Acknowledging traditional owners – mere PC?

  (09 December 13)
  by Greg Spearritt

At the beginning of a speech on political correctness in 2008, right-wing Liberal senator Cory Bernadi pointedly chose not to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land: “I was born here; I’m indigenous to Australia. This is my country too,” he said. Instead he acknowledged those families who helped establish Adelaide University, the venue for his talk. 


No doubt there are many noteworthy people who could be acknowledged when we hold an event. Is privileging the traditional indigenous owners merely a sop to the lefty PC brigade?


My take is that we acknowledge traditional owners because our forebears invaded and appropriated their land and for a considerable time denied them even such basic rights as personhood. And because their history and culture is four or five times more venerable than Judaeo-Christian culture and values, a selective version of which Bernadi constantly champions.


So recognising the original owners, their deep history and their ongoing activity in caring for country is a restorative measure as well as a mark of respect. But it also gives us a sense of perspective that can help forestall our own innate tendency to hubris. That we’ve made such a mess of our environment in just 200-odd years, for instance, is brought into stark relief when we recognise that Aboriginal nations flourished here for tens of thousands of years without wrecking the joint. We’re the beneficiaries (and all too often, squanderers) of that stewardship, from biodiversity to soil fertility. That’s a significantly more fundamental contribution to our prosperity than those who help fund particular institutions or even industries, worthy and all as those might be.    




I have no problem with acknowledging the traditional owners of the land. I wonder though whether the intention is so much to pay respect to the indigenous people of our country as to have something like the Maori welcomes that we see at conferences and events in New Zealand (I'm not talking about the Haka). "Welcome to the country" at the beginning of, say, a cricket test match gives white Australians a feeling that "well, we have an ancient history, too". I really don't think that "the mess we've made of our environment" since 1788 has much to do with it. That just sounds like looking for some reason to validate. And it doesn't appear to have much validity historically or culturally. (See Keith Windschuttle's article at Regardless of its apparent recency and novelty, however, I'd keep it as a sign of respect to the "old people" who stewarded this land and walked so gently on it for so long before the rest of us came.

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Posted by Adrian Jones

Windschuttle's article is interesting. I agree with him that the welcome to/acknowledgment of country is often performed badly, without due diligence regarding the nations on whose country the event is taking place (or, perhaps just as bad, performed in a perfunctory manner). The idea that acknowledging traditional owners is somehow an ancient tradition is a new idea to me, however. Of course it's a recent tradition: we have only recently started acknowledging indigenous people as people rather than wildlife! Much more venerable, though, is respect for a particular group's country - for a person of one nation to pass through another's land required permission, if not ceremony, as I understand it.

Posted by Greg S.

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