Aboriginies Sunday, NAIDOC Week & William Cooper

This week is NAIDOC week across Australia - celebrating the history, culture and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. 

NAIDOC originally stood for ‘National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee’. 

Many people don’t realise that it was Aboriginal Christians who started NAIDOC week.

Well, specifically it was the initiative of an Aboriginal Christian, William Cooper, who asked the churches to start praying for aborigines on what would become known as ‘Aboriginies Sunday.’ 

Up until the 1960’s Australia’s indigenous people were not Australian citizens even though they had been born in Australia and their ancestors had lived here for generations before white settlement. They weren’t allowed to vote, weren’t counted in the census and had less rights than white Australians.

William Cooper was taught to read and write by missionaries and came into a personal relationship with Jesus. He was also an activist, a unionist, a serious Bible reading, church going Christian. 

Cooper believed that the best thing that had happened for Australia’s first people’s was the Christian missions. He believed that all people are made in the image of God and are children of God, and would argue passionately from the Bible that aboriginals ought to be treated as equal citizens in this country.. 

In 1935, Cooper, who had founded the Australian Aborigines League, drafted a petition to go to King George V, asking for special aboriginal electorates in the Australian Parliament. Cooper presented then Prime Minister Lyons with a proposed national policy for aborigines. This was rejected. 

When the request fell on deaf ears he co-ordinated Aboriginal marches through the streets of Sydney and Melbourne on Australian Day 1936 - called ‘The day of Mourning.’

Cooper then sought help from his friends in the church to establish ‘Aboriginal Sunday,’ to pray for the success of missions and ‘the uplift of the dark people.’ It quickly caught on. The first ‘Aboriginies Sunday’ was 28 January 1940. Eventually, almost all churches had special prayers for the aboriginal peoples on the Sunday before Australia Day.

‘Aborigines Sunday’ down the track was shifted to later in the year and now a full week, ‘NAIDOC week.’

It seems tragic to me that this doesn’t seem to have any real presence in Protestant Churches today, especially when Christians in the past through the missions have played an extremely prominent role in caring for aborigines and advocating for them.

And while we (Christians) have forgotten much of this the aboriginal leaders haven’t.

They are very aware of the past role that Christians played in their community lives several generations ago.

- Dominic Steele

Further resources: See A prayer for indigenous Australians by Bishop Arthur Malcolm (Australia's first indigenous bishop)