Spirituality

Welcome to Country & Acknowledgement of Country

‘Welcome to Country’ is an important ceremony by Aboriginal people and inviting them to perform it helps non-Indigenous people recognise Aboriginal culture and history.

An ‘Acknowledgement of Country’ can be done by everyone, Indigenous or non-Indigenous, to pay respect to the fact that one is on Aboriginal land.

Selected statistic data

60%
Percentage of surveyed Australians who think traditional Aboriginal landowners should be acknowledged at welcoming ceremonies. [8]
30%
Percentage opposing a welcome [8].

If you participated in an activity that involved Aboriginal people you might have experienced a Welcome to Country or Acknowledgement of Country.

Both are protocols that precede the activity. They recognise the unique position of Aboriginal people in Australian culture and history and show respect for Aboriginal people.

If you are planning to include a ‘Welcome to Country’ or do an ‘Acknowledgement of Country’ make sure to consult with Aboriginal people of the community where the event takes place. This way you ensure that the ceremony pays the appropriate level of recognition and involves the right people.

Welcome to Country

Aboriginal elder performing a Welcome to Country on Australia Day. Welcome to Country ceremony. An Aboriginal elder performs a Welcome to Country on Australia Day during the opening ceremony in the Botanic Gardens. A dance performance follows.

A ‘Welcome to Country’ is a small ceremony where traditional owners, usually elders, welcome people to their land.

This is a significant recognition and is made through a formal process, although it’s up to the elder how they decide to carry out the ceremony. It also depends on the location of the event and the practice of the Aboriginal community which can vary greatly according to region.

During a ‘Welcome to Country’ the elders welcome those in attendance, guests, staff and students to their country. It might be just a simple speech or a performance of some sort, like a song, traditional dance, a didgeridoo piece or any combination of these.

‘Welcome to Country’ should always occur in the opening of the event in question, preferable as the first item. Note that a ‘Welcome to Country’ is often considered a right and not a privilege.

Protocols for welcoming visitors to country have been a part of Aboriginal culture for thousands of years.

Despite the absence of fences or visible borders, Aboriginal groups had clear boundaries separating their country from that of other groups. Crossing into another group’s country required a request for permission to enter — like gaining a visa — and when that permission was granted the hosting group would welcome the visitors, offering them safe passage [14].

In modern Australia, the ‘Welcome to Country’ ceremony was first conducted at an official ceremony in 1999 during the NSW Supreme Court’s 175th anniversary, arranged by Chief Justice James Spigelman [12].

In parliament it was first introduced at the start of parliament in 2008 and now forms a regular element of Australian political process [9].

Find a Local Aboriginal Land Council to help you organise a Welcome to Country.

Welcomes [to country]… are what traditional owners give—if they so desire. There should be no expectation or demand for this to be the case.—Koori Mail [4]

Welcome to Country from an Aboriginal perspective

Bev Manton, chairperson of the New South Wales Aboriginal Land Council (NSWALC), describes a Welcome to Country from her perspective [6].

“A Welcome to Country is about Aboriginal people acknowledging the past, and looking to the future. It is often delivered by an Aboriginal person who has themselves been the victim of government policies.

Our Elders do the Welcome to Country as an act of generosity. These are the same people who have had their children taken away, or been removed themselves. They’re the same people who had their wages stolen by successive governments. They’re the same people who had ancestors remains raided by grave robbers. They’re the same people who were disposed from their lands and forced on to missions and reserves.

And yet despite all of these terrible events—despite the horrendous treatment by so many parliaments—these very same people are still prepared to say ‘welcome’ to the very people who in some cases have presided over the oppression.”

Charles (Mibunj) Moran, a Bundjalung elder from northern NSW, explains [10] “when we have our welcome to country our custodians/Elders pay respect to custodians past and present as well as Elders past and present.

Spiritually, this is showing respect for the country and the custodians who are responsible for taking care of the country where we live… So what our custodians are doing is trying to give respect back into the country.”

I have come to learn that the Welcome to Country ceremony is such an important aspect of Indigenous Australia… They're unique and special and, in essence, a respectful gesture from the traditional peoples to all people, visitors and friends.—Matiu Paki, a Maori from the North Island of New Zealand [7]

Traditional welcome: Entering country the proper way

Read how a Ngarinyin tribal elder explained a traditional welcome to country [15]:

“Before whitefellas came, it was the tradition of Aboriginals that when strangers came into their particular country to hunt or to gather, or to just pass through on their way to other places, that the host Aboriginals would go out to welcome them.

When they met, there would be the formalities of greeting. Part of the ceremony of welcome would be the men sitting around and talking men’s business whilst the host women would take the visiting women and children to a women’s site to talk women’s business.

When this was completed, the two groups would join again and the men would hunt for kangaroo, goannas or bush turkey - and the women would prepare an area for eating and would gather firewood and berries, fruit, nuts and lily roots for a meal.

Then the ceremonies—the corroborees or jumbas would commence—and the dancing, the singing around the fire could well go on, not only all night, but sometimes for many nights in a row. Each jumba with a message—each with its own story—men, women and children taking part. Whilst during the day, the visiting tribe would be taken and shown the sites of significance and be told the stories of the spirit of the land they would be passing,

In this way, the hosts believed that by the end of formalities, when the strangers were ready to move on - they would not be considered strangers but friends who now had the spirit of the country in their hearts—they carried the Wunggud with them—just like the people who lived there.

They believed that once the spirit of the land was in their hearts, then those people would never damage the land - they would love it and care for it like those whose home country it was…”

Acknowledgement of Country

An ‘Acknowledgement of Country’ is a way that all people can show awareness and respect for Aboriginal culture and heritage and the ongoing relationship the traditional owners have with their land [1].

