Why 'welcome to country' is more than formality

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Aboriginal MapConservative politicians periodially question the practice of beginning public gatherings by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land. The most recent expressions of these opinions met with condemnation that was pretty general, but far from strong enough. An acknowledgment of the traditional owners and ownership of an area where we have the privilege of residing or visiting costs us nothing but strengthens our integrity.

The arguments of these conservative politicians suggest a flippancy bordering on hypocrisy. Supposed yearnings for a similar acknowledgement of a Christian God are hardly to be taken seriously.

They use the same reductio ad absurdum tactic when seeking to decry any form of affirmative action. They generally reject the notion that social disadvantage of any group is attributable to denial of opportunity through discrimination, preferring the view that the poor and marginalised really are inferior.

For several reasons, specific religious recognition at public meetings cannot have the same importance as an acknowledgement of country. First, not all Australians claim allegiance to a Christian deity. Indeed, the analogy is relevant only because Australia's Indigenous peoples have a genuinely spiritual association with the land. By recognising this link, all Australians can all be united in a non-denominational spirituality that fosters our spirits.

Second, justice demands that we make this acknowledgement. Over the last fifty years, dating from at least the 1967 referenda that removed discriminatory mentions of Indigenous people from the Constitution, we have struggled to find appropriate ways of acknowledging the forced alienation of the land. Judicial decisions, legislative responses and administrative programs have been mostly sincere, but clearly imperfect, attempts to redress the wrongs inflicted on the Indigenous peoples. Despite the conservative suspicion of symbolic actions such as treaties and apologies, these are far from being mere tokens. Symbolic actions have the advantage of avoiding legalistic impediments and they express a genuine aspiration for a fairer Australia.

Third, Indigenous stewardship of the land sets an important example for environmental sustainability. Although Europeans have occupied Australia for some 230 years, Aboriginal occupancy stretches back 40,000 years. As a nation, we have much to learn from the special relationship between the people and the land, provided we care to listen. For most Australians, hearing an acknowledgement of country might be one of the few times we are prompted to think about Aboriginal issues. Indigenous people are under-represented in parliament and the media and in socio-economic elites. It is all too easy for those with reactionary views to present them as ‘other', and even as a pampered minority favoured by political correctness.

Most baby-boomers remember standing for the English national anthem at the cinema. As a consequence of national maturity, Australia has abandoned that practice. It is also a sign of maturity that we value the reconciliation process. When Indigenous peoples travelled through the lands of neighbours, they understood that it was customary to acknowledge the people of those lands. When we show that we are learning from the traditional custodians of our land, it is important evidence that Australian society has a commitment to becoming more civilised. We should proudly maintain acknowledgement of country as a simple expression of a desire to live with integrity in this physically and socially unique land.


Tony SmithTony Smith holds a PhD in political science. He has taught at several universities, most recently at the University of Sydney.

 

Topic tags: toyn smith, welcome to country, acknowledgement of country, indigenous, tony abbott

 

 

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Existing comments

The statement 'Australia's Indigenous peoples have a genuinely spiritual association with the land' is a racist one. It attributes a fixed cultural attitude on the basis of race.
Barry the Red | 31 March 2010


Agree wholly with your main points - however, the notion of 'non-denominational' anything is vapid theological nonsense, let alone 'spirituality'!

Personally, I find 'welcome to country' words quite moving, a sign of God's grace embracing the land and those who maintained a divine trust in the precious heritage it affords all creatures. And now embracing people like me, of immigrant anglo-celtic stock.

The true and living God does not need to be named to be present and active!
Charles Sherlock | 31 March 2010


I am a supporter of the Acknowledgement, but it easily becomes tokenistic through repetition e.g. every Sunday liturgy. Worse, when at a public event, three out of four speakers make an acknowledgement with varying degrees of sophistication - almost a competition. I'm not suggesting uniformity, but that organizers decide who should make the acknowledgement, and make it well.
Robert Gribben | 31 March 2010


By the way, I strongly support "welcome to country" ceremonies, but for the different (and soundly conservative) reason that rituals like these help to restore and uphold the authority and standing of traditional elders within their local communities. And it is the elders - not the whitefellas - who are best placed to help Indigenous young people turn aside from their self-destructive habits.

