First Nations heroes are celebrated this NAIDOC Week (2024)

A gunshot breaks the silence in a packed stadium and eight women sprint to the finish with one thing in mind: a gold medal.

The line-up in the 400m race at the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games includes 27-year-old Cathy Freeman, a Kuku Yalanji and Birra Gubba woman.

Freeman pulls out in front of the pack, crossing the finish line with a crowd roaring in the stadium — and in loungerooms across the country.

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It wasn't just a significant moment for Australia. For First Nations people like Maddy Norris, it was momentous, and forever etched in her mind.

"[It was] quite defining for me as a person," the Bundjalung, Wiradjuri and Yuin woman said.

"I feel like it's a shared accomplishment for our communities when we see us doing well, it makes us all proud."

Pride is a key part of this year's NAIDOC Week celebrations, which begin on Sunday.

This year's theme is: "Keep the fire burning! Blak, loud and proud."

The NAIDOC theme changes every year, decided by the National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee (NAIDOC) whose co-chair is Wiradjuri and Gamilaroi woman Aunty Lynette Riley.

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She said this year's theme came in response to the overwhelming defeat of the voice referendum last year.

"One of the things we saw as part of the debacle of the referendum was that Australia is still not proud of Aboriginal people," she said.

NAIDOC's night of nights

This weekend's National NAIDOC Week awards celebrate First Nations excellence with 28 finalists in the running for 10 awards.

Each category recognises trailblazers across industries and the contributions they're making to improve the lives of their communities.

Aunty Dulcie Flower AM will receive a Lifetime Achievement Award, while Aunty Muriel Bamblett, Bianca Brackenridge and Georgie Weir are in the running for the coveted NAIDOC Person of the Year award.

Can everyone celebrate NAIDOC Week?

While it's now one of the largest events on the calendar for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, Aunty Lynette said it was a celebration for everyone.

"For me, this is about ensuring that the dreams of our elders who started NAIDOC as a protest are honoured and one way to do that is by being involved," she said.

"NAIDOC is for everybody.

"One of the problems we've got is there are still many Australians who don't understand who we are and our cultures."

Sydney-based lawyer, Khushaal Vyas was one of the 6.29 million people who voted yes in last year's referendum, said NAIDOC week was also a chance to reflect on last year's vote.

"To be Australian means to be an ally to Indigenous Australians," he said.

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Founder of the Desis for Yes campaign, Mr Vyas helped inform South Asian Australians about the referendum, drawing similarities between the migrant experience and Australia's Indigenous history.

"NAIDOC Week also needs to be about reflection and what non-Indigenous Australians are doing to help move the dialogue forward because there are still existing gaps, and we all have a responsibility to do something about that," he said.

Blak, loud and proud

This year's NAIDOC theme resonated with many, including Mr Vyas.

"I'm definitely proud of First Nations culture and history being the oldest surviving culture in the world — as a non-Indigenous person I take great pride in that," he said.

For others, like Maddy Norris, it is more complicated, partly because of Australia's history.

"I'm proud to be a blackfella. I'm not proud to be Australian," she said.

"I'm not proud of how Australia and the Australian government continue to treat First Nations people and communities."

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Between the late-19th and mid-20th century, states and the Northern Territory had laws called Protection Acts.

The laws led many Aboriginal people to be removed from their homes, placed on missions and reserves, and in many cases, banned from practising culture or speaking their language.

Uncle Allan Murray, chairperson of the Metropolitan Aboriginal Land Council, said the question of pride in Australia had changed over time.

"If you came through the 70s, 80s and 90s and that question was asked then, the answer is no. How do I look at it now? The answer is maybe," he said.

For Aunty Lynette, her pride comes from her lineage.

"I'm absolutely a proud Australian, but that pride stems from my deep heritage and links to this country for over 60,000 years, not just the last 200-odd years."

Stream the 2024 NAIDOC Awards Ceremony from 7.00pm, July 6 on ABC iview and ABC TV.

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First Nations heroes are celebrated this NAIDOC Week (2024)
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