Our Place

Welcome To Country

Episode Transcript


CB: Wominjeka come with a purpose to our beautiful home, the lands of the two great bays. My name is Dr. Carolyn Briggs, the elder of the Yalukit-willam clan of the Boon Warrung. I'm here today representing my ancestors. We are today meeting on the lands of the ngargee tree in the city of Port Phillip known as Euro-Yroke and on the lands of my ancestors, we pay our respects to those who came before us, and those who came after us, our futures. We are here today to celebrate NAIDOC. This year's theme is always was always will be. As a member of the Yalukit-willam clan of the Boon Warrung, Melbourne’s first people, I am pleased to be able to welcome you here today. We are here to recognise the commitment you're made here today in paying respects to the spirit of this land and its first people.

MW: That’s the sound of Boon Warrung Elder N’arweet Aunty Carolyn Briggs AM performing her version of Welcome To Country at this years Naidoc Week, a ceremony where she welcomes audience members to Boon Warrung country, where this very podcast is made, here in Melbourne.

Welcome To Country ceremonies like this are performed by local indigenous leaders all over Australia every day, in the over 500 indigenous nations that make up our land. They are performed before sporting events, launches, performances, meetings, parliament, and I think I could safely say, have now become the backbone of the social fabric of Australia. But where did this contemporary version of a ceremony that has been performed for thousands and thousands of years by Australia’s first nations peoples, originate? It might just have something to do with a legendary activist, agitator and educator.

GF: “So, what's this scurrilous accusation that people have made about me? And where did you hear this?

MW: Where did I hear it? All right. Well, the scurrilous accusation of which you speak is that you were one of the main instigators for the first contemporary version of Welcome to Country at a festival, the Aquarius festival back in 1973 at Nimbin Do you remember?

GF: I suspected. Yeah, yes, but I deny everything!

MW: We’ll get to the bottom of that in a minute…

This is our place – a podcast that aims to explore the designs of everyday Australian life as a way to explore what is Australian culture today. If culture is how tell our stories to each other, and share who we are with the world, what is that story right now? And how can we use that story to create a new a positive narrative for the future?

Before we begin, I reckon we need a little Welcome To Country 101. The ceremony dates back thousands of years and was performed to welcome others who were moving through from other on this continent. It was a way to make newcomers to the area if they were passing through for such as initiation ceremonies, marriage, things like that, and it would and allow them to understand the place, feel a connection to the land and its stories.

Aunty Carolyn Briggs says Welcome To Country was like a passport for Aboriginal people travelling through the different areas.

CB: “Yeah like a passport. Permission I think people want to make sense of their world that they now live in.”

So the contemporary Welcome To Country serves the same purpose, in that it must be performed by a traditional Elder, and it’s a chance now to welcome non indigenous folk to the place where they are gathering. And it’s a role that’s inherited and taken very seriously.

CB: “So when you're giving a presentation, like a Welcome to Country, it's about demonstrating your knowledge about your being and family, your country, your what, what values, what are our guiding principles, within those values, that and now in the audience, we tried to embrace the audience, as about a part of the conversation. It's about our shared history, but it's also about a celebration of our being surviving. So, that is what I believe, when we do a Welcome to Country and, and that titles, westeners love titles. So do black fellas, I suppose. Because you can delineate who has roles and responsibilities. You know, we did we weren't just what do you call it, laissez faire with everybody had a structure. Everybody has structures in society. And you inherit it from your family line, you are instructed in your guiding who you are, what roles and responsibilities you have for your community. But how you ensure that knowledge is being responsible for the next generations coming up, so that they feel that they have a sense of connecting to people and country without fear.

It is a responsibility. It's not, yes, you're welcome to country, there's we instruct them with the laws, the patterns of laws, the principles of laws, not to harm the lands, the water ways was particularly not our children. So you are welcome through that process, if you acknowledge, those laws, so they have they have a commitment. And their commitment is how much do you respect this process? It's not entertainment. It's a, it's a real value, and we put that energy into it. We really put that energy into we, we look at what at where our audiences have come from. We look at how we embrace them into the place while they're whilst they're on our lands. And it's big enough, you go and see a maori haka or are you go and be welcome. And now it's become just so the norm. But we want it was something that I went to somewhere the other night, and the people from India came up and said, Thank you, thank you. We feel truly feel blessed. And I thought, if that's what it means, to that individual. I've done my work.”

