“There’s some non-Indigenous people who are asking you about it just to go back at you and try and argue with you, and there’s no way that you can fully articulate what it feels like and why it hurts so much.”
The positions of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people towards Australia Day are as varied as Indigenous communities themselves. To some, it’s Invasion Day. To others, it’s Survival Day. Many want to change the date, while some sections of the community want to abolish a national celebration altogether.
Within the Silva family, too, there is a range of views. Marlee, father Rod and grandmother Alice each have a unique perspective on January 26, shaped by their experiences of growing up Aboriginal in Australia.
Marlee got a fresh insight into community attitudes last year when she launched a campaign through her Instagram account, Tiddas 4 Tiddas – a platform empowering Indigenous women – asking people to share their views on the topic.
She was surprised to see a strong response from her non-Indigenous audience: “That was just this overwhelming and very comforting sense of ‘here we are as your allies, hands in the air, we want to do what’s best for you, so lead the way’, which I’ve never experienced before in my life.”
And while many wanted a shift away from January 26, others argued to “not change the date and keep the debate”, in a bid to keep Indigenous issues in the spotlight.
The responses prompted a rethink for Marlee, formerly a strong ‘change the date’ supporter.
The Sydney-based writer was raised in the Sutherland Shire in a “very white area”. She grew up celebrating Survival Day each year at Yabun Festival, a community event at Victoria Park honouring the “survival of the world’s oldest living culture”.
Marlee didn’t see her actions as political until the back end of high school when she began fielding questions from her mostly non-Indigenous classmates after the long weekend.
She recalls her younger sister, Keely, once went to a friend’s place the day after Australia Day, with the Aboriginal flag still tattooed on her cheek: “One of her friends asked her why she had that, [when] it was Australia Day.
“I was being more and more politicised internally because of the pushback that comes from being Aboriginal in a very high Anglo-Saxon population area, and also being Aboriginal and light-skinned,” she said.
“Hearing about what [my grandmother] went through and what Dad went through growing up, and also facing my own version of [racism] as a teenager, turned into a lot of anger and bitterness that sort of almost felt like it came to a point at every time of the year that we got to January 26.”
Marlee still believes the date of our national celebration should change – “it’s the first point that the trauma started happening” – but now she says the issue is less about the timing and more about our national identity, or lack thereof.
“I think part of the problem with the day is not only the history, but when you consider the fact that a lot of migrant groups don’t feel comfortable on the day too, it’s actually how we present ourselves and our national identity,” she said.
“So if we’re going to move the day, we have to also move our conversation about what it means to be an Australian – not only what it means to be an Australian right now, but what it will mean in the future.”
Two generations ago Marlee’s grandmother, Alice Silva, would never have dared voice such an opinion.
The 79-year-old grew up on the Aboriginal mission at Moree in northern NSW, at a time when Indigenous people weren’t even counted in the census.
Racial segregation was rampant in the regional town: Aboriginal people weren’t allowed to swim in the local pool and were made to sit in a roped-off section at the local cinema, until Charles Perkins’ Freedom Ride bus came through town in 1965 and sowed the seeds of change.
“If we went to the town to buy food and that, they would abuse [us] and tell the shops not to sell anything to us,” Aunty Alice said.
One of 12 children, she was among the first Aboriginal people to attend the local high school, ruffling more than a few feathers when she went on to become the school’s first Aboriginal dux.
“They were very racist at the school … but I treated them exactly the other way. I said if you want to be stupid all the time, do it,” she said.
Aunty Alice is believed to be the first Aboriginal social worker to graduate from the University of Sydney, later rising through the ranks in the Department of Community Services and completing further university study – all while raising five children in western Sydney.
Now living with Alzheimer’s, she doesn’t have strong feelings about Australia Day, preferring to reminisce about the struggles of her childhood and how she overcame them.
“Nan’s always been just a hard worker … prove yourself through your work, rather than protesting or things like that,” Marlee said. “It’s always been get your education, and that’s how we’ll prove everyone wrong.”
Others took a different approach, demanding change through activism.
The first Australia Day protest was held on the 150th anniversary of the landing of the First Fleet in 1938, when a group of Aboriginal people gathered at Australia Hall in Sydney and declared January 26 a Day of Mourning, rallying against the “callous treatment” of Indigenous people and calling for equal rights.
