The flag was designed by Harold Thomas, a Luritja man of Central Australia, and was first flown on National Aboriginal Day in Adelaide in 1971. Gary Foley, a Gumbaynggirr man of north-east New South Wales and an Aboriginal Rights activist, took the flag to the East Coast where it was promoted in Sydney and Melbourne.
In 1972 the flag became more prolific when it was chosen as the official flag for the Aboriginal Embassy in front of Parliament House in Canberra.
Symbolic meaning of the flag
The flag consists of a coloured rectangle divided in half horizontally, the upper half black and lower red. A yellow circle sits at the centre of the rectangle. The designer Harold Thomas says the colours of the flag represent the Aboriginal people of Australia, the red ochre colour of earth and a spiritual relation to the land and the sun, the giver of life and protector.
About the designer
Harold Thomas was born in Alice Springs, his mother a Luritja woman from the Central Desert (Kings Canyon lies within the Luritja land area) and his father a Wombai man also from the Central Desert.
Harold was sent to St Francis' Anglican boys home in Adelaide and in 1965 won a scholarship to the South Australian School of Art. He was the first Aboriginal person to graduate from an Australian Art School. He also has an Honorary Degree in Social Australian Anthropology from Adelaide University.
In 1970 he started working as a survey artist at the South Australian Museum where he designed the flag. Since then, Harold has continued to work as an artist with his works on display in several Australian galleries.
Australian Bicentenary march
On 26 January 1988, at the Australian Bicentenary celebrations, more than 40,000 people including Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander people, staged one of the largest marches in Sydney. The march was in one part a protest highlighting land rights and the appalling living conditions and standards for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and Australia’s human rights record. The other was a statement of survival and resilience.
First Nations artist, curator and educator Brenda L. Croft wrote of the emotional impact of seeing a river of the flags held by people in the march:
Everywhere you looked you saw the colours of red, black and yellow; and it really struck me that the Aboriginal flag was absolutely the symbol that united all Indigenous people in Australia, regardless of whether they came from traditional communities or from urban environments.
Croft, B. L., (2006) Account of Invasion Day, 26 January 1988, Cook’s Sites exhibition, National Library of Australia, Canberra, 16 March to 18 June.
Aboriginal athlete Cathy Freeman caused controversy at the 1994 Commonwealth Games by carrying the Aboriginal flag as well as the Australian national flag during her victory lap after winning the 200 metres sprint. The Australian Commonwealth Games team president, Arthur Tunstall, strongly criticised her in a statement to the national and international press:
We had a meeting at the start of the Games for the heads of each sport. At the end, I told everyone, 'I'm reminding you, we're representing the greatest country in the world, Australia. We compete under one flag, the Australian flag.’” Tunstall says he told team manager Margaret Mahoney to relay the message specifically to Freeman but athletics general manager Neil King had told her to ignore the directive. The rest is history. “People asked me about it and I said she should have run with the Australian flag only,'' Tunstall says. ''They were the rules. That night it exploded and I ran into all this trouble. I didn't even know what the Aboriginal flag bloody looked like.
Sydney Morning Herald, 2012
After winning the 400 metre race, Cathy carried both flags again in her victory lap. Cathy hoped this expression of pride in her heritage would counter negative stereotypes:
This was my race and no one was going to stop me telling the world how proud I was to be Aboriginal. Somewhere deep inside, I’d absorbed all the pain and suffering my people had endured and turning it into a source of strength.
Cited in Fuller, L. K., (2008) Sexual Sports Rhetoric: Global and Universal Contexts, Volume 1, P 193
Official Flag of Australia
In 1995 the Aboriginal Flag was recognised by the Australian Government as an official 'Flag of Australia' under the Flags Act 1953.
2000 Sydney Olympic Games
The National Indigenous Advisory Committee, an advisory group that reported to the Sydney Organising Committee for the Olympic Games (SOCOG), campaigned for the Aboriginal flag to be flown during the 2000 Olympic Games. SOCOG later announced that the Aboriginal flag would be flown at Olympic venues.
Cathy's running shoes for the 400 metre race were yellow, black and red and after she won the race, she took them off and ran her victory lap barefoot carrying both the Australian and Aboriginal flags around the track while the crowd cheered. During the Olympics, the eyes of the world were upon Australia and according to Andrew Phillips a journalist for the Canadian publication Maclean's, an Aboriginal observer said, "Cath's done it for all of us." This time, instead of being chastised for flying the Aboriginal flag with pride around the track, she was widely celebrated with many Australians inspired by her achievements.
In 1997 the Federal Court of Australia officially recognised Harold Thomas as the author of the flag. This decision meant the flag was protected under the Copyright Act 1968 and can only be reproduced in accordance with this legislation or with the permission of Mr Thomas.
The copyright license for the manufacture and marketing of the Aboriginal flag has been awarded by Mr Thomas to Carroll and Richardson Flags.
For guidance about using the Aboriginal flag, its colours, or the Torres Strait Islander Flag refer to the Australian Government website administered by the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet
Purchases of flags and merchandise can be made directly from Carroll and Richardson by emailing: firstname.lastname@example.org