Aborigines

Sacred Traditions Invented Yesterday

A general hostility to irrationalism, superstition and customary practices reminiscent of the dark past, if not actually descended from it, made impassioned believers of the Enlightenment, such as liberals, socialists and communists, unreceptive to traditions, old or novel. Socialists … found themselves acquiring an annual May Day without quite knowing how; National Socialists exploited such occasions with liturgical sophistication and zeal and a conscious manipulation of symbols.
                                                            — Eric Hobsbawm, The Invention of Tradition (1983)

In 2012 I wrote an article criticising the undeservedly flattering obituaries published on the death of the English Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm. However, I omitted to mention the best piece of writing Hobsbawm ever produced. The Invention of Tradition, a book he co-edited in 1983, has gone through eleven reprints and is still in print forty years later. Hobsbawm, his co-editor Terence Ranger and four other historians presented essays that demonstrated many social and cultural traditions popularly assumed to be hundreds or even thousands of years old were actually invented in the modern era for shrewd political purposes. In a world transformed by the industrial revolution in Europe and by imperialism abroad, ruling elites invented rituals, ceremonies and cultural traditions to help mould the behaviour of their subjects to new environments.

Readers of the book found that the Scottish kilts, bagpipes and clan tartans did not have their origins in the mists of time but were devised by Scottish nationalists relatively recently. In India and Africa, imperial powers invented traditions that helped supplant local structures of authority and legitimised foreign subordination of colonised peoples. The high point of British “invented tradition” was the 1870s, when the parliament finally became politically supreme and devised a new ceremonial role for the monarchy, reviving some long disused older cere­monies and “mass-producing” several new ones as mechanisms to generate loyalty and social unity in an era of rapid change.

Although Hobsbawm acknowledged that the ill-informed subjects sometimes devised traditions of their own as defensive cultural weapons, such as the May Day parades of trade unionists, it was mostly the bad guys of history who resorted to such tactics. Hobsbawm denounced the latter: “The success of nineteenth-century Tory factory masters in Lancashire (as distinct from Liberal Ones) in using such old ties to advantage shows that they were still there to be used — even in the unprecedented environment of the industrial town.”

Then, as now, he argued, it was essential to understand and demystify these tactics so that socialists and liberal progressives could overcome such ritualistic appeals to irrationalism and superstition, and let the light of reason shine through.

Yet in modern Australia, the political Left has taken the opposite turn. Wherever Labor governments have gained power in recent decades they have made it compulsory for every government instrumentality, and many independent organisations they fund, to begin every public meeting with a cere­monial acknowledgement of something very ancient and certainly not progressive: the welcome to country of Aboriginal traditional landowners.

This ritual is now so ubiquitous it is virtually inescapable, from the opening of writers’ festivals, to art exhibitions, academic conferences, school assemblies and functions at the ABC, indeed anywhere those in the public sector gather. Since 2006, the standing orders of the New South Wales Parliament require each sitting day to open with the incantation:

We acknowledge the traditional owners, the Gadigal people of the Eora nation. We also acknowledge the traditional owners of the lands we represent and thank them for their custodianship of country.

The ritual is now performed far more frequently than singing the national anthem or raising of the Australian flag. It was surreptitiously introduced by academic and government bureaucracies without any public debate, let alone public support, and its authors have never been named or their purposes justified. Nonetheless, since the passing of the Native Title Act in 1993, it has been foisted on a mystified public as though it had the sanction of deep indigenous tradition.

Wikipedia, where the entry is mostly written by commentators who brook no opposition, claims the welcome to country is “thousands of years” old. The site nonetheless has only been able to trace any evidence for the ceremony back to 1973. This was its appearance at an Aquarius Festival at the hippie centre of Nimbin, northern New South Wales. That sounds right – the dope-addicted, tertiary-educated, white bohemians of Nimbin would find it no trouble to invent an Aboriginal ceremony to complement their psychedelic fantasies, and to claim it as an inheritance of millennia.

