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Mar 19, 2010

What's with Welcome to Country?

Aboriginal people have for thousands of years formally welcomed people onto their country. When other Aboriginal nations visited to trade, it was accompanied by welcoming ceremonies, explains Chris Graham.



Forget the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the floods in Queensland and Northern NSW, the problems with our health system, the Northern Territory intervention, and global warming. A much bigger problem has emerged: some Aboriginal people have apparently been welcoming other people onto their country.

And it doesn’t stop there. Apparently, some politicians have been reciprocating by acknowledging Traditional Owners.

I’m not saying we MUST go to war over this people, but we might like to give it some thought. Piers Akerman certainly didn’t, in a column in yesterday’s Daily Telegraph:

“It has now been revealed that the concept of the welcome-to-country ceremony was made up in Perth by entertainers Ernie Dingo and Richard Walley in 1976, after pressure from visiting Pacific Islander dancers who refused to perform at a festival unless they were welcomed with a ceremony, as was traditional in their own region,” Akerman opined.

“Dingo and Walley came up with something acceptable to their Islander guests, The Australian reported yesterday.”

Dingo and Walley (which I’ll admit sounds suspiciously like the start of an Australian joke about two guys who walk into a pub), may well have come up with a modern dance or ceremony to perform for Pacific Islanders, but the question should be, ‘So what?’ Is Akerman suggesting that Aboriginal culture should not evolve? I was part of a large group that visited Central Australia last month. Some elders from the APY Lands created a special dance specifically to welcome us. Should they have phoned Piers first to check it was OK?

Apparently, if a dance or ceremony has been ‘invented’ after the arrival of the white man, it’s not Aboriginal enough for Akerman. Maybe he prefers his Aborigines in a lap-lap standing on one leg with a spear, like they did in the good old days? On that front, he’d be in agreement with most Aboriginal people, who would return to those times in a heartbeat.

Piers even got upset at the spread of the didgeridoo.

“Welcoming ceremonies, like the didgeridoo, which was originally a bamboo instrument played by groups around the Adelaide River area where the giant grass grew, have migrated across Australia in the past 50 years. The didj didn’t even reach the Pilbara until the late 1960s or early 1970s, when the people at Jigalong were taught it by a fellow who played an Arnhem Land repertoire he learnt in the Kimberley.

“As tourists know to their cost, it is now heard in shopping malls around the nation, even in Tasmania where it is as traditional as the dodo.”

Right. So according to Piers, anything after, say, the 1970s has no tradition. I suspect that’s going to upset the grandchildren of Anzacs, who will now presumably no longer be allowed to march at the back of parades wearing their ancestors’ medals, given it’s a recent innovation.

Or is Piers only insisting that Aboriginal culture not evolve and develop? It’s pretty perplexing logic. But fortunately, we don’t have to dwell on it too long, because Akerman happens to be wrong. Best to let him down gently here… Piers, not everything you read in The Australian newspaper is true.

The Maccassans, from Indonesia, were routinely welcomed by Aboriginal people in the north of Australia, when they arrived to trade. This occurred hundreds of years ago. The event was often preceded by ceremony (dance) and gifts.

Aboriginal people have for thousands of years formally welcomed people onto their country. When other Aboriginal nations visited to trade, it was accompanied by welcoming ceremonies. There’s nothing new in Indigenous culture on this front — the Maori, for example, call you onto their Marae in a formal ceremony.

It also happens informally, and has for thousands of years. Aboriginal people have always wanted to know where you come from (where’s your country) and after you tell them they welcome you to theirs. Indeed, I was in Armidale at a meeting this week when the informal practice occurred. Shortly thereafter, I had a chat with an Aboriginal man who was chuckling at the fact he’d recently attended a function with Tony Abbott, and performed the ‘Welcome to Country’.

Abbott reciprocated by personally thanking him for the warm greeting. Must have been one of those “appropriate occasions” Abbott mentioned earlier in the week.

A welcome to country — and the reciprocal “Acknowledgement of traditional owners” are nice, pleasant, polite generous traditions. I’m wondering what sort of person opposes it, and why.

Bev Manton — the chair of the NSW Aboriginal Land Council and one of my current employers — responded to the debate by pointing out that the majority of the Elders who perform these acknowledgements are people who’ve been most affected by past Government policies.

