Contrary to popular belief and practice, there is no evidence that the modern indigenous political protocols of “Welcome to Country” and “Acknowledgement of Country” ceremonies were ever a part of traditional Aboriginal culture. Instead, they were created as recently as the 1970’s by none other than Ernie Dingo and Richard Walley. An article in The Australian — published in 2010 — explains that:
ENTERTAINER Ernie Dingo and prominent Perth Aboriginal performer and writer Richard Walley have emerged as the modern-day creators of the controversial “welcome to country” ceremony, after visiting troupes of Pacific dancers forced their hand during a visit to Western Australia in the mid-1970s.
While never an official aboriginal greeting to people who were new to their specific region, Dingo said that it was nonetheless a custom for aboriginal people to “get the sweat from under their arms and rub down the side of your shoulders so any spirits around can smell the perspiration or the odour of the local, and say, he’s right, leave him alone”. This aspect alone has caused organisations such as the Presbyterian Church of Australia to formerly review whether or not it is appropriate for its members to participate in practices which are quite clearly pagan.
As someone with an undergraduate degree in anthropology, these types of issues have always been something of an interest for me. What were the beliefs and practices of the aboriginal peoples living in Australia, especially since Europeans arrived? To help answer this question, I turned to the renowned A. P. Elkin, Emeritus Professor of the University of Sydney. Elkin’s book, The Australian Aborigines: How to understand them (Angus and Robertson, 1964) is viewed by many — though now somewhat dated — as still being a ‘classic’.
Unsurprisingly, in his almost four-hundred pages analysing indigenous culture, Elkin never mentions either the custom of ‘Welcome to Country’ or ‘Acknowledgment of Country’. Just like the production of the now ubiquitous aboriginal flag, these were only invented much, much later and are themselves (ironically) the by-product of European colonisation.
Significantly, the evidence that Elkin does provide though, for how indigeneous communities in Australia “inter-related” to those from other tribes is shocking. This is because it nearly always involved the ‘lending’ of wives for other people to take advantage of sexually. In his book, Elkin gives the following six examples:
Just before a revenge expedition sets out on its dangerous enterprise, its members temporarily exchange wives, thus expressing their unity and friendship to one another.
When an attacking party is about to attack the home party, the latter if it does not want to fight, sends a number of its women over to the former. If these are willing to settle the matter in dispute without fighting, they have sexual intercourse with the women; if not, they send them back untouched.
In some parts (e.g. north-eastern South Australia), the temporary exchange of wives between the two parties to a quarrel is a regular part of the method of settling it, if each has an admitted debt or charge against the other.
The final making of peace between two groups may always include the temporary exchange of wives, and on such occasions, all the usual tribal marriage laws (except those concerned with incest within the family) may be and are usually broken. This apparently marks the renewed friendship in a special manner; all groupings are transcended.
Very often at times of great excitement during ceremonies, the men go aside to prearranged places and there have sexual intercourse with the women, and once again, the usual rules governing the intercourse of the sexes are ignored. Sexual excitation is a feature of some rites, and it may be though that sexual intercourse will add to the effectiveness of the rites, or it may be just another occasion for expressing the common unity which those participating in the rites fell. In any case, it is for them just part of the traditional pattern, and they do not look for reasons.
The above five occasions are communal in nature; but there is another similar in some ways, which differs in being a mark of friendship or hospitality and in being practised between individuals. This is the lending of a wife to a visitor. In such cases, kinship rules governing marriage apply, and “incest rules”, interpreted tribally, are not broken. This is more than a mark of hospitality in some tribes (e.g. north-east of South Australia); it is an institution.
While acknowledging that these are customs that “though not unknown in the past in Europe, are considered by us to be objectionable”, nonetheless, Elkin states that these practices are an accurate reflection of Aboriginal culture. However, to provide a more sanitised interpretation is neither historically honest or — as argued above — is itself an act of cultural appropriation. In keeping with the current sexual zeitgeist, one can only question though, when the suggestion of wife swapping might be more authentic?
Both ‘Welcome to Country’ and ‘Acknowledgement of Country’ practices are ironically, not only fail to honour traditional Aboriginal culture, but are disingenuous reproductions as to what indigenous people historically did. Interestingly, the article from The Australian — cited above — concluded that “both Dingo and Dr Walley agreed the welcome to country ceremony should not be mandatory, or it would lose all meaning.” And yet, this is precisely what has occurred.
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