Indigenous Australia’s flag first flown

By Naomi Russo | July 6, 2016

A potent symbol of Aboriginal Australia recognised the world-over, this flag first ruffled in the wind in Adelaide in 1971.

ON 12 JULY, 1971, a new flag flew proudly over Australia as the red, yellow and black Aboriginal flag was hoisted in Adelaide’s Victoria Square for NAIDOC day (National Aboriginal and Islanders Day Observance Committee day).

Designed earlier that year, the flag had originally been created as a symbol of the land rights movement. Its designer was Aboriginal artist Harold Thomas, a Luritja man from Central Australia and then an emerging artist. Thomas was the first Aboriginal to graduate from an Australian art school, after receiving a scholarship to attend the South Australian School of Art.

He told the Federal Court during a copyright case about the flag that: “In the marches of the late 1960s and early 1970s, we were outnumbered by non-Aborigines with their own placards and banners. I decided we needed to be more visible and so the flag came up. It made us a distinct group.”

Symbolism behind the Aboriginal flag

The flag he designed was deeply symbolic, and early posters that bore its likeness also had captions to explain these deeper meanings. “The black represents the Aboriginal people, past, present, future; the yellow represents the Sun, the giver of life; the red represents the Earth, red ochre, and our spiritual relationship to the land,” declared one such poster.

However the memorable design started out with various iterations before Thomas decided on the final flag. One change was that the more earthy colours he used in the artwork needed to be made brighter and solidified to work as a flag.

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The flag, which has a red bottom and black top, was also originally inverted. However Thomas changed this design to create a less balanced piece, saying: “I wanted to make it unsettling…in normal circumstances you’d have the darker colour at the bottom and the lighter colour on top and that would be visibly appropriate for anybody looking at it. It wouldn’t unsettle you.” 

The flag was flown once more, in Canberra at the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in late 1972. However the iconic design was yet to become the foremost symbol of Australian Aboriginal people. Other designs were also flown at the Embassy, including a flag bearing a spear and a green, red and black design.

Federal Government acknowleges the Aboriginal flag

It wasn’t until 1995 that the Federal Government acknowledged the flag, giving it ‘Flag of Australia’ status on 14 July, 1995, over two decades after its inception. The decision was not without controversy, with then-opposition leader John Howard arguing that “any attempt to give the flags official status…would rightly be seen by many in the community not as an act of reconciliation but as a divisive gesture.” Thomas himself also criticised the acknowledgment, arguing the flag didn’t “need any more recognition”. 

Aboriginal flag

Runner Cathy Freeman waves both the Australian and Aboriginal flags at the Athens 1997 World Championships in Athletics in Greece. (Credit: Getty/Louisa Gouliamaki)

Today the Aboriginal flag is hoisted proudly above many major national buildings alongside the national flag. It also continues to serve as an iconic symbol of Australia’s Aboriginal people. Since discussions about a new national flag for Australia began, commentators have considered the possible involvement of the Aboriginal flag within the new design. Some suggested the flag could replace the Union Jack within the current Australian flag.

In 1994, commenting to the Sydney Morning Herald about such suggestions, Thomas seemed hesitant: “It’s not a secondary thing. It stands on its own, not to be placed as an adjunct to any other thing. It shouldn’t be treated that way,” he said. While he told the Herald he wouldn’t completely rule out the idea, his preference was for a completely new conception of the Australian flag. 

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