Acknowledging Country is a contemporary practice at most meetings, gatherings and conferences in Australia, raising the questions: How might non-Indigenous people acknowledge country authentically? Even more importantly, how might professional sustainability practitioners acknowledge country authentically?
“…….whether a person is Aboriginal or non Aboriginal, if they are born in Nyoongar Country the Country knows them. If they have lived in Nyoongar country for more than six years the Country knows them. And if they intend to stay in Nyoongar country they have a responsibility and that responsibility is to care.”
Noel Nannup, (2010) Introduction to Aboriginal Australia. Edmund Rice Institute, cited in China, Nandi, (2015) Poepatetics: walking and writing in the Anthropocene, Westerley 2015 60/1.
In response, I’ll begin with the above quote from Noel Nannup, which has particular resonance with me. On my first trip to Murdoch University on Whadjuk Noongar Country in Perth, Western Australia at the commencement of my PhD in 2001, I had the pleasure (and good timing) to go on a Cross Cultural interpretive walk with Noel Nannup and a group of Murdoch students around the backblocks of the Murdoch “Bush” campus. The sentiment expressed in the opening quote above, was also expressed verbally by Noel on that walk in the bush.
The idea that the land will work its magic on non-Indigenous people was very compelling for me, especially the call-to-action on taking responsibility for Country. That couple of hours spent with Noel had a big influence on the direction of my PhD studies, as they extended my experience of working with remote Indigenous communities in Central Australia and North Queensland from 1995-1999 and at various times since then.
Please note that I do not speak for Indigenous people and I make no representations with respect to Indigenous knowledge. My research and my impressions from my lived experience may have errors of understanding, interpretation and explanation, and I am happy to receive feedback from Indigenous people on the issues I raise in this article.
If you have lived in Australia or have spent time here, you may have experienced a Welcome to Country given by a local Indigenous Elder or Traditional Owner at the commencement of an event, conference, seminar or meeting; or an Acknowledgement of Country, usually given by a non-Indigenous person as a gesture of respect towards Reconciliation with Indigenous people.
A Welcome to Country is one of those great delights in modern Australia, especially if its an outdoor “smoking” ceremony: genuinely welcoming, heartfelt and magnanimous, given our bad history with respect to Indigenous people. It provides a moral and ethical centre as well as a genuine invitation for non-Indigenous people to connect to Country and learn from the Indigenous experience in living sustainably for thousands of years.
And yet, many of us have sat through many Acknowledgements of Country that have been perfunctory, performative, lacking in feeling and failing to awaken the necessary connection to the local Country and its traditional custodians. This is an on-going issue for non-Indigenous Australians who are called on to conduct the Acknowledgement, especially those that have not had the opportunity (nor inclination) to engage directly with Indigenous people and to experience their depth of feeling and connection to Country.
I am fortunate to have spent some time with Indigenous people in Central Australia and North Queensland while working with the Centre for Appropriate Technology, an Indigenous-owned organisation. I have also engaged with Indigenous people in other parts of Queensland, Western Australia, NSW, Victoria and Tasmania. Through such engagement I have come to gain a sense and appreciation of the depth of their connection to Country, their view of sustainability and caring for Country that has strongly influenced me for the better. I have also learned the hard way about appropriate and respectful behaviours when on Country.
So, to return to the opening question, how does a non-Indigenous person acknowledge country authentically? This question came up during my recent stint at Edge Environment where my colleagues expressed a need for an authentic Acknowledgement of Country. My response:
First and foremost, most Australians are not Indigenous and should not speak for Indigenous people. If Indigenous people are present, we should defer to them to speak for Country. If not, then we should inform ourselves of the Indigenous view of the Country we are on and be inspired by it. If it resonates (in real terms, to get a “feel” for Country), we should internalise it so we can use our own voice from our own grounding. If we have no connection to the natural world, and the power of the land to change us, it will be very hard to authentically acknowledge Country. If that’s you, don’t pretend, just be polite and acknowledge prior and continuing traditional ownership.
