NAIDOC week 2021: Heal Country!

This week, 4 to 11 July, is NAIDOC Week. It is an annual occasion that celebrates and honours the history, culture, contribution, and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples.  

This year’s NAIDOC Week theme is ‘Heal Country!’ – a call for people to continue to seek greater protections for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander lands, waters, sacred sites, and cultural heritage from exploitation, desecration and destruction.

NAIDOC Week was born out of the Day of Mourning on January 26, 1938, when Aboriginal Peoples gathered in protest of the callous treatment of Indigenous Australians over the 150 years since British Colonisation. 

Following the Day of Mourning, William Cooper, an Aboriginal leader and political activist, wrote to the National Missionary Council of Australia to seek their support in the creation of an annual event. Subsequently, from 1940 until 1955, the Day of Mourning was held annually on the Sunday before Australia Day and came to be known as Aborigines Day. Then, in 1975, the National Aborigines Day Observance Committee (NADOC) decided that the event should cover an entire week in July. Notably, in 1991, NADOC was expanded to include Torres Strait Islander Peoples and thus became the National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee, which we now know as NAIDOC.

Inherent to the notion of observing and celebrating Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture is an understanding that, for First Nations peoples, country is more than a place. Indeed, without romanticising First Nations subjects and practices, it is important to understand that the traditional land management foundations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander societies were informed by spiritual beliefs. These beliefs form the Dreaming, which is what anthropologist Bill Stanner calls “a poetic key to reality”, and crucial to understanding Aboriginal laws of existence and connection to country as something which is crucial to identity, and to creating a sense of a life fulfilled – spiritually, physically, emotionally, socially, and culturally.

For Irene Watson, a Professor and Tanganekald, Meintagk, and Boandik woman, White Australians view land as a commodity and so the mainstream understanding of land simply does not accord “with an Aboriginal way of knowing country.” Similarly, Galarrwuy Yunupingu, an Elder and Gumatj and Galpu man, recognises that, for Aboriginal peoples, rather than being a commodity, each place is special and has its own sacred meaning. Yunupingu compares the land to a backbone: “I only stand straight, happy, proud and not ashamed about my black colour because I still have land,” he says. Without the land, though, and without the culture, the art, and the history attached to that land, “I am nothing.”

This year’s NAIDOC Week theme also seeks substantive institutional reform, something which First Nations communities have long been advocating for, and a reminder that the aspirations which first drove protestors to march the streets of Sydney in 1938 remain prescient. It is necessary, now more than ever, to support, recognise, work, and engage with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in order to deliver on such long awaited reforms as a First Nations voice in Parliament, and other laws, policies, and programs which are consistent with the expressed needs and desires of First Nations peoples. 

Ultimately, it is through Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ own structures of being, of relating to country and to one another, that they continue their story and maintain a culture which has prevailed since antiquity into modernity. It’s time we listen, and more importantly, respond. 

To find out how you can get involved with NAIDOC Week, visit .

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