“They’re the Aboriginal people who were removed, or had their children removed; the Aboriginal people who were forced off their land and onto missions and reserves, away from their extended families; the Aboriginal people who were prohibited from practicing their cultural ceremonies and speaking their languages,” said Manton.

“Yet after all that’s happened to them, our Elders are still prepared to stand up in public and say ‘Welcome’. They’re showing a generosity of spirit from which people like Tony Abbott could learn a great deal.”

Manton also pointed out that from an Aboriginal perspective, a Welcome to Country is a way of healing the past.

“They’re trying to put a stop to generational trauma, so that their kids and their grandkids are not left to carry the baggage of past atrocities,” she said. “It’s about letting go of the anger and hurt that they have held for so many years. It’s seen by Aboriginal people as a way of forgiving the past, of moving forward together, black and white. It’s also about healing, getting on with their lives and not being caught up in this terrible past that was forced on them.”

“It’s about forgiveness, and moving forward together – black and white. It’s an act of generosity. Now what sort of person would oppose that?”

Chris Graham is the Editor-at-Large of the National Indigenous Times and currently media director at the NSW Aboriginal Land Council.


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14 thoughts on “What’s with Welcome to Country?

  1. Jim Reiher

    Terrific article. Thanks Chris.

  2. Daniel

    I might be wrong, but is there any evidence that Piers Akerman knows anything at all about anything or anyone? How does he still have a job? Why isn’t he begging for cash on a street corner somewhere?

  3. Daniel

    I’m not even being mean of spiteful. I honestly want somebody to link me to where Piers Akerman shows insight and knowledge about a topic. It doesn’t even have to be politics. He might have written a very good piece about how to cook a really nice steak or something.

    I call this the Piers Challenge. And it will last from now until the heat death of the universe, or until Piers Akerman knows something, whichever comes first.

  4. John Bennetts

    Do I detect a one-eyed apologist?

    The “Welcome to Country” nonsense is unnecessary baggage, pure and simple. I wince every time I am forced to witness this charade.

  5. Stevo the Working Twistie

    Hopefully you won’t have to put up with it any more John. Something tells me you are no longer welcome.

  6. Chris Graham

    Anytime you’re ready to head back to the Mother Country John, just sing out. I reckon it would take me about three seconds to raise enough cash to fly you first class.

  7. Roberto Tedesco

    The lovely caring thoughts of the sleazy right were laid bare by Wilson Tuckey this week – he wants to go back to a pre 1967 situation. No “baggage” there at all, oh no.

  8. John Bennetts

    Sorry, Chris. I was born Australian. It made me laugh some years back when I met a young lady with Pommy/Aus father and Aboriginal/Aus mother (these are all separate countries, aren’t they, with different citizenships, laws and rights?) saying that she carried two passports. Kinda backing three horses in a one horse race?

    I am one of those Australians who waits hopefully for some kind of true equality for all Australians. By all means, support social programs for the needy, right the wrongs where property or other theft has occurred, but why the black flag view of Australia? Isn’t an unhealthy or underpriveleged Aussie of vietnamese cultural background, or Latvian, Greek, Indian, etc etc entitled as a human being to the same level of social services as those who claim aboriginal antecedents? It is devisive, somewhat irrational, especially in a city or town context and stands in the way of real social progress.

    I have written in these pages before how much I detest the Howard/Rudd Government’s response to the “Little Children are Scared” report. I also am concerned that a class of children (private school attendees) have apparent rights to claim free public transport daily for as far as they wish, simply because they want to go to a faraway school, or that these schools appear to me to be somewhat more generously funded than those of the public systems. In my own town the Catholic school’s windfall from Krudd has about 3 times as great as the local high school with more than twice the enrolment. That isn’t fair either, or in the interests of social progress.

    Some part of the above has become linked to my desire for an Australian Bill of Rights.

    Mate, I do not share your supremely racist view of aboriginality. I am Australian. Come and join me in this, our country, and please do bring your friends.