To have a grounded approach, aim to have some direct engagement with Indigenous people where you live and work and be open and humble. Secondly, it also helps to understand whose Country you live on. Maps produced by the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) at the Australian National University, Canberra, can be very helpful. You may need to do a bit of additional research as there is a lot of variation across different sources. Further, the AIATSIS Map has not been updated in the last 20 years to reflect on-going anthropological studies plus more recent surfacing of Indigenous knowledge. Thirdly, I suggest you prepare an acknowledgement in your own words, so if called upon to deliver an acknowledgement, you are doing it from the heart. This is my written acknowledgement on this website:
I respectfully acknowledge the Yalukit Willam clan on Boonwurrung Country in the Kulin Nation where I live. I pay my respect to their Elders, past, present and emerging, and I acknowledge and uphold their continuing relationship to this land.
I also acknowledge all the First Nations Elders and Traditional Owners across Australia where I was born, educated, lived, worked, married and where my children were born.
I have lived on First Nations Country all my life and I acknowledge that Country owns me and therefore I have a deep responsibility to care for Country.
My work as a professional sustainability practitioner is my expression of that responsibility.
If giving a verbal only acknowledgement, I’ll improvise on the written version.
To help you connect, you may find it useful to do something I did recently: identify the Indigenous names of the places where I was born, lived, had children, was educated and worked. If you were not born in Australia, you can do this as appropriate to your situation. This can be difficult because of the variations in spelling and tribal/language group boundaries, and where the written record of Indigenous place names conflicts with oral histories.
For me, it was easy in relation to the remote parts of Australia where traditional lifeways continue unbroken, and Indigenous place and tribal names were in daily use by Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike. However, in places like Sydney and Melbourne it can be problematic, because different sources use different names for sub-regions, and there is some conflation between specific place names, area place names, clan and tribal names.
In recent times, linguists and anthropologists have worked with Indigenous people to recover languages and to refine the written spelling of Indigenous languages. For example, in Tasmania significant places now have dual naming through consultation between the Tasmanian Aboriginal Community and the Tasmanian Government: local Indigenous people have the final say. Regardless of these naming issues, the point is to start discovering this very ancient knowledge about places of significance to you. The simple act of acknowledging the ancient names for people and places is singularly powerful, connective and a contribution to Reconciliation. I encourage you to do this, too.
So, as an example, my connections to Country are:
- Born on Kayyimai, Gayemagal/Guringgai country (Northern Sydney).
- Lived on Guringgai, Gayemagal, and Gamaraigal (Northern Sydney); Gadigal (Southern Sydney); Darkinjung/Wonnarua (Hunter Valley, NSW); Pallittorre and Kanamaluka (Northern Tasmania); Central Arrernte (Central Australia); Yirrganydji (Far North Queensland); and Gumbainggirr Country (NSW Mid-North Coast).
- My Children were born on Central Arrernte (Central Australia) and Yirrganydji (Far North Queensland) Country.
- Educated on Guringgai (Northern Sydney), Gadigal (Southern Sydney) and Whadjuk Nyoongar (Perth, WA) Country.
- Worked on Guringgai (Northern Sydney); Gadigal (Southern Sydney); Dharug (Western Sydney); Darkinjung/Wonnarua (Hunter Valley NSW); Pallittorre and Kanamaluka (Northern Tasmania); Central, Eastern and Western Arrernte, Pintubi, Luritja, Anmatjere, Alyawarre, Warumangu, Kaytetye and Warlpiri (Central Australia); Gunggari (South-West Queensland); Yirrganydji, Djabugai, Yir-Yoront and Lamalama (Far North Queensland); Gija (East Kimberley); and Gumbainggirr Country (NSW Mid-North Coast)
- Currently working and living on Yalukit-Willam, Boonwurrung Country (Melbourne).
I believe it is highly important that non-Indigenous Australians make a genuine effort to understand the Country they live on, learn its names and get to know Indigenous Australians when you have the opportunity. This will help you to understand the people and culture of this ancient place better, to contribute to Reconciliation and to become a better custodian of the land.
I encourage you to make an authentic Acknowledgement of Country an integral part of your professional sustainability practice as an expression of caring for Country.