“(Welcome to Country and Acknowledgment of Country) is a very important way of giving Aboriginal people back their place in society, and an opportunity for us to say, ‘We are real, we are here, and today we welcome you to our land’…It’s paying respect, in a formal sense, and following the traditional custom in a symbolic way.” – Aunty Joy Murphy Wandin, Aboriginal Elder of the Wurundjeri people.

As NAIDOC is next week, it’s a great opportunity to highlight the significance of a Welcome and Acknowledgment to Country.

A Welcome to Country is a ritual performed to highlight the cultural significance of the surrounding area to a particular Aboriginal clan or language group. The welcome must be performed by a recognised elder of the group.

The practice of acknowledging the Traditional Custodians of land and seeking their permission to enter their territory is an ancient custom of great significance to many Indigenous people and has only recently begun to re-emerge in modern Australia.

Understanding what Acknowledgement of Country and Welcome to Country are, and their history and origins can help us recognise the importance and power of continuing these practices.

Joy Murphy Wandin, Wurundjeri Elder describes it as “a very important way of giving Aboriginal people back their place in society, and an opportunity for us to say, ‘We are real, we are here, and today we welcome you to our land’…It’s paying respect, in a formal sense, and following the traditional custom in a symbolic way.”

What’s the difference between Welcome to Country and Acknowledgement of Country?

A Welcome to Country is a ceremony performed by Indigenous Australian Elders to welcome visitors to their traditional land. It can take many forms, including singing, dancing, smoke ceremonies or a speech, depending on the particular culture of the Traditional Owners.

An Acknowledgement of Country involves visitors acknowledging the original Indigenous custodians of the land and their long and continuing relationship with their Country. It’s a way of showing awareness of and respect for the original Indigenous custodians of the land on which an event is being held. An Acknowledgment of Country can be formal or informal and can be delivered by a non-Indigenous person.

There are no set ways for phrasing for an Acknowledgement of Country, it can be as simple as, “I’d like to begin by acknowledging the Traditional Owners of the land on which we
meet today. I would also like to pay my respects to Elders past and present” or more specific such as “I’d like to begin by acknowledging the Traditional Owners of the land on which we
meet today, the (people) of the (nation) and pay my respects to Elders past and present”.

Why this ritual is so important?

Having a Welcome to Country and Acknowledgement of Country as a standard practice in events recognises the place of Indigenous people as the first custodians of this land, promotes awareness of the history and culture of Indigenous people and formally acknowledges Indigenous people’s ongoing connection to the land.

A Welcome to Country and Acknowledgement of Country is important, regardless of whether Indigenous people have ‘legal ownership’ of the lands on which the event is taking place. This is because the meaning of Country in Indigenous Australian cultures incorporates more than just ownership or occupation of land.

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. While they may all no longer necessarily be the title-holders to land, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians are still connected to the Country of their ancestors and most consider themselves the custodians or caretakers of their land.”

What are the origins of Welcome to Country?

Welcome to Country is an ancient Indigenous tradition that was practiced when one Indigenous community sought permission to enter another clan’s traditional land. The ceremony varied from clan to clan.

“When there was a request to visit Country, the Werrigerri (a young man selected by the Elders of the community) would go on behalf of the community under the voice of the Elder, the Nurungeeta. There would be this negotiation and that could take a long time, it could take months. Everything could take a long time in traditional Aboriginal culture…When agreement was reached with the Wurundjeri, when you came to Country, first of all you must accept the law of the land, and that was about respect that contained all things,” Joy Murphy Wandin describes Welcome to Country as practiced by her people, the Wurundjeri.

So that is the background of Welcome to Country. It is not a new thing. It is not. Because our land was dispossessed; it has nothing to do with that. It is all about respect for our culture and who we are. It is paying respect, especially to our ancestors.”

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