Acknowledgment of Country: Tokenistic or Meaningful?

By Ilona Nicola
IMAGE VIA HAYDYN BRAMLEY ON FLICKR: www.flickr.com/people/bookabee_tours_australia/

This article is part of our June theme, which focuses on Indigenous People and their human rights. Read our Editorial for more on this theme.

On 26 May 1997 the Report of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from their Families (Bringing Them Home) was tabled in the Australian federal parliament. The Bringing Them Home report traces the history of forcible removal of Indigenous children from their families, since the very first days of the European occupation of Australia, up until the 1970s and 1980s. The report details the separation of families and communities; the loss of connection to traditional land, culture and language; and the spiritual, emotional and physical suffering resulting from forcible removal. The report explains that the impacts of forcible removal are trans-generational and continue to affect Indigenous families and communities today.

The Bringing Them Home report concluded that forcible removal breached both the common law and the human rights of Indigenous families and children. The report made a number of recommendations, determining that Australian Governments have a responsibility to appropriately compensate those affected. Recommendation 5a attests “that all Australian Parliaments officially acknowledge the responsibility of their predecessors for the laws, policies and practices of forcible removal.”

This report marked a critical turning point, and since being tabled, a number of positive steps have been taken by governments and individuals towards a more inclusive vision of Australia.

The first Sorry Day was held in Sydney in 1998, providing an opportunity for non-Indigenous Australians to express their support and empathy for the Stolen Generations, and recognise the injustices experienced by those removed, their families and communities. Today, there is a National Sorry Day, with thousands of people across Australia remembering the Stolen Generations.

Then, on 13 February 2008 during the second sitting day of the 42nd Parliament of Australia, former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and the Australian Parliament issued a formal apology to Indigenous Australians in general and to the surviving members of the Stolen Generations, their families and relatives. The formal apology was watched by hundreds of parliamentarians, former prime ministers and representatives of the Indigenous community.

Former Prime Minister Paul Keating, who in 1992 delivered the infamous Redfern Address, and who also commissioned the Bringing Them Home report, spoke positively about the formal apology to Indigenous Australians. “It was a day of open hearts…There can be no justification for the fact that children were taken – no matter in what lofty circles the policy may have originated.”

“[The apology] is another chapter, an unfolding chapter in our history but a chapter of honesty for the Prime Minister and the Government today to turn that leaf over and to say sorry and let us begin fresh.”

Keating further emphasised the gravity of saying sorry by adding that “the generosity of spirit and kindliness of heart is immeasurable.”

The co-chair of the Stolen Generation Alliance, Christine King, said Rudd’s apology marks an important positive step towards healing for Indigenous people. “This apology is the beginning of our healing process. It’s wonderful. It really is wonderful and it shows great statesmanship on the part of our Prime Minister and leadership of this government that I have not seen in this country before.”

King further remarked, “Sorry is the most important word because it has great meaning in our community. It means having empathy and compassion and understanding. Older people thought they would never live to see this day so it’s very emotional for me and it’s very important.”

The Australian Government’s landmark speech, which built upon previous actions by governments to “officially acknowledge the responsibility of their predecessors for the laws, policies and practices of forcible removal”, provided Indigenous and non-Indigenous people alike with the opportunity to concede the wrongs of the past, and move forward as one into the future.

Despite progress in the understanding and respect between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, the unique contribution of Indigenous Australians to our national life is not always consistently reflected.

Despite progress in the understanding and respect between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, the unique contribution of Indigenous Australians to our national life is not always consistently reflected.

Mid-last year, a week prior to National Sorry Day, the Victorian Government decided to depart from the Indigenous protocol of Acknowledgement of Country instated by the preceding governments. At the time, the Victorian Government stated that the decision to pay respects to traditional owners of the land at public events should be at the discretion of individual government ministers, to prevent the gesture becoming tokenistic.

Indigenous Protocols for Recognising Traditional Owners

Given their difficult history, Indigenous people often feel invisible in their own land. Symbols of recognition, such as acknowledgement of country, affirm for Indigenous people that their culture is recognised and valued by the wider community.

