Australia Day events have begun around the country, with ceremonies in Sydney celebrating the oldest living culture in the world and acknowledging January 26 is a “sombre” day for many.
The Opera House’s sails were illuminated with a projection named Goanna Songline by Central Desert artist David Miller, a senior Pitjantjatjara man.
The Australian and Aboriginal flags were then raised on top of the Harbour Bridge, where they’ll remain for the day as a symbol of harmony.
The WugulOra Morning Ceremony was held at Gudjyi (Barangaroo Reserve), a place where Eora women once paddled their canoes to catch fish and collect shellfish.
Wiradjuri woman and chair of the Metropolitan Local Aboriginal Land Council, Yvonne Weldon, told a crowd including the NSW Premier, Governor and Indigenous elders, that today was a “sombre” day for many First Nations people.
“We need to show respect for our ancestors … none of us have ever ceded our rights,” she said.
“I pay homage to the people of the Eora nation who suffered the first impact of colonisation on behalf of all Aboriginal nations.”
NSW Governor, Margaret Beazley, said the pandemic had highlighted the fact Australians needed to act as “one mob”.
She said help wasn’t quick enough to arrive in some remote Indigenous communities and cultural communication had been inadequate during lockdowns.
She drew comparisons to the 1789 smallpox epidemic which killed significant numbers of Indigenous people.
“Let us learn from these past difficult years, let’s celebrate the good and let’s walk together on this path as WugulOra (one mob),” she said.
January 26 also marks a day of mourning and protest for many and is often referred to by its critics as Invasion Day or Survival Day.
It is the day Captain Arthur Phillip raised the Union Jack for the first time in Sydney Cove and proclaimed British sovereignty, which resulted in the dispossession of First Nations people.
Celebrations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture will be held across the country, including the Yabun Festival in Sydney, as well as multiple protests.
Unlike previous years, Sydney’s Invasion Day march was initially walked silence, with attendees mourning what many describe as a day of genocide.
After a minute silence in which the crowds of thousands sat in the middle of Elizabeth Street, familiar protest chants returned.
“Always was, always will be,” rung out in the city’s CBD.
Police say the peaceful crowds have grown into the tens of thousands.
Overnight in Melbourne, a statue of Captain Cook in St Kilda was vandalised with red paint in an act of protest which Victorian police have described as “absolutely ridiculous”.
“Whilst we understand people have certain views about this day, we always ask people to be respectful and blatant criminal activity like that will not be tolerated,” Victoria Police Assistant Commissioner Glenn Weir told Channel Nine.
Another Captain Cook statue in Edinburgh Gardens, in the inner Melbourne suburb of Fitzroy North, was also covered in red paint overnight.
In Central Victoria, hundreds gathered by Lake Wendouree for Ballarat’s third annual Survival Day dawn service which aims to recognise the impact of colonisation on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
“It [January 26] means a lot of things. Specifically, it’s a day of mourning for our people,” said Wotjobaluk man, Barengi Gadjin Land Council chairperson, and member of the First People’s Assembly Victoria, Dylan Clarke.
“For me, it’s about raising awareness. It’s about talking to non-Indigenous people about the atrocities that happened in this country.
“I’m hopeful by the time my children grow up, and are having those conversations, they’re picking up a different chapter of that story.”
The Australia Day parade which usually runs through Melbourne’s CBD has been cancelled for a second consecutive year, while a planned Invasion Day rally has also been scrapped.
In Canberra, Prime Minister Scott Morrison welcomed the 16,000 people becoming Australian citizens today and read a poem by his daughter, Lily.
He lauded Australia as the world’s most “successful” multicultural nation and expressed thanks to new citizens for “great expressions of love for our country”.
Mr Morrison also paid respect to Indigenous people who have served in the military.
Northern Territory senator and Yanyuwa woman Malarndirri McCarthy said Australia Day was now about a “change of attitude more than a change of date”.
“I think the issues that we face as a country are so great, we need to focus on those [first],” she said.
“For now, our country needs to be united more than ever, not divided.”
Australia Day celebrations in Adelaide included a smoking ceremony in Elder Park, on the banks of the River Torrens and although attendance was restricted, a strong crowd gathered to watch the ceremony.
Rosemary Wanganeen grew up in the Point Pearce Mission and was a member of the Stolen Generations, but said she believed “reconciliation is really here, it’s alive, it’s not going to go away”.
“We have some ways to go. Our history has been very dark,” she said.
“But the things that Aboriginal people and non-Aboriginal people have done [together], to have such a gathering today, is such an indicator — a really powerful indicator that we have come a long way.”
In Darwin, Garramilla dancers led by Larrakia woman Lynette Fejo performed at the waterfront and local elders shared their stories.
Some organisations, like not-for-profit Children’s Ground — which is led by Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander communities — gave staff the option to work on January 26 and take the public holiday later in the year.
“We urge you to know what January 26 means to us, and how this date affects us – the day we were invaded, accosted, murdered, moved off our lands and an ongoing, attempted genocide began,” said the organisation’s director Stacey Campton.
Despite a growing Omicron COVID-19 outbreak, Western Australia is still celebrating Australia Day with a variety of events.
The annual Australia Day fireworks on the banks of the Swan River are expected to go ahead tonight, despite disagreements between the City of Perth and the state government over COVID-19 health advice.