It took me just a few days in Sydney, Australia to become aware of a practice that I find very moving. I heard it at the beginning of the National Rugby League Grand Final and of performances at the Sydney Opera House. I saw it noted at museums, and I see it displayed on the entryways of banks and other institutions around the city: It’s an “Acknowledgment of Country.”
An Acknowledgment of Country recognizes the ongoing connection Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have to their land. It demonstrates awareness of and respect for the Traditional Custodians of the land. Anyone—non-Indigenous people and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people—can conduct an Acknowledgment of Country.
The Aboriginal-led organization Common Ground provides the following example of an appropriate acknowledgment:
We acknowledge the Traditional Owners of country throughout Australia and recognize their continuing connection to land, waters and culture. We pay our respects to their Elders past, present and emerging.
It’s best to name the Traditional Owners directly, if possible. In Sydney’s central business district, for example, that’s the Gadigal people of the Eora nation.
A “Welcome to Country” is related but must be performed by a Traditional Owner, custodian or Elder for a particular local area. Occurring at the beginning of a formal event, a Welcome to Country may take the form of singing, dancing, smoking ceremonies or a speech in traditional language or English.
Reconciliation Australia explains why these practices are so important:
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have experienced a long history of exclusion from Australian history books, the Australian flag, the Australian anthem and for many years, Australian democracy. This history of dispossession and colonisation lies at the heart of the disparity between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and non-Indigenous Australians today. Including recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in events, meetings and national symbols is one part of ending the exclusion that has been so damaging. Incorporating welcoming and acknowledgement protocols into official meetings and events recognises Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the First Australians and Traditional Custodians of land. It promotes an ongoing connection to place of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians and shows respect for Traditional Owners.
Australia is not the only country that does this (although it must be said that not everyone seems to support the practice). New Zealand and Canada do, too.
What About in the United States?
The discovery of this practice struck me in particular because I learned about it in early October—near the time of Indigenous Peoples’ Day in the United States (a long overdue rectification of “Columbus Day,” in my opinion).
I found myself wishing that we would make the same acknowledgment—of the first inhabitants of the United States.
It turns out that this is happening—at least occasionally. For example, consultant Hugh Weber began his TEDx talk in Sioux Falls with an Acknowledgment of Country. Actor Anne Hathaway did so in her Hollywood Walk of Fame acceptance speech. (Thanks to Fortune columnist Ellen McGirt for pointing these examples out in one of her raceAhead columns.)
I hope this practice will become much more common in the United States as a way to acknowledge the dispossession and colonization Native Americans have suffered.
"Welcome to Country and Acknowledgment of Country are very important ways of giving Aboriginal people back their place in society…It's paying respect, in a formal sense, and following traditional custom in a symbolic way,” says Wurundjeri Elder Joy Murphy Wandin.
Surely Native Americans deserve the same respect?
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Cover photo: Thomas Schoch; Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SA