Today is Survival Day – 26 January 2014


Two cultures meet on Australia Day. Their worlds might touch but their views can be worlds apart. 

As explained by Creatve Spirits from the Creative Spirits Website

26th January 1788 – Australia Day

January 26, 1788 was the date on which Captain Arthur Phillip took formal possession of the colony of New South Wales and raised the British flag for the first time in Sydney Cove.

In the early 1880s the day was known as ‘First Landing’, ‘Anniversary Day’ or ‘Foundation Day’.

In 1946 the Commonwealth and state governments agreed to unify the celebrations on January 26 and call it ‘Australia Day’. The day became a public holiday in 1818 (its 30th anniversary).

Why do we celebrate Australia Day?

Since 1994 all states and territories celebrate Australia Day together on the actual day. On this day ceremonies welcome new citizens or honour people who did a great service.

On the fun side are BBQs, contests, parades, performances, fireworks and more.

A National Australia Day Council, founded in 1979, views Australia Day as “a day to reflect on what we have achieved and what we can be proud of in our great nation,” and a “day for us to re-commit to making Australia an even better place for the generations to come”.

The Aboriginal perspective of Australia Day

To many Aboriginal people there is little to celebrate and it is a commemoration of a deep loss. Loss of their sovereign rights to their land, loss of family, loss of the right to practice their culture.

“Australia Day is 26 January, a date whose only significance is to mark the coming to Australia of the white people in 1788. It’s not a date that is particularly pleasing for Aborigines,” says Aboriginal activist Michael Mansell [8]. “The British were armed to the teeth and from the moment they stepped foot on our country, the slaughter and dispossession of Aborigines began.”

Aboriginal people call it ‘Invasion Day’, ‘Day of Mourning’, ‘Survival Day’ or, since 2006, ‘Aboriginal Sovereignty Day’. The latter name reflects that all Aboriginal nations are sovereign and should be united in the continuous fight for their rights.

Mansell believes that Australia celebrates “the coming of one race at the expense of another” [6].

“Australia is the only country that relies on the arrival of Europeans on its shores as being so significant it should herald the official national day,” he says [8]. “The USA does not choose the arrival of Christopher Columbus as the date for its national day. Like many other countries its national day marks independence.”

Poster for Aboriginal Sovereignty Day 2007.

Aboriginal Sovereignty Day 2007. This protest poster summarises most of the issues Aboriginal people have to deal with today.

Day of Mourning

On Australia Day’s 150th anniversary, in 1938, Aboriginal activists named the day a “Day of Mourning”, alluding to the annual re-enactment of Phillip’s landing. They refused to participate in the re-enactment because it included chasing away a party of Aboriginal people (which, by the way, had been carted to this event against their will). Finally, by 1988, the re-enactments were discontinued. This same year was named a Year of Mourning by and for the Australian Aboriginal people.

On Australia Day Aboriginal people mourn their forbears who suffered and perished during colonisation.

We all still suffer from the life-draining, over-legislated madness called British Australia, which never seems to abate to the reason of sound voices or even democracy. Then they expect us to join in their triumphant dances over our ancestors’ graves each January 26.—Phill Moncrieff, Aboriginal musician [3]

Survival Day, Invasion Day

Poster for the 2006 Yabun celebrations.

Yabun poster advertising Aboriginal music acts. Note the sentence “A no alcohol & drugs event” at the bottom.

In 1992 the first Survival Day concert was held in Sydney. These concerts are often staged at places with great Aboriginal significance, for example La Perouse or Redfern. Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal artists play music or dance, there are information, arts and crafts stalls, and you can buy food and bush tucker.

Survival Day has become one of the biggest Aboriginal cultural events that is staged throughout Australia. In all major cities you can visit alternative concerts where mainly Aboriginal people gather.

  • Sydney celebrates Yabun since 2003. It means “song with a beat” in the language of the Eora, the original people of the Sydney region. The event is held in Victoria Park.
  • Perth has an event called Too Solid in the Supreme Court Gardens. Survival concerts have been held in Perth since 2000.
  • Adelaide organises Survival at the National Aboriginal Cultural Institute, Tandanya, in Rymill Park (Mullawirraburka).
  • Melbourne holds the Share the Spirit festival in the Treasury Gardens (since 2002), and another Survival Day celebreation in Borthwick Park, Belgrave.
  • New South Wales celebrates the Saltwater Freshwater Festival at 10 rotating locations (Coffs Harbour, Taree, Karuah and others).

The name Survival Day expresses the fact that Aboriginal culture is still strong and many Aboriginal people’s identities are positive and alive despite all what happened since colonisation.

We call it Survival Day. Whitefellas pretty much celebrating invasion and killing our mob off–that’s what it feels like for us.—Warrick Wright from the Aboriginal band Local Knowledge

However, to many Aboriginal people there is little to celebrate and it is a commemoration of a deep loss. Loss of their sovereign rights to their land and the right to practice their culture. Many of them rather call 26th January Invasion Day.

Bryan Andy on Australia Day

A portrait of an Aboriginal man in his shower.
Bryan Andy, an Aboriginal man photographed for the About Face project by Keo Lin [7].

“I call Australian day ‘Invasion Day’ or ‘Survival Day’. The apology (by PM Rudd) was the first step, but there are still many many steps to go.

