Have you heard people paying their respects to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders as the Traditional Custodians and Owners of the land before a meeting or event? Proud young Wurundjeri and Ngurai Illum Wurrung woman Georgia Mae explains what this is, why it’s important, and how to nail it.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture is one rooted in deep respect—respect for each other, for Lore and for land. Lore is a big part of our culture and could be compared to western law. Lore drives everything we do, it sets boundaries and determines acceptable and unacceptable behaviour, and guides the majority of our morals and values.
Traditionally, if mobs ever had to cross on to neighbouring lands, they would first seek permission. If granted, a ceremony would take place to grant the travellers safe passage while on their land. This ceremony was also when the Lores of the land would be explained as well as the consequences for breaking them.
Today, this practice has evolved into what we know as a Welcome to Country. The practice of acknowledging Country has also developed as our traditions have adapted to modern times.
Acknowledgement or Welcome: What’s the difference?
There’s sometimes confusion as to what the difference between a Welcome and an Acknowledgement is and when it’s appropriate to do them. The key difference is who performs each one.
An Acknowledgement of Country can be said by anyone, Indigenous or non-Indigenous.
This is because it’s about respecting the Traditional Custodians, their Country and their history. When you acknowledge Country you also acknowledge the Elders of that mob and their Lore, promising to respect them and their land while you’re on it.
A Welcome to Country can only be given by a Traditional Custodian of the land you are on.
It signifies the Traditional Custodians inviting you onto their land and granting you safe passage. A Welcome is typically given by an Elder or leader from the Traditional Custodians whose land you are on, however, with permission, other members can give a welcome on their behalf. It’s also sometimes accompanied by a Smoking Ceremony, to cleanse the energy of those being welcomed.
Know the Country you’re on | Source: AIATSIS map of Indigenous Australia
When and how has acknowledging Country evolved?
Welcomes have been occurring in various forms for as long as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture has been around. It’s a bit harder to know with acknowledgments as we don’t have an exact date for when they began, but it did become more common around the time of the Mabo case, due to the acknowledgment of land rights and native title.
The Mabo case inspired many organisations, councils and services to begin raising the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flags alongside the Australian flag as well as researching whose country they were actually situated on.
In 2010, the Federal Parliament made it official protocol for the beginning of every session to have an Acknowledgment of Country to accompany the Lord’s Prayer, which many smaller government and local councils have since followed.
Today, it’s more common than not to see someone give an Acknowledgement of Country at the beginning of formal events and meetings, and even in some informal situations such as local sports matches.
Richmond will recognise and pay its respects to the traditional owners of the land it plays on, with a Welcome to Country video to be played before all of the team’s home games at the @MCG – https://t.co/R7DVoUYOuE pic.twitter.com/wPH4HaqAGe
— Richmond FC ???? (@Richmond_FC) March 20, 2018
Why is it important?
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders continue to experience exclusion, discrimination and oppression, and have since the invasion of this country. Acknowledging Country is a good step towards reconciliation between the colony of Australia (non-Indigenous people) and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
By researching and writing an Acknowledgment as a non-Indigenous Australian, you’re teaching yourself more about the true history of the Country you are on. By actively giving an acknowledgment you’re acknowledging that the land always will be that of the Traditional Custodians. You are acknowledging that invasion and colonisation has occurred, and that in spite of that, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people continue to survive and thrive.
By acknowledging the Land and its Custodians, you’re acknowledging our sovereignty and our history.
Some tips for nailing your next Acknowledgement
Know when to do it
An Acknowledgment of Country should occur before any general meeting or event such as a work meeting, school assembly or music gig. In cases where it’s a major event, forum or function, or if the event has an impact on the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community specifically, then a welcome should also be included alongside an acknowledgment from each speaker.
Know the Country you’re on
Make sure you’ve done the correct research about whose land you are on. Check out this map of Indigenous Australia. If you don’t know, continue to try to find out, and in the meantime just say ‘Traditional Custodians’ or ‘Traditional Owners’.
Here’s a script to start you off:
“I would like to begin by acknowledging and paying my respects to the [insert cultural/language group name] people, the Traditional Custodians of the land on which we are gathered today.
I would like to pay my respects to their Elders, past, present and emerging, and acknowledge all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders here today, also paying my respects to your Elders, past, present and emerging.”
Giving an Acknowledgment of Country at your workplace, school, organisation or performance doesn’t truly mean much unless you’re actively assisting and fighting for the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. If you aren’t doing the work to help Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, an Acknowledgment of Country is simply empty words.
Acknowledging Country can become tokenistic very quickly if their meaning and purpose isn’t understood and respected. They aren’t simple words to be read and ignored, it’s an important custom of our people in this modern day and a symbol of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples ongoing Culture, community, and contributions.