  9. Gavin Moodie

    No formal or semi formal function I’ve attended in Aotearoa New Zealand has started without an acknowledgement of the traditional owners, in Maori, often of 5 to 10 sentences. Likewise at conferences every speaker starts their address with an acknowledgement in Maori. This basic respect to the traditional owners shows a decency – civilisation? – which it would be nice for Australians to emulate.

  10. Kevin Tyerman

    Thank you Chris,
    I felt a bit ignorant for not actually knowing what “Welcome to Country” was, as it was being raised at the current time.

    There is a heck of a lot of the current Australian culture that wasn’t even invented in 1976 (this form of media and communication for starters).

    All of our cultures should be constantly evolving and developing, hopefully sometimes even in a productive direction, in spite of the ignorance of some of those who believe that they are influential within our culture(s).

  11. Hugh (Charlie) McColl

    I wonder whether people “wince” at these “charades” because they are social interactions (tokenistic or otherwise) apparently directed towards someone else, not them? Had they, individually, personally and directly, ever been made welcome in some place, situation, household or social function where there was a handshake, a doffing of the hat, a bow (Japan), a guiding hand to their position or seat or any number of subtle gestures which acknowledged their presence and provided an unmistakable opening for them to reciprocate in whatever fashion they decided was appropriate, they would fully understand and appreciate what a welcome to country was all about. If that has never, ever happened to/for someone, then they have something left in life to look forward to. It’s no big deal but it’s not irrelevant either. It might be a new experience, a light bulb moment, a revelation!

  12. Holden Back

    Charlie McColl you are absoutely right- it’s about mutual respect, like most politeness. Can you imagine the howls of the relevant Honourables were one to suggest that the Lord’s Prayer be omitted at the opening of parliamentary sessions?

  13. John Bennetts

    Charlie, I presume that the respect is offered either due to personal respect or recognition of ownership.

    I have little of the former and I am damned if I should cede ownership of anything to anybody who has not got proper, formal title.

    Social customs, including the Lord’s Prayer, are often the work of those with a penchant for taking instruction from invisible sky-dwelling beings.

    Religion is not a strong suit of mine – gave it away many years back when I got my first pair of long trousers.

    Re-read mine of 20th March. Let’s just stick together as Australians, rather than surround ourselves in futile nonsense. There is no way that I am going to surrender my world view to the black flag brigade. It is not about a question of respect or honour, it is about a ridiculous, mindless abomination.

  14. Hugh (Charlie) McColl

    John Bennetts, you seem to jump to the immediately most radical conclusion before you’ve considered the most mundane and ordinary. I’m not sure whether, when you say you “have little of the former” (ie. personal respect), you mean you have little respect for people who make simple gestures of respect, acknowledgement and recognition, or whether you mean you have little respect for anyone or anything at any time. I think of the public speaking situation when the mayor in the Town Hall (or some other public dignitary in some other public place), acknowledges the (important, possibly invited) visitor thus: “The president of state football association, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls. It is my pleasure today to announce a partnership between our Council and the Football Association to build a new stadium on Council land next to the Library “. This is straightforward, standard, normal protocol. The visitor is welcome in our town, in our place. We want them to be there, we want the (elected) mayor to represent our interests because we will all benefit from the partnership. It is not a grovel or a brown-nosing it is simply following an ordinary, nothing-unexpected stream of words which everyone has heard before, which grants each person a place in the proceedings.
    Oh, but you might say, John, that isn’t what is happening with a ‘welcome to country’ given by the local tribal or community elder. Because “I am damned if I should cede ownership of anything to anybody who has not got proper, formal title.” But John, the local mayor doesn’t own the ground where the football stadium is going to be built. The mayor ‘represents’ all of us Townies. We, collectively are the ‘owners’.
    Similarly, our nation recognises that indigenous Australians have connections to the places where their tribal group always lived. Sometimes that is called Native Title but at other times something much less formal and legalistic is simply acknowledged because, in essence, we know it is true that this or that particular group did live in this place and may still live here. That group may have chosen this person, this Elder for example, to speak for them when matters of ‘country’ are in play. They don’t ‘own’ it, they aren’t wheeling and dealing in it, they are simply indicating, using standard words of protocol (exactly as the mayor is) that they are attached to this place and the visitor/s should feel welcome to share it.
    No, it’s “…. a ridiculous, mindless abomination.” Calm down mate.


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