Posted on January 13, 2022

More Australians Are Paying Tribute to Indigenous People

Michael E. Miller, Washington Post, December 24, 2021

In a nation known for laid-back attitudes, a solemn protocol is spreading. Before weddings and rugby matches, school assemblies and art gallery openings, board meetings and legislative debates, Australians are increasingly paying tribute to Indigenous people.

The custom, known as an “acknowledgment of country,” has been growing for decades. But it has accelerated during the pandemic as workplaces have incorporated it into online meetings.

Short statements recognizing Indigenous people and their ties to the land now adorn shop windows, wine bottles and corporate websites. And, in a sign of its increasing impact on pop culture, the issue featured recently in the finale to one of Australia’s most popular TV shows, “The Bachelorette.”

Many Indigenous leaders say the trend is a small but important step toward Australia’s recognizing and redressing the violent dispossession of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

But others fear that the custom has become a Band-Aid, hiding wounds in need of surgery.


In Australia, Indigenous groups ceremonially welcomed each other for thousands of years before British colonists arrived in 1788. Britain never entered into a treaty with Indigenous Australians and eventually deemed the continent “terra nullius,” or land belonging to no one. Pogroms and pestilence would kill the majority of the Indigenous population over the next century. When Australia became a nation in 1901, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were unmentioned in the constitution; they were unable to vote until the 1960s. And for much of the 20th century, Indigenous children were forcibly removed from their families and land in what became known as the Stolen Generations.

Indigenous activists began publicly to revive “welcome to country” ceremonies in the 1970s and ’80s as the Aboriginal land rights movement gathered momentum.


“It was about acknowledging that we are on First Nations land,” said Rhoda Roberts, who says she coined the term “welcome to country” as part of the Aboriginal National Theater Trust in Sydney in the 1980s. “But it was also a way of showing Australians that there was this diversity among First Nations, that there were different language groups. So it was an education as well.”

Welcomes to country, which are performed only by Indigenous people, and acknowledgments of country, which can be shared by anyone, began to be adopted by local governments in the 1990s after a watershed legal case that recognized native land title and overturned terra nullius.

The 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney opened with a welcome to country. And in 2008, the custom kicked off federal Parliament for the first time, with acknowledgments of country becoming a daily ritual for legislators in 2010.

That same year, however, conservative politician Tony Abbott, who later became prime minister, called the growing acknowledgments of country “tokenism” and a “genuflection to political correctness.”

A decade later, murals marking “unceded land” are common in major cities. Many Twitter users list Indigenous names for their location.

In November, the last Sydney city council refusing to conduct an acknowledgment of country relented. And the current conservative prime minister, Scott Morrison, frequently starts speeches with an acknowledgment of country, although critics say he undercuts it by also acknowledging members of the military and veterans.


A push for greater political recognition has also flagged. A 2017 convention of Indigenous leaders resulted in the Uluru Statement from the Heart, a document calling for a truth-telling process, a treaty-making commission and a constitutionally certified Indigenous advisory body to Parliament.

Morrison’s government rejected the first two and recently revealed what critics say is a watered-down version of the advisory body ahead of a federal election next year.