This weekend marks the start of NAIDOC Week (3-10 July) celebrations across Sydney and around Australia.  Every year in July NAIDOC week celebrates Aboriginal history, culture and achievement, with Sydney being the focus city for 2011.  NAIDOC Week’s history can be traced back to 1938 when Aboriginal people held a National Day of Mourning on Australia Day to protest at their treatment by white society for the past 150 years that Europeans were then celebrating.  About 100 Aboriginal delegates attended a conference at the Australian Hall in Elizabeth Street in the city. The protest became an annual event on Australia Day until 1955 when it was moved into July and refocused to include celebration of Aboriginal culture and history and was later expanded to include Torres Strait Islander people.

As we have highlighted elsewhere on this blog, Sydney has a rich and powerful Aboriginal history that reaches back thousands of years and a culture that continues to thrive and grow today.  However, many people still believe that Aboriginal history in Sydney just about finished with the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788 and any sites associated with Aboriginal Sydney are either rock art sites around the harbour or have been lost under the ever expanding city.

Of course this is not the case and there are many places that you can go in Sydney to see not only the ancient rock art sites but also many contemporary places important to the Aboriginal story of the city. 

As it is NAIDOC week, I’ll start with one of the big ones, the Australian Hall.  This building remains in Elizabeth Street, opposite the old Mark Foy building.  Variously used as a hall, a cinema and retail shops it remains in Aboriginal eyes important as the site of the first day of mourning conference.

Aboriginal activist Jack Patten speaks to the 1938 conference at the Australian Hall

The building is considered by many to be the birthplace of the Aboriginal civil rights movement in Australia.  Its significance is recognised by its listing on the NSW State Heritage Register and the National Heritage List. 

An earlier conference organised by the Australian Aboriginal Progressive Association in 1924 under the leadership of Fred Maynard was convened in St David’s Hall in Surry Hills, also still standing in Arthur Street.  Organised in 1924, the conference laid the foundations for organised Aboriginal activism that lead to the Day of Mourning 14 years later.

As Aboriginal people began to organise themselves politically, a number of the trade unions got behind their campaigns, especially in the lead up to the 1967 referendum on Citizenship Rights.  The Trades Hall in Goulburn Street became a central site for the organisers and the unions to meet.  Unions such as the Builders Labourers Federation (BLF) were particularly supportive, sponsoring the Redfern All Blacks football team and later putting a Green Ban over the Block in Redfern.

There are many sites around Sydney, some more obvious than others.  Martin Place was the site of the annual National Aborigines Day, the forerunner to NAIDOC Week from the 1960s; Redfern Park was the site of the speech by former PM Paul Keating in 1992, known as the Redfern Speech, which focused on reconciliation and was one of the first by a PM to acknowledge the European dispossession of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

To make it easier for the likes of us, the City of Sydney history program has put together a walking brochure (one of a series of historic walking tours they have put together) that takes in many of the sites across the city area. 

Called Barani/Barrabugu (Yesterday/Tomorrow) the booklet shows the rich diversity of Aboriginal sites across the city and reminds us that Sydney is a many layered place, with different meanings and significance for all of us.