WHY EVENTS MUST ALWAYS HOST WELCOME TO COUNTRY
WHY EVENTS MUST ALWAYS HOST WELCOME TO COUNTRY
I attend a lot of events all over Australia as a professional speaker and I have noticed a trend. When events are hosted by government, they are always opened with a Welcome to Country from a local indigenous person. At the very least there’s an Acknowledgement of Country from one of us blow-ins. However, outside schools, government departments and council events, this basic sign of respect for the traditional custodians of the land is a bit hit and miss in the event industry.
When I am not speaking, I’m consulting and this year I have been working on a project for the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS). Thousands of school kids visit the capital every year but there is no dedicated education centre for a subject which features heavily in our national story and which is part of the national school curriculum from kindy right through to year twelve. Go figure! So AIATSIS is mobilising to change that.
This project has turbocharged my understanding of Indigenous Australia of late. I went to school in the 1980s and my knowledge of indigenous history needed some serious correcting. After all the background reading handed to me by AIATSIS, it was clear to me that as a speaker, I bring people together and it is my responsibility to pay respect in a ritual that acknowledges the traditional owners of the land.
I asked my Koori mate Sheree Stewart, a registered midwife from the Wergaia people, what Welcome to Country means to her.
“Welcome or acknowledgment is about creating a space to say you are on a certain Country that feeds, homes and provides for us. Acknowledge her, don’t be a jerk about it and then you are most welcome to celebrate on our land with us,” says Sheree. She’s from Mallee in Victoria which she describes as “a gorgeous place of stark blue sky and infinite red sand”. Her connection to Country is incredibly strong and generous in its welcoming spirit.
If you cannot have an elder of the local tribe for your event, acknowledgment of Country is the next best thing. Anyone in attendance can present this. See this fact sheet for protocols.
When I begin a speech these days, I start by acknowledging that I am a white woman born on the land of the Zulu and the Ndebele in Africa. My heritage reaches beyond Africa to western Europe before that. I am from a lineage of persistent blow-ins and I am grateful to be welcome in Australia. Then I acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land on which we have gathered. In my home town of Sydney, that’s the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation. If you are unsure which mob you should be acknowledging, refer to this Aboriginal map of Australia which is produced by AIATSIS. I have a copy of this map on my fridge to remind my Airbnb guests who lived here first.
One of the best Welcome to Country ceremonies that I have witnessed was at an event last year at the Tesla showroom in Martin Place. Attended by Gadigal elder, Uncle Ray, he acknowledged the elders past, present and emerging. He then went on to acknowledge the elders of all those who stood in the room. The love and respect that poured out of this man were palpable.
Acknowledgment of Country should not be read like another aspect of event housekeeping. It’s a ritual. It should be spoken with honour. It could be something like the words below, but they should be natural and respectful.
“I acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land on which we stand. The land of the [look up which mob is your local people]. I recognise their continuing connection to land, waters and community. I pay my respects to them and their culture; and to elders both past and present. I also acknowledge that this always was and always will be Aboriginal land.” That last sentence is important.
The first time I ever acknowledged Country was an event in my state electorate of Coogee. Coogee means “stinky place” in the local language, which I find a little harsh. I was the mediator and MC for a debate between the top three state political candidates in the marginal seat of Coogee. There were three white candidates and an audience of 300 white folk. And there I was, a white lady MC. A simple but heartfelt Acknowledgment of Country was, to my surprise, met with a huge round of applause, whoops and nods. I wondered if the Greens had stacked the audience. Labor went on to win the seat.
If you’re ready to broaden your knowledge, start by reading Bruce Pascoe’s book, Dark Emu (Magabala Books, 2018). It’s a beautifully written book which corrects the rubbish indigenous history we were taught at school up to the 1980s. It shows how complex, clever and sustainable Aboriginal culture and land management was at the time of invasion. The white fellas had much to learn when they arrived in Australia with cattle, woolen suits and Bibles. Get yourself a copy of the Little Red Yellow Black Book (Aboriginal Studies Press) for a much broader and overall understanding of Aboriginal culture and history.
Here are the reasons why event planners should always allow for Welcome or Acknowledgement of Country.
Here are the things you can do to during Reconciliation Week or any time at all. Broadening your knowledge is good for neuroplasticity and you’ll live longer as well as being equipped to be more inclusive.