Acknowledgement of Country
I would like to acknowledge and pay respect to the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation, the traditional owners and custodians of the land on which the University of Sydney has been built, and which were taken from them without their consent, treaty or compensation.
This land has always been a learning space for many Aboriginal nations, and as teachers and students we can draw strength and guidance from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander knowledge, one of the oldest knowledge systems in the world.
Why Acknowledge Country?: A Personal View
On a recent trip to the USA for a historical conference, I was struck (anew) by the erasure of an Indigenous presence in the eastern parts of the US, but especially on the shores of Lake Erie - a place that I learned was so important to the Anishinaabe and other First Nations of North America when writing my book, Masters of Empire.
A long walk only revealed commemorative plaques of early European pioneers; glimpses of the appropriation of Native symbols and names. Even the conference programme and tours mentioned nothing of the rich Native history of the grounds upon which they met, though thankfully there were certainly panels and papers that made up, in part, for the erasure.
The public erasure of a First Nations presence was in marked contrast with my travels in Oceania over the previous few weeks. First, spending time with members of the Wreck Bay Aboriginal community south of Sydney, as part of an earnest (if still fledgling) University-wide initiative to decolonise our institution. Then, some annual leave in Aotearoa (New Zealand), where even the (old) national airline, Air NZ, greets you with a Kia Ora. Neither Australia or NZ is exemplary in their relations with Indigenous peoples, of course, but there seems more reason to hope (recognising, however, that many have lost hope). There is a national discussion taking place, and however tortured and nasty it can get, the main issues are on the table. The Acknowledgement of Country is one way to keep those issues on the table, in sight.
We historians can and must play a part, however small a part it might be. While an Acknowledgement of Country is relatively common in Australia, there is no tradition of it in many parts of the USA. It is time to introduce it, and also in our everyday practice here in Australia. I confess that when I first arrived in Australia, I was sceptical of the tradition. Some called it tokenistic, others (as I used to do), might say it is more 'complicated' than that. It is, of course, but it is also remarkably simple and yet tremendously powerful to remind ourselves, on as many occasions as possible, that our presence and movements on Indigenous lands have come at a heavy cost to others. They are still costly. If we historians cannot publically acknowledge the costs of colonisation, then how can we expect our neighbours, friends, communities and politicians to do so?
For those wishing to know more about the history and importance of Acknowledging Country, you might like to consult Mark McKenna's work, "Tokenism or belated recognition? Welcome to Country and the emergence of Indigenous protocol in Australia, 1991–2014."
Of course, as my colleague and friend Miranda Johnson has reminded me, there are still questions to be asked about the Acknowledgement of Country. Where and when is it done most often - both within and across settler colonial societies? Does it encourage reflection on Indigenous historical practices? Does it matter that such acknowledgements are made in English? Should Acknowledgements be the same or similar across time and space?
For a recent and illuminating Anishinaabek take on the practice as it has rapidly evolved in Canada, see the interview with Hayden King (and related links) at: https://www.cbc.ca/radio/unreserved/redrawing-the-lines-1.4973363/i-regret-it-hayden-king-on-writing-ryerson-university-s-territorial-acknowledgement-1.4973371.
How to Acknowledge Country
The University of Sydney offers the following guidelines: The following text is an example of appropriate wording for spoken acknowledgements at University of Sydney activities. Adapt the detail below to include names of relevant peoples and nations, depending on the campus location.
I would like to begin by acknowledging and paying respect to the traditional owners of the land on which we meet; the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation. It is upon their ancestral lands that the University of Sydney is built.
As we share our own knowledge, teaching, learning and research practices within this university may we also pay respect to the knowledge embedded forever within the Aboriginal Custodianship of Country.
When using a written Acknowledgement of Country, use the following text in a prominent position within publications, websites and videos, where appropriate and where space permits a legible inclusion.
We acknowledge the tradition of custodianship and law of the Country on which the University of Sydney campuses stand. We pay our respects to those who have cared and continue to care for Country.
Our relatively new National Centre for Cultural Competence uses the following Acknowledgement:
We acknowledge that we are on the land of the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation. This land has always been a learning space for many Aboriginal nations, and the NCCC draws strength and guidance from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander knowledge, one of the oldest knowledge systems in the world.
My own Acknowledgement is largely taken from the NCCC, and adapted in light of Mark McKenna's comments in an important 2018 Quarterly Essay: "When we begin public meetings and official events with an 'Acknowledgement of Country,' we refer to Aboriginal people as 'traditional owners [or custodians] of the land, a phrase that lacks a completing clause: 'which were taken from them without their consent, treaty or compensation.' Even our acknowledgements contain silences."
There are many variations on the Acknowledgement of Country, and people often create a more personal or individual Acknowledgement. The important thing is that it is genuine and sincere. Dianne Harper, one of the fabulous History teachers at Chifley College Senior Campus in Mount Druitt, which has a relatively high percentage of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, has written and uses the following Acknowledgement, to both recognise the injustices of the past and stress hope for the future that her exceptionally bright students represent:
I would like to acknowledge and pay respect to the traditional owners of this land the Darug people and all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people of this nation. I recognize past, present and emerging leaders and acknowledge their contribution to our collective past and future. I acknowledge the troubled and violent history of this country, and I say sorry. I see the talented, bright and compassionate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students in our classrooms, and I wish them a better and more just future. They are our emerging leaders and I believe in them to not only understand this history, but to also to change the path of our collective future.
When to Acknowledge Country
Examples of appropriate contexts include:
events and programs such as conferences
relevant on-campus signage and posters (where it is workable)
the home page for websites
videos that have University-wide subject matter
at the start of new units of study
It is also respectful to include relevant flags with the Acknowledgement of Country, where space permits.
Information for Conference Organisers
My colleague, Jennifer Spear, who now lives and works in Canada at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, has sent out the following information to Chairs of Panels when she has organised conferences:
It has become common in Canada, especially in British Columbia, to begin events with an acknowledgement of the local First Nations’ territories. Simon Fraser University’s Vancouver campus is located on the traditional territories of the Squamish, Tsleil-Waututh, and Musqueam Nations. If you are unfamiliar with the purpose of territorial acknowledgments and are interested in making one, we encourage you to read the following:
· Allison Jones et al, “Territory Acknowledgment,” undated, Native Land, https://native-land.ca/territory-acknowledgement/
· Chelsea Vowel, “Beyond Territorial Acknowledgments, September 23, 2016, âpihtawikosisân, http://apihtawikosisan.com/2016/09/beyond-territorial-acknowledgments/
If you decide that you do wish to make an acknowledgment at the beginning of your session, we recommend the following language:
"I would like to begin by acknowledging that the land on which we gather is the traditional, ancestral, and unceded territories of the Squamish, Tsleil-Waututh, and Musqueam First Nations."
Some people might find the website https://native-land.ca/ useful for understanding Indigenous territorial boundaries, especially in North America (though it includes Australia), and you can even search by postcode to find out whose lands you might be currently on.
For a graphic visualisation of the seizure of over 1.5 billion acres of land from First Nations in the USA, see Claudio Saunt's excellent Aeon essay and accompanying interactive map, "Invasion of America."
For Australians, another helpful map is the official AIATSIS Map of Australia, presented below. For a zoom-able version of this map and some information about it, please see the website of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies.
For a graphic reminder of the violence of colonisation here in Australia, see the Map of Colonial Frontier Massacres, a project headed-up by Professor Lyndall Ryan at the University of Newcastle.
For a thoughtful reflection on the complicity of the History profession in "the great Australian silence," see Anna Clark's 2018 essay in The Conversation.