What Australia Day means to our traditional owners

Welcome to the land of the Wamba Wamba Perrepa Perrepa people.

I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of this land, the Wamba Wamba Perrepa Perrepa people, our Aboriginal elders, past, present and emerging, and any Aboriginal people here at this event today.

I’d also like to acknowledge two people in particular from our Aboriginal community, one being Sue Atkinson, who was first protester at an Australia Day event. And her having done that meant that we were invited to be a part of this day.

And also, I'd like to acknowledge my mother Jeanette Crew, who last year was awarded an OAM and who has instilled in myself and my brother Steven a really strong sense of culture, and is a true leader for our people.

My name is Laura Hand-Ross. I’m a founding member and current board member of the Yarkuwa Indigenous Knowledge Centre, and director of the Werai Land and Water Corporation.

I’m the current chair of the Deniliquin Local Aboriginal Land Council. But most importantly, I’m Wamba Wamba Mutthi Mutthi descendant with blood and songline connections to the Gunditjmara, Wiradjuri and Ngunnawal nations.

Since the early days of British colony, Sydney has marked January 26, using various names such as Anniversary Day, First Landing Day, Foundation Day. This gradually evolved into Australia Day and other states and territories officially adopted the name in 1935.

Although celebrations originally focused on the anniversary of the British occupation of New South Wales, since 1979 the Federal Government has promoted an Australia Day that was less British and more Australian in the hope of unifying Australia’s increasingly diverse population. Australia Day eventually became a national public holiday in 1994.

According to the National Australia Day Council, it’s the day to reflect on what it means to be Australian, to celebrate contemporary Australia and to acknowledge our history.

For many people, Australia Day is about celebrating the values, freedoms and pastimes of this country. It’s a time for barbecues in the backyard, having a beer with mates and proudly flying the Australian flag.

On the surface, Australia Day seems to be about unifying all people who call Australia home. And yet ironically, it’s a divisive day for many. For many First Nations people, January 26 isn’t a day for celebrating.

First Nations people may be just as proud of this country as any other Australian, but many see January 26 as a date signifying the beginning of dispossession, disease epidemics, frontier violence, destruction of culture, exportation, abuse, separation of families, and subjection to policies of extreme social control. Consequently, some people, including many First Nations people and myself, refer to January 26 by such names as Invasion Day, Survival Day and Day of Mourning.

I had not known until this year that there are themes associated with January 26 and this year’s theme is ‘Reflect, respect and celebrate - We’re all part of the story’.

So in that spirit, I’ll share my thoughts on January 26. I personally view January 26 as a day of survival, and I reflect on the resilience of my people and how we have managed to maintain our connection to each other, our land, our culture, and our language.

Every day I look to my Elders to gain further knowledge and advice about any issues I may be having throughout my day, whether it be my work life or personal work. And on days like today, I acknowledge them and my deep respect for them, continuing to guide us and teach us our history in an honest and truthful way.

And I celebrate the fact that despite the atrocities inflicted on my people, we continue to stand strong and staunch. There is much for us to all learn about our history, and in particular the history of the establishment of this township called Deniliquin and what happened to my people when settlers came here; we are all indeed part of the story.

As I’ve shared my views with you today, and have continued to learn about the history of this town, and Australian history in general, I implore you to delve into the wealth of cultural knowledge that surrounds you here in Deniliquin.

Deniliquin is a unique town in that over 95 per cent of the Aboriginal population here are Traditional Owners who descend from ancestors who have occupied, utilised and maintained this country, for thousands and thousands of years.

For those who don’t know where to start, this year NAIDOC Week 2022 will be held on Sunday, 3rd of July to Sunday the 10th of July. And this year’s theme is ‘Get up, stand up, and show up’.

It encourages all of us to champion institutional, structural, collaborative and cooperative change; celebrating those who have already driven and led change in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities over generations.

Sovereignty was never ceded. Always was, always will be.

Laura Hand-Ross gave this Welcome To Country address at the Deniliquin Australia Day ceremony.