I never knew of the ritual until 1996 when it appeared at a conference of the Centre for Cross-Cultural Studies of the Australian National University. The conference was held at James Cook University, Cairns, and its organisers roped in two women elders from the local community to receive the acknowledgement of country at the opening session. The women looked embarrassed at being the centre of so much attention, and declined to participate in any ritual, or even to speak to those assembled. So the white academics from the ANU Centre had to do it all by themselves. Some of the other local Aboriginal participants later told me the ceremony was new to them too, and was not part of any culture they’d ever heard about.

As the Northern Territory MP, the traditional Walpiri woman Bess Price, later told a reporter from the Australian, these cere­monies were not meaningful to traditional people. “We don’t do that in communities,” she said. “It’s just a recent thing. It’s just people who are trying to grapple at something they believe should be traditional.”

Moreover, rather than being a symbol of reconciliation, many of its utterances are, on any objective assessment, disrespectful. Most of those who make them never take the trouble to discover the actual name of the local clan but simply acknowledge nameless “elders” or “the traditional owners”. I have heard this so many times by so many people that it is probably unfair to single out Maurice Newman, chairman of the ABC during the five years I was on its board. Over this time, at only one of the many public functions where he performed this ritual (at Broome) did he ever mention the name of the local clan. Indeed, at one ABC staff function in Brisbane he acknowledged the traditional owners “whoever they are”. To any genuine Aboriginal elder, the real message of such treatment is that the speaker’s sentiments are not sincere.

In other cases, the ritual can be even more insulting when the speaker gets the name of the local group wrong. From 2001 to 2007, when he presided over graduation ceremonies, the Chancellor of the University of Sydney, Justice Kim Santow, routinely acknowledged the Eora people as the traditional owners of the land on which the university stood. However, the real name of the original local clan was not Eora but Cadigal. Moreover, had Santow consulted the writings of Australia’s most scholarly linguist on this topic, Arthur Capell (a former anthropologist at his own university), he would have found that “Eora” was not even the name of a clan or social unit but the local word for “people” (Oceania, 41, 1970, 20–27). Hence, throughout his tenure, Justice Santow had been welcoming graduands and their parents to the land of the People people. His successor, Marie Bashir, took better advice and more accurately acknowledged the Cadigal people. (NB Dominic Perrottet: the Aborigines who described themselves in 1788 as “Eora” were not using the name of their “nation”, as your Parliament’s opening statement believes. Your standing orders need amending, or better yet, some heavy trimming.)

In February 2008, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd opened the forty-second Australian Parliament by hosting a welcoming ceremony by the traditional Aboriginal owners, the Ngunnawal people. I have been to plenty of functions in Canberra that staged welcome-to-country ceremonies and/or acknowledgements of traditional owners. In all cases where names were given, the Ngunnawal people were credited as the true landowners. In his 1974 book The Aboriginal Tribes of Australia, the anthropologist Norman Tindale provided a map that showed the southern boundary of this group contained the land on which Parliament House now stands. At the time, Tindale’s book was the most authoritative on tribal boundaries.

However, in 2001 Ann Jackson-Nakano wrote The Kamberri: A History of Aboriginal Families in the ACT and Surrounds. It is a scholarly work, a 200-page monograph published by the journal Aboriginal History, and the fruit of a huge amount of research. Jackson-Nakano argues persuasively that Tindale got it wrong, as did the local sources on which he relied.

She discovered that modern usage of the name Ngunnawal did not come from Aboriginal tradition but from a park in the town of Bowning, near Yass, named by white people as Ngunnawal Park. A sign bearing that name was erected at the park in the 1960s, dedicated to Aboriginal people of the Yass district who the townspeople thought had died out in 1848. Some locals who identified as Aboriginal subsequently saw the sign and adopted it as their username.

Jackson-Nakano argues the traditional owners of the land where Parliament House stands, and indeed most of the ACT, are the Kamberri people, after whom the first white landowner, Joshua John Moore, named his land grant in 1824. If she is right — and her book is the most thorough analysis of the subject — then the Australian Parliament was acknowledging the wrong people, or at the very least using the wrong name for whoever actually qualifies as the descendants of the local Aboriginal people. This is hardly a show of respect for Aboriginal people, as its originators claimed. For those with Kamberri genes, it’s an insult by omission.

