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. Where an elder is not available to perform the welcome, a simpler acknowledgement of country may be offered instead.
Fees for delivering a welcome to country vary. In Sydney, the Metropolitan Local Aboriginal Land Council charges between $400 and $600 for the service. Activist Matilda Williams House was paid $10,500 to perform a welcome at the opening of the 44th Parliament in 2013.
The first 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.
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.
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.
Although welcomes to country have become commonplace across the country, they have attracted criticism from politicians, historians and commentators including Bess Price, Tony Abbott, Keith Windschuttle and Andrew Bolt. Critics consider such ceremonies to be a form of tokenism, and note that they do not reflect any element of traditional Aboriginal culture. Price, a Warlpiri woman and former parliamentarian, characterises welcomes as "not particularly meaningful to traditional people." Windschuttle calls them "an invented tradition" and Roberts considers them "part and parcel of being PC."
In Aboriginal culture
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. For this reason, traditional Aboriginal culture was highly territorial: visitors risked violent reprisal for crossing a tribal or clan boundary without permission. Although there is no record of a welcome to country ceremony having existed in any traditional Aboriginal society, each group had mandatory protocols for seeking and granting permission to enter land.
Acknowledgement of Country
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:
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.
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