NSW Aboriginal Woman's Powerful NAIDOC Speech


The NSW Aboriginal Woman of the Year 2024, Dr Casey Sullivan delivered a beautiful, powerful speech at the NAIDOC Week opening in Tamworth, reflecting on this year's theme, 'Keep the Fire Burning! Blak, Loud & Proud'. We are delighted to share an audio recording and written version of her speech.

"So, I say to all First Nations People,

Let's Keep the Fire Burning.

Light it high as you can go.

Build a pyre that is worthy of a raging bushfire all aglow.

Be the one and be the mentor.

Be the one who lights the way.

Stand up, stand tall, be counted.

And be Blak, be loud, be proud."

About Dr Casey Sullivan

Dr Casey Sullivan, a proud Wiradjuri and Gamilaroi woman, is a General Practitioner (GP) who owns her own medical practice in Tamworth - the first Indigenous privately-owned and managed GP practice in NSW. She is committed to increasing medical accessibility and cultivating change in the North West NSW community.

Dr Casey Sullivan at NAIDOC Week 2024

Speech delivered at NAIDOC Week 2024 in Tamworth, NSW

Keep the Fire Burning

Dr Casey Sullivan NAIDOC Week 2024 Speech, Keep the fire burning

Sometime in the dreamtime, as she held her baby close, the darkness was creeping in. She knew there were creatures and Dreamtime Spirits in that dark, so she pulled her baby closer to her breasts. He moved closer, sensing her movement, then he leant forward and placed more branches on the fire, making it glow bright, warmer, hotter, deeper and the darkness crept back, slithering from his family. They would stay safe from the dangers lurking in the dark if only he could Keep the Fire Burning.

Further down the dreamtime, generations down the line. They all sat watching. The bush was their home. The only place they knew, and they were the only people the land had ever allowed walk upon her. But today they scorched their homeland. They burnt their mother, raw. And they watched upon it eagerly. Their home was being cleansed. Once the destruction raged through, in the exact same way they planned, their land would become new. No more unexpected Brushfires from the shock of a lightning strike, no more dense brush that could annihilate them or the animals they would need for nourishment and for their life. The land would spring up new, seeds would burst open, and trees would regenerate. Once the heat and the fever had passed, they would all be safe, and the land would rebirth with many gifts from her soul. But for now, they had to Keep the Fire Burning.

Further down the dreamtime, generations down the line. Many sat watching the roaring ocean, watching as she lived, and she breathed. The many sat, wide eyed, themselves not daring to breathe. They built the fires by the beach. And the many sat fixated on the strange white sails, that sat upon the blue, edging closer and closer. They built the fires higher, uncertain if they would need its warm embrace when darkness fell. They sat naïve, uncertain if its glow would help welcome the unseen travellers to their home. They were a kind people, and they did not value violence. They had always traded with other islanders, learnt their dances, shared their tools and abided by their customs. Surely these wanderers would share impressive gifts. But how would they know they were being welcomed to their home? So, they built the fire higher, soaring high enough to be seen far out upon the blue. They would welcome in these newcomers, if only they could Keep their Fires Burning.

Further down the dreamtime, generations down the line. They saw the men on horseback. The old men and small children huddled with the women, trying to make the group less noticeable. But they had been noticed. They had been searched for, the timing was exactly right, when their men had gone to hunt, unaware of what was happening as they stalked upon their prey. But here within this clearing the prey was quite distinct, at odds with all the beauty, of nature while she rests. The glistening madness in the eyes of the men, as they circled the group, growling and hollering, waving guns and flashing steel of murderous blades, told the group that the pursuit for them was over. As quick as they could, but far too late, the group forced dirt upon their fire, snuffing it out. One last chance to hide their position. The fire died with a painful hiss, the smoke drifting from the slaughtered embers, but it really was all in vain. As the fire passed away uncared for, so too did its creators. Extinguished on the land they loved, beneath an aching sky that could only watch on, they fall motionless, eyes wide in horror, till the last glimpse of fire in their eyes and their hearts had been snuffed out.