And what of the contemporary version that we see today? What is its origin story? Enter the unmistakeable voice you heard earlier of activist, agitator and educator, Professor Gary Foley, who amongst other things was involved in establishing the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in 1972, which still stands today in Canberra, and helped establish the Redfern’s Aboriginal Legal Service, the Aboriginal Health Service in Melbourne and the National Black Theatre. He’s a legend who doesn’t mince words. He teaches these days at Victoria Uni. So back to that scurrilous accusation that Gary is the instigator of the first contemporary Welcome To Country ceremony at the Aquarius Festival in Nimbin in 1973…and whether or not he’s responsible.

GF: Yeah, yes, but I deny everything! I merely, I merely stood over Graham Dunston and Johnny Ellen and tell them that is that gonna do something up there they needed to talk to the local mob, and I’m pretty sure it would have been the local mob who would have told him to do that.

MW: Right. But… will you take responsibility for putting the idea in their head?

GF: Absolutely not.

MW: I don’t believe you. So what was this hippy festival in Nimbin? (Cue hippy sounding music if we can use stems, cello and bells from soundtrack.) The Aquarius Festival was as hippy as you can imagine a festival in Nimbin could be, all about alternative living, sustainability, music, art and even the French tightrope walker who later walked between the Twin Towers in NYC. It was 1972, and this positions it slap bang in the middle of what’s now known as the counter cultural revolution taking place in other Western Countries, which was marked by Anti-Vietnam War protests, the rise of the Civil Rights Movement in the US and a generation of young people abandoning their conservative parents instead deciding to “turn on, tune in and drop out” according to the advice of psychologist and LSD enthusiast Timothy Leary.

Australia’s counter cultural revolution didn’t seem to garner as many headlines here as say those other Australians who set off to the UK to create the controversial Oz Magazine which landed them in court for obscenity and headlines all over the UK and Australia, but it definitely happened here too. And the repercussions of this melding between Australia’s counter culture and our First Peoples fighting for equal rights was a significant moment that has had repercussions that are felt today.

GF: Well, I mean, there was the huge anti-Vietnam protests, which we were involved in, in the late ‘60s. Then in ‘71, there was the anti-apartheid stuff against the Springboks, which is the biggest thing that happened that year. And, we challenged the anti-apartheid mob who had come out of the woodwork that year, and said, “oh, you know, don't just look at racism in South Africa, look at it here. You know, and that led to some interesting long term alliances, you know, there's still people from the anti-apartheid movement, anti-war movement are still friends of mine today, those that are still alive.

And, and then we, we encountered the counter-culture, if you want to call it that, partly through, I went to the first ever outdoor rock concert in Australia at Ourimbah, just north of Gosford. Billy Thorpe and the Aztecs, Jeff St John and the Id, you know, and I was pretty off me face and I can’t remember much about it but there’s footage of me at that at mini yahoo. But then we encountered John Allan and Graeme Dunston through, we got involved in the, what was then the Australian Union of Students, and we were pressing them to sort of do more for Aboriginal stuff. And it was through A.U.S. that we came across Dunston and John Allan, because I think it might have been, wasn't it A.U.S. who part funded that first Nimbin Festival?

MW: Yeah, I think that's right. And I think…

GF: And that's where I encountered, I mean, Dunston’s got his own version of all of this, which I read. I don't know what Johnny Allan’s is, I was tempted to ask him the other day on Facebook.

MW: Do you agree with their versions? Does it… does it line up with yours?

GF: Mate, I'm a historian. And one of the first things you know about history is that history is just about interpretation and perspective. There's no such thing as Truth in History, history is something that never happened written by a man who wasn't there, and I didn't say, I think their memories are just as valid as mine. I mean, in most ways, our memories sort of fairly aligned anyway, ya know. I mean, they paid due credit to the, to the Bundjalung mob who they met up with up there. In Nimbin, and who guided them through that thirty years ago.

MW: Sorry, who guided them through that what?

GF: Local, local traditional owners they call them nowadays. There was the Bundjalung people, my next door neighbours, I come from just south of them.

MW: Right.

GF: On the North Coast of New South Wales.

MW: Even though you don't necessarily want to be associated with it, it, it was pretty important, wasn't it for a festival such as Aquarius, which stood for alternative lifestyle and sustainable living? To acknowledge that? Well, yeah, the loader was a local mob that owned the land, which was kind enough to to share it with them. That's important, isn't it?

