• In 2015, Unicode brought out 'the flags of the world', but many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people don't feel represented (NITV)Source: NITV
In recent years the call for representation of Australia’s First Nations people in the emoji keyboard has grown louder and louder, so why haven't we got one yet?
Grayson McCarthy-Grogan

17 Jul 2018 - 5:14 PM  UPDATED 13 Jun 2019 - 3:39 PM

With electronics and the digital world becoming more prevalent, Aboriginal people have been finding new ways to represent themselves in the digital sphere. From simply using keyboard characters such as [-o-] to using red, yellow and black hearts, it's clear that many Indigenous people want to publicly identify using the flag, but are unable to do so.  

While emoji-style ‘emoticons’ emerged in the late 1990s with rise of text messages, Internet chat forums and emails, the emojis we know today gained popularity in 2008 after being implemented in the first release of the Apple iPhone. Today, the small cartoon motifs have become so widely used, they're considered a socially accepted form of language and communication in the digital age.

Amongst their suite of smiley faces, foods and animals, in 2015, smartphone users were presented with 208 national flags as a part of an update for iOS 9 called ‘the flags of the world’. 

The list was based off the internationally recognised two-letter country codes. But in 2017, that was to change with the introduction of subdivision flags for the United Kingdom: England, Scotland and Wales.

After a lengthy campaign, which included a 15-page proposal to demonstrate that each flag held official status and were widely used in international contexts, as well as express there was public demand, non-country coded flags were also included on the emoji keyboard.   


Representing a proud culture

Aboriginal Australia’s long complex history with the United Kingdom aside, this moment was a social media beacon of light for many blackfellas who have wanted the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flags in their emoji keyboard.  

It’s not hard to see why we would want this. You only have to look at how the red, black and yellow design is printed on t-shirts, tattooed on skin and tagged in wet concrete to see that we are a proud people, ready to show off our heritage at any given opportunity.

And like all national flags, both the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flag represent a distinctive cultural group, and holds historical, legal and political purposes.

Social media's rise and its subsequent focus on profiles and identity has allocated more space for this kind of cultural expression. A recent study on Aboriginal identity in social media found that more than 80 per cent of participants surveyed said they openly identify as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander on social media, many of which specifically state they are Aboriginal on their social media bios.

As such, the lack of an Aboriginal flag in the emoji keyboard has been a glaring absence for many mob.  

19-year-old university student Mililma May, a proud Larrakia woman, says it's about representation.

“I have friends from PNG and friends from even East Timor and stuff and they all have their own flag and they always have it in their little bios or they use it in their captions,” she told NITV.

“It would be really cool to feel represented and be able to feel noticed and seen by like the whole world. Because if that Aboriginal flag emoji gets put on the emoji calendar, then people all around the world can see that and that can start more conversations about the state of our people in this country”.

20-year-old non-Indigenous university student Isobel Rushe told NITV that emojis might seem silly, but she believes they have value in the modern world. 

“Especially with the new generations growing up in such a technological era,” she explains, “that is obviously a way that they are going to learn how to express their heritage”.

It's sentiments like May's and Rushe’s and has lead to a number of petitions, calling for an inclusion on the keyboard.

While these petitions are helpful, and demonstrate the public demand, they by themselves won’t lead to change. In order to get the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flag emojis on our phone’s keyboard a few things need to be examined.


A long, yet promising, process

Firstly, Apple is not responsible for emoji additions, but Unicode, a tech giant emoji-making factory based in California.

Unicode translates characters and letters so devices read them as pictures, and any emoji additions are decided by Unicode’s Consortium through a proposal process. These processes can be long and timely, and can take up to a year.

Fortunately, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flags have a likely shot in the scope of emoji’s democratic process.

Like the England, Scotland and Wales flag, both the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flags are official national flags, declared in 1995 and now formally recognised under the Australian Government’s Flag Acts of 1953

They too are internationally recognised, from the World Indigenous Basketball Challenge, Indigenous All Stars vs. World All Stars match, Festival of Indigenous Rugby League to international film festivals —and who can forget Cathy Freeman’s momentous victory lap, clutching the red, yellow and black?

Freeman may have put herself at risk of having her Olympic medals stripped due to promoting a ‘non-national’ flag at the Games, however the decision was overruled by the committee, thus demonstrating the Aboriginal flag holds weight as a national flag in an international context.


Uncle Harold Thomas' design —and copyright

Many arguments like these meet Unicode’s criteria, however, there's unique red tape being drawn over its actual production. Unlike most national flags, the Aboriginal flag is bound by intellectual property rights.  

Luritja artist Harold Thomas created the Aboriginal flag in 1971 and still holds copyright on the design and permission for use must go through him. 

When speaking to NITV, Mr Thomas said, “If it [the Aboriginal flag design] is used for the right purpose, for good things. It’s fine. If it’s for educational things, it’s fine.

“But unfortunately the reality of that is that it doesn’t happen that way.”

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It's been 50 years since the Aboriginal flag was flown for the first time. It is a sign of activism, celebration and a symbol for all Aboriginal people.

While Mr Thomas has already given authority for digital use in the past, such as Twitter, he is often wary of businesses making a profit from his design which was for the purposes of Indigenous rights. 

“The commercial world is so hungry for business, they will go about it in every different way they can.”

The Torres Strait Islander Regional Council holds the copyright on their flag, and have expressed that they are willing to permit any reproduction as long as it’s accurate and acknowledges the late Bernard Namok as the original designer.


Not under 'one flag' 

The reality is of Australian history and politics means that many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander struggle to identify with the official Australian flag, viewing it as a sign of centuries of sadness and injustice of the destruction and dispossession of their culture and heritage.

To many, the Australian flag, emblazoned with the Union Jack, has a completely different meaning and significance to the non-Indigenous people whom it serves. As Uncle Harold Thomas puts it, the Aboriginal flag, “says the right story, it sings the right song.”

If The Celts, Gingers and Kit Kats are strong emoji contesters, blackfellas should get their proposals in stat. 


Grayson McCarthy-Grogan is a Yanyuwa, Garrawa and Kuku Yalanji man and NITV Digital Producer. Follow Grayson @GraysonMcG