The significance of NAIDOC week
The Sector > Workforce > Advocacy > The significance of NAIDOC week; a reflection on meaningful and respectful engagement

The significance of NAIDOC week; a reflection on meaningful and respectful engagement

by Freya Lucas and Ruth Harper

July 08, 2019

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Sector.

This piece has been created in collaboration with the authors and representatives from the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community, developed to deepen shared understanding about NAIDOC Week and its role in ECEC.

At this time of year, some portions of the early childhood education and care (ECEC) sector will begin to ask a question, seeking to respond to the requirement to demonstrate that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspectives are valued in the program: “what are we going to do about NAIDOC week? We should ask our community! Let’s find an Elder…”


‘Finding an Elder’ isn’t like opening the MTA catalogue and choosing some new resources, and nor should it be. Engaging respectfully with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community members is a long-term process, which needs to be reciprocal, supportive, and a journey. In addition, NAIDOC week is a week for celebration, an opportunity for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to come together and be acknowledged for their many achievements. It may not be a time where it is reasonable to expect First Nations people to give freely of their time for our benefit. 


Even with the best of intentions, it can be difficult for ECEC professionals to know where to start. Occasions such as NAIDOC week can serve as a “jumping off” point, but the complexity of this space is part of the thinking behind the development of a Reconciliation Action Plan


While it is wonderful for ECEC services to want to begin the journey toward a reconciled Australia, “finding an Elder to come and do dot paintings in NAIDOC week” may not be the way to go about it. Not only may it be culturally insensitive, or not appropriate, acknowledging and celebrating First Nations culture is something which should be embedded throughout the curriculum, all year around. 


To explore the thinking behind the thoughtful embedding of First Nations culture, tradition, story and practice, it’s important to first consider the purpose behind occasions such as NAIDOC. 


What is NAIDOC week? 


NAIDOC Week celebrations are held across Australia each July to celebrate the history, culture and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. 


NAIDOC is celebrated not only in Indigenous communities, but by Australians from all walks of life. The week is a great opportunity to participate in a range of activities and to support local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.


NAIDOC originally stood for ‘National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee’. This committee was once responsible for organising national activities during NAIDOC Week and its acronym has since become the name of the week itself. 


Each year, there is a different focus city for the National NAIDOC Awards Ceremony.This year, the theme is VOICE. TREATY. TRUTH – let’s walk together for a shared future. The 2019 theme honours the Indigenous voice of Australia which is more than 65,000 years old. 


A statement on the NAIDOC week website explains the significance of this year’s theme. 


Where does NAIDOC week fit in ECEC?


Many Australians, including those working in the ECEC sector, have received little formal education about the true history of Australia, and the consequences of white settlement. 


The shared history of First Nations people and white Australians is complex, and filled with trauma, which is genetic and ongoing. Far from being confined to January 1788, the impact of white settlement on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people continues today


In an ideal world, where individuals, and the ECEC profession as a whole held more knowledge, and greater understanding of our shared history, and greater insight into the resultant and very real and present traumas and complexities, NAIDOC Week would fit seamlessly into our practice. But, for most ECEC professionals, this is not the case. 


As a result of this lack of meaningful understanding, many ECEC professionals are left feeling bewildered and lost.  Community Child Care Association Executive Director Julie Price has previously spoken about fear being the factor preventing ECEC educators from engaging with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspectives.


“We hear lots of times that educators are concerned that they are going to do the wrong thing,” Ms Price said. “They do not want to be tokenistic, and they do not want to offend anyone, so sometimes that completely stops services from doing anything.”


As a collective, the profession is aware of the need to include the voices of First Nations people and embed various cultural perspectives in the day to day running of the service – but time and time again, educators report feeling frozen – torn between not wanting to cause offence, not wanting to be tokenistic, and not knowing when, where and how to begin. 


Educators and leaders very much want to do the right thing – for children engaging in education and care in Australia to have a sense of connection to, and understanding of, one of the world’s most enduring cultures. NAIDOC Week is the perfect reminder to start trying to figure out what the right thing looks like for each individual service and community. 


Making meaningful change begins with educators as individuals undertaking their own journey of learning and discovery. Only then can Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspectives be deeply and meaningfully embedded in the program. 


As with many things in life, the journey begins with a desire to see things differently, openness to new ideas and ways of thinking, and a genuine desire to right a wrong. 


What is emotional labour? 


Emotional labour as a term that may not be familiar to all those working within ECEC, but, as an action, it most certainly is. Emotional labour refers to the process of managing feelings and expressions to fulfil the emotional requirements of a job. 


In more specific terms, emotional labour is the work we do when we “hold space” for someone else. This might mean staying cool and calm when a parent is very angry about missing socks, supporting a child who is experiencing big feelings when separated from a parent, or supporting a co-worker who has experienced emotional upheaval, before returning to work with the children to sing an uplifting song. 


Those working in ECEC professions are frequently called upon to provide emotional labour in the course of their work. 


What does emotional labour have to do with NAIDOC week? 


NAIDOC week often serves as a prompt for reflection for ECEC services. It is a calendar-based reminder of many points of both the National Quality Framework (NQF) and the approved learning frameworks. 


