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.
This week began with National Sorry Day which kicked off Reconciliation Week in Australia. Now is the perfect time to make this sign of respect a fixture at all events, for the people who have managed the venue for 65,000 years.
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.
“Welcome to Country to me means having an elder of that particular land you are standing on, welcoming you to it. Sounds obvious, I know, but it runs deeper than that. It is a sign of respect, of solidarity, inclusion and togetherness. Welcoming you to Country is like bringing someone home to meet your mother. Once you have met the mother, you are home with family and you gotta treat the mother right.”
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 owners of the land on which we stand and I am honoured to pay tribute to their elders – past, present and emerging. 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 are an event planner in Australia, Welcome to Country or Acknowledgement of Country is a must in any program. It doesn’t matter if every speaker acknowledges Country, at the start of each session, in fact, that is wonderful. It’s a grounding and ritual way to quieten the audience, bring their attention together in respect, togetherness and inclusion. Then you can begin.
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.
- Audiences expect it and welcome this ritual at the start of all events.
- It’s basic respect to pay to the traditional owners of the land on which we all live and work. If primary schools across the nation can pay this respect at assembly, then so should all events and gatherings of a corporate nature.
- It’s long past time to make this peaceful ritual part of our everyday life in Australia.
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.
- Read Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu. He has also published a kid’s version.
- Read Little Red Yellow Black Book published by Aboriginal Studies Press.
- Whack a copy of the Aboriginal Map of Australia on the fridge at work.
- Go to the Reconciliation Australia website for more.