Taking part in Welcome to Country is an important and symbolic custom that has traversed thousands of years of culture and is slowly, in its own way, being assimilated back into everyday Australian life.
Uncle Jimmy, as he likes to be called, is a cultural and tourism officer at Metropolitan Local Aboriginal Land Council in Sydney. As an elder of one of Sydney’s 29 clan groups, he takes his responsibilities very seriously, educating the public about the country’s ancient people and history to make sure it is not forgotten and neglected by the ever-changing face of modern-day society. For those new to Australia, witnessing a Welcome to Country ceremony is indeed a thought-provoking and emotional experience, and offers not only an acceptance to the land, but an insight into the culture that has shaped it.
Uncle Jimmy enjoys talking about the history of his people, and immediately conveys the importance of job.
A key element of identity within Australia’s 300+ indigenous nations is the connection to ‘country’ or homeland. Looking at Sydney as an example, he explains how Welcome to Country was an extremely important tradition for local Aboriginal clans. While there were no physical borders, each clan held a specific piece of territory, and Welcome to Country was a way to invite and welcome visiting clan members who sought permission to enter a specific territory outside of their own. This is where the term ‘country’ becomes important.
As Uncle Jimmy explains: “’Country’ is not used the modern sense of the word, but rather it is the land itself and what it represents. To be an Aboriginal is to be committed to and to be part of the land. By performing a Welcome to Country, an Aboriginal elder and custodian of the land gave permission and right for another party to travel safely through and be part of their land.”
Today, modern Australia has embraced this significant ceremony, which can now be witnessed at the beginning of important events or festivities. Uncle Jimmy believes Welcome to Country has been embraced positively by members of modern Australian society who are looking for a more spiritual connection to the land and a means of acknowledging the injustices that have faced Australia and its native inhabitants since the arrival of the British.
“When they arrived,” says Uncle Jimmy, “there was no permission sought. They ignored the foundations of Welcome to Country, and no respect was shown. Now people are looking to embrace the culture and show respect for the first people and their history with the land.”
A Welcome to Country ceremony must be performed by an Aboriginal person who is from the area in which the welcome is being performed. It is also necessary for it to be performed by an elder or respected member of that clan or community. It can include a short speech or song, a tribal performance, or can be accompanied by music on a didgeridoo, a local instrument. As someone who has performed Welcome to Country many times, Uncle Jimmy adapts each ceremony according to the event.
An acknowledgement of country is gaining equal traction across Australia and differs in that any person in Australia has the right to conduct it. It is a means for anyone in the community to show respect for Aboriginal culture and heritage. It can take place at the start of a business meeting or any particular event where an Aboriginal clan elder or member of that tribe is not available to perform a Welcome to Country.
Uncle Jimmy believes that these acknowledgments are important within society, as long as the individual performing it “has the capacity to do it correctly, and with justice”.
According to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the latest data from Tourism Research Australia shows that tourists partaking in at least one cultural activity has increased by over 40 percent since 2013. Witnessing a Welcome to Country ceremony is one such activity, and is continuously being performed throughout the country, depending on what is going on in any particular area. For those travelling to Sydney and greater New South Wales, there are many opportunities to experience this custom:
Keep an eye out for special events happening throughout the city and region, as many of these will open with a ‘Welcome to Country’ ceremony being performed. Destination NSW is a great resource for planning your visit.
Throughout the region, many tour operators offer cultural experiences and a chance to learn more from members of Aboriginal communities, including Welcome to Country. Many operators are owned and run by local Aboriginal members and are worth checking out for an authentic experience with the world’s oldest continuous culture, with special mention going to Bundyi Aboriginal Cultural Knowledge, Unkya Cultural Eco Tours, Kadoo Tours
If travelling before 30 May 2020, check out the exhibition Wellama – a visual art installation, which means ‘to come back’ in the local language of the Gadigal people in Sydney. It plays on a continuous ten-minute loop at The Cutaway in Barangaroo Reserve in Sydney. The project is a contemporary re-imagining of Welcome to Country by Alison Page and Nik Lachajczak.