In the text Teaching Aboriginal Studies, Associate Professor Nina Burridge notes that educators are “a crucial link between the rhetoric of Reconciliation and the reality of the vision fulfilled”.


In response to this knowledge, and the timely reminder in the calendar that NAIDOC week is coming – a time for celebrating the many wonderful achievements and triumphs of First Nations communities, many education and care services will seek to bring in a community representative for a day, to work with the children and educators, and give them a glimpse into First Nations culture. 


All too often, however, that community member is not compensated for their time. Instead, many services will seek out that community representative only for ‘special occasions’ – a Welcome to Country, a smoking ceremony when a new building opens, or once a year for NAIDOC week, to read a story to the children. 


Sometimes, these occasions are paid, but sadly, more often than not, First Nations people are asked to do the work of Reconciliation. Community members are asked to enter services, and distil thousands of years of story, song and tradition into something packaged, palatable and easy to understand. 


This “packaging”, this free of charge giving of themselves and their culture, is a form of emotional labour. While some members of the community may not feel comfortable raising issues around compensation, it is important to recognise the work involved in sharing elements of culture, and for recipients of their contributions to recognise that compensation is an important and necessary way to thank them for their efforts.


The way forward 


This piece, taken from Early Childhood Australia’s Every Child magazine asks a powerful question, designed to move the conversation forward: 


Why is it that some of us tend to wait until we are given directives from our governments about the inclusion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures into our programs? 


This ‘avoidance’ of the real issues can lead to a kind of tokenism—putting up posters or celebrating on one day a year, for example—when we could find and use valuable opportunities to learn and teach about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures as part of our regular program.


How then, should a service go about learning from and teaching Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture as part of the regular program? 


Begin at the beginning. Listen to the voices of the community. Be prepared to listen, and to learn. The following pieces of footage could be shared in a team meeting, or more broadly within your community, and can be a good place to start: 


  • Consider the theme in any given year, and how it connects with your community, and your context. One size does not fit all. 


  • There are a number of service providers and consultants who support services on their journey of respectful embedding of culture. The Koori Curriculum,  Yarn Strong Sista, your local inclusion support service, and the National Indigenous Australians Agency can be a good place to start in seeking support. 


Finally, be sure to look at current research. This research, for example, can guide the ECEC community, and shows that: 


  • Services are more effective for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and families when educators are aware of and address cultural competence in their service delivery.


  • It is critical for non-Aboriginal staff to be aware of how to engage and support all cultures, but particularly Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures.


  • Honest engagement, building trust, and working with community members
    is essential


  • When working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and families, a focus on empowerment and working from strengths makes a difference.


What not to do


Creative Spirits has created a wonderful list called “The Ultimate list of things to do to support Aboriginal culture”. Alongside the things which are most helpful, there are some things which have been warned against. 


In being enthusiastic and wanting to support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, some missteps can happen. The following has been given by Creative Spirits as a list of things to watch out for: 


  • Don’t “borrow” from Aboriginal culture. You don’t support Aboriginal culture if you “borrow” elements of it without knowing what they refer to and, worse, without consulting Aboriginal people. This includes words, objects, images and behaviours. Such action  would only show your disrespect.


  • Don’t tell Aboriginal people what is ‘best’. I know you have read a lot and worked out a “solution” to some of their problems. Don’t be tempted to tell them. Solutions are complex and difficult to achieve, and often only work locally.


  • Don’t keep quiet. If you hear racist or derogatory remarks don’t look away. Speak up and ask in a friendly manner why that person thinks that way and how much they know about Aboriginal culture. Chances are, they only perpetuate the wrong bits they “learned” and never questioned.


  • Don’t speak on behalf of Aboriginal people. Especially when you are working in the ‘Aboriginal space’ it is sometimes tempting to speak for Aboriginal people. Resist. Aboriginal people have a voice of their own (and are usually not afraid to use it). 


  • Don’t question discussion outcomes. Some discussions only involve Aboriginal people. Respect the result of these discussions, and don’t pick and choose what suits you.


Further support


The Action on Aboriginal Perspectives in Early Childhood (AAPEC) is a collective of people committed to embedding Aboriginal Perspectives in ECEC services, with a focus on local Victorian cultures. 


In 2017, the AAPEC gained a Warrawong Grant to develop The Possum Skin Pedagogy: A guide for Early Childhood practitioners. Written by Dr Sue Lopez-Atkinson, with support from a number of Victorian elders, senior members of the Aboriginal community, SNAICC and the AAPEC Possum Skin sub-committee, it is a valuable resource for those wishing to undertake a respectful embedding of First Nations culture in the curriculum. 


Dark Emu and Young Dark Emu have recently been released, written by Bruce Pascoe. Mr Pascoe has collected numerous literary awards for Dark Emu which he has also crafted into a version for young readers. 


Using the accounts of early European explorers, colonists and farmers, Mr Pascoe compellingly argues for a reconsideration of the hunter-gatherer label for pre-colonial Aboriginal Australians. In his books, he allows the reader to see Australia as it was before Europeans arrived — a land of cultivated farming areas, productive fisheries, permanent homes, and an understanding of the environment and its natural resources that supported thriving villages across the continent. 


Through his works, he asks readers to consider a different version of Australia’s history pre-European colonisation. 

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