From Little Things: Why we practice acknowledgment of country

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Words || Angus Dalton

A former president of the Macquarie University Liberal Club has come under fire after he parodied the Acknowledgement of Country statement usually practised at the beginning of official events.

At a debate with MQU Labor on the topic of whether Trump has been ‘beneficial to the world’, Satya Marar, who served as president of the Liberal Club last year, welcomed the ‘non-Indigenous’ people in the room as a mockery of the practice that usually extends respect to Indigenous people and Elders present.

Amanda Fotheringham, SRC Representative for Aboriginal Students and Torres Strait Islander Students, has said it is “disappointing” and “hurtful” to have Indigenous culture “targeted with lateral violence, especially when there are no Aboriginal staff or students present, which is a cowardly act. I believe members of the MQ Liberal Club are also aware of the seriousness of this as the footage of this scenario was removed from the debate video uploaded to their Facebook page.”

In the live stream video uploaded by the Liberal Club, the part where Marar makes the parody has indeed been edited out. At the time of writing, the Liberal Club has not responded to Grapeshot’s questions of whether they support or condemn Marar’s comments.

“It is imperative that these protocols take place as a show of respect for people of the Darug Nation and all Aboriginal people present,” says Fotheringham, who serves as the Chair of the NSW and ACT branch of the Union of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Students. ‘It indicates to the Aboriginal community on campus that Macquarie University is committed to reconciliation.”

MARAR RESPONDS

In a statement to Grapeshot, Marar has said:

“The debate included a discussion of political correctness and its impact on our public discourse. In that context, I made a point about tokenistic, feel-good gestures such as the ‘acknowledgement of country’ which was made by an opposing speaker.

“As a person of colour born in a country which, until this year, required film-goers to stand for the national anthem at the cinema before any screening, I feel that such gestures merely pay lip service to communities they concern. When India’s politicians validate themselves by forcing people to make patriotic gestures before watching romantic comedies – they only distract the public from genuine priorities such as combating corruption, fighting for gender equity or uplifting millions trapped in poverty.”

“If an ‘acknowledgement of country’ declaration is necessary for a university debate on international affairs, it logically follows that an acknowledgement of the head of state of the nation that built the university is also appropriate. In my view, neither serves a material purpose, and I made this point in a provocative way.

“I’d much rather have a constructive discussion about how we can resolve issues like cyclical poverty, proactive over-policing, custodial deaths and abuse or the curtailment of civil liberties in Indigenous communities – than make feel-good token gestures at unrelated debates.”

This take on Acknowledgement to Country misses the point, says Fotheringham.

“An individual cannot decide what Aboriginal issues need attention to suit their agenda nor can they deem an Acknowledgement or Welcome to Country a ‘tokenistic, feel-good gesture’. These actions are indicative of a lack of education and respect towards Aboriginal people and issues. It is the responsibility of people to educate and inform themselves on issues relating to Aboriginal people and communities.

“It’s 2018, and mainstream Australia still treats our culture with disrespect, a culture that has survived some 65,000 years. It says a lot about an individual when they say they’d like to focus on ‘bigger’ Aboriginal issues when they cannot respect the start of Aboriginal Protocols.”

Fotheringham says that the university “takes their commitment to respecting Aboriginal culture very seriously,” referencing the roll-out of mandatory Cultural Safety training for all staff members and the recent appointment of Dr Leanne Holt as the university’s first Aboriginal Pro Vice Chancellor.

Fotheringham has lodged an official complaint with Campus Engagement about Marar’s comments. After being confronted by members of Grapeshot on the night of the debate, Marar apologised, and says it was “never my intention to deliberately hurt anyone”.

A ‘POLITICAL ACT’

Professor Bronwyn Carlson, Head of the Department of Indigenous Studies at Macquarie, says the Acknowledgement of Country is a political, linguistic act that acknowledges the 60,000 year-long history of Australia before the arrival of the British.

An Acknowledgement of Country, as opposed to a Welcome to Country, is made by an individual, Indigenous or otherwise, who doesn’t have ancestral ties to the land they’re on, Carlson explains.

“I would do an acknowledgement, because I’m from Wollongong area, I was born on Dharrawal country,” says Carlson. “So here, on Darug country, it’s not my right to welcome you to country, but I would acknowledge that I am here, that Darug people have allowed me to speak and teach and work. It makes sure that people understand, and I understand, that it is a privilege to be able to come onto someone else’s country and to benefit from it.”

A Welcome to Country, on the other hand, is when an Indigenous person with ancestral ties to the land welcomes people onto their Country.

“A Traditional Owner welcoming you onto their Country is a great privilege, because it says that they are still here, that they have survived over 230 years of onslaught,” says Carlson. “Particularly here, on the east coast of Australia, this is like ground zero for colonisation in Australia. So to stand here and have a Darug person welcome you onto their lands is such a great privilege. Doesn’t that show you immense resilience? There are no wars in this world that have been going for 230 odd years, where survivors can stand up and say, ‘I’m here, and I welcome you.’”

Carrying out an Acknowledgement or Welcome to Country pays respect to the fact that these lands were invaded and seized by the British under false legal pretences.

The Crown claimed sovereignty over Australia under the concept of Terra Nullius – ‘the land belonging to no one’. Terra Nullius is a concept in international law that refers to unoccupied territory that any state can claim.

This is the pretence Australia was colonised under, but in 1992 as a result of the Mabo decision, it was found that Terra Nullius did not, in fact, apply to Australia, as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples had lived on these lands for 60,000 years.

“At no point in any time did we engage with any conversation with the Crown, and hand over our right to the land,” says Carlson. “ These are sovereign lands of the Indigenous people, who have an issue with the Crown, and that continues today. In the future that might result in Australia becoming a republic, and making a treaty with Indigenous people, but at this point in time, the Crown still owns these lands, which they stole – and it’s been recognised in our law as a theft.

“It’s a political act for us to say, ‘We welcome you here’, because at some point we can say we don’t. But Indigenous people don’t say that, they welcome people to country – but we expect some sort of reciprocity and respect in return.”

As for Marar’s claim that he’d rather focus on other issues surrounding Indigenous Australians, Professor Carlson says that the simple and symbolic act of extending respect is an important first step.

“There’s a great song written by Kev Carmody called ‘From Little Things, Big Things Grow’. If symbolic things are not important, why do we care about the Australian flag? Why do we care about ANZAC Day? Why do we care about Australia Day?

“Little things make a difference. If only more Australians understood the real history of Australia, from 1788, opened their hearts and ears and minds, and stopped feeling these emotions of guilt and started thinking, ‘I need to be an informed citizen in this country, and I need to know the real history’. That doesn’t mean that all the white folk need to get on a ship and get out. It means asking, ‘How can I live in these lands and ensure that the traditional owners, the first peoples of this land, are not the most impoverished in the country?

For a young Liberal to stand up and make a mockery of Welcome to Country, that’s really showing that even though you’re in this privileged space, on Darug country, at this institution where you’re supposed to be a learned person, you have failed to open your mind to learning. That is sad. That is really sad.”

Both Professor Carlson and Fotheringham encourage students who wish to know more about Indigenous culture and protocols to visit Walanga Muru, the university’s Office of Indigenous Strategy, and meet with Cultural Advisor Aunty Sue.


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