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Saturday, 19 March 2022

Acknowledgement of Country for dummies

Some of the discussions I've had this week with very smart non-Indigenous people have revealed that uttering an Acknowledgement of Country that communicates both respect and empathy is still just a little too tricky for many.

So I've decided to collect together the bits and pieces of guidance I've been handing out over the past few years into a list of dos and don'ts. I hope it is helpful.

Before you draft your acknowledgement
  1. Before you write a thing, develop some empathy for the experience of our people. Read our history. Talk with us.  Find out about our loss, our grief, our pain. Find out what we long for and what we aspire to. 
  2. When it comes to drafting an acknowledgement, talk to us about what will best communicate respect. Check if your organisaiton already has an approved form that has been created out of respectful conversation with us, and use it.  If no such form exists, seeks ways to make that conversation happen.
  3. Wherever possible, seek the guidance of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander people who are already part of your organisation, because they are the ones who will have to listen to your acknowledgements over and over again. If the acknowledgement doesn't work for them, it doesn't work.
  4. If there really are no Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander people in your organisation, seek guidance from local mob outside your organisation. These days, Aboriginal Controlled Organisations often have websites which will get you started. 
  5. If it hasn't happened already, consider starting a conversation in your organisation about the ways in which you will collectively work towards greater justice for our mobs within your sphere of activity or influence. This might be in the form of a 'Justice Action Plan' or something similar. Whatever the case, speak only about concrete commitments and the steps to very specific outcomes. Grand and globalising statements are next to useless.
Drafting the acknowledgement
  1. An acknowledgement should say something about the land on which you are meeting and the Indigenous group which belongs to that land. Note that this is rarely a group of 'traditional owners' in the legal sense, since most mobs do not enjoy complete access to their own lands. 
  2. You should acknowledge that the land is unceded (meaning it has never been given away or sold) but was rather taken by 'settlers' in a violent and often genocidal manner. 
  3. The ancestors who created the land should be acknowledged, because they are the 'old people' who still reside in country and speak to us from it. They are the creator-guardians, and as close a thing to 'divinity' as mob usually have in our cosmologies.
  4. You should acknowledge the elders who have cared for that country since creation, and who continue to care for country (insofar as they are allowed by colonial authorities). Elders, past and present, have a special responsibility to lead our mobs as we seek to stay connected to country and to our responsibilities as people of the land.
  5. Finally, you should give attention to a brief statement of your organisation's commitment to a greater justice for our mobs.

  6. Here is a simple example of an acknowledgment that would do the trick for churches and church organisations: 'We acknowledge that this church stands on the sovereign and unceded country of the trawloolway, and that this country came into the church's possession by deceitful, murderous and immoral means. We acknowledge the continuing sovereignty of the trawloolway over this country, and the right and responsibility of trawloolay elders, past and present, to care for it according to a wisdom passed down over more than four thousand generations. We give thanks for the ancestors who formed this land and gifted it to the trawloolway to care for. We commit ourselves to work and to pray towards a more just settlement for all Indigenous people.'
  7. Here is another example, which exhibits more creativity by evoking some specifics about the country in question: 'We gather today on ‘cold country’, the land of the Kulin nations. This is where the luk (eels) navigate the rivers and creeks, the waring (wombats) play amongst the ferns and the wurun (manna gums) stand tall.  This the country formed by Bunjil, the great ancestor-Spirit, and carefully managed by wise arweet (elders) of the Wurundjeri and Bunwurrung clans for more than 100 millenia. Today we give thanks for this country, for the rich and complex communion of its people, its animals, its plants. And we pause for a moment to silently pray that future generations will value what the creator has given far more than it is valued today . . .'
Pitfalls to avoid (please)
  1. If there is a recommended script in your organisaton that has come out of an extensive conversation with mob, and has been agreed to by mob, use it. Don't adapt it according to your own wisdom. Just use it.  In my experience, most peronal modifications of existing scripts (out of the arrogant belief that you know more about us that we know ourselves) end up insulting or in other ways disrespecting us. Please, please, please, resist that urge.
  2. Please, don't refer to local mobs on country in generic terms. Don't say, for example, 'we meet today on 'Aboriginal'/'Torres Strait Islander'/'Koori'/'Palawa'/'Murri' country'. Doing so shows that you haven't bothered to find out anything about where you are or whose country it is. This is deeply insulting.
  3. Please, don't refer to mob using possessive phrases such as 'Our Aboriginal people' or 'our Indigenous people'. We don't belong to colonists and never have, except as slaves and indentured servants. Saying that we belong to you tends to reinforce the fact that we continue to live in a colonial society in which the invaders have most of the power and believe they have a right to possess us. Again, it is deeply insulting.
  4. Please don't acknowledge 'emerging elders'. There is no such thing in Aboriginal or Torres Strait communities. You either are an elder, or you aren't, and the extensive use of this phrase is really, really annoying. 
  5. Please don't refer to 'traditional' owners or custodians. This word does little but reinforce the fact that most of us do not 'own' our land in any legally meaningful sense. It communicates little more than the fact that, in the eyes of the colonial law, mob can rarely be more than token owners, 'Claytons' owners, owners that cannot, in fact, enjoy effective control over anything at all. It is a word deployed by white lawyers. Please don't use it.
  6. Speaking of white lawyers, please don't talk about the connection of mob to land in terms of a period 'for', or 'since', 'time immemorial'. This phrase is another invention of white lawyers, and it infers that we do not remember who we are and how we are related to our country. The phrase was invented to represent the fiction that Indigenous peoples do not have a history that stands up to empirical inquiry: a documentary history, a history verifiable because it is written down on paper, preferably in tripilicate, and with the signature of (white) witnesses attached. We do, in fact, remember; we do have a history; we do have a long, long, memory. So, again, this phrase is deeply insulting.
  7. Another really annoying feature of many of the acknowledgments I have been subjected to, is the use of this phrase, or something similar: 'We also acknowledge/pay our respects to any Indigenous/Aboriginal/Torres Strait Islander people who may be with us this evening'.  This kind of thing is insulting on two levels. First, it assumes that a normal gathering of people, or the most usual kind of gathering, does not include mob. This is to normalise the absence of mob from polite, colonial, society and therefore reinforce our marginalisation and invisibility. Second, the phrase assumes that in the unlikely event that mob might actually be present, we are only present as a category of people, not as individuals with names or personal agency. Which reinforces another strategy beloved of colonial societies: abstraction. A phrase such as this refers to mob in the abstract, because abstractions can be dismissed in a way that actual people - with their thoughts and feelings and bodies - cannot. So please, please, please don't use this phrase in your acknowledgements. If you know that particular mob will be present, and you want to acknowledge the fact publicly, by all means do so. But do it by using our personal names, please. Treat us as people, not as abstractions.
Garry Deverell

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