Opinion

Acknowledgment of Country: What should we be doing at the ALA?

23rd Apr 2020

The launch of the Australian Lawyers Alliance’s first Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP) in October 2019 was a significant event in the ALA’s 25-year history. As an organisation which is dedicated to protecting and promoting justice, freedom and the rights of the individual, the ALA RAP for 2019–2021 is an important recognition that as lawyers, we have an important role to play in addressing the systemic injustices suffered by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The ALA RAP formalises our commitment to reconciliation and provides an important structure to improve our advocacy and drive our contribution to reconciliation over the next two years.

Under the ALA RAP, the ALA and its office holders have an obligation to demonstrate respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples by observing cultural protocols. One of the most important cultural protocols is the Acknowledgment of Country.

It is therefore important to understand what an Acknowledgment of Country is, why it matters, and when and how we as members of the ALA should observe this important symbolic act of respect.

What is an Acknowledgment of Country and why does it matter?

I write this article as I sit in the front room of my home, situated on the land of the Bidjigal people, whose country covers much of the coastal regions of eastern and southern Sydney. The name of my local area, Maroubra, means ‘like thunder’ – describing the all-too-familiar sound of three-metre waves crashing on the shore; a sound which is a constant reminder of the original custodians of the land who, like me, listened to those sounds and gave this place its name.

An Acknowledgement of Country is an opportunity to show respect for Traditional Owners and the continuing connection of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to Country. It can be given by both non-Indigenous people and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. 

An Acknowledgement of Country often takes the form of a brief statement or speech given by the person who is chairing or hosting a meeting or conference, that expresses an acknowledgment and respect for the original Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander custodians of the land on which that person is convening the meeting, and expresses respect for the elders – past, present and emerging – of that particular Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander community. 

An Acknowledgement of Country is not the same as a Welcome to Country. A Welcome to Country is delivered by Traditional Owners – or by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who have been given permission from Traditional Owners – to welcome visitors to their Country. It occurs at the beginning of a formal event and can take many forms, including singing, dancing, a smoking ceremony or a speech in traditional language or English. 

The Acknowledgment of Country represents a genuflection of the true histories of the places where we live, work, meet and do business; histories that have too often been denied or even worse, obliterated. Because of this, it has become one of the most important symbols of the reconciliation project. Of particular concern for an organisation such as ours (comprised of over 1,500 lawyers) is that such denials or obliterations of history have often been done under the guise of legal mechanisms: from the principle of terra nullius that was used to deny prior occupation and ownership of country, to the forced removal of children from their families and the laws that prevented those children from using their own Indigenous languages.

In its RAP, the ALA recognises that the Australian legal system has systematically dispossessed, disempowered and marginalised Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and has often failed to adequately represent them.

As Tiriki Onus of the Wilin Centre for Indigenous Arts and Cultural Development at the University of Melbourne observed, the Acknowledgment of Country can serve as a powerful tool to help us reconcile some of the more unsavoury parts of our shared history. For lawyers committed to social justice and human rights, it is therefore an important recognition that the legal system which we have sworn to uphold has so often failed Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. 

For First Nations people, who have experienced discrimination and oppression for over 230 years, to be recognised as the true custodians of the land by people who represent the institutions that have often been the instruments of that discrimination and oppression is an important sign of respect and recognition. It also says very clearly that we acknowledge and are appalled by the injustices that have been visited on First Nations people in Australia.

The Acknowledgment of Country also serves an important educative function, providing greater awareness and understanding of the multitude of First Nations histories, cultures and languages that continue to survive and thrive across Australia.

At what ALA meetings and events should an Acknowledgment of Country be given?

The ALA RAP requires that all ALA conferences and events commence with an Acknowledgment of Country that is specific to the local Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander community. This includes all national, state and territory conferences, and all training and CLE events.

In addition, all significant ALA meetings, such as national ALA board meetings, Special Interest Group meetings and state/territory council meetings should as a matter of practice commence with an Acknowledgment of Country. As a measure of staff commitment to the RAP, all ALA weekly staff meetings now commence with an Acknowledgment of Country, with different staff members taking turns to share their understanding of Country in a creative and genuine manner.

As many of you will know, it has become a standard practice in many organisations to commence their meetings with an Acknowledgment of Country. By commencing meetings in this way, it promotes an ongoing understanding and awareness of connection to place of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and shows respect for Traditional Owners. 

What should be stated in an Acknowledgment of Country?

There are no set protocols or phrasing for an Acknowledgement of Country. However, Reconciliation Australia provides some recommended wording for both a general Acknowledgment of Country and a more specific Acknowledgment of Country, which specifically identifies the Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander community who are identified as the Traditional owners of the land:

        General:

I’d like to begin by acknowledging the Traditional Owners of the land on which we meet today. I would also like to pay my respects to Elders past, present and emerging.

       Specific:

I’d like to begin by acknowledging the Traditional Owners of the land on which we meet today, the (people) of the (nation) and pay my respects to Elders past, present and emerging.

Where the meeting is being conducted by teleconference, or some other medium where people are attending remotely and therefore may be on different lands, it may be easier for the chairperson of the meeting to acknowledge the Traditional owners of the Country on which she/he is, and then provide a general Acknowledgment.

To make the Acknowledgment genuine, significant and educative for all those attending the meeting or event, here are some further suggestions to keep in mind in preparing and delivering your Acknowledgment to Country:

  • do some research to find out whose land you're on and perhaps recount a historical story of those people;
  • be earnest and genuine in showing respect and giving the Acknowledgment;
  • adapt the suggested wording to suit your context;
  • speak with purpose;
  • avoid using past tense – acknowledge the Traditional owners’ continuing custodianship and connection to the land; and
  • use correct terminology – for example, don't use ‘Aborigines’ as some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples consider it to be a derogatory word.

Conclusion

As the ALA celebrates its journey to advance reconciliation with the launch of its first RAP, an important first step is for it to enhance understanding and awareness across the organisation of the appropriate cultural protocols for showing acknowledgment and respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Understanding the importance of giving an Acknowledgment of Country at ALA events and meetings gives ALA members and office holders the opportunity to show their respect for the Traditional custodians of the land, their commitment to reconciliation and their resolve to advocate for justice for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Dr Louis Schetzer is the Policy and Advocacy Manager at the ALA. Louis has worked in community legal centres, legal aid commissions and Aboriginal legal services in Victoria, New South Wales and the Northern Territory since 1989. From 1999-2002 he was Director of the National Children’s and Youth Law Centre, and from 2002-2004 he was manager of the Access to Justice and Legal Needs Research Program with the Law and Justice Foundation of NSW. From 2004-2008 he worked as a senior policy officer within the Victorian Department of Justice, managing several projects including the drafting and implementation of the Victorian Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities, the Victorian Civil Justice Review and the Gateways to Justice project, which sought to improve access to justice for disadvantaged Victorians.

For nine years he was the senior policy officer for homelessness and human rights at the Public Interest Advocacy Centre. In 2017 he completed his PhD in law at the University of NSW. The focus of his doctorate research was the application of legislative human rights charters to non-state actors contracted to provide public services on behalf of the state. He has authored several publications, chapters and policy papers on human rights, homelessness and consumer participation.

The views and opinions expressed in these articles are the authors' and do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of the Australian Lawyers Alliance (ALA).

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Tags: Indigenous rights Reconciliation Action Plan Louis Schetzer Acknowledgment of Country