• Harold Thomas with the Aboriginal flag he designed in 1971. (The Daily Telegraph)Source: The Daily Telegraph
Artist and land rights activist Harold Thomas was just 24 years old when he created the first Aboriginal flag to ensure our people could stand up and be noticed at the National Aborigines Day march in Adelaide.
Karina Marlow

12 Jul 2016 - 6:33 PM  UPDATED 10 Jul 2017 - 4:18 PM

Twelve months before the flag’s creation, a young Harold Thomas, fresh out of art school, attended the National Aborigines Day March in Adelaide for the first time.

A precursor to the current NAIDOC week, a day had long been set aside in July for Aboriginal people to remember and reflect on their heritage.

“The march I attended in Adelaide was just a small event” he recalls.

“When I was at the march there were probably a handful of Aboriginals, probably a dozen or so and we were sort of outnumbered by non-Aboriginals. They were in the back of the march, probably thirty of them at the most.”

The group had assembled at Victoria Square that Friday to celebrate Aboriginal people and campaign for their rights.

“It said to the public that Aboriginals were about doing their business and talking to the press or whoever about Aboriginal rights on all sorts of levels: education, housing and particularly land rights.”

It was at the march that he first identified the need for a flag to ensure Aboriginal Australians were visible.

“We were just marching with placards; ‘Black Rights’ and that sort of stuff. The people behind were University students mainly and others and they had these banners at the back so I thought we were overwhelmed.”

“So over that period of time, from 1970 on, it probably mulled in my subconscious that a flag should be at the next Aboriginal Day march.”

After encouragement from Gary Foley, himself a young land rights activist who would go on to co-found the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in 1972, Harold began drawing up some designs. Reflecting back today, Harold believes youth was on their side.

“When you feel young, you believe in yourself and those around that this is the way to go, no looking back even though we had a history of 40,0000 years. We were looking ahead and the moment, capturing the moment was so important. It was a time when Aboriginal pride, black pride was at the forefront.”

Despite their forward focus, Harold said he found inspiration from the art and tools of his ancestors.

“At that time I was working at the South Australian Museum, dealing with Aboriginal material culture and I was imbued with the wonders of Aboriginal art, it just went through my system over the period of time from when I started in 1970.”

As an artist he selected a number of designs and went through a process of analysis to choose the best one. After all his efforts he ended up selecting his first design to become the Aboriginal flag.

“So in the days before the Aboriginal march in 1971, with my artistic merit – if I’ve got any – I created the design.”

For him it was a way to show his pride in his identity; an identity that for many was taken away or suppressed.

“We told your average Aboriginal to stand up and be counted, to join the marches, join the organisation and look after ourselves.”

“So the Aboriginal flag captured a vital thing about who we are… whether you lived in Arnhem Land or the Simpson Desert or Western Australia or Tasmania, if you’re of Aboriginal heritage or background, that’s good enough – you’re Aboriginal.”

“That’s what the flag is about; it’s about all aspects of Aboriginal life.”

For Harold one of the major challenges was coming up with a flag that could represent everybody.

“I couldn’t use a totemic symbol or some secular thing; it had to be a universal language for everybody. You had to choose colours and a design that is narrowly simple but broadly speaking.”

Both Gary Foley and Harold Thomas agreed on the final design and had it made up into a flag for the march. The rest you might say is history.

“We took it to the march and it was just a shock to the marchers. I said this is the Aboriginal flag, I got up and told them what it meant and away it went down the streets of Adelaide.”

The flag’s legacy is a source of pride for Harold Thomas.  

“The lyric of the flag and the colours is so important, so crucial, that it sings today”

“Everyone understands the meaning of the flag, why it’s there and it’s done its job: it’s making young people proud of themselves, whether they wear the colours or not.”