Menu Sian Prior

Writer, Broadcaster, Singer, MC & Teacher

Why be Welcomed to Country? [May 19]

On the day the conservative Victorian Coalition Government decided to make Welcome to Country ‘optional’ for state politicians, I thought it was timely to post a column I first wrote for The Age several years ago exploring my own reaction to this important Australian tradition…

I’m standing on a barge in the middle of the Maribyrnong River, feeling confused. There’s a tall, elegant woman standing beside me, holding aloft a sprig of gum leaves, and she’s inviting me to take a leaf and pass the rest on. Our amplified voices are booming out across the crowd of locals who’ve gathered on the riverbank to enjoy a community festival. I take a leaf, but I don’t know what to do with it. I’m meant to be hosting this event, but before the first act has even begun, I’m feeling at a loss.

The elegant woman beside me is a Wurundjeri elder, and she has just performed a Welcome to Country ceremony. She has spoken simply and graciously about her ancestors, about their spiritual beliefs, and their links to the history of this place. She speaks as if they are standing right here beside us, and she explains what they expect of us as visitors to their land. I understand, and yet I don’t. My ancestors are dead, I hold no spiritual beliefs, and although I feel at home here, I know little about the history of this quiet, winding river. The ceremony ends with some words spoken in a language I cannot comprehend, and as I hand over the sprig of gum leaves to a woman sitting on a picnic rug, the look of confusion on her face mirrors my own.

Over the following few weeks I find myself at half a dozen events where official proceedings begin with a Welcome to Country. At community meetings, concerts and award nights, in local halls, public parks and conference rooms, I listen as indigenous elders from different tribes of the Kulin Nation tell stories about their totems, such as Bunjil the eagle and Waang the crow. I see audience members shuffling uncomfortably, and I find myself wondering whether any of us understand the significance of this new welcoming ritual, or whether it’s simply tokenism.

How am I meant to feel when I’m welcomed to country? What exactly is being asked of me? And what should I take away from these brief moments of symbolism in the busy business of life? It is disturbing and slightly embarrassing to be welcomed like a stranger to a place which feels utterly familiar. It’s as if I’ve left my home for a while and when I’ve returned, someone else has made it their own, and I have to knock politely on the front door to gain entrance.

Maybe this is the simple heart of the matter. For two whole centuries it was assumed (and enshrined in law) that Australia had been ‘terra nullius’ when Europeans arrived. In other words, no one home, so make the place your own. And we did. It wasn’t until Eddie Mabo dug in his heels, and refused to accept that his home belonged to someone else, that we finally had to relinquish the idea of Australia as an empty land just waiting to be colonised.

When Wurundjeri or Boonwerwrung elders welcome me to their traditional lands, it forces me to look at my local park or town hall with new eyes. It asks me to imagine how this country might have looked when their great-grandparents felt just as ‘at home’ here as I now do. It reminds me that, less than a couple of centuries ago, these places must have felt utterly alien to my immigrant forbears. And it helps me to understand the ongoing relationship that indigenous communities have with this country. When those elders ask us to ‘respect their land, their beliefs and their people’, it is a gentle reminder that for a long time, few white Australians did. No wonder I feel uncomfortable.

I don’t really mind this kind of discomfort, though. It encourages me to imagine what it’s like to be in someone else’s shoes. It’s the kind of imaginative leap that will be invaluable in our slow but sure progress towards reconciliation.