Flagging a time of collective mourning and respect for Country

Media release
16 January 2020

Aboriginal flags across Deakin University campuses have been lowered to half-mast in a symbolic expression of mourning and respect for the parts of Australia ravaged by bushfires.

Associate Professor Gabrielle Fletcher, Director of the Institute for Koorie Education at Deakin University, said the unprecedented move is an acknowledgment of the depth of wounding of all Australians, particularly First Nations Peoples - and a mark of greatest respect for Country.

"To lose Country, in this way, is a distinct, messy kind of grief," she said.

"As a collective, this symbolic gesture may provide somewhere for all Australians to leave parts of this despair.

"Aboriginal and non-Indigenous Australians all understand that by lowering a flag we acknowledge that something has died or that something is dying. It is a symbol of mourning. There are so many people who are feeling anguish."

Professor Fletcher said that losing Country for Aboriginal People to this scale is the loss of a complex system of systems, where everything has its place, yet is delicately interwoven - with much of it invisible to the eye.

"Country moves beyond landscape, allotment, vista or wildlife as stand-alone components. It is also place, Ancestors, shadows, mist, warble, maps and vapour," she said.

Understanding and valuing the traditional knowledge of Indigenous Australians is a critical part of addressing the loss caused by this emergency, Professor Fletcher said.

"When Aboriginal People lose Country to this scale we lose Knowledge, Ways, Forms, Spirit and Healing - these are a complex interconnection, where everything has its place to teach, feel, show and speak. With each loss we slip further away from understanding who we are, and how we fit - this is the ultimate death in many respects," she said.

"It's also a reflection of the immense grief of guilt where we feel a kind of irresponsible helplessness - our sense of the abandonment of our cultural obligations to Care for Country."

Professor Fletcher hopes that other organisations follow suit and lower their Aboriginal flags in the aftermath of the bushfire emergency.

"I think this action symbolically describes the collective realisation that we've lost so much more than what can be seen and is a true wake-up call," Professor Fletcher said.

"On behalf of the Institute of Koorie Education, I thank Deakin Vice-Chancellor Professor Iain Martin for his support in this unprecedented gesture, and suggest that these lowered symbolic fabrics become the message sticks for urgent change."

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