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Personal stories shine a light on Referendum anniversary

Kirstie Parker, CEO of the NCIE, said: “This anniversary is a big deal … It’s hard to imagine this kind of consensus today on just about any national issue.

“If we know one thing from the Referendum result, it’s that any road ahead for our people must be well paved with community control, political will and leadership. Today’s event provides just a glimpse into the campaign for a yes vote,” Ms Parker said. “This afternoon is not about big answers to big questions but personal stories and insights to shine a light on this anniversary.”

Ms Parker’s interview with Aunty Shirley Peisley drew recollections of spirited campaigning. “I take my hat off to those who campaigned over decades, those who gathered signatures for petitions, the men who went everywhere talking, and the women on buses and trains who got to the heart of the problem,” she said. “Hundreds gathered in Adelaide and elsewhere with little badges the size of ten cent coins. There was such a buzz. People were organised, they knew how to campaign.”

Ms Peisley continued: “We felt there would be success. We were dancing in the street, holding hands. There was a feeling in the air. I call it magic.”

What changed afterwards? “We were counted,” she said. “We counted. This was an awakening. Then followed a proliferation of funded Aboriginal services – medical and legal services, children’s services. This was the beginning. In the 1960s, in many places, Aboriginal people weren’t free to marry or to leave the missions. They weren’t allowed to gather. After the Referendum we learned to assert our right to be standing in a public place. Then there was the Aboriginal Flag in 1971, a symbol to represent the Aboriginal people, and the Tent Embassy in 1972.”

Some of these changes and the people behind them, such as Joyce Clague, were featured in the documentary to mark the 40th anniversary of the Referendum, VOTE YES for Aborigines. Aunty Joyce was a member of the Aboriginal Australian Fellowship and the Aborigines Progressive Association. Following the 1967 Referendum, she worked with musician Jimmy Little on a campaign to get Indigenous Australians on the electoral roll. In 1968, she stood for the Legislative Assembly of the Northern Territory, with her independent campaign encouraging the enrolment of 6,500 Aboriginal people. She convened the Federation Council for Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders (FCAATSI) in 1969. She was also appointed a representative of the World Council of Churches Commission to Combat Racism.

Acknowledging the reality of “unfinished business” and the diverse hopes of Indigenous people, Ms Peisley affirmed the importance of truth-telling, education, love of culture and country, and ongoing resistance to racism and prejudice. “Keep that fighting spirit with you,” she encouraged one audience member. “We can’t change how all the people think, we can only set an example of how we think and live.”

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