Welcome to Country & Acknowledgement of Country
Although the practice of acknowledging the traditional custodians of land and seeking their permission to enter their territory has only recently begun to re-emerge in modern Australia, it is an ancient custom of great significance to many Indigenous people.
While some people may see Acknowledgement and Welcome to Country as a recent practice invented for the sake of political correctness, or an empty token gesture, Wurundjeri Elder, Joy Murphy Wandin, describes it as “a very important way of giving Aboriginal people back their place in society, and an opportunity for us to say, 'We are real, we are here, and today we welcome you to our land'…It's paying respect, in a formal sense, and following traditional custom in a symbolic way.” (1)
Understanding what Acknowledgement of Country and Welcome to Country are, and their history and origins, can help us recognise the importance and power of continuing these practices in the modern Australian context.
What is it?
Welcome to Country is a ceremony performed by Indigenous Australian Elders to welcome visitors to their traditional land. It can take many forms, including singing, dancing, smoke ceremonies or a speech, depending on the particular culture of the Traditional Owners.
An Acknowledgement of Country involves visitors acknowledging the original Indigenous custodians of the land and their long and continuing relationship with their Country. It is a way of showing awareness of and respect for the original Indigenous custodians of the land on which an event is being held. An Acknowledgment of Country can be formal or informal and, unlike a Welcome to Country, can be delivered by a non-Indigenous person.
Wurundjeri Elder Murrindindi performing Welcome to Country.
Although there are no set protocols or phrasing for an Acknowledgement of Country, it will commonly involve something along the following lines: “I would like to acknowledge that this meeting is being held on the traditional lands of the (appropriate group) people, and pay my respect to Elders both past and present.” Personalising and localising an acknowledgment will help to make it as meaningful as possible.
Why is it important?
Incorporating Welcome to Country and Acknowledgement of Country into official events:
- recognises Indigenous people as the First Australians
- promotes awareness of the history and culture of Indigenous people
- formally acknowledges Indigenous people’s ongoing connection to land
Murrindindi welcomes Aboriginal Leaders from other parts of the country.
Welcome to Country and Acknowledgement of Country are important, regardless of whether Indigenous people have legal ownership of the lands on which the event is taking place. This is because the meaning of Country in Indigenous Australian cultures incorporates more than just ownership or occupation of land. Professor Mick Dodson explains:
“When we talk about traditional ‘Country’…we mean something beyond the dictionary definition of the word. For Aboriginal Australians…we might mean homeland, or tribal or clan area and we might mean more than just a place on the map. For us, Country is a word for all the values, places, resources, stories and cultural obligations associated with that area and its features. It describes the entirety of our ancestral domains.” (2)
What are the origins of Welcome to Country?
Welcome to Country is an ancient Indigenous tradition that was practiced when one Indigenous community sought permission to enter another clan’s traditional land. The ceremony varied from clan to clan. Joy Murphy Wandin describes Welcome to Country as it was practiced by her people, the Wurundjeri:
“When there was a request to visit Country, the Werrigerri (a young man selected by the Elders of the community) would go on behalf of the community under the voice of the Elder, the Nurungeeta. There would be this negotiation and that could take a long time, it could take months. Everything could take a long time in traditional Aboriginal culture…
When agreement was reached with the Wurundjeri, when you came to Country, first of all you must accept the law of the land, and that was about respect that contained all things. The other thing was that you could only stay for a short time. Why…? Because our people were seasonal travellers… you knew what resources were available, you knew how to get them, you knew how long they would last. So that staying here with us was about sharing… but sharing it with your neighbouring community that could be twice your size was a big effort.
The traditional ceremonies were quite big. The Yarnabool (visiting communities) would come with bark torches in their hand… to cleanse that journey, ‘swept away’ as my mother would say. And so when they came onto Country there (was) a set up of two fires, and the eucalyptus around were used as gifts… Then the two Nurungeetas would come together at the fires, they would exchange whatever was necessary… and then there would be a big celebration.
…It was a very long process and a very beautiful process. So that is the background of Welcome to Country. It is not a new thing. It is not… because our land was dispossessed; it has nothing to do with that. It is all about respect for our culture and who we are. It is paying respect, especially to our ancestors.” (3)
Can this practice help address Indigenous disadvantage?
Some people criticise Welcome to Country and Acknowledgement of Country practices, claiming that such symbolic gestures fail to practically address Indigenous disadvantage. However, this criticism fails to take into account the fundamental connection between dispossession and disadvantage; the current disparity between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians is the result of the ongoing effects of colonisation.
Welcome to Country and Acknowledgement of Country, as practices that promote awareness of and respect for Indigenous culture, are part of ending the history of silence and exclusion that has resulted in Indigenous disadvantage today.
“I think I'm fortunate to be here at this time when the mainstream are inviting us to give Welcome to Country. If we can continue with it, it will help to put that respect into the entire community.” - Joy Murphy Wandin (4)
For more information about Welcome to Country and Acknowledgement of Country, see Reconciliation Australia's factsheet, "Welcome to and Acknowledgement of Country"
Want to know more?
Watch the Sharing Our Story series to learn more about our shared history.
The complete Sharing Our Story series is available here.