Learning from Acknowledgments of Country

“I’d like to begin by acknowledging the traditional custodians of the land that we’re on, and paying my respects to elders past, present, and emerging.”

That’s the form of words as I say them now; the current evolution. I learned to say them on the lands of the Turrbal and Jagera people in what is now Brisbane, and the lands of the Jarowair and Giabal people in what is now Toowoomba. “Custodians” has recently replaced “owners”, at the suggestion of Chris Lee; “emerging” replaced “future” a while back, although I’m not sure entirely why, I just noticed that some people I respected used that word rather than the other.

The saying, as a whole, is an Acknowledgement of Country; a form of recognition and respect for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and their relationship to the land which is often spoken at the beginning of a gathering in Australia. These days, I say it when hosting online meetings and workshops on Zoom or other platforms. Although I’m currently in London, and might be speaking with people anywhere in the world, I usually choose the Australian form of words if I’m working in a multinational space, because Australia was where I first became aware of the need to acknowledge Indigenous peoples’ custodianship of the land, and of a formalised protocol which could guide us in doing so.

I was late to the practice of acknowledging country. When I first moved to rural Australia and began working there, such Acknowledgments were few and far between. Occasionally, as I increasingly became aware of Australian history and its injustices, its silences, I would refer to that history at the beginning of workshops and meetings, but without knowing there was a formal protocol to support this.

I attended a conference at which attendees were invited to bring water from wherever their journey had begun, to be poured into one container at the outset of the gathering – but I never saw or heard of this anywhere else. At other conferences, I saw Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people giving a Welcome to Country, which might include singing, dancing, smoking ceremonies, speeches in traditional language or English. At one panel discussion, I asked if the moderator would acknowledge country at the start and she said, “No, we only do that for the more ceremonial meetings.” At another event, the MC simply said, “I’d just like to acknowledge all the people who live on this land now and who have in the past” – which also spoke volumes, politically, about their willingness to really engage with the history. I was learning, slowly.

The notes I was given by a white colleague to prepare for introducing myself in te reo Māori in 2013

In Auckland, the largest city of Aotearoa New Zealand, I learned more. I was welcomed into the city council for a six-month contract as a service adviser. Māori culture was more prominent, more visible, and more confidently articulated than Indigenous cultures had been in my Australian experience. Protocols are, of course, entirely different there. I learned a little about the pōwhiri, the mihi, the pepeha. A white Kiwi colleague helped me prepare to introduce myself with a few words of te reo Māori.

I learned a great deal more from my line manager Peter Thomas, who was Māori. He ensured that even the most routine team catch-up included a song and an appropriate acknowledgment.

Peter also showed me the ways in which Indigenous cultures could speak to the pop culture of the present, with wit and creativity – particularly when we ran an event which coincided with Star Wars Day which was later commemorated in a conference.

(Years later, seeking whakatauki or Māori proverbs for an event, I found one devised by a teenager as a riff off the Disney film Moana – and across the way from my office at Australia’s State Library of Queensland, I saw Brian Robinson’s artwork Up in the Heavens the Gods contemplate their next move… which mashes together Torres Strait culture with Christianity, Star Wars and real life spacecraft).

I made endless mistakes and misjudgments too. I grew up in the UK with a family where it was common to perch a kid on the kitchen table or worktop while you were cooking; among my earliest and happiest memories are those days spent watching my aunt and mother prepare food while my legs dangled above the tiled floor. In Māori custom and tradition, sitting on a food preparation surface is rude and disgusting – and you simply wouldn’t sit on a table under any circumstances.

It took me an embarrassingly long time to train myself out of the habit of perching or leaning on the corner of a table when facilitating workshops, and one of my worst days was when someone reminded me not to do this – and then almost immediately afterwards, in a moment of exuberance, I jumped up and over a table to collect something which had gone astray. (It was a Nerf gun projectile – we had been using them in a very boisterous team meeting).

The colleague who had so patiently reminded me not to sit on the table had to tell me, rather heavily, that it was also not acceptable to put the soles of your soiled footwear on the tables, either.

Since those early mistakes, I’ve continued, however clumsily, to make a habit of acknowledging country in some way, wherever I am working – including in digital spaces. I’ve drawn on the protocol from Australia, because that was where I first understood the importance of doing so, but never with the assumption that “one size fits all”, or that such Acknowledgments can be copied and pasted.