You would have thought that the federal parliament would have had the resources to research the question properly, and that the Prime Minister’s office would have ensured they did, before allowing Rudd to go ahead with the blunder of using the wrong name at the opening of his first parliament. Today, in 2022, the Parliament has rectified the situation but has only got things partly right. It now includes both Kamberri and Ngunnawal names in its ceremony, despite the latter’s dubious claim to authenticity.

If Australian leftists want to continue inventing Aboriginal traditions, they obviously need to lift the quality of their research. In fact, we would all be better off if they gave away the whole tawdry game. Most of the white dignitaries who speak these rites are merely going through the motions and, as Bess Price says, genuine Aborigines don’t recognise them as part of their own traditions. No one can seriously claim they contribute to inter-racial respect or reconciliation.

The truth is, the welcome to country is a demeaning ritual, embraced by urban Aboriginal activists and their white supporters for the same reasons Hobsbawm attributes to the authoritarians and social engineers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries: to mould the behaviour of their subjects to the preferred political position through “liturgical sophistication and zeal and a conscious manipulation of symbols”.

34 comments
  • glenda ellis

    I am thoroughly over welcoming anyone to the country. As my plane touched down in Sydney on Friday the hostess ( or whatever she is now called) welcomed all on board to the country of whoever it was. No-one took any more notice of her words then than they had of the important(?) safety messages earlier in the flight. The sooner we get over this silliness the better. Thanks for the informative article.

  • Biggles

    When I am subjected to this nonsense at a meeting, I have an overwhelming desire to shout H…. S… at the top of my lungs. V. bad manners of course and I would probably be thrown out, but we have to hit back hard at the underlying message that ‘this is our country, you don’t belong here’.

  • ianl

    @glenda ellis

    Which airline, please ? Suspect Skippy, of course.

  • Tom Lewis

    I fought for this country. I don’t need anyone to welcome me to it.

    Divisive rubbish!

  • March

    Great article Keith.

    In keeping with the spirit of just making H… S… Up the third wave citizens also will now insist on an acknowledgement when they are present, or absent. In future meetings the following incantation is proposed… We acknowledge the third wave citizens the third arm of Australia’s grand narrative. We pay respect to Nonna, Poppa and other elders and thank them for their contribution to our cultural diversity. Without their wisdom and forebearance we would all be eating spam.

  • Adelagado

    A ‘Welcome to Country’ ceremony is exactly the opposite of course.

  • call it out

    I recall a welcome to country in a Zoom meeting. We we in three separate states.
    And the indigenous AFL round seems to go on for half the season.
    How long will this madness go on?

  • Michael

    Of course I am welcome in my country.

  • padraic

    I agree with the thrust of the article as well as Biggles’ comment – “the underlying message that ‘this is our country, you don’t belong here’. It’s pathetic that so many people, particularly urban people, are identifying as Aborigines only when they have many “tribes” from Europe, Asia etc in their makeup as well as Aboriginal. Why should Australians have to attach their identity to some one particular mob? As I have mentioned before, my European ancestors came from England Germany, Ireland and Scotland and lost contact with those countries – so which one do I have to pick to identify with? Their children and descendants grew up here as did my parents and considered themselves, dare I say it, Australians. That’s my identity and I refuse to accept that this is not my country.

  • Katzenjammer

    It’s quite appropriate for the newly established cult of Indigeneity Restructured to invent traditions that resound so well with the superficiality of their retrofitted heritage. But it’s disappointing we’re treated as strangers by not being Welcomed on the muzak system at supermarkets, especially those which stock traditional roo sausages.

  • Tony Tea

    WTCs have no place in a secular society.

  • Ian MacKenzie

    Is it then not true that welcome to country first occurred in 1976, when entertainers Ernie Dingo and Richard Walley developed a