Germany).

Of the 53 countries who remain signatories to the Commonwealth Charter only one commemorates the successful invasion of its own lands with a holiday. Australia is the only nation which places the beginning of its own colonisation as the central day of national celebration.

In Australia, our national day celebrates the anniversary of the date Britain’s First Fleet sailed into Sydney Harbor in 1788, beginning the European colonization which led to the modern nation of Australia. First Nations peoples of Australia see this choice of date as celebrating the beginning of the deliberate destruction of our people and cultures as colonists took lands they deemed “uninhabited” despite large First Nations populations living there.

When Lieutenant Cook (he wasn’t a Captain yet!) stepped onto the shores of Botany Bay, Cooks’ own journals describe an encounter on landing with two First Nations men trying to protect their ‘country’ from the surprise visitors. Cook described this meeting as an attack by natives.

Source: The Guardian

For First Nations Australians, 26 January 1788 is not the day our history began. Our history began at the beginning of time over 65,000 years ago and continues to be made every day. We have been using the term ‘the world’s oldest living culture’ based on what we know from our oral histories. Of late scientific research has confirmed what we already know.[1]

For First Nations Australians, the importance of recognising that our rich history as a nation began long before 1788, goes well beyond the discussion around a particular day.  January 26th was celebrated as the national day from 1935, but only became a public holiday for all Australians in 1994.  Protests over the choice of national day have been happening for over 80 years.

In 1938 a group of Aboriginal people named it the ‘Day of Mourning”[2] and held the first national protest against the racism that was part of their daily lives – racism that for far too many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders continues to be part of their everyday lives permeating equitable access to basic citizens’ rights including education, health care, housing and interaction with the judiciary.

With these rights – ideally meant to be enjoyed by all Australians – diminished by racism it is little surprise that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander rights as the First Nations people of this country are often largely ignored by mainstream society. Maintenance of languages and cultural traditions continue to be under threat, rights to traditional country and waterways are often ignored or actively resisted and rights to self-determination or treaty are contentious in policy and mainstream society.

Source: National Museum Australia

More recently First Nations people have chosen the 26th of January to protest injustice. In 1972 as a reaction to the McMahon government announcement on the 25th of a new approach to land rights four Redfern First Nations men drove to Canberra and, with a beach umbrella on the lawns of Old Parliament House, set up the first Tent Embassy. In 1995 activist Gary Foley described the action as a response to First Nations people being positioned by the McMahon government announcement as ‘aliens in our own lands, so like other aliens, we needed an embassy’ (in The Age, 14 April 1995; see also The Australian, 10 February 1972).

Balancing history based in truth telling with the national enthusiasm for a public holiday celebrating a national day can be ‘tricky’.

Widely broadcast in 2022 ‘The Story of Australia’ has Australians saying in parts our history ‘is painful and in parts it is raw’. It goes on to say it is the story of people from ‘far and wide, and those who have been here since the beginning of time’.

What do you say to a curious child who asks what this means or why do people argue about celebrating January 26th?

So, what can we say to our young ones? We can remind them that Australia’s history did not begin when Lieutenant Cook stepped onto the shores of Botany Bay.  We can tell our young ones about the importance of country to First Nations peoples and encourage them to acknowledge the shared histories and respect the deep spiritual link that has been integral to the cultures since time immemorial.

Written By:
Dr Rhonda Coopes

Lead Research Officer

Source: Edmund Rice Centre


[1] Western scientists in the field of ‘evolutionary genetics’ confirm the longevity of our presence on this land. What has come to be known about seismic and glacial shifts confirms the stories about the rise of coastal waters in Far North Queensland and the creation of the Great Barrier Reef. Traditional burning practices are coming to be valued as a way to maintain the ecosystems that are of interest to groups including conservationists and pastoralists.

[2] The “Day of Mourning” became an annual event held on the Sunday before Jan 26th. This moved to July in 1955 to be a day to celebration of Aboriginal cultures and achievements and expanded to become NAIDOC week in 1975.