Welcome to country

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Wiradjuri elder, Aunty Isobel Reid, giving the welcome to country.

A welcome to country is a ritual performed at many events held in Australia, intended to highlight the cultural significance of the surrounding area to a particular Aboriginal clan or language group. The welcome must be performed by a recognised elder of the group. Welcomes to country are sometimes accompanied by traditional smoking ceremonies, music or dance.

Some jurisdictions, such as New South Wales, make a welcome (or, failing that, acknowledgement) mandatory at all government-run events, although such rules have proved controversial.[1] Where an elder is not available to perform the welcome, a simpler acknowledgement of country may be offered instead.

History[edit]

The 1973 Aquarius Festival held in Nimbin, New South Wales by the Australian Union of Students (AUS) has been documented as Australia's first welcome to country although it was not called this at the time. Organisers of the alternative lifestyle festival, considered Australia's 'Woodstock', were challenged by Indigenous activist Gary Foley to seek permission from traditional owners to hold the festival on their land. Kalahari bushmen, including artist Bauxhau Stone, were sent out by AUS students to invite Aboriginal people to the festival and funding from Gough Whitlam paid for many busloads to travel to the festival. An estimated 200 to 800 Indigenous Australians attended the two week festival marking a significant kindling of relationships with Australia's counterculture. A ceremony was conducted by Uncle Lyle Roberts. one of the last initiated men, and Songman Uncle Dicke Donnelly.[2]

The second recorded welcome to country occurred in 1976, when entertainers Ernie Dingo and Richard Walley developed a ceremony to welcome a group of Māori artists who were participating in the Perth International Arts Festival. The welcome, extended on behalf of the Noongar people, was intended to mirror the visitors' own traditions, while incorporating elements of Aboriginal culture.[3]Walley recalled:[4] Māori performers were uncomfortable performing their cultural act without having been acknowledged or welcomed by the people of tand.

I asked the good spirits of my ancestors and the good spirits of the ancestors of the land to watch over us and keep our guests safe while they’re in our Country. And then I talked to the spirits of their ancestors, saying that we’re looking after them here and we will send them back to their Country.

Arts administrator Rhoda Roberts says that the Aboriginal National Theatre Trust was instrumental in developing the welcome to country during the 1980s.[5]

Since 2008, a welcome to country has been incorporated into the ceremonial opening of the Parliament of Australia, an event which occurs after each federal election. The welcome includes a speech as well as traditional music and dance. Given that Parliament sits in Canberra, traditionally part of Ngambri country, a Ngambri elder officiates.[6]

In Aboriginal culture[edit]

Prior to European settlement, each clan's survival was dependent upon its understanding of food, water and other resources within its own "country" – a discrete area of land to which it had more or less exclusive claim.[7]

Acknowledgement of country[edit]

If a local elder is not available, the host of an event can offer an acknowledgement of country in place of a welcome (though the two terms are sometimes used interchangeably). The following form of words, published by the Victorian Government, is typical:[8]

I acknowledge the Traditional Owners of the land [or country] on which we are meeting. I pay my respects to their Elders, past and present, and the Elders from other communities who may be here today.

Similar acknowledgements have become common at public events in Canada and have begun to be adopted by Native American groups in the United States.[9][10][11]

Controversy[edit]

Although welcomes to country have become commonplace across the country, they have attracted criticism from politicians, historians and commentators including Bess Price, Keith Windschuttle, Andrew Bolt and Bill Hassell. Critics consider such ceremonies to be a form of tokenism, and claim that they do not reflect any element of traditional Aboriginal culture. Then leader of the Federal Opposition, Tony Abbott called it "a genuflection to political correctness" and that it "lacks heart".[12] Price, a Warlpiri woman and former parliamentarian, characterises welcomes as "not particularly meaningful to traditional people". Windschuttle calls them "an invented tradition". Hassell says that "Although I loathe and detest welcomes to the country, I sit through them patiently when we have these ceremonies".[13]

The Victorian government overturned the previous government's observance protocols in 2011,[14] and a municipal Council in NSW ceased mandating it in 2017.[15] Critics also consider them "part and parcel of being politically correct".[5][16][17]

References[edit]

  1. ^ "C2004-39 Recognising Aboriginal Cultural Protocols and Practices". NSW Department of Premier and Cabinet. 1 November 2004. Retrieved 2 August 2018.
  2. ^ Scantlebury, Alethea (13 October 2014). "Black Fellas and Rainbow Fellas: Convergence of Cultures at the Aquarius Arts and Lifestyle Festival, Nimbin, 1973". M/C Journal. 17 (6). Retrieved 3 June 2020.
  3. ^ Westwood, Matthew (15 February 2016). "Perth International Arts Festival gives welcome to west country". The Australian. Retrieved 2 August 2018.
  4. ^ Penberthy, Natsumi (3 March 2016). "40 years of the 'modern' Welcome to Country". Australian Geographic. Retrieved 2 August 2018.
  5. ^ a b Taylor, Andrew (15 October 2012). "Welcome to country ceremony 'lacks heart'". The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 16 March 2013.
  6. ^ "A historic first: traditional Indigenous welcome begins Parliament". Australian Broadcasting Corporation. 12 February 2008. Retrieved 2 August 2018.
  7. ^ Flood, Josephine (2006). The original Australians: story of the Aboriginal people. Allen and Unwin. p. 194.
  8. ^ "Welcome to Country and Acknowledgement of Traditional Owners". Victorian Government. Retrieved 20 April 2020.
  9. ^ Shazad, Ramna (15 July 2017). "What is the significance of acknowledging the Indigenous land we stand on?". CBC News. Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Retrieved 14 January 2018.
  10. ^ Marche, Stephen (7 September 2017). "Canada's Impossible Acknowledgement". The New Yorker. Retrieved 14 January 2018.
  11. ^ Evans, Hannah Graf (15 October 2015). "We Begin with Acknowledgement". Friends Committee on National Legislation. Retrieved 14 January 2018.
  12. ^ Taylor, Andrew (14 October 2012). "Welcome to country ceremony 'lacks heart'". The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 31 December 2019.
  13. ^ Dickinson, Ben (16 November 2019). "Hassell blames militants for 'Invasion Day'" (PDF). Post Newspapers. Retrieved 7 December 2019.
  14. ^ Doman, Mark (29 June 2011). "Victoria dumps nod to traditional owners". Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Retrieved 2 August 2018.
  15. ^ "Welcome to country rejected again". www.dailytelegraph.com.au. 24 May 2017. Retrieved 31 December 2019.
  16. ^ Maiden, Samantha (15 March 2010). "Tony Abbott reopens culture wars over nods to Aborigines". The Australian. Retrieved 16 March 2013.
  17. ^ Windschuttle, Keith (1 December 2012), "Welcomes to country are being foisted on us in error", The Australian, retrieved 26 October 2018