Further down the Dreamtime, a generation down the line. She huddled with her children. Her eyes begging her little ones to stay hushed within the dark. Hidden, breathless. She used everything inside her heart to cover her children in safety and darkness, until hopefully the car would leave. It would be sometime yet, she knew. She heard them scuffling in the red dust. They were calling for her children to come out. They told them they could not stay. The policeman, she guessed, said bluntly "there would be trouble if they didn't come right now." She held her toddler tighter and moved her soft hand to gently embrace her baby's mouth, urging her, willing her not to cry. They sat there in the darkness. Where creatures and Dreamtime Spirits play. And in the darkness, they would remain, seeking safety and solace together, yet so desperately and frightfully alone. Because for them, sometime many, many years before, the fire had long gone out.

Further down the Dreamtime, a generation down the line. They crouch together silently, slinking quietly in the night. They dare not tempt the streetlights glare. Invisible, in the dark. Alone and yet together. A team, a crew, their home. Tonight, no giggles or teenage pranks. No mistakes and not one sound. Its all for one and one for all, unless something else went down. And then they'd hurtle everywhere, skilfully and deliberate, stealthy, slick and smooth. And no one would ever cage them, for they are the darkness, and they are one. In the daylight they are unseeable. They are powerless, unidentified, unnoticed. No birth certificate, no breakfast before school, hand me downs if lucky and people clutching belongings closer, eyes lowered when passing them on the street. No Elders, no mentors and no family, to embrace them when fears of rejection and suicide creep in. Their minds darkened with thoughts of domestic violence, booze and drugs, of traumas past down to them, along roads they, themselves had never travelled. They were keepers of the Dreamtimes' Trauma, its shame and its nothingness. So, now they crawl within the darkness, finding power in their team and discovering long-lost kinship, alive within their crew. Their prey, beneath the moonless night, a tiny set of keys. This quest would grant them power, the freedom that they craved and as a bonus the adrenaline would be pumping through their veins. When they accelerate along the sleepy streets, in stolen high-speed cars. Absolutely no one would deny them. They were seen and they were made. And, if you ever doubted, how fearless they had been, a record made on Snapchat would drive your qualms away. Obsessed to feel belonging, consumed to be alive, they stalk for community in the darkness and for power in the night. Because without the fire burning, our descendants found their culture, hidden deep inside the fortress, of a stranger's living room.

Now I beg of you one moment, as we tell of fires snuffed out, to think of how we got here, of how it came about. The trauma has travelled with us, a companion through the dark, it corrupted generations and it tore our tribes apart. This Dreamtime odyssey however, never meant to shift the blame, it's never meant to justify the fear created by youth crime. Instead, our Dreamtime tales are shared, from elders to their young, to tell them of what came before, so mistakes are not redone. Today I speak of fires, stamped out by history, of surviving in a darkness, that led to you and me. Our culture long avoided the dreamtime spirits in the gloom, for if you stare long enough into the abyss, the abyss stares back at you. The word incarceration, echoes through our times, but this has not yet obtained a reduction in youth crime. So, for now I ask you contemplate, on all the reasons why, our children might seek identity, or find solace in the dark, and it may lead us to another path, one that considers all that's lost, and it might provide an answer to snuffing out youth crime.

Throughout the Dreamtimes Generations our fire was both physical and a symbol of our tribe. A flame, bright, warm and useful, that fights against the darkness, and protect against the chill. And a symbol of renewal, of home and hope as well. The flame that burns intensely, bringing our loved one's home and welcoming traders to our shore. The burning blaze that signifies We Are Here and We Belong.

That fire is now long gone. The mesmerising, crackles and flames replaced by weatherboard and legalised missions. Where being Indigenous means being poor, unemployed, to be addicted, to be deidentified or even worse to be identified by our crimes or our lists of chronic diseases. To be identified by statistics that aim to close the gap but it's only just a spotlight on the increasing disparity. From not surviving through birth, to being born smaller, to not surviving school, to being locked up, or to buying smokes and booze, to dying ten years before every other Australian. The statistics are the burning, searing light that show us: the fire has long gone out. The statistics show we survived, but live now within the ashes, and that our culture is still tethered to a historical funeral pyre.