There’s a saying that white Australia has a black history. It can sort of be taken in the sense that it has been a dark or unfortunate history, but it’s also true in the sense that we were here first. Sometimes people think that Australian started 200 years ago with the invasion.”

“While Australians celebrate a day that represents a history of booze, barbecues, bloodshed and theft, we continue our resistance,” says Jidah Clark, youth delegate of the Aboriginal Provisional Government [6]. “Despite the mindless nationalism of some Australians, we remember the invasion. This is invasion day.”

We won’t stop, we won’t go away / We won’t celebrate Invasion Day!—Chant during protests on Australia Day 2012 [6]

January 26th marked the beginning of the murders, the rapes and the dispossession. It is no date to celebrate.—Michael Mansell, National Aboriginal Alliance spokesman [1]

Our Survival Day

Another Australia Day has arrived
Celebrations across our land
Guess they don't think what we've been through
Our ancestors tried to hold our land
Keep us together to protect our clans
Barbecues burning and sweet tasting wine
The white man's celebrating what belongs to us
But we're here in the background
Being proud of who we are
Our red, black and yellow unites us all
Saying we have survived another century
Of white man's invasion

Poem by Raylene Campion [2]. Read more Aboriginal poems.

In a controversial move the City of Sydney Council decided in July 2011 to use the word ‘invasion’ in one of its official documents [4]. Many white Australians were affronted by the word and felt it described the past, not the present.

But, as some commentators pointed out, “if the word ‘invasion’ is to have any meaning, then of course it has to apply to what happened. It does not mean,… [that we have] to ‘uninvade’ this land.” [9]

Remember, ‘invasion’ was only used to describe the arrival of the British in 1788, not the whole 200-years plus.—Larissa Behrendt, Aboriginal law professor [4]

Let’s get the facts right and the facts are that this country was invaded.—Chris Lawrence, Noongar man [4]

An Aboriginal perspective:
“We will mourn the loss of our land”

Aboriginal woman Nala Mansell-McKenna reflects on the meaning of Australia Day for Aboriginal people [5].

“On January 26 Aborigines from across the country will mourn, just as we do every Anzac Day.

“We will mourn the deaths of the 50 Aboriginal men, women and children who were massacred at Risdon Cove while hunting kangaroo; we will mourn the deaths of those shot in cold blood while bathing in the waters of the Jordan River lagoon; we will mourn the loss of our land, the stolen children, the remains of our ancestors held in overseas institutions and everything else that our people have had to endure since the arrival of the white man on January 26, 1788.

We will also call for the race-based celebrations of January 26 to come to a close and for a new date to be chosen, so that we can all proudly wave our flags and celebrate the wonderful country that we now share.”

Towards a new Australia Day

Many Australians recognise that Australia Day is no longer an appropriate day for celebrations and call for a new day which includes all Australians. Some suggest to rename Australia Day to ‘Arrival Day’.

People happy with the current Australia Day base their arguments often on racist grounds. Surprisingly, many show a lack of knowledge and awareness of the controversy surrounding Australia Day.

They don’t care about the particular date and just enjoy the holiday. Any controversy around moving Australia Day to another day would most likely soon be forgotten.

Aboriginal activist Michael Mansell believes a new public holiday should celebrate an inclusive Australia, but he calls for a treaty first.

“There may come a time… when a treaty has been made between Aborigines and Australia to include a land settlement, designated seats in the parliament and our own assembly… The date of the agreement could mark a new national date for celebration, where both peoples acknowledge each other’s rights and aspirations, thus avoiding the current ‘whites only’ celebrations.” [8]

90% of people are saying Australia Day should be inclusive of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures. I firmly believe that some day we will choose a date that is a comprehensive and inclusive date for all Australians.—Mick Dodson, Aboriginal Law Professor and Australian of the Year 2009 [1]

I would however make a strong plea for a change of date. Let us find a day on which we can all feel included, in which we can all participate equally, and can celebrate with pride our common Australian identity.—Dr Lowitja O’Donoghue, Aboriginal Australian of the Year 1984 [10]

David Beniuk – January 26

David Beniuk questions why January 26th has been picked to be celebrated as Australia Day in his memorable song:


You find plenty of history of Australia Day on the site of the Australia Day Council of New South Wales.

Last updated: 25 January 2014

Article sources

[1] ‘For Mick Dodson, the work goes on’, Koori Mail 468 p.21
[2] Koori Mail 468 p.26
[3] Personal email, 10/2/2011
[4] ‘Council’s ‘invasion’ decision divides’, Koori Mail 505 p.9
[5] ‘Offensive date that must be changed’, Koori Mail 518 p.23
[6] ‘Protest vow to fight on’, Koori Mail 519 p.39
[7], chapter 3, retrieved 26/12/2012
[8] ‘Why I turned down an Australia Day award’, The Guardian 29/10/2013
[9] ‘The Fritz Files’, Sun Herald 3/7/2011 p.2
[10] ‘NACCHO Aboriginal health and January 26 debate: What does Australia Day mean for our mob?’,, 24/1/2014, retrieved 25/1/2014

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3 thoughts on “Today is Survival Day – 26 January 2014

  1. I am an outsider to this, but I find it a shame that this was made the “Australia Day”. I don’t find it astonishing that it was made a holiday back then but it is strange it was kept.

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