acknowledgement of country

One morning a few weeks ago I attended the official launch of the Sydney Film Festival at Customs House. The launch is essentially a press conference to announce the festival’s program and start the process of hyping it, with a presentation of the ad campaign, trailers for some of the films, and some speechifying. A couple of high-powered names showed up to add weight to the proceedings, including Miranda Otto, star of the festival’s Opening Night film, South Solitary.

The first speaker was Virginia Judge, Member of Parliament and Minister for the Arts for New South Wales. Before she spoke, she made a point of acknowledging the traditional custodians of the land, and thanking them for their cultural and spiritual legacy. Then she went on to more mundane thanks and acknowledgemnts — the board of directors, sponsors, and so on.

I was pleased but slightly astonished. I have to admit it made me disposed to give extra consideration to everything else she said that morning. But I could not figure out the context. It certainly seemed done in some official capacity, and not on any sort of whim. Yet I’d never heard such a thing, and it seemed very fresh and unusual to my ears. Suffice it to say that no elected official or bureaucrat in America would go there unless there was a reason for it — unless they were stumping for a crowd of Native American voters, or commemorating a massacre or something. But I couldn’t see an overt reason Ms. Judge would do that in downtown Sydney (where there is not a significant indigenous population), at a film festival press conference. There were no particularly Aboriginal themes or collaborations of note, and I didn’t think there were any special guests of indigenous heritage.

That day I posted some of these observations on facebook. I mentioned that it made me feel good, even if it wasn’t off the cuff or from the heart. My friend Larissa, who is from here but now lives in England, responded by informing me that indeed, it’s an official thing. It’s a set of protocols that a growing number of organizations here in Oz follow at the start of functions or activities. It’s called Acknowledgement of Country. A more formal version, called Welcome to Country, involves an Aboriginal elder being present to officially bless an event or gathering. Sometimes a Welcome to Country can include a special fire ceremony.

I wasn’t surprised. Maybe I was a little disappointed that I hadn’t witnessed some sort of spontaneous gratitude on the part of Ms. Judge. But the more I thought about it, the more I liked the idea of such a protocol.

Last week I was at the festival’s Opening Night at the State Theatre. Before the program started, an Aboriginal gentleman, a representative of some cultural body, came onstage and addressed the crowd. He was quite a jolly chap and started by warming up the crowd with a couple of joking asides. (Before speaking, he bumped into the microphone, causing some feedback, and theatrically muttered, “Bloody hell!” earning a big laugh). He also magnanimously apologized for the rainy weather. But after a minute I realized I was witnessing a Welcome to Country. He explained that we were on Cadigal land; that the Cadigal band, part of the Eora nation, were and are the traditional custodians of the land on which Sydney is built.

He then welcomed us to Cadigal land — welcomed us warmly, welcomed us several times in fact. He was pretty articulate and polished, but chose to use a lot of slang for effect — for example, he referred to the Cadigal as the “mob” who run this place, and said that whatever mob we came from, we were welcome here too. He rambled a bit but I liked the way he talked. He called us all his brothers and sisters. I don’t think you can ever go wrong with that kind of outlook.

After he was done with his welcome, more functionaries and guests came onstage with introductory remarks. (Actually there were a few too many of them, and a few too many remarks. The crowd grew quite restless as the christening of the festival approached an hour.) Each speaker acknowledged the country briefly before moving on to the business at hand.

Being newly aware that it’s an official thing gave me a different perspective. If it’s not terribly sincere — if it’s just done by rote before some official stream of hot air, doesn’t that take something away from it? And what good is all the acknowledging of the “traditional” custodians anyway, since the Cadigal were decimated by smallpox before being systematically driven off their land? What claim do they actually have on the real estate value of this land and the tremendous amount of commerce that goes on here? What good does it do the indigenous people of Australia to take part in bureaucratic functions, and to have the right things said about them by well-meaning politicians, if living conditions are still so bad for most of them? What good are words?

Actually, words are pretty powerful. They say watch your words, for they will become your actions. As I’ve mentioned before, it’s easy enough to be cynical about the government saying nice things. But coming from a place where it’s much less likely for the government to acknowledge the Native American legacy — not to mention the crucial part in our history played by slavery — it’s pretty refreshing. So I think it’s good there’s an apparatus in place to oblige these official types to say these things. Mere acknowledgement is not enough, but it’s a start. It’s also yet another new thing I’ve discovered that’s utterly and unmistakably Australian. I like it.

So, come to think of it, I too would like to show my respect and acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land I live on, and elders past and present, and would like to thank them for their cultural and spiritual legacy and its contributions to my writing and everything else I do.

Here are two links for information about the Cadigal and other indigenous people native to the Sydney area:

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