GF: Well, that's why john Allen and Graham were different. At the time, it seems to us I mean, bear in mind, all of those big movements that I spoke of, were all converging at the same moment in Australia. And at the same time, there was a global, big global movement going on the same way as Black Lives Matter is now a big global issue on race at that moment in history was apartheid, you know, and so there was a global focus on issues. We managed to manoeuvre our political movement, you know, sitting in line with them. And in line with that also was the big. I mean, you know, that the counterculture movement, the Viet Nam protest movement, the anti apartheid movement, and the political nature of the Australian union students at the time, were pretty much in line with each other, you know, momentarily in history. And it was the right conditions, you know, at the right time. And you're right, in the sense that it represents a moment that I wouldn't call it a turning point, but a significant moment in the beginnings of an awareness and a consciousness that still hasn't reached maturity. Yet, in Australia, which is probably still in its infancy. (edit out me telling him to say it again, obviously)

it it's a, it represents a moment, when the very beginnings of a change in attitude and the batter was trying is starting to realise itself in a very minuscule way. And it's a it's a, it's a, it's a thing that has yet to reach his adulthood. It hasn't even reached his teenage hood, it's still in its childhood, this awareness and understanding, it's still a developing little child, we're going a long way to go in Australia, you know, but I, I suppose you could describe that moment at Nimbin as representing, you know, the beginnings of change. But that could never have come about without the sort of alternative sort of ideology, if you like, that was being thought of as at that time by the hippies in, in Australia, you know, you know, Well, we always got on well, with the hippies were as follows in the black power movement, which, you know, a lot of people would have thought was a contradiction in itself, but, you know, the sort of a lot of the values that they were talking about, were consistent with the basic original values of you know, community family, you know, anti individualism, you know, the welfare of the groups more important the welfare of the individual. I am my brothers and sisters, keepers or staff, not quite to the point of hands across the water we shall overcome.”

MW: Gary’s right about history. It’s subjective, open to interpretation and very much about who’s telling the story. He should know. The history of Australia’s First Peoples was essentially erased until recently. So, whatever version of history you believe when it comes to the question of who instigated the first contemporary Welcome To Country, it does seem highly likely Gary Foley’s challenge the organisers to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land at the Aquarius festival, started something big.

Eyewitnesses at the time say the ceremony was conducted by two of the last known initiated men of the area whose names I won’t mention out of respect. It’s fair to say though, that 10,000 or so mainly blow ins from the big smoke and a bunch of indigenous folk witnessed history that day and the beginnings of something that has now become intrinsic to the fabric of our everyday life, and, hopefully, has encouraged more to take an interest in learning about the land on which they stand and the history that it holds.

CB: For this, you have shown the willingness to honour the sacred ground, wurrungi biik. Today we also acknowledge the Boon Warrung country. This country is the unseeded Land of the Boon Warrung, who were the custodians of the land that stretches from the Wilson's Prom all the way to the mouth of the Werribee River.

So we’ve got this far but there’s still a little bit more explaining to do. You see, there’s an Acknowledgement to country too. And this is a different thing. An Acknowledgement is used in times when you don’t have access to an Elder like Aunty Caroline. Anyone can perform this. The hope is that an acknowledgement encourages people to take to the time to think about the history of the place and its people, a history that has previously been either ignored or seriously edited within our education system until recently.

LT: “Hello, I’m Lidia Thorpe, I’m a Gunnai-Gunditjmara woman, and I’m a Senator for Victoria for the Australian Greens.”

MW: That’s Senator Lidia Thorpe, she’s the first Aboriginal Senator for Victoria. She gets asked a lot to perform Acknowledgement to Countries and she’s got her own way of making sure that counts, that people take the time to learn and to listen…,and it’s a pretty failsafe technique - By encouraging those who ask her to do it, to do it themselves. I like it.

LT: One thing that I do when I'm asked to do an acknowledgement to country because of course, you can't do a Welcome to Country. If you're not standing on your own country, I can only do that on Gunnai-Gunditjmara land. But one thing that I've encouraged people to do is not ask me to do an acknowledgement to country and, and ask them to do one but also to do some homework on a particular part of the country that they're on, and that they bring that truth telling to the conversation. So and that challenge quite a few people because it's easy to rattle off, you know, elders past and present. And, and what you usually hear, I think that it needs to be more personalised, that is relatable to the country that they're on.

MW: That's a great idea. It's, it's in a way, encouraging people to to go deeper than just a something that seems to be that it could be seen as just something to brush over.

LT: Absolute, it's become quite generic, and it's being used by, you know, governments and bureaucrats just before they destroy country or lock up a child. So I think, you know, the whole concept of a Welcome to Country or an acknowledgement to countries is, is used as, you know, a bit of bit tokenistic in in some sections and being bastardised. In fact, you know, we were you see people rolling their eyes are here we go again. But I think by bringing the truth telling element to it, will open people's eyes and give them a better understanding about the land or the water, or the people whose land that is.