The Protocols for Recognising Traditional Owners, which include the Welcome to Country Ceremony and Acknowledgement of Country, provide an opportunity for genuine recognition of the truth of Australia’s history, to show respect for Indigenous culture and heritage, and to recognise their status as first Australians.

Welcoming to country and paying respect to custodians have been practised as lore for over 40,000 years, reflecting their relation with the land and their welcoming of visitors. This practice was disrupted with the advent of European law 240 years ago. Through the reconciliation movement of the late nineties, this practice was reinstated, and it became widely used by non-Indigenous people.

Welcome to Country ceremony acknowledges the traditional custodians of the land and shows respect for Aboriginal people as Australia’s First Peoples. A Welcome to Country is conducted by the traditional Aboriginal custodian or Elder, and this may be done through a speech, song, or ceremony. Acknowledgement of Country is a demonstration of respect dedicated to the traditional custodians of the land or sea where the gathering of participants is being conducted. It can be performed by any individual, Indigenous or non-Indigenous, participating in an occasion of any kind.

Conducting a Welcome to Country and/or Acknowledgement of Country is a fundamental first step in developing a positive and meaningful relationship with the Indigenous community. It demonstrates respect for Indigenous people and acknowledges the spiritual, physical and cultural connection their ancestors have with their “country” as the first people of the land.

The move by the Victorian Government to depart from the Indigenous protocol of Acknowledgement of Country is perplexing, as the protocol has never been mandated. The protocol simply encourages the practice of paying respect to custodians at formal events, forums and functions such as Government and Local Government meetings, conferences, school assemblies, concerts, board meetings, and official openings. So was this move even necessary?

Wurundjeri Elder Aunty Joy Murphy viewed the move as a backward step for reconciliation. She remarked that “[government are] there to represent community and be inclusive of community.”

“We are all here present on country, but our people have been on this county for thousands of years and [at] the very least that has to be respected.” She further emphasised that “appropriate acknowledgement is the way to do that.”

In the Commemorating the 10th anniversary of the Bringing Them Home report (Us Taken-Away Kids), Tom Calma, former Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, stated “while there have been positive developments and initiatives, many opportunities for governments to work with our communities and advance the goal of national reconciliation have been lost.”

The recognition of traditional owners, at a most pared-back level, moves the non-Indigenous observer to consider their colonial heritage and the legislation and events which have shaped the lives of Indigenous people since colonisation.

The recognition of traditional owners, at a most pared-back level, moves the non-Indigenous observer to consider their colonial heritage and the legislation and events which have shaped the lives of Indigenous people since colonisation.

This recognition is pertinent to increasing the understanding and mutual respect for cultural practices by both Indigenous Australians and the wider community. By valuing and respecting appropriate Indigenous ceremonies, there is an opportunity to contest entrenched disadvantage and dispossession, and provide an opportunity for belonging.

The responsibility to increase our understanding of why acknowledgement is important to Aboriginal people rests with every person. Greater awareness can be achieved through active participation in Indigenous campaigns and events such as National Sorry Day, cultural awareness training, and by listening to and building relationships with Indigenous people.

The Acknowledgement of Country remains a practice that every person may continue thoughtfully and respectfully. In spite of the government’s actions, every Victorian should explore how Indigenous protocols are meaningful for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. That way, we can all work towards a more culturally sensitive and inclusive community.

Ilona Nicola is a freelance writer with a passion for Indigenous affairs.

 

Latest

  • Pingback: Acknowledgment of Country: Tokenistic or Meaningful? | Human Rights in Australia... | Rights and Freedoms | Scoop.it()

  • Hanne M Watkins

    I have sometimes heard “welcome to country”s that have seemed a bit “empty” (for want of a better word), but today I heard some great one’s at the Walk Together event in Melbourne. When it’s done genuinely, it can feel quite meaningful!

  • Brett Mitchell

    Welcome to Country should be renamed White Guilt Prayer. It is clown world nonsense. I laugh every time I see it.

    Aboriginals should acknowledge that (AngloCeltic) America, Australia, New Zealand and of course United Kingdom saved them from Japanese invasion in the 1940s that would have resulted in their complete extermination.