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As Dawn Broke Over Bondi, Rising Gum Smoke Marked The Start Of A Day Of Mourning And Reflection

Smoke rose above Bondi beach as dawn broke. Hundreds looked to the ocean during a minute of silence, reflecting on the meaning of this new, old day, 26 January.

As the sun rose, Dharawal, Gumbaynggirr and Gomeroi woman Rowena Welsh-Jarrett could be seen clearly, placing gum leaves into a fire on the sand for the smoking ceremony.

The minute of silence ended.

“This is an old ceremony and the smoke knows exactly what to do. It interacts with our winds,” she told the mix of Indigenous and non-Indigenous people present. “Hopefully it will bring about a brighter future on this country.”

These solemn events are held at dawn to begin the day by acknowledging Australia’s first peoples, and in some cases to act as a forum for truth-telling. They have become an increasing fixture of 26 January, the national holiday which marks, for many Indigenous Australians, a day of mourning.

A smoking ceremony at Bondi beach on Friday morning. Photograph: Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images“Australia Day means different things to different people,” explained Paula Masselos, the mayor of theWaverley council which organised the event at Bondi beach. Last year it became the first council in New South Wales to organise a dawn reflection on 26 January, following a number of events in Victoria.

“This in an opportunity to share in the significance of this day for our First Nations peoples in a way that is instructive and inclusive.”

For Dharawal man Maali Ward-Lowe, who with the La Perouse Gamay Dancers told the story of Buriburi (humpback whale) at the event, 26 January has always been a day of mourning.

La Perouse Gamay Dancers perform at Bondi beach on Friday. Photograph: Jenny Evans/Getty Images“That’s why we dance, keep culture alive, but also to represent the massacres and the attempt to wipe it out,” he told Guardian Australia. “We can now see people understanding what this day means to us across the community … doing things like this helps people understand.

Events at dawn to acknowledge Australia’s first peoples happened across the country on Friday. At Circular Quay, once known as Warrane (Sydney Cove), where Captain Arthur Phillip on 26 January 1788 hoisted the British flag and set up the first convict settlement, the sails of the Sydney Opera House were lit up with a First Nations artwork.

This annual tradition began in 2021, with the community invited to pause, reflect and remember.

The sails of the Sydney Opera House are lit up with Indigenous artwork on Friday morning. Photograph: Wendell Teodoro/Getty ImagesIn Melbourne, around 1,000 people gathered for the Invasion Day dawn service at the Kings Domain Resting Place, the site where 38 people, representing clans around Victoria, were buried after their remains were repatriated from museums and private collections.

The Melbourne dawn service was first organised in 2019 by independent senator and DjabWurrung Gunnai Gunditjmara woman Lidia Thorpe to mark the resistance of Indigenous people and the massacres that occurred in Victoria during frontier wars. It is estimated more than 10,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander lives were lost across Australia in more than 400 massacres.

Thorpe said it was important to hold such events in tandem with the long-running Invasion Day rallies.

“It was always about a day of mourning on the January 26th,” Thorpe said, referring to the first day of mourning protest held on the date in 1938. “It’s what our old people called for, that’s what we continue to call for.”

She drew parallels to the healing nature of Anzac Day.

“You’ve seen what Anzac has done for people and their families; it’s a healing,” she said. “This was a war and that war is still not recognised in this country.”

In a Deakin University poll of 5,000 people in 2021, 60% of Australians said Australia Day should be held on 26 January. But more than half of millennials said they do not want to celebrate Australia Day on the date.

This year Cricket Australia chose not to brand this week’s second Test against West Indies as “the Australia Day match”, and Woolworths discontinued its range of Australia Day products due to low sales.

Thorpe said momentum was building to rethink Australia Day traditions.

“I can’t help but to feel some excitement in my body,” Thorpe said. “I haven’t felt that for a long time or seen this kind of move happening in the 5o years I’ve been around and worked in community and government.”

In Geelong, a dawn service held by the Wathaurong Aboriginal Co-operative commemorated the day of mourning and the Wuri-Rise (sunrise) ceremony run by Bayside council honoured the survival of First Nations people.

Ballarat has held a dawn ceremony run by the Koorie Engagement Action Group and the local council every 26 January since 2020. Meriam woman Deb Lowah Clark said the event was about the resilience of Indigenous people.

“This dawn ceremony is about finding ways to share the truth-telling,” she said.

She said the failed voice to parliament referendum had emboldened opposition to the event in some quarters, but the numbers of Indigenous and non-Indigenous people joining the service had grown every year.

“People are seeking to come and stand with us,” she said.

Vanessa, who attended the dawn reflection at Bondi, attended the Australia Day event at Circular Quay last year, but felt uncomfortable.

“I saw that this was on and felt like it was a more appropriate way to mark the day.”

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