Gary Foley is also suspicious of white folks and their corporations who roll out Acknowledgement To Country without really giving little thought to the meaning behind the statements, which is essentially, a request to respect the traditional owners and their laws that have protected and preserved that land for thousands of years. He reckons, by white folk simply reeling off the words, they get to bypass concrete and real change, so it’s very important to watch what happens after the words.

GF: I'd say to be aware of tokenism. I'd said, beware of meaningless gestures. Observe what people do after the, you know, Welcome to Country's over, they let you stick around for they give you a share of their proceeds, or whatever they are about to they give you back anything that belongs to you? Does they do anything for us? That's all, that's all they need to do now see for themselves. Because I know what will happen. And they're in will be a new young, educated Aboriginal person.

MW: And it’s that new young educated Aboriginal person is what keeps Gary inspired to teach and to share his knowledge. While this recent time has been fraught with protest and a reckoning of the structural racism in Australia leading to the disproportionate number of black deaths in custody amongst other injustices, Gary sees some light.

GF: That's one of the great things that I, I I'm able to say to my students at this very moment, this semester. I said to him at the beginning, I said, You watch what's going on around you right now in the world, you live in one of the really fantastic moments to be alive, you know, that all sorts of things could happen, who knows what's going to happen? And I said, I see and what's going on right now. Exactly the same issues that brought about really major change with that Aboriginal embassy and not in 72, you know, and I see those same things converging, a global movement, that has to do with race in history, local issues, that, that lock into, and, and logically fit into that global issue of race and history. Right here, unresolved issues of major of a major kind. And there's a, you know, a unique opportunity in what's what's to come and I said to my students, either gonna be proud of it, or you're gonna get left behind, but you know, be aware of what's going on around you take notice, observe for yourself and, and figure yourself what needs to be done, you know, using the knowledge I've given you. Good advice. And so I think it's fantastic times right now, you know, it's, I mean, back Back then, we had Nixon with Nixon was an evil person. Richard Nixon. Richard Nixon looks like a saint nowadays.

MW: So there you have it, the origins of the contemporary Welcome to Country and some more thoughts from the bloke I reckon, might well be responsible for something that has created a greater discussion of history, place, and ownership, in fact, it’s brought great change…

So if you’re non-indigenous, like me, here are a few tips of what we can do next take it further.

If it’s possible, always get a local Elder to present the Welcome to Country, for they have been appointed by their Nation, to share the message from the people whose land on which you stand. And if you can’t get an Elder, if you are doing an Acknowledgement yourself, go deeper than just reeling off the appropriate words. Make sure that you and your organisation are doing more than simply paying lip service. Make sure that you’re doing the work behind the scenes, to educate yourself, to donate to various indigenous organisations, and to practice what you preach. It’s pretty simple.. and in a perfect world, knowledge leads to understanding which could, in turn, encourage pride in our real history and it’s ancient culture, rather than the divided one we’re experiencing now.

Senator Lidia Thorpe has a few thoughts on what else needs to happen too, and after all I’ve learnt through doing this, I reckon, it’s time to make this happen too.

LT: Look, the only mechanism I can think of is treating all of the things that we're doing now I'm building a case for that. And, you know, an Acknowledgement or a Welcome to Country is, is, as you say, it's a step towards doing the right thing. But, you know, we we need a treaty, we need to end the war on Aboriginal people in this country. And we need to have a very serious discussion about sovereignty, because we are sovereign people of these lands. The Australian Parliament says they're the sovereign people of these lands. So let's negotiate what that means. What that looks like to go forward. And treaty is that mechanism treaties away where we can educate the whole country who've been denied, mind you, the education in their lifetime, through the white education system that denied Truth to be told. This, this is an opportunity for all Australians to have a better understanding of what truly is, and it is no threat to any Australian in this country. It's something that will bring us together, unite us and give us a reason to celebrate together and give us something to celebrate together, which we don't currently have.

MW: The feels like this is so much still to be fought and think talking to Gary, it was it was pretty sad to see, you know, in his his eyes how far we haven't come and it given, you know, he was really working on the ground. But as he said back in 1973, when, what his version of Welcome to Country was performed to probably a predominantly white audience. That's a long time ago, I'd like to think we could have come further than than where we're at now.

LT: But yeah, we're patient. We have been around for 240 years, getting colonised. You know, having all our human rights violated prior to that war here, 1000s and 1000s of generations, so we're not going anywhere, and we'll continue to resist and hold our own. And I think that the more we do that, the more all Australians are learning and, and slowly coming on board to seek justice with us, but also to you know, have a have an identity that we can all be proud of.