The welcome to and acknowledgement of Country has become a highly visible part of public ceremony in Australia in the past decade or so.
For Aboriginal people it is important because it is at least some acknowledgement of the fact that even though mainstream Australian culture is pretty European in practice, people attending these ceremonies aren’t actually in Europe (anymore) and the history of the particular country stretches back many timeless generations.
In a way, it also acknowledges what an incredibly traumatic year 1788 was for Aboriginal people. A year non-Indigenous people these days aren’t much fussed to talk about or especially remember.
Of course, 1788 was the beginning of all the dispossession, sickness and death which “Welcome to Country” comes some way to at least acknowledging.
I have a metaphor I use to explain 1788 to non-Indigenous people. I say it was “the day the planes appeared in the sky and dropped their atomic bombs. Kooris are today still walking through the nuclear fallout.”
Welcome to country challenges the three cheers for Australia colonial settlement story of rugged men in Akubra-like hats with whips and a tough little white woman at home. Well we assume he had a little white woman at home, even though the population statistics show that men far outnumbered women in the early colonial days. Certainly, there is no mention in the narrative that this strong man’s resolve would ever have weakened and his gaze move over toward the black women in his midst. But that’s another story.
Thinking about 1788 also means not everyone thinks of any individual piece of land as merely having a history of previous good tenants and proximity to parks and beaches. All private property in Australia has a start date after which someone with a European background and mindset decided to “improve” the land ready for sale or production. As part of this grizzly process Aboriginal people got cast aside. With extreme prejudice.
Aboriginal people know this and feel a deep sense of loss when they think about the appropriation of their land from 1788 to the present day. The sentiment is captured by Kevin Gilbert in the poem “On the Road to Queanbeyan:”
I look at the open fields and see
The space where my people used to be
I see the scars of wounded ground
I cry as I hear the death call sound
Of curlew mourning by.
I myself have felt this same desolation growing up in southern NSW, staring at all that flattened, cleared land with wheat and sheep everywhere. This used to be Aboriginal land I thought. Of course, it still is, but if I’d decided to camp there I’d be moved on quickly by some farmer overly concerned at the “invasion” of “their” “property”.
Sensible people in Australia understand, at least in part, the hurt caused by this injustice and, in their own way, try to make some form of amends. Thus we have acknowledgement of country, the recognise movement, sea of hands, sorry days, etc. It’s all largely ceremonial (thank god it’s not John Howard’s “practical
assimilation reconciliation”) but at least it’s something.
So the revelation of Maitland City Council’s official Welcome to Country policy recently was, to say the least, a bit of a jolt. Probably more like a sledgehammer to the head.
The good councillors at Maitland have decided that it is not enough to acknowledge just the Aboriginal traditional owners of the Maitland region in acknowledging country.
No, the official Maitland Welcome to Country acknowledges the early settlers as well.
According to Maitalnd’s official policy an appropriate Acknowledgement of Country would go like this:
I would like to acknowledge the Wonnarua people who are the traditional custodians of the land. I would also like to pay respect to their people both past and present and extend that respect to other Aboriginal Australians who are present. I also acknowledge the colonial heritage of Maitland and recognise the contribution of the early settlers in laying the foundations of this great and historic city.
In other words, Maitland have included the very people who did the dispossessing, killing, raping and banishing in the very thing (Acknowledgement of country) which is meant to aid reconciliation of these wrongs.
After picking my jaw up off the floor, I checked the Maitland website for the procedure around how this policy was able to become in any way ‘official’. A bit of poking around led to the agenda and minutes at the council meeting that night.
The draft of the policy itself, which includes all the settler stuff, was authored by a council worker named Calee Smith. She could not be contacted for the purposes of this article because she was on leave. As far as I could ascertain she is not an Indigenous person.
The “Responsible Officer” for the policy draft at Maitalnd City is Graeme Tolhurst who is the Executive Manager of Corporate Services. I spoke with Mr Tolhurst and he told me that as part of the policy formulation process he had gone to talk to people at Mindaribba LALC in 2012. As far as he could remember they gave their consent to the policy draft.
How could that be? Consent for the colonials, the land thieves? I asked him if the draft as presented to Mindaribba included the wording about the settlers. Mr Tolhurst said he could not remember. He did add, however, that policy can be amended on the floor of council without notice, on-the-fly. So perhaps Clr Fairweather, who moved the motion, or Clr Wethered who seconded it, did the amending.
