While cultural ignorance may be responsible for its name, the shores of Lake Wendouree have always been a place of ceremony and significance, says organiser Nikki Foy.
Foy, the Aboriginal liaison officer at the City of Ballarat, says the council’s Koori engagement group proposed the event, which will include a smoking ceremony, speeches and music.
“For a lot of our community, January 26 isn’t a day of celebration,” Foy says. “We wanted a way to feel culturally safe as an Aboriginal community. We ask everyone to come respectfully, and stand in solidarity with us. All are welcome.”
It is one of a growing number of dawn mourning ceremonies being held on January 26.
Last year former Greens member of Parliament Lidia Thorpe organised a dawn service at the Kings Domain in Melbourne. It will return this year, and there will also be a dawn ceremony in St Kilda, organised by the Bunurong Land and Sea Council.
Foy and her mum, Diana Nikkelson, both Gunditjmara and Wotjobaluk women, experienced first-hand the damaging effects of Australia’s racist Aboriginal child removal laws.
In the 1970s Nikkelson lived in fear of her children being removed because she was a single Aboriginal mother. She moved from northern to central Victoria to avoid welfare officers who were forcibly removing children and putting them in orphanages and foster homes under the pretext they were being neglected.
“Mum lived in fear and would be constantly cleaning because she knew they could turn up at the house any time,” Foy says.
Opposition to the celebration of Australia Day has a long history. In 1938, to mark the 150th anniversary of the First Fleet’s arrival in Sydney, a group of Aboriginal men and women organised a Day of Mourning.
This was the first national gathering of Aboriginal people protesting against prejudice and discrimination and it marked the beginning of the modern Aboriginal political movement.
The lead-up to January 26, and the day itself, can be exhausting for Aboriginal people, says Sissy Austin, a member of the Ballarat council’s Koori engagement group. She hopes the ceremony will become an annual opportunity to acknowledge the pain experienced by families, clans and ancestors.
“January 26 was the beginning of a plan to quite literally exterminate the oldest culture in the world, and yet here we are, surviving,” she says.
The Aboriginal community in Ballarat includes many different clan groups. Aboriginal children from across Victoria were removed from their families and taken to Ballarat orphanages. They often stayed in the region when they were released.
For this reason the platypus, Baarlijan, is an important local symbol. With a body that seems to be made of many different animals, it represents the Aboriginal people from across Australia who call Ballarat home.
Luckily, none of Nikkelson’s nine children were taken from her. She is looking forward to the Sunday ceremony, saying it has “been a long time coming”. Nikkelson went on to be a founding member of the local Aboriginal co-operative in Ballarat, and a well-known local artist, with many grand- and great-grandchildren.
Sadly, she lost a son to suicide 19 years ago. After the ceremony on Sunday her family will come together as they do each year to remember him on his birthday: January 26.
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Miki Perkins is a senior journalist and Social Affairs Editor at The Age.