Both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people can perform ‘Acknowledgement of Country’. It is a demonstration of respect dedicated to the traditional custodians of the land (or sea) where the event, meeting, school function or conference takes place. It can be formal or informal.

Sample Acknowledgement of Country where the language group is not known [1]:

I would like to show my respect and acknowledge the traditional custodians of this land,
of elders past and present, on which this event takes place.

Sample Acknowledgement of Country using a specific nation [1]:

I would like to acknowledge the Eora people who are the traditional custodians of this land.
I would also like to pay respect to the elders past and present of the Eora nation
and extend that respect to other Aboriginal people present.

Government, organisations and even small groups are adopting the practice of acknowledging the traditional owners.

For more information contact the NSW Aboriginal Education Consultative Group Inc.

Acknowledgements of country and traditional owners are something that decent non-Indigenous people give, not because they feel pushed into it but because they believe it is the right thing to do. the case.—Koori Mail [4]

Australia Post sign. Australia Post acknowledges traditional owners with a sign in major retail outlets around Australia. The sign was part of their 2011 Reconciliation Action Plan [13]. The colours represent both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders along with an imprint of a stamp.

‘Acknowledgement of Country’ by Jonathan Hill

Today we stand in footsteps millennia old.
May we acknowledge the traditional owners
whose cultures and customs have nurtured,
and continue to nurture, this land, 
since men and women
awoke from the great dream.
We honour the presence of these ancestors
who reside in the imagination of this land
and whose irrepressible spirituality
flows through all creation.

Source [2]. Jonathan Hill is an Aboriginal poet living in New South Wales.

Criticism

Some politicians have voiced concern that the ‘Acknowledgement of Country’ was an “empty” gesture of political correctness and looked “like tokenism” if it was performed too often [3]. The Victorian Premier decided to scrap a requirement for ministers and departmental staff to acknowledge traditional owners in May 2011 [11].

Government policies which force departments to do ‘Acknowledgement of Country’ and have ‘Welcome to Country’ ceremonies performed undermine the genuine gesture and make it “feel false”, argues Sue Gordon, a retired West Australian magistrate [3].

The Aboriginal community does not share these views.

David Ross, director of the Central Land Council, feels that one should not ignore the “existence and ownership of this land by Aboriginal people before European settlement” and acknowledge the black history with the ritual. Opposing ‘Welcome to Country’ ceremonies would encourage racist elements within the community.

“Our own view is that welcomes to and acknowledgements of country—if conducted in a meaningful , genuine and thoughtful way—are the least we should be able to expect from our visitors to our land,” say the editors of the Koori Mail [4].

I think it's fantastic [to do Acknowledgement of Country ceremonies], ten years ago we weren't even acknowledged.—Warren Mundine, Indigenous business leader [3]

[Acknowledgement of Country] says to the world, and more importantly to ourselves, that we accept the fact we are in a place that has a history and story far beyond 220 years. It says to our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander fellow Australians that we are all in the future journey of our country together.—Richard Wynne, Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Victoria [5]

Why are such welcomes and acknowledgements important?

Incorporating a welcome or acknowledgement protocol into official meetings and events recognises Aboriginal people as the First Australians and custodians of their land. It promotes an awareness of the past and ongoing connection to place of Aboriginal Australians.

Unlike New Zealand, Canada and the United States, Australia has no treaty with its Aboriginal people.

A Welcome to or Acknowledgement of Country doesn’t replace a treaty, native title or land rights, but they’re a small gesture of recognition of the association with land and place of the First Australians.

Can a welcome or acknowledgement help Aboriginal people?

Aboriginal people are disadvantaged in many areas of their life as statistics show.

But what can be done, alongside efforts in health, education and employment, are practices of inclusion. Including recognition of Aboriginal people in events, meetings and national symbols shows your respect, and respect is a good base on which Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians can come closer and eventually reconcile.

Haven’t Aboriginal people lost their land?

All areas of Australia have or had traditional owners, including where there are now large cities.

Even though Aboriginal people may not live in a traditional way on this land, they are still connected to it.

In Aboriginal culture, the meaning of country is more than just ownership or connection to land, as Aboriginal 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.” [14]

Further resources

Reconciliation Australia has put together a Frequently Asked Question (FAQ) section on Welcome to Country and Acknowledgement of Country ceremonies.

Footnotes

Article sources

[1] 'Welcome to Country & Acknowledgement of Country', NSW Dept of Education and Training brochure, 5/2004
[2] 'Acknowledgement of Country', reader's letter, Koori Mail 469 p.23
[3] 'Tokenism comments draw angry response', Koori Mail 472 p.5
[4] 'Not welcome here, Wilson', Koori Mail 472 p.20
[5] Your Say, Koori Mail 472 p.23
[6] 'Attack is far from welcome', Koori Mail 472 p.27
[7] 'Maori support', Your Say, Koori Mail 477 p.23
[8] Sydney Morning Herald, 20/3/2010
[9] 'Parliament welcomes first Aboriginal MP', Koori Mail 486 p.5
[10] 'Welcome part of our tradition', readers letter, Koori Mail 492 p.24
[11] 'Anger at Vic move', Koori Mail 502 p.16
[12] 'Welcome comments by retiring top judge', Koori Mail 503 p.14
[13] 'Acknowledging traditional owners', Reconciliation News 8/2011 p.17
[14] 'It's simply about respect', Reconciliation News 9/2010 p.16
[15] 'Entering country: with consent', A night of reconciliation, extract from an Address by Susan Bradley (pastoralist, Kimberley WA), Sydney, Feb 1998