“While white men are throwing their hats in the air with joy … aborigines [sic] will be in mourning for all that they have lost,” Melbourne newspaper The Argus reported at the time.
But as Marlee’s father, former NRL star Rod Silva, points out, speaking out during the era of assimilation policies was a risky business.
“Through my upbringing, it was always frowned upon if there was anyone outspoken,” he said. “And the ones that did speak out were always getting attacked by everyone else.”
It’s something Rod was keenly aware of during his time playing professional rugby league with Easts and Bulldogs in the ’80s and ’90s.
“Although I did have strong feelings about Aboriginal stuff, it was best to keep it to myself because of what had happened to my grandparents, my parents, my aunties and uncles,” he said.
Pointing to Adam Goodes as a recent example, he argues not much has changed: “I don’t know if it’s our country or our media or the whole of our society, it’s still frowned upon if you’re outspoken if you’re Aboriginal, in my opinion.”
The 52-year-old grew up in Mount Druitt in Sydney’s west as one of five kids. His eldest brother died at age one. The same year, his father started drinking and “couldn’t get off it”, gambling away much of his salary from his job on the wharves.
“A lot of other Aboriginal families, they were in the same sort of situation. So we didn’t have much, but we had each other and we supported each other,” Rod said.
“It was tough, but we learnt a lot of good values that I still carry with me today.”
Racism was still rife during his childhood. Rod wasn’t allowed into the homes of his non-Indigenous friends. He wasn’t invited to sleepovers. Teachers treated him differently. If he was hanging around with a group of mates after dark, only the Aboriginal kids would be interrogated by the police.
“I didn’t understand it. I thought when I was a kid there was something wrong with me because I was a different colour,” he said.
These experiences motivated him to become a police officer after retiring from professional footy in 2001. “I wanted to stop being scared. And I wanted to make sure other Aboriginal kids didn’t get picked on just because they were Aboriginal.”
He is about to move into the NSW Police Youth and Crime Prevention Command, with the hope of saving disadvantaged Aboriginal kids from choosing the wrong path, like so many of his childhood mates.
Rod says he is finally finding his voice on Aboriginal issues – thanks, in part, to his daughters.
“We love this country and we love our lifestyle, but in recent times I think our society has been more educated because we’ve had these stronger, young Aboriginal people coming through and giving a more balanced look at what actually happened and why [January 26] is sad for us,” he said.
“I think Marlee and Keely have got so much strength from their grandmothers, their great-grandmothers, their aunties – all these strong Aboriginal women, to have a voice.
“I couldn’t be more proud of them.”
Rod remembers the excitement he used to feel on Australia Day when he was younger. He says his view was “very white, if I could use the term”.
Now, while he still believes January 26 is a “significant day in our history”, he doesn’t feel comfortable celebrating “because so much sadness has come from it”.
To move forward, he wants to see Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people recognised in the Constitution – “I’m not a politician, but I think it’s a worthwhile discussion” – and better education around Australian history.
“When I went to school … in the curriculum you were taught about Australia Day as the Europeans settled and made our country great,” he said.
“There was nothing about the Aboriginal history or the culture or everything that was already there … I would like to see a more balanced approach to education about our country.”
This Australia Day, 250 years after the arrival of Captain Cook, the Silva family will return to Yabun Festival to celebrate everything they, and other First Nations people, have overcome.
Meanwhile, Australians from all backgrounds will join thousands of protesters at the ever-growing Invasion Day rallies across the country.
So is there a path forward to a more inclusive national celebration?
Marlee says yes, but it’s a long one.
“There’s so many amazing things about the country we live in, in terms of our natural beauty, in terms of our history that we’re a part of – our true history that’s over 80,000 years old. I want to celebrate it,” she said.
“I will never disregard how awful it’s been since the point of invasion for us, but I think that if we can get to a point where there has been this true healing and it has been something that means that this country really does offer equal opportunity for everyone, then it should be something to celebrate.”
Her father agrees that if we can find a way to unite, Australia can be “the greatest country in the world”.
This article was written with the support of the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.
Ella Archibald-Binge is a Kamilaroi woman and the Indigenous Affairs reporter at The Sydney Morning Herald.
Rhett is a Palawa man and a photographer at the Sydney Morning Herald.