By THÉRÈSE MARGOLIS
Jan. 26 is Australia Day, the official national holiday of the Land Down Under.
For the majority of Australians, that translates into a day of celebration, with public barbeques and the drinking of hardy stout.
But for the country’s minority indigenous aboriginal peoples, who make up about 2.8 percent of the country’s 24.6 million-strong population, Australia Day is as offensive as the commemoration of Robert E. Lee on July 4 would be for the Afro-American communities of the United States.
In fact, many Australian aborigines refer to the day as “Invasion Day.”
Australia Day marks the anniversary of the 1788 arrival of the first fleet of British ships at Port Jackson, New South Wales, and the raising of the Union Jack at Sydney Cove by Governor Arthur Phillip.
The commonwealth was formally declared Jan. 1, 1901, but for the country’s nonindigenous citizenry, Jan. 26 has always been considered the country’s Foundation Day, or Anniversary Day of the New South Wales colony, which in a sense was to become modern-day Australia.
That sense of national pride is not shared by most indigenous Australians, who constitute some of the oldest continuous societies in human history and who have, for decades, advocated that the national holiday be changed to a less offensive date.
And tensions over the issue are brewing.
Earlier this week, a Melbourne statue of British explorer James Cook (who is generally credited as being the first European to land in Australia) was vandalized by unknown parties, covered with bright pink paint and the words “no pride.”
The statue has become a lightning rod for Australian nationalists and aborigines alike.
The aborigines have plenty of reasons to resent their Anglo brethren.
Under British rule, their numbers were decimated, their lands were expropriated and their culture was nearly irradiated.
Even as recently as late last century, aborigine children were taken from their parents and adopted into “white” Australian families to encourage their “assimilation” into modern society.
At the same time, thousands of indigenous Australians were forcefully removed from their traditional lands and prevented from practicing their language and culture.
As Australia continues to celebrate the controversial holiday, the debate over whether it should be changed continues to seethe.
A recent poll by an Australian social think tank indicated that more than half of Australians are willing to make concessions to the aborigines by changing the date of the country’s national holiday, but the Australian alt-right insists that the tradition of celebrating Cook and the other European invaders should continue, no matter how offensive that celebration may be to the country’s First People.
Ironically, the observance of Jan. 26 as Australia’s national holiday did not begin until 1994, so switching the day to a more inclusive and unifying date would not be a slap in the face to the country’s traditions.
Meanwhile, most Australians embassies around the world continue to hold diplomatic functions to commemorate Jan. 26, blatantly brandishing their country’s abuse and exploitation of its native cultures.
And the paint-stained statue of James Cook in Melbourne stands as a silent symbol of Australia’s aboriginal discontent.