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Why is NAIDOC Week important to all Australians?

Chris Congoo says the key to reconciliation is communicating respectfully.

The Salvation Army’s Territorial Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Engagement Coordinator, Chris Congoo, spoke to NAOMI SINGLEHURST about NAIDOC Week 2024 and why he believes it is an important opportunity for connection, reflection and education for all.


What is your understanding of the historical and current importance of NAIDOC Week? 


NAIDOC began as a day of mourning in 1938. At that time, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples were experiencing terrible injustices. Our leaders of the time wanted to bring the plight of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to the attention of the wider Australian community.


This continued until about the 1967 Referendum, when 90.77 per cent of Australians voted ‘yes’ to change the Constitution, formally acknowledging Indigenous Australians as part of our nation’s population — although we still didn’t get the ability to vote at that time. In 1975, it was decided to celebrate a whole week rather than just one day, and NAIDOC Week was born. Then, in 1991, NAIDOC Week was expanded to recognise the Torres Strait Islander peoples and culture.


NAIDOC is a special week for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and for the wider Australians Society to celebrate our shared culture and the achievements and the resilience of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and their communities. It is increasingly celebrated not just in Indigenous Australian communities, but also in government agencies, schools, local councils, churches and workplaces.


How does The Salvation Army in your area celebrate NAIDOC Week?


In Townsville (Qld), where I’m based, our Salvation Army corps (church) holds a range of activities, encouraging community participation. For example, we invite local Elders in from the wider community to come to our church and teach about rich Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures. This includes yarning circles, which give people a safe place to talk and engage in a spirit of reconciliation.


We cook traditional foods for our church community and for those seeking support/attending our Salvation Army community breakfast and community cafes. Our family/team also helps cook a traditional feast on a Thursday night before the (mid-week) church service.


As well as this, we hold special services on Sunday for NAIDOC Week and invite Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ministers to deliver God’s message to our church followed by a traditional Kup-Murri (cooking with coals in the ground) after the service.


Our local Alcohol and Other Drugs (AOD) recovery service also runs a range of activities for their participants. Again, this year, I will support them to cook a Kup-Murri for their participants. Sharing food together and spending time eating together builds connection and understanding.


What are some other ways you’ve seen NAIDOC Week marked or celebrated well in the past? 

In the past, we used to march on the streets in our communities to address some of the social issues that were going on, like inequality, health, child protection, elder abuse, family and domestic violence, homelessness, and a whole range of stuff. I’ve been engaged with this for about 30 years and many changes have happened in that time.


Now our church and services still go out to the community, but we apply to put up Salvos stalls as part of a family day here in Townsville and engage with people. We let them know what the Salvos are doing, connect and also encourage people to think about the way we look at God culturally.


What would you like to see achieved this year?


The Voice to Parliament Referendum caused a big upheaval within Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and the wider community. I think we’ve got to work and come together. We don’t want it to be ‘us and them’ because it needs to be all of us together.


I think that’s what the Referendum was about, working out how we come to terms with each other and how to sit in the right relationship with each other.


The NAIDOC Week 2024 theme: ‘Keep the fire burning! Blak, loud and proud’ looks to be a response to the Referendum. And while we all need to walk together, we also need to make sure that we are not the forgotten mob in our communities – that we are recognised and supported, including within the wider church community.


“For me, the key is sitting down and having conversations, because having a yarn and connecting with somebody is better than debating.”

The Bible says that in the beginning, God created heaven and earth and everything else was established. We’ve been in this country for 60-plus thousand years, and we want to share this country with the rest of Australia. But as custodians, there are protocols. We want to be able to sit down with people and have conversations and sort these things out in the spirit of reconciliation. You know, Aboriginal people are very welcoming people, but we want people to partake in our country in a right and respectful way.


How do you feel about the future?

I think due to the Voice Referendum, many of our people felt a bit deflated. You know, the Australian people spoke in 1967, but voted ‘no’ recently. I think we still need a lot of education and communication.

We must see the good, even in the bad, because God put us here for a reason, and we aren't going to go away, and we must learn to live together. For me, the key is sitting down and having conversations, because having a yarn and connecting with somebody is better than debating.

Where relationships are broken, they need mending. Our people don’t want conflict going on and it’s not God's way. We don’t want to throw barbs and we don’t want to have barbs thrown. We need to communicate respectfully. We’re still putting our hands out in reconciliation.

What are you working on in your role this year?


We are working on numerous projects for Salvation Army centres, churches and services. This includes The Salvation Army Cultural Framework around areas such as Acknowledgement of Country and Welcome to Country.


For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, it}s a ceremonial process that we’ve been practising for centuries, and we need the Australian people to recognise, acknowledge and respect these protocols.


Because God put us here first and told us to look after this place, we believe we have an ongoing responsibility not just to the land and everything on it, and also to the people in the wider community who now use and live on the land.



How does your faith and culture keep you passionate about your work and service to others?


I’ve got an extraordinarily strong connection to my culture. I understand God through my culture, and I believe that there’s something bigger and mightier than us.

“We need to bring God into the room and show his love and mercy on our journey to being reconciled with each other.” 

We need to work out what spirituality means to each of us as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and non-indigenous peoples of Australia. Because it’s in that understanding that we can come together.


The Salvos are a very important part of our community and church and are committed to reconciliation. Back in the 1960s, when all the radical changes were happening, it was the churches there fighting for our people, but now it doesn’t seem like that is happening as much now in parts of the wider church community.


Sometimes pride gets in the way of things for all of us. We need to be able to come together and leave pride outside the door. We need to bring God into the room and show his love and mercy on our journey to being reconciled with each other. 




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