The Guardian • Issue #1994

Aboriginal flag ownership remains divisive

  • by E Lennon
  • The Guardian
  • Issue #1994

While some First Nations Australians are celebrating the now unrestricted right to use the flag, others are wary and sceptical.

Earlier in January, the Australian government paid $20 million to “free” the usage of the Aboriginal Flag. Anyone can use and display the flag if it’s shown in a “respectful and dignified way.”

Luritja artist, Harold Thomas designed the flag fifty years ago. Thomas gave three companies licenses to use the design; however, none of them are owned by First Nations people.

Despite his longstanding licencing agreements, Thomas has said that he hopes his agreement with the Australian government brings “comfort to all Aboriginal people and Australians.” For small Indigenous businesses, the right to freely use the design on their products without legal hassles has come as a relief.

“The Aboriginal Flag design is my dreaming, intertwined with my wife’s family and mine, our ancestral belonging. The land, and the landscape, is indelible in my make-up; it courses through my consciousness and subconsciousness,” said Thomas.

“The Flag represents the timeless history of our land and our people’s time on it. It is an introspection and appreciation of who we are. It draws from the history of our ancestors, our land, and our identity and will honour these well into the future.”

Thomas’ words have rung true for many First Nations peoples in Australia, but for others there’s a sense of unease about the Commonwealth’s involvement.

The government says people can use it in a “respectful way,” but this leaves many interpretations of what exactly “respectful” means. For instance, this isn’t to say that companies couldn’t use the flag to their own commercial ends and misappropriate its meaning. This potentially includes its use on “Australia Day” items, which would offend many First Australians.

Minister for Indigenous Australians, Ken Wyatt backed the move overall. He said that the symbol has been a core part of First Nations peoples’ identity since its inception.

“In reaching this agreement to resolve the copyright issues, all Australians can freely display and use the flag to celebrate Indigenous culture. Now that the Commonwealth holds the copyright, it belongs to everyone, and no one can take it away,” the minister said.

The government may like to say that it “belongs” to everyone, but as long as it holds the copyright, it will remain out of full Aboriginal ownership. This is a major point of concern for those wary of the news. It’s fundamentally an Aboriginal symbol, as Ken Wyatt said, so it feels disconcerting that despite lip-service, the flag is in the government’s hands. This is a government that locks up many First Nations peoples and is responsible for their deaths in custody. It’s a government that continues to legislate against the interests of First Australians.

In its own inquiry into the question of the flag’s future, the government received an option to return it to Aboriginal custodianship. The proposed model was ignored. This rejection flies in the face of self-determination.

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