• With the NAIDOC Awards this weekend, what a time to reflect on some of the best moments over the last few years. (National NAIDOC Committee/NITV)Source: National NAIDOC Committee/NITV
From 'Advance Australia Where?' to 'Because of her, we can!' NAIDOC themes have regularly been built on the power of the past.
Rachael Knowles

2 Jul 2022 - 4:57 PM  UPDATED 2 Jul 2022 - 4:57 PM

This article contains the name and image of an Aboriginal person who has passed.

“I remember in the room, you could hear the air conditioning."

NAIDOC Committee Co-Chair John Paul Janke is describing one of his most powerful moments from the annual awards night, that happened in 2019 in front of a room of 1300 people.

"Thank you very much for watching me," the late legendary actor David Gulpilil announced via video link to Canberra's National Convention Centre. 

"Never forget me. While I am here, I will never forget you. I will still remember you, even though I am gone forever, I will still remember."

Mr Gulpilil was speaking after being honoured with the Lifetime Achievement Award, and in his address also came a big revelation.

“He couldn't attend the awards because he was sick, his daughters attended the awards for him. For his speech, he sent that video message announcing he was dying of cancer,” recalled Mr Janke.

Looking forward and looking back

For Janke, NAIDOC is about looking forward and looking back.

In 2013 he joined the Committee, stepping into the Chair role around four years ago now.

But his connection to NAIDOC goes back to his teenage years.

“I would have gone every year since I was 18 I reckon,” he said.

"We've always been involved in it, I remember going to NAIDOC awards in Canberra with my parents. It was always a great event to go to, we'd dress up, go, see community."

The early years

In the 1990s, Mr Janke was working at ATSIC – the place that spurred his love for the NAIDOC.

“There I could see a real cross-over in terms of self-determination and promotion of Aboriginal culture and NAIDOC coming together,” he said.

"My job, essentially, was to run that NAIDOC awards. In those days we'd probably get a crowd of 600-800 people for the national award ceremony.”

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Taking a concept he loved, NAIDOC, Mr Janke was tasked with making each year bigger and better than the one that came before.

"There was a really good opportunity for us to build an emotional attachment to the awards . . . By 2000, it was huge,” he said.

“You move forward to today, the Ball has built on all those initial years to make this magnificent showcase night of Indigenous achievement.

“You now have a Ball of around 1400-1500 people, sells out in 10 minutes.

“One of the things I like about it is, regardless of our diversity in the community, diversity of views and politics, we put that aside for one night and we come together to have a good night."

The themes

This year, the NAIDOC theme is Get up! Stand up! Show up! A nod that “it’s time”.

"This year's theme is really a summary of the last few years of themes. We have been asking people to do a lot, to celebrate language, to heal Country, to celebrate women, and recognise sovereignty and identity. This theme is, really, it's time,” said Mr Janke.

Themes have been around since NAIDOC’s inception, and have had a transformation journey of their own.

“Back then, themes were about government programs, showing what the government did to support Aboriginal communities - there was quite an assimilation thread to it,” explained Mr Janke.

"In the 70s, it became a fully Black-owned, themes started to get more activist, more rights-focused.”

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Whilst each theme has its own power, for Mr Janke, Because Of Her We Can, the 2018 theme will be one that felt the most connection to.

“It was recognised that everyone in the Black community had 'her'. Whether it was your grandmother, your mother, your wife, your daughter, your aunties, your nieces. You had 'her'," he said.

“It led the way that theme, the world was questioning itself about the treatment of women, it was at the end of the #MeToo movement and people were having honest conversations about women and the status we give women and the things we don't do for women.

“It was an opportunity for us in the Black community to lead that dialogue.”

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Mr Janke said that previous to 2018, many of the themes encompassed things that men could “see themselves in”. Because Of Her We Can was a turning point for NAIDOC.

"In one way, I almost think it 'broke' NAIDOC week because now everyone is comparing everything to Because Of Her We Can,” he laughed.

“I remember when we announced it in January, a tweet came through from a young Aboriginal woman, who was sitting in a bus stop outside of her uni. She said she'd just read the theme and burst into tears, thinking about her mum.

“People were sending me links to videos. BHP did videos where they interviewed some of their employees on their mine sites. They asked them what NAIDOC meant to them and some of them would burst out crying because they'd speak about their mother or their grandmother. 

“It was everywhere.”

The power that theme held was evident at the 2018 awards, with Bunuba woman June Oscar AO being the 2018 NAIDOC Person of the Year.

“June Oscar's speech was magnificent on the night. Winners are given basically three minutes, June Oscar spoke for 40, but no one cared because it was the theme, it was that moment,” Mr Janke reflected.

“It needed a Black woman to stamp her spot on that moment in time, and she did it and she did it with such honesty, passion and advocacy that people didn't care.”

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Alongside Ms Oscar, Alyawarre woman Pat Anderson AO was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award.

"The whole year of that theme was benchmarked by these two prominent, staunch women getting recognised,” he said.

"For me, June Oscar's speech that night was a speech for the moment and the time. Pat Anderson's speech was the speech for the generation, she basically got up and said 'about bloody time'.

“It was a deep breath moment. An acknowledgment that Black women have been there forever, and it was about time.”

The annual awards

A NAIDOC Award is something that many recipients and nominees claim as one of their highest achievements.

"That is something that's always struck me. The value that people have placed on receiving a NAIDOC award,” said Mr Janke.

“In one way, it's an award from your people, it's recognition for your work and your achievements by your own people. We place a higher value on that than maybe an academic, bureaucratic, or government acknowledgement.

"There is no hierarchy with it either, we have grassroots community people being celebrated alongside international sports stars, actors, artists, lawyers.”

The 2022 National NAIDOC Week Awards Ceremony will take place on Saturday July 2 at the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre. It will be broadcast live on NITV at 7:00pm.

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