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Pearl Gibbs, Australia's National Day, and the Australian Indigenous Civil Rights Movement

Pearl Gibbs, 1901-1983. Photo: State Library of New South Wales
Pearl Gibbs, 1901-1983.
Photo: State Library
of New South Wales

It's increasingly disappointing to me just how much Australian Indigenous history I don't know. For example, if you were to ask me who Rosa Parks is, I'd be able to tell you she was an American, Black Civil Rights activist who is most known for refusing to give up her seat on a bus to a white person back in the 1950s.

However, if you were to ask me who is Pearl Gibbs, until very recently, I would've given you a blank stare. If it weren't for Google, honoring her 120th birthday (18 July 2021) with a Google Doodle during this year's NAIDOC Week (typically held in July annually as a celebration of the history, culture and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.), I'd still be non the wiser.

While Pearl Gibbs doesn't have a single defining moment of her activism that would shoot her to national fame, like Rosa, non the less, she was equally as active in the civil rights movement for Aboriginal Australians, and pre-dates Rosa by approximately 13 years on being more pro-active. Not that it's a competition. I just imagine being an aboriginal woman, and a civil rights activist in the 1930's may have been a little harder than the 1940s, when Rosa became more pro-active.

1938: A blackboard displayed outside Australia
Hall proclaims, "Day of Mourning"
Photo: Royal Australian Historical Society
While you can read about Pearl's achievements at her Wikipedia link above what stood out to me was that she was one of the key organizers for the Day of Mourning in 1938. Many white Australians are very familiar with this day as it purposefully was first held on January 26th, 1938, otherwise known as Australia Day

Maybe it's just me but I suspect many white Australians won't be aware the the concept of the Day of Mourning - which in recent years has also been referred to as Invasion Day and Survival Day - goes as far back as 1938. I probably became aware of the Australia Day protests in the mid to late 1980's when I started to take more notice of politics and government leaders.

I really hope our education system is changing when it comes to the Indigenous history of Australia. It was barely touched upon when I was in school. We got the obligatory story of Europeans arriving in Australia, the who and the where. Then a bit about early settlement with maybe a passing reference to the locals... after that it's a big jump to ANZAC Day, the 1950's and 60's... and here we are. The Lucky Country.

Subsequently, I do know more about Indigenous history now, thanks to increased awareness of the stolen generation, the Mabo Decision (which a large vocal majority thought was going to open a legal nightmare on land rights and legal ownership but evolved into a seemingly workable solution of Native Title), and a very good book by author/historian, Henry Reynolds called Why Weren't We Told (really fills in the gaps on those passing references to the locals during white settlement). 

May 26th has been recognized as National Sorry Day since 1998. It's a day that remembers and commemorates the mistreatment of the country's Indigenous peoples, as part of an ongoing process of reconciliation between the Indigenous peoples and the settler population.

While Sorry Day is generally seen as a positive step it doesn't get the same attention as Australia Day by a long shot. If you'd have asked me what the date of National Sorry Day was prior to this article, I would've given you a blank stare. Australia Day I could tell you without a second's hesitation.

For what it's worth, I don't think anybody wins if Australia Day is constantly protested and referred to as Invasion Day, or a Day of Mourning. I do think the day needs to be shared with proper acknowledgement of Indigenous history for that date, and some kind of acknowledgement of the ongoing reconciliation process toward a shared, inclusive, and prosperous future. I'm aware that sounds a lot like National Sorry Day but Australia Day needs to be a celebration for the future and all Australians too. 

Maybe something like ANZAC day? Remembrance in the morning, celebration and get togethers in the afternoon.

That may not be the best idea? Maybe the gaps in my knowledge prevent me from knowing why, but protesting the day every year doesn't seem to be working either. 

Anyhow, as a white Australian male, few people care what I think on Indigenous issues. Nor should they. For me I feel it's probably more important to continue to educate myself on Indigenous history so when it's time to vote on issues like The Uluru Statement, which seeks to have First Nation people recognized and given a voice in our Constitution, I can make a properly informed decision.

Perhaps if we can swing that change to happen on Australia Day...

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