What are the implications of Acknowledgement of Country?
Updated: Sep 25
In my short time in Toowoomba, I have been present at many meetings, gatherings and church services that have begun with an Acknowledgement of Country. I have been grateful to hear these acknowledgements of the local First Peoples by those who are not indigenous to this particular place. I have even been called on to lead acknowledgements myself.
These acknowledgements have varied considerably. They have varied in the naming of the local indigenous mob(s), in how their deep spiritual connection to the land is specifically highlighted, in whether they are named as guardians or Traditional Owners, and in whether it is acknowledged that the land was never ceded and that there was never a treaty signed. Alongside this, almost all acknowledgements I have heard, or seen written, talk about offering respects to the local Aboriginal elders, past, present and emerging.
Acknowledging Country is so common that I have come to wonder if people see it as just a formality that they do or whether there is something substantial about it. In hoping that it is done with good heart and with a commitment to deepen awareness and actions, I would like to explore some of the implications of these acknowledgements. To do this, I would like to put the Acknowledgement of Country in a bigger historical, cultural, and spiritual context.
Yet as a white New Zealander, I am very aware I have much to learn. So, in order to begin this process, I sought conversations with Joshua Waters, a Gamilaraay man who works as Indigenous Support for the Toowoomba Catholic Education Office and is a current member of the Toowoomba Catholic Diocese’s Social Justice Commission, and Melanie Waters, a member of the Kamilaroi/Gomeroi Nation, who lectures in Indigenous Studies at the University of Southern Queensland. I am grateful for their generous heart and constructive challenge.
My most basic starting point is to name that this acknowledgement ritual arises from the millennia old Welcome to Country. First Nation peoples of this land would welcome visitors in peace and would dance and sing to name their relationship with the land and to invite the visitors to follow their lead in how to be on that land. It was a ritual about sharing histories and connections and inviting the visitors to follow the local laws and customs so that the land and the people of the land are respected.
My second thought is that in our modern Acknowledgement of Country we are acknowledging that the land on which we meet was occupied, cared for and effectively managed prior to 1788 by people who have since been displaced from that role. Acknowledgement of Country is an acknowledgement that the land on which we stand belonged to someone else and that they no longer have the control over the land and resources that they did in the past.
Of course, the word ‘belonged’ is only part of the story. Indigenous spirituality names that they did not own the land as is understood in Western property law, but that the land owned them. Practically, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples occupied and had control over their own Country but this control was understood in terms of using the land and resources for their own immediate needs alongside a responsibility to care for and protect their Country. Their creation stories, their dreaming, their dances and songs, and their part in the song-lines grounded them in their specific Country and named their identity, culture and sense of spirit in terms of being guardians of the land. To my mind then, acknowledgement of Country both names local First Peoples as the guardians of the land and as its Traditional Owners.
Once this is named then we have to ask: If we now own the land and we acknowledge there were Traditional Owners, what was the process of dispossession? How did colonisers gain control over so much of this continent’s land?
To put it in the most simplest of terms, people who had controlled and cared for Country for millennia experienced invasion. We usually use the words ‘settlers’ or ‘colonisers’ to name those who arrived but from the perspective of the First Peoples already here those whitefellas who came were invaders. Blinded by the belief that Australia was ‘Terra Nullius’ – land not owned by anyone, the British Empire sought to solve some its own problems by sending convicts, soldiers, government agents and later settlers. The various Aboriginal groups that occupied and managed the areas where the British first settled were not consulted and did not agree. Unlike New Zealand, no treaty was signed.
The reality of invasion does need to be focused on. Governor Macquarie, in 1816, gave orders to his soldiers that all Aborigines encountered would be made prisoners of war and if they resisted they would be shot and hung on a tree as a deterrent to others. Massacres of Aboriginal people to clear the land were common. Professor Lyndall Ryan and her co-workers at the University of Newcastle in New South Wales name over three hundred massacre sites in their research with much more work to be done. What Professor Ryan also does is record the few accounts of massacres of colonists. Resistance did exist. Aboriginal peoples did resist colonial invasion. The most local story is of Multugerrah and his warriors at the Battle of One Tree Hill in 1843.
Of course, there are also stories of Aboriginal care of early explorers. One example is John King, the only one to survive the disastrous Burke and Wills expedition from Melbourne to the Gulf of Carpentaria. King survived because of the great compassion and kindness of local Aboriginal people. Failure occurred when Burke and others had little respect for Aboriginal people, ignored the advice they were given and did not reciprocate in trade or in care for Country. John King did seek Aboriginal assistance and they responded out of their deep cultural sense to help those from outside.
So what does all this mean then for acknowledgement of Country today?
A key word in almost all acknowledgements of Country is respect. We pay our respects to elders … What does respect mean in this context? How do we actually pay our respects and what does it look like in concrete reality?
To my mind respect in this context begins with a willingness to listen to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voices and to take them seriously. Yes, there are a huge variety of voices, as like any group of people there is a diversity of experiences and opinion. But the more we listen to these voices the more we will hear common themes and issues being raised. These voices are often drowned out by the dominant Australian politics and media so a commitment to listen also means a deliberate choice to place ourselves in a space where these voices are spoken.
One key recent collective voice is the Uluru Statement from the Heart. After a long journey of local consultative meetings all around Australia, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander delegates – First Nation peoples – gathered in 2017 for a National Constitutional Convention. The delegates talked of their basis of ownership, of sovereignty, and that it was never ceded. They asked for substantive and structural reform so that their ownership, their sovereignty, can again be realised. They are not asking those who have come since 1788 to leave. But they are asking for a constitutionally mandated voice, a process of truth telling of the history of invasion and its impact on them as First Nation peoples, and a treaty making process that respects that sovereignty was never ceded.
Alongside this listening, those whose families have come since 1788 need to learn a new way of being in this land. This new way needs to be grounded in respect for First Nation peoples and for all that is Country. It is possible for whitefellas and other recent migrants to learn how to be honourable partners with those whose roots go back 60,000 years and more. Honourable partnership is possible if the ongoing domination, prejudice and racism is challenged, faced and let go. The Uluru Statement from the Heart can help us as the delegates call for a ‘coming together after a struggle’, a ‘Makarrata’. In their graciousness those who have been made powerless still offer hospitality, dialogue and a future of hope.
Acknowledgement of Country is a vital step in a journey of listening, new learning and new beginnings in this land. Please be deliberate when you make an acknowledgement and please see it as an important step for a new future.
Dr David Tutty
17 December 2019