Mr Tolhurst was quite defensive about the council’s position. When I asked him about why Maitland, of all the local councils in Australia, had decided to deviate so widely from not just their own stated guidelines for the policy but the reconciliation path the whole of Australian society is currently following he replied “council is the democratic representative for the will of the people of Maitland”.
The person I spoke to at Mindaribba Land Council, whose father is involved in performing Welcome to country said that they found out about this about a month ago and were “challenging it”. She described the whole situation as “very stressful.” When asked about her attitude to colonial settler recognition in the policy she said “isn’t that what Australia day is for?”
Notwithstanding the distress of the local Koori people at Mindaribba especially and all other Aboriginal people in the area, it seems to me this is yet another example of how the “representative government” model in Australia repeatedly fails Aboriginal people in Australia.
If it is to be assumed that the policy was researched, drafted and forwarded to council in the standard form as proscribed by the Office of local Government in NSW, Reconciliation Australia and accepted pretty much everywhere else in Australia then perhaps the policy was changed on the floor of council because a few of the councillors got their back up about the wording. Maybe it smacked of “political correctness gone mad” to them.
I contacted the Office of Local Government and received the following response:
“Thank you for your email about the “Welcome to Country” practices of Maitland City Council.
The Office of Local Government encourages councils to develop productive partnerships with local Aboriginal communities and recognises that a “Welcome to Country” is an important mark of respect for Aboriginal people.
Under the Local Government Act 1993 (the Act), councils are largely “independent” and “self-governing” bodies with rights and powers conferred by law. They are accountable to their electors for their actions.
While I acknowledge your concerns at the departure from the traditional “Welcome to Country” by Maitland City Council this is a matter for Council to deal with in its discretion.
I can only suggest that you continue to pursue the matter with Council, possibly by writing to the General Manager or your local councillors. They are responsible for bringing community concerns before the Council and, where possible, resolving those concerns.”
So, in other words, Kooris are stuck with whatever the local government thinks is appropriate for them. Again, the very instrument which facilitated the dispossession originally now reinforces it. Truly, this is racism.
The problem of governance in Australia is that since the arrival of the Europeans, the needs and desires of Aboriginal people have been an afterthought. Their cultural values are an afterthought, their history is an afterthought.
Who do the councillors of Maitland represent? In assessing the responses of all levels of government in Australia to the needs of Aboriginal people one must refer back to Governor Davey’s famous proclamation board of 1816.
The response to my enquiries received from Mr Tolhurst of Maitland Council, namely that the Acknowledgement of country policy reflects the will of the people of Maitland, reminds me of the position of the Governor and his minions (those in red coats) in the proclamation. The red coats hold a seemingly unchallenged position above their subjects. So it goes (in panel one of the proclamation) that black and white should get along with each other in harmony. No sign of the red coats here.
In panel two the red coats go out of their way to meet Aboriginal people as equals. As Penelope Edmonds points out, the central vignette of the proclamation is the meeting of the Governor (in ceremonial headdress) with an Aboriginal negotiator (in ceremonial headdress). In this instance this supposed meeting appropriates an agreement, understanding or even treaty. I’m not sure that in Tasmania around 1830 any Aboriginal person was actually aware of any treaty being hammered out but the consequence of this meeting becomes apparent in the final 2 panels where the red coats sit as the sole authority and take it upon themselves to mete out ultimate European justice to both black and white alike.
So the problem we have, both in Governor Davey’s proclamation in Tasmania of 1829 and the Welcome to Country policy of Maitland City Council in 2012, some 186 years later, is that a discriminatory policy – disempowering, dispossessive and cruel – has been implemented without the consent of the local sovereign Aboriginal people.
In both cases the policy has been instituted through the implied agreement of the local Aboriginal people. Agreement which is actually fictitious. But that didn’t stop the red coats in both Tasmania and Maitland.
Nope, it’s the democratic will of a government no Aboriginal person has ever consented to.
Australia will never quit appropriating Aboriginal land, culture, language, law, cuisine, legend, children, sport, music, art, etc. So what has happened at Maitland should come as no shock.
My opinion? There is only one way to finally free Aboriginal people and, through this freedom, the Australian nation itself. That is self-determination – the sure right of Aboriginal people from the start of time until the end.
Penelope Edmonds, ‘Failing in every endeavour to conciliate’: Governor Arthur’s Proclamation Boards to the Aborigines, Australian Conciliation Narratives and their Transnational Connections’, Journal of Australian Studies, vol.35, no.2, June, 2011, pp.208-218.