Aboriginal protocols of respect
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.
Traditionally, a Welcome to Country was an invitation or permission for a person from a different area to pass through or enter. Doing so without it was unacceptable.
Both ceremonies also acknowledge the land as a living entity – one reason why ‘Country’ is often capitalised.
Why is a Welcome or Acknowledgement important?
Incorporating a Welcome or Acknowledgement protocol into official meetings and events shows that you recognise Aboriginal people as the First Australians and custodians of their land. It demonstrates that you, or your organisation, are aware of the past and ongoing connection of Aboriginal people to place and land.
In a business context it shows your organisation’s commitment to inclusion and diversity for staff and sends a strong message to future (Aboriginal) applicants.
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 are a small gesture of recognition of the association with land and place of Aboriginal people and their history.
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.
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.
— Koori Mail editorial
Acknowledgement of Country
Need an Acknowledgement of Country cheat sheet? Use this printable A4 template to remind yourself of the main points and check that you’ve got the correct names. Then simply print and cut out a handy piece to go into your speech script or on the stand.
An ‘Acknowledgement of Country’ is a way where any person can show awareness and respect for Aboriginal culture and heritage and the ongoing relationship the traditional custodians have with their land.
Both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal 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.
Note that an acknowledgement does not mean you’re asking for permission to be on Aboriginal land. For that you’ll have to contact an Aboriginal Land Council.
More and more publications permanently include an Acknowledgement, for example the Australian Book Review.
Tips for an Acknowledgement of Country
Below I have compiled a selection of examples from which you can choose a text that suits your needs. Here are some tips for the wording of an Acknowledgement of Country:
- ‘Custodians’ or ‘owners’? Both terms are in use. ‘Custodians’ reminds of the ongoing obligation to look after country, and that Aboriginal people don’t own the land, but it owns them. ‘Owner’ reminds that their land was never formally ceded to anyone and of Australia’s history of denying ownership and Aboriginal people’s sovereignty over their lands.
Some Aboriginal organisations refer to ‘traditional owners’ (TOs) themselves while others dislike the term. A descendant of the Aboriginal people of the Mackay Region told me that he “prefer[s] to be identified as a Traditional Custodian and not a Traditional Owner as I do not own the land but I care for the land.”
- Include both groups. Always use “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders” to include both distinct First Nations groups.
- Know the nation. Research the correct First Nation on whose ground you do the acknowledgement. If there is a known dispute about boundaries (which happens occasionally) choose a more neutral form.
- Practices pronounciation. The spelling of a First Nation and the pronounciation of the word can be vastly different to common English pronounciation rules.
- Respect Elders. I’ve capitalised “Elders” as a sign of respect.
- Include land. Always include a reference to Aboriginal land.
- Be personal. I’ve used “I” rather than the organisation’s name, or “we”, to make the acknowledgement more personal. (It’s a single person speaking, after all.)
Using Zoom or Skype? Then your audience is most likely spread across different Aboriginal nations’ lands. Ensure to be inclusive, e.g. with “Traditional Owners of the lands we meet on today” and acknowledge “any Aboriginal people joining us today”.
Avoid using “emerging leaders” as there is significant discomfort within the First Nations community with that term (e.g. who defines the “emerging” leader? Who is a leader?).
Tip: Get the Acknowledgement of Country cheat sheet for a handy cut-out acknowledgement already prepared for you!
The first Acknowledgement
A woman of my subscriber community was surprised and impressed by what happened at an event she was attending:
“Last weekend I went to a family wedding. Of course it was beautiful and special to everyone there.
“The ceremony started with an Acknowledgement of Country. A few of us admitted afterwards that this was the first time we’d experienced an Acknowledgement of Country at a wedding.
“As we were standing outside in a really lovely part of the Southern Highlands in NSW, it was a timely reminder of the traditional owners of the country. Maybe this could become a common part of such important events?”
Spoken, Aboriginal nation known
Replace [Aboriginal group/clan] with the name of the Aboriginal group (e.g. “Gadigal people”) and [Aboriginal nation] with the nation’s name (e.g. “Eora”).
I wish to acknowledge the custodians of this land, the [Aboriginal group/clan] people of the [Aboriginal nation] nation and their Elders past and present. I acknowledge and respect their continuing culture and the contribution they make to the life of this city and this region. I acknowledge that we are meeting on the traditional country of the [Aboriginal nation] people of the [Aboriginal region] and pay respect to Elders past and present. I recognise and respect their cultural heritage, beliefs and relationship with the land, which continue to be important to the [Aboriginal nation] people living today. I would like to acknowledge that this meeting is being held on Aboriginal land and recognise the strength, resilience and capacity of [Aboriginal nation] people in this land. I would like to acknowledge that this meeting is being held on Aboriginal land, the land of the the [Aboriginal group/clan] people of the [Aboriginal nation] nation. I like to pay respect to their Elders past and present. I would like to acknowledge the [Aboriginal group/clan] people who are the traditional custodians of this land. I would also like to pay my respects to Elders past and present of the [Aboriginal nation] nation, and I extend that respect to other indigenous people who are present. Before we begin the proceedings, I would like to acknowledge and pay respect to the traditional custodians of the land on which we meet; the [Aboriginal group/clan] people of the [Aboriginal nation] nation. I am honoured to be on the ancestral lands of the [Aboriginal group/clan] people. I acknowledge the First Australians as the traditional custodians of the continent, whose cultures are among the oldest living cultures in human history. I pay respect to the Elders of the community and extend my recognition to their descendants who are present.
