Acknowledgement of Country: No longer Nobody's Land

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Many readers will know that I studied Anthropology and Archaeology before Human Resources. In my current work it gives me a practical advantage in being able to pronounce Aboriginal place names with confidence, an appreciation for some of the beautiful traditional art in the buildings I’m fortunate enough to visit and an understanding of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history that is well beyond what most people my age had access to at school or university. The only people who are really expert on acknowledgement of country are Aboriginal and Torres Islander people, so it’s with a little hesitation (after some recent arm twisting) that I make my contribution to National Reconciliation week with some tips on making an acknowledgement of country.

The theme of National Reconciliation Week 2019 is “Grounded in truth, walk together with courage”. While all five themes are important, I’d like to draw your attention to the fifth dimension highlighted in Reconciliation Australia’s 2016 report - historical acceptance. Making an acknowledgement of country is one way all leaders can contribute to historical acceptance. Each time we make an acknowledgement of country or appreciate a welcome to country extended to us, we put the history of Terra nullius behind us. The Torres Strait and Australia were far from “nobody’s land”. Follow these tips to really bring the intent of the acknowledgement to life.

Acknowledgement isn’t a welcome

Only the traditional custodians or elders of an area or place can welcome you to it. For everyone else, we acknowledge their custodianship. Use custodian rather than owner - an area and it’s features have values, resources, stories and obligations that are cared for rather than being owned.

Make the words your own

It’s well intended, but awkward to hear a leader read an acknowledgement of country script. While the pronunciation of names can be tricky, the tone and intent is something we can all master. Say it like you mean it and practice it until you can say it well. Best of all, write your own version of acknowledgement from the many examples available.

  • I would like to acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of the land on which we meet today. And I would like to pay my respect to their Elders past, present and emerging. I’m not a fan of starting sentences with and, but it works here to give the speaker a chance to take a breath! This version works when you don't know the names of the Traditional Custodians.

  • I would like to acknowledge that we are meeting today on Aboriginal land, the land of the Gadigal people of the Eora nation. I recognise their continuing connection to land, water and community. Finally, I would like to pay respect to their Elders past, present and emerging. Starting to see the pattern - Land, Connection and Elders - I think of it as LaCE. Search “acknowledgment country Sydney CBD” and you will find the names of the local traditional custodians, often with an audio link with the pronunciation.

  • As we start our workshop today, I would like to acknowledge that we are meeting on the land of the Gadigal people of the Eora nation. I recognise their continuing connection to their land that stretches from the southern side of Sydney harbour to Summer Hill in the inner west. I would also like to acknowledge other Traditional Custodians who are with us here today. Finally, I would like to take this opportunity to pay respect to their Elders past, present and emerging. It’s the longest, the most personal and the closest to what I usually say when making an acknowledgement of country. I studied the map at university (and the associated controversy with it’s accuracy) and I will often gesture in the right direction as I say the words. Take the time to do just a little bit of research and you will feel much more comfortable.

Lessons from gucci

Gucci famously said that quality is remembered long after the price is forgotten. It’s how much you care, prepare and make an effort that counts. The exact words might fade from memory, but the intent and the sentiment will be remembered. Presenting to a group isn’t everyone’s favourite thing so manage the nerves by making your acknowledgement enthusiastic, heart felt and an opportunity to show your commitment to reconciliation. It’s your words that bring a Reconciliation Action Plan to life. Let’s banish the awkward and wooden reading from a script and replace it with a high quality message. The price you pay is your time, but everyone in the room will remember your qualities as a leader.