Doing this has taught me so much. In US contexts, reading up on local history before an event can lead you to find stories of unexpected complicity or resistance in the tangled business of Europeans coming to American land and the establishment of colonial government. It teaches you about the displacements forced on Native American communities over the generations, about the present day politics of Indigenous America.

In Canada last year, research before an event at the University of Toronto led me to include a reference to the recent National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls when I acknowledged traditional custodianship of the lands we were on, connecting colonial history to the ongoing injustices of the present. Another workshop participant was able to help me even as I spoke, too – correcting the names of one of the Indigenous groups I was acknowledging, because they had recently undergone a formal name change. People understood and forgave my error – the change was recent and I had taken my information from the most up-to-date material I could find online.

I continue to err and stumble, of course – mispronounciations and misunderstandings, research that didn’t meet reality, a poor choice of words, an omission or an act which breaches the protocol I’m trying to uphold – but people have been largely forgiving, and understanding of my intent — and I also continued to learn.

Acknowledging country within Europe also taught me a lot. Reflecting on the speech or workshop you were about to give through the lens of traditional custodianship and colonial histories brings new and deeply local questions to bear on the gathering. In Barcelona, it drew attention to the experience of Catalan people under Franco’s fascist regime. In the Basque Country, it was a chance to reflect on the prestige and support now given to a culture and a language which, within living memory, had to be taught in secret.

In Denmark, it highlighted the way that religion and nationalism are entwined – in legend, the Danish flag is thought to be a literal gift from God – and in Norway, it drew attention to the experiences of the Sámi people; when I visited to deliver workshops in 2018, the Norwegian talent show Stjernekamp was down to its final. One of the contestants, Ella Marie, is Sámi and I was shocked to find some Norwegians saying, “She’s only ahead because all the Sámi are voting for her, she doesn’t deserve to win.”

The Danish flag falling from Heaven

In the COVID-19 era, there’s little travel and the land on which I stand is one where English, my native language, has been spoken for generations. I’m a German-British dual national who is mostly working online, but taking the time to acknowledge country in virtual space draws attention not only to the histories and contexts in which we’re each situated, but also the ongoing power dynamics – the fact that English is taken for a lingua franca for historic reasons, that I can use my native tongue with a minimum of allowance or accommodation in a range of contexts worldwide; the ways in which the United Kingdom of today continues to profit from, and avoid discussing, its colonial past.

Wherever you stand, you can ask: what is the history of this country? Who has rights here, and obligations? Who gets to say they belong? Who gets to claim responsibility for this territory, and be claimed by this territory? How has that come to pass?

There’s a kind of snowball effect, too. The more you acknowledge country, I’ve found, the more you feel that it’s not enough to recite the same form of words and just move on, as if the gesture of recognition was sufficient. It’s almost too easy for a well-meaning white guy to get a pat on the head for the bare minimum work of reciting a few words before a meeting.

So now, sometimes, after an Acknowledgement of Country, and especially when the group is entirely white, we talk about these turbulent and riven times and how desperately “good” white people want to locate the problem of racism somewhere outside themselves.

We turn to quotes by Solzhenitsyn:

“If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago

Or by the American writer Eula Biss, a perceptive writer on contested contemporary issues of race and public health:

“I came to thinking about myself as dangerous through writing about whiteness…When I encountered the subject of public health with a readiness to think of myself as dangerous, primed by conversations about race and social power, I was surprised by how many well-accepted attitudes I was forced to refuse.”

Eula Biss, “Discussing On Immunity: An Inoculation”

None of this is intended to take away from the point of such Acknowledgments: to centre First Nations people and their experiences, and a past which has not even remotely been fully come to terms with, acknowledged, or addressed. Nor is it to take away from the specific and unique histories of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, for whom the Acknowledgment of Country is intended in Australia.

I write this post on the first day of NAIDOC Week, the annual observance and celebration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s history, culture, and achievements. I write it in a spirit of humility, just to indicate how much can be learned by listening and taking the protocol with you on your travels, and to acknowledge how much I’ve benefited – in places from Mississippi to Malmö – from things I first learned from generous and patient people in Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand. I’ll continue to learn too; not by speaking, but by listening – and then seeking to play my part in putting what has been learned into practice.

Will you do so too?

Find out more about NAIDOC Week and the related events for 2020 at the NAIDOC website. I can’t thank everyone whose conversations and comments over the years have contributed to my learning, but I do want to acknowledge the help and patience of Lesley Ahwang Acres, Tosca Waerea, Chris Cormack, Kris Wehipeihana, Peter Thomas, Baruk Jacob, and Chris Lee, among many others.

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