Spoken, Aboriginal nation not known
I acknowledge the traditional custodians of country throughout Australia and recognise their continuing connection to land, waters and community. I pay my respects to them and their cultures; and to Elders both past and present. I would like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land on which we meet today and pay my respects to the Elders past and present. I extend my respect to the Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander [people/colleagues/staff/students] who are present today. I acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land we have gathered on today. I pay my respects to the Elders past and present, for they hold the memories, the traditions, the culture and hopes of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples across the nation. A better understanding and respect for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures develops an enriched appreciation of Australia’s cultural heritage and can lead to reconciliation. This is essential to the maturity of Australia as a nation and fundamental to the development of an Australian identity.
To include an acknowledgement on a printed document, ideally it should be placed on the inside front cover, standing alone, in a place of significance.
[Organisation] acknowledges the Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples of this nation. We acknowledge the traditional custodians of the lands on which our company is located and where we conduct our business. We pay our respects to ancestors and Elders, past and present. [Organisation] is committed to honouring Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ unique cultural and spiritual relationships to the land, waters and seas and their rich contribution to society.
Websites and emails
[Organisation] acknowledges the Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the first inhabitants of the nation and the traditional custodians of the lands where we live, learn and work.
An increasing number of businesses affix signs to entry areas of their premises. Here’s a sample wording:
[Organisation] operates on [Aboriginal nation] country. We acknowledge the [Aboriginal nation] people as the traditional custodians of the [Organisation location] region and pay our respects to [Aboriginal nation] elders past and present. We are committed to a positive future for the Aboriginal community.
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. The Sydney Morning Herald offers a video with a few sample acknowledgements.
Australia Post acknowledges traditional owners with a sign in major retail outlets around Australia. The sign was part of their 2011 Reconciliation Action Plan . 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.
Jonathan Hill is a poet living in New South Wales.
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 . The Victorian Premier decided to scrap a requirement for ministers and departmental staff to acknowledge traditional owners in May 2011 .
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 .
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 .
I think it’s fantastic [to do Acknowledgement of Country ceremonies], ten years ago we weren’t even acknowledged.
— Warren Mundine, Indigenous business leader
[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
Welcome to Country
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 custodians, usually Elders or a recognised spokesperson, 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 Elder welcomes those in attendance, guests, staff or 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 at 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 .
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.
In parliament it was first introduced at the start of parliament in 2008 and now forms a regular element of Australian political process. 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
In 2019, Canberra Airport added a Welcome To Country to its international terminal, spoken in Ngunnawal, the traditional Aboriginal language of the ACT region, and translated to English.
In 2015, Sydney’s New Year’s Eve fireworks were ushered in for the first time with a huge Aboriginal Welcome to Country ceremony, putting local Gadigal, Wangal and Gamaragal traditions front and centre in the global new year celebrations.
Welcome to Country can be bittersweet
Bev Manton, chairperson of the New South Wales Aboriginal Land Council (NSWALC), explains how giving a Welcome to Country can be bittersweet.
“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.”
For Michael Ghillar Anderson, Head of State of the Euahlayi Peoples Republic in northern NSW, a Welcome means allowing too much.
“How serious can one be with a Welcome [to Country], when you are paid to Welcome them to Country? That cannot be serious at all. It’s a money-making venture, a community income stream, without any real substance and meaning, but the invaders take it seriously, even though they pay you.
“Once you welcome them to country, whether you mean it or not, in their world you are opening the door and letting them in and what is your’s becomes their’s. Right now their only legitimacy on country is when they are welcomed in.”
Charles (Mibunj) Moran, a Bundjalung elder from northern NSW, explains how a Welcome respects past generations: “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
Traditional welcome: Entering country the proper way
Read how a Ngarinyin tribal elder explained a traditional welcome to country : “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…”
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.”
Welcoming babies to country
Across Australia, Aboriginal families are reviving the tradition of welcoming new babies to country.
They smear the baby’s face with ochre, fit a headband made by aunties, and gift them an animal skin, similar to one that would have been used generations ago to wrap newborns.
The purpose of this ceremony is to kick-start a cultural understanding for their children, to start a sense of identity which was denied to many Aboriginal people. Culture protects families and individuals and, so the hope, can reduce the number of children who are removed from their families, a government practice that continues today.
The ceremony has the support of First 1000 Days Australia, a movement that aims to strengthen Aboriginal families so they can support their children from pregnancy to two years of age in health and wellbeing.
Reconciliation Australia has put together a Frequently Asked Question (FAQ) section on Welcome to Country and Acknowledgement of Country ceremonies.
Aboriginal Welcome to Country Ceremony for new Vice Chancellor, Professor David Lloyd
On the 21st of March 2013, the newly appointed Vice Chancellor, Professor David Lloyd was welcomed with a special Kaurna \