Australian First Nations People


Australian First Nations People

My grandfather protested against Australia Day in 1938. We’ll never have a reason to rejoice on that day
By Ngarra Murray

Indigenous protesters gather around a placard that reads “Aborigines conference – day of mourning”
Protesters on Australia Day 1938. From left: William Ferguson, Jack Kinchela, Isaac Ingram, Doris Williams, Esther Ingram, Arthur Williams, Phillip Ingram, Louisa Agnes Ingram, holding daughter Olive Ingram, Jack Patten, unknown.(State Library of NSW)
Eighty years ago on Friday, my grandfather donned a black suit as a sign of mourning and in the hot summer heat, marched in silence through the streets of Sydney.

The 150th anniversary of the landing of the First Fleet in Australia had for others been a time to celebrate — there was a parade and a re-enactment of the landing, with Aboriginal men brought in from a remote area to assist in the re-enactment after Sydney residents refused to participate.

My grandfather, Sir Douglas Nicholls, along with our Uncle William Cooper and about 100 other fellow Indigenous protesters, had to wait patiently for the festivities to pass before they were allowed to march.

Two children pose with their grandfather
Ngarra Murray pictured with her grandfather and cousin Jida Gulpilil.(Supplied: Nicholls family)
One of the first civil rights protests by Indigenous people against their callous and discriminatory treatment in Australia, the gathering was not allowed to enter via the front door when they arrived at the Australian Hall in Elizabeth Street — the protesters were instead told to enter through the back.

On this momentous day in 1938, my grandfather was only 32. He had just retired from a successful career with Fitzroy in the Victorian Football League.

This is a story my large family — my grandfather’s five children, their children, my 11 siblings, my cousins and my own children — all know so well.

This moment on January 26, 1938, is part of our family history. It is a story that makes our family so proud.

But it is also a source of anger and frustration.

A committee looks at paperwork
President Jack Patten reads a resolution on the Day of Mourning. Doug Nicholls is seated, in vest second from left. (State Library of NSW)
‘Give us the chance’
Aborigines Progressive Association president Jack Patten addressed the historic meeting, convened to call for an inquiry into the treatment of Indigenous people on government missions and to call for equal rights.

Opening the conference, Mr Patten told the gathering this was Aboriginal Peoples’ day of mourning — a day to mourn their “frightful conditions” and their treatment on the very land which until 150 years previous had belonged to their forefathers.

“We refuse to be pushed into the background,” Mr Patten told the crowd. “We have decided to make ourselves heard.

“White men pretend that the Australian Aboriginal is a low type who cannot be bettered. Our reply to that is, ‘Give us the chance!’ We do not want to be left behind in Australia’s march to progress. We ask for full citizens’ rights.”

A portrait of a man in a suit
Sir Douglas Nicholls was the first Indigenous man to be knighted.(Nicholls Family Collection)
The resolution passed by the group included an appeal for new laws for the education and care of Aboriginal people, and a new policy that would lead to equality in Australia.

Despite the sensible and fair-minded calls made in 1938, it was another 29 years before the referendum that would remove two constitutional provisions that discriminated against Aboriginal people. These changes allowed us to be counted in Australia’s population and gave the Commonwealth the power to legislate for Indigenous people.

Call for land rights
Nearly 50 years after that historic meeting, during the 1988 bicentenary celebrations, the year we didn’t celebrate ’88, an estimated 40,000 people again marched through the streets of Sydney on January 26 to once more draw attention to the mistreatment of Aboriginal people.

A meeting ahead of the Day of Mourning
A meeting ahead of the Day of Mourning at Australian Hall, Sydney.(State Library of NSW)
The protesters called for land rights — it had been 200 years since British colonial settlement, the beginning of the dispossession of our people of their land without treaty or recognition.

The beginning of such a long period of violence and genocide to take our land.

Still no reason to rejoice
Eighty years on, Australia’s First Peoples still have no reason to rejoice on January 26 — and we never will.

Looking back at the words spoken on that day eight decades ago, there is an inescapable poignancy.

A woman smiles
Ngarra Murray.
These same words, these same themes, these same issues, remain central to the debate we continue to have in Australia today.

Far too many Indigenous Australians continue to face stark inequality, and remain a marginalised and impoverished minority.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are 25 times more likely to be sent to detention than non-Indigenous young people, the child mortality rate is double the national average and Indigenous people still die at least 10 years younger than non-Indigenous Australians.

January 26 is a day of sorrow and despair. For us, January 26, 1788, is the day our country was invaded, our people killed and our land stolen.

A national day of celebration feels like dancing on the grave of somebody’s grandparent on the day of the anniversary of their death.

Traditions can change
There is growing momentum in support of our call to change the date of Australia Day to a national day that can be celebrated by all Australians.

In 2016, the City of Fremantle in Western Australia decided it would cancel its traditional celebrations on January 26 and hold a culturally inclusive event two days later.

In Victoria, the Moreland, Darebin and Yarra councils have voted to scrap events on the day, with the Hobart City Council also officially throwing its support behind the bid to change the date.

For the first time this year, the much-loved “tradition” of Triple J’s Hottest 100 will be shifted to January 27 after an online survey found a majority of respondents supported the change of date for the countdown.

In consultation with the Australian community, the Federal Government must choose another date for our national day of celebrations — a date that is inclusive of all.

The inescapable reality is that Australia's current national day excludes and alienates our people — 80 years after my grandfather marched the streets in a fight for equality, the time to change the date is here.

By Peace Truth

Life is like a bunch of roses. Some sparkle like raindrops. Some fade when there's no sun. Some just fade away in time. Some dance in many colors. Some drop with hanging wings. Some make you fall in love. The beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Life you can be sure of, you will not get out ALIVE.(sorry about that)