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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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