"Keep the fire burning" I whisper to my children. I no longer need a physical flame, to bring my people home. Keep the Fire burning. The embers of my ancestors, their joy, their love, their zest. Their knowledge and desires. Their fate and all their dreams. A cultural fire is burning, its raging deep within my soul. Its embers passed along the Dreamtime. From him to her, to them to us. It was gently cultivated by every cupped hand as it passed along. It's brightness, its glow, its warmth. I feel it deep inside. It screams and it hisses, telling me of my people from long ago. And then she's there. I picture my Nan within my mind. She smiles and looks around. Standing there beside her are our Dreamtime People who also, once held our flame.

Keep. Our. Fire. Burning. I speak louder to my children. Keep that fire burning so we will always know our home. You will see my fire burning, in any darkness that you face, you'll see my glow and feel my warmth, and no matter what Dreamtime Spirits follow you on your path, there will always be a way home, and you will never be alone.

The darkness for our people has taken many shapes and forms. Once physical with dangerous animals and strangers from distant shores. Now the threat, it is intangible. It's harder to define. It's an idea of who we are and whether we can thrive. It's the darkness that sits within us, the anxiety, depression and addiction dancing with thoughts of suicide, that delivers to our doorstep, our very own mental genocide. It's feeling less than others, because we didn't finish school, or when we've never seen a face quite like ours on tv, in politics or in power.

We start to believe we can't achieve our dreams, somewhere between year seven and year ten. Our kids drop out of education, because they're told it's just not cool. We believe we can't achieve, because has any of us really done so, when survival is all, we know. The darkness is the despair we accept as part of our identity and our brand.

So, I say to all First Nations People, let's Keep the Fire Burning. Light it high as you can go. Build a pyre that is worthy of a raging bushfire all aglow. Be the one and be the mentor. Be the one who lights the way. Stand up, stand tall, be counted. And be Blak, be loud, be proud. Show me all your doctors. Show me lawyers, chefs and stars, teachers, scientists and artists, journalists, fashion designers and authors. Show me electricians, plumbers and builders, mechanics and musicians, and let me see your farmers, and those who pave the way. Stand up and show your flame. And surely if we are bright enough, our darkness will be kept at bay. Let's show our children a different life, one that illustrates our culture. Our resilience, our determination, our courage. Show we can stand with the best of them, and it will show our children the way.

So, keep your fire burning. No matter what you do, stand up and raise your hand. Be a mentor, be a guide, be the first nation's face in the crowd that shows our children that our future is warm and safe. And as they find their way home on a path lit up by Indigenous fires, they will cup their little hands and know they can accept the ember of hope, self-worth, belief and cultural courage that they can fan with their very own breath, their own hopes and all their dreams. And as we move through dreamtime generations onwards from today, our children won't live in darkness, for inside the fire is growing strong and glowing bright, a safe place for our children's children to always know where they call home.

KEEP THOSE FIRES BURNING, for those who came before. But most importantly to inspire and build our children's future. Let this year's Naidoc be the spark. We must reignite our fires, to guide our children from the dark. Now is the time to raze it all to the ground, the old land, and as we watch, the seeds will all burst open, the new growth will spring forth, and we will then regenerate what it means to be First Nations. We are a kind, creative, intelligent, brave, resilient culture. We thrive in family and community. We respect and learn from Elders. So today is the day to ignite our culture, it's time to take the lead. It's time to give our children mentors, because they are desperately showing us, they are in need. Let's showcase the first nations faces in the crowd that our children can identify with and aim to be. Because if we don't stand up and nurture our own culture, and inspire our own children, then tell me: who else will?

It's our time and it's our responsibility: To ignite our culture's future, and then Keep those Fires Burning.

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