• Day of Mourning Protesters in Sydney, 1938. (Courtesy of State Library of NSW.)Source: Courtesy of State Library of NSW.
OPINION: The origins of NAIDOC Week sprang from the Aboriginal activism of the 1930s. The women and children present would later become the keepers of this rich history.
Suzanne Ingram

12 Jul 2019 - 6:29 PM  UPDATED 12 Oct 2020 - 3:28 PM

This new story is actually an old one.

As many people are aware, NAIDOC Day grew from the Day of Mourning held on 26 January 1938, in protest of Australia’s celebration of its sesqui-centenary. First named ‘National Aborigines Day’, we all fondly referred to it as ‘A’ Day. It has become our proud tradition to celebrate our culture, our people and our histories in July.


Why July?

Over the years, the story behind why it is held in July has been lost. I discovered from my own grandmother, that not only the day but the date signifies the resistance from which the day was born. The story came to me, from her, in a roundabout way.


My Grandmother, Louisa (neé Simpson) Ingram

First, let me introduce my grandmother, Mrs Louisa Ingram OAM. She grew up as Louisa Simpson with her family on Erambie Mission in Cowra, on the Lachlan River in mid-western NSW - Wiradjuri country. With her husband, Lochie, she raised her family on Erambie, under a succession of white mission managers. She and her husband were part of the groundswell of civil rights protests stirring across the country.

In anticipation of the celebrations that Australia was organising for its sesqui-cententary – the 150 year anniversary of the British invasion – Aboriginal activists held meetings, petitioned the King, planned a march and a Day of Mourning Protest on Australia Day, and their own National Aborigines Day.

Through 1937, my grandparents attended meetings in Sydney and in rural NSW. And my grandmother took her family to be part of that first Day of Mourning. She can be seen in the iconic photo of that day, holding her daughter, Olive, now 82, in her arms. Her sister-in-law, Doris Williams, is on her left, and three of her older children, Phillip, Esther, now 83, and Isaac are at the front, as well as Doris’ son, Arthur, wearing the bonnet. Her eldest child, Sylvia, was at the beach in La Perouse at the time the photo was taken.


Deciding a date for National Aborigines Day

My grandmother taught me many stories over my lifetime but this one I was to learn through another way. Years after the events of 1938, my grandmother had driven from Cowra to Sydney with a young white anthropologist, Gaynor Macdonald. As they travelled, she told Gaynor of the hardships of the 1930s, the Depression, and the oppressive mission managers who had tried to stop their political meetings, withholding food rations if he heard a whisper of activism. And then she shared the story about the choice of a date for National Aborigines Day.

In those days, Australia Day was celebrated on the last Monday in January to make it a long weekend. So once the decision to hold National Aborigines Day was made, the next question was when. 

It was eventually decided for the date to be set in what was clearly symbolic opposition to Australia Day: it would be the first Friday in July. Why? Friday instead of Monday, July instead of January, the beginning of the month instead of the end of the month.

Australia Day was the last Monday in January – so National Aborigines Day would be the first Friday in July.


The protocols of sharing stories

My grandmother was highly respected by white people, although I know she viewed them cautiously. She was addressed always as Mrs Ingram – not ‘Aunty’ as has become the current fashion - by those who were not family. Gaynor told me that she clearly understood that my grandmother’s sharing of her experiences with her was not to make her feel good but to quietly press into a whitefella’s head an understanding of the world of injustice in which she lived.

My grandmother strongly believed that Aboriginal people should be telling our own stories, not having them told by others.

For the Wiradjuri people of Erambie, entrusting a personal story with such significance in Aboriginal political history to a whitefella is not a decision made lightly. As it was with the Wiradjuri people of her generation, my grandmother spoke to Gaynor with confronting candour and directness. She was kindly, strong and uncompromising. Other Wiradjuri people had described her to Gaynor as ‘one of the Old People’ of Erambie.

To Wiradjuri people this meant a person held in high regard, who was respected because they had earned that respect. They were people known to have moral integrity. To learn from the Old People is a deep privilege and responsibility.

For the listener, a story is to reflect on and to consider. But a story shared does not mean it becomes someone else’s to retell.

Gaynor has kept the story of National Aborigines Day all those years, knowing that my grandmother explicitly would not have approved of her sharing it. When Gaynor came to know how close I had been to my grandmother, and that I was working on her story, Tin Palaces, she knew she could return my grandmother’s stories to her family. I respect that Gaynor had honoured my grandmother by not telling it herself.

It is 30 years this year since my grandmother passed. Her eldest surviving daughter, my aunt Esther believes, it is time for her mother’s stories to be told. Aunt Esther holds a special place in this particular story herself: she is the little girl in the front of the Day of Mourning photograph.

Telling these stories must be in keeping with Aboriginal protocols. And, in honour of the strengths of our Old People, that includes speaking out when it is necessary to set the record straight, to ensure their boldness and bravery are never forgotten.


History submerged

Throughout its 80 year history, there have been attempts to alter our national day. In the 1980s there was a bid to move it to September because it was warmer for politicians to join in, but firm opposition meant it stayed in July.

When the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Observance Day Committee was established it was renamed NAIDOC Day. But the changes from a day’s celebration to a week beginning on a Sunday has created confusion. This means, for instance, that this year and next year as well, the Friday of NAIDOC week will be the second week of July instead of the first.

It was exciting for me to learn about the origin story of our national day. And while we will always have new stories, the symbolism of why ‘A Day’ is held in July and not January is important to remember, to honour those 1930s activists like my grandmother, and thank them for making the decisions they did.


Suzanne Ingram is a Wiradjuri woman and is Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Research Lead at the University of NSW Centre for Health Equity Training, Research and Evaluation (CHETRE). The focus of her work is communications, health research and Aboriginal heritage studies. ‘Tin Palaces’ is the project of her grandmother’s lifestory, Mrs Louisa Ingram OAM.

Teachers, find curriculum-aligned resources that explore Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander perspectives, histories, and stories with SBS Learn, the official education partner of NAIDOC Week. Celebrate the 2020 theme ‘Always Was, Always Will Be’ in your classroom with SBS Learn’s teacher resource.