This is a substantially different reason from viewing Aboriginal and TS Islander Australians as Na'vi who are born equipped with a biological USB port that can plug into the native landscape.
Rod Blaine | 31 March 2010


By the way, I strongly support "welcome to country" ceremonies, but for the different (and soundly conservative) reason that rituals like these help to restore and uphold the authority and standing of traditional elders within their local communities. And it is the elders - not the whitefellas - who are best placed to help Indigenous young people turn aside from their self-destructive habits.

This is a substantially different reason from viewing Aboriginal and TS Islander Australians as Na'vi who are born equipped with a biological USB port that can plug into the native landscape.
Rod Blaine | 31 March 2010


Thank you. I burn with anger every time a Tuckey clone voices opinions on this topic. As an Australian of Celtic/British [Norman/Saxon?] heritage, I can't get used to the attitude of other 'white' people to Aboriginal people. But then, I had the advantage of growing up in Canberra, learning from my multi-cultural church and school experiences. Plus 23 years of PNG life.

I remember horrifying workmates at a seminar in DSS in 1996 when our mentor said he wouldn't live in Canberra because he couldn't 'own' the land for his home, but in Queanbeyan he could. I questioned how one can 'own' land. They were ready to send me to the mental ward, I think, when I said that the land owns us. But isn't that what our first settlers have arrived at over a period of >40,000 years?

Keep up the good work!
jaymz | 31 March 2010


Interesting article but I find that acknowledgment to country somewhat mystifying. I have worked for 17 years in the Indigenous culture and have a son who has a small degree of indigenous blood. I find that over this amount of time acknowledgement to country has totally divided our strong Australian nation and despite where we are Aboriginal or non-Aboriginal we should be all under one flag. United we are one, divided our strength disappears. I have a great degree of knowledge in this area and I would like to see this practice disappearing.
Name withheld by request | 31 March 2010


At Lumen Christi Catholic College, Pambula Beach, NSW, I introduced the custom of having an Acknowledgement of Country as part of the welcome and introductions to begin each liturgy, whether it be a Eucharist or a Prayer liturgy. We have also, on other occasions, had an Acknowlegement, such as when we take a class on Retreat.

Since we have a number of indigenous students, it is not only right that we do that, but it is, as Tony says, "an acknowledgment of the traditional owners and ownership of an area where we have the privilege of residing or visiting [that]costs us nothing but strengthens our integrity."

But I do disagree with some of his other comments about religion in the public sphere. Acknowledgement of Country, or Welcome to Country, if there is a member of the clan present, is also a challenge to all present that the spiritual dimension of life cannot be just hived off in exchange for a Clayton's ceremony hoping to unite us "in a non-denominational spirituality that fosters our spirits" nor can it be added,for reasons of political correctness.
Fr Mick Mac Andrew Bombala-Delegate NSW | 31 March 2010


"Third, Indigenous stewardship of the land sets an important example for environmental sustainability."

How so?

I have absolutely no problem with the way the aboriginal inhabitants of this great land went about their ways of living. But I'll bet it had nothing to do with that post-capitalist, inner- suburb, chardonnay-clinking idea known as "sustainability". I mean, did the First Inhabitants sit around their fires at night angsting as to whether or not their pattern of, eg. kangaroo-hunting, was "sustainable"? Pull the other one. Exhibit A: the megafauna.

I have the utmost respect for the original inhabitants of this land and their relationship to it. But let's be honest - as they would be. The eminent naturalist Harry Butler - who was so respected he was inducted into the tribe around Broken Hill - put it well recently: the aborigines, he said, were the best naturalists, but the worst conservationists.
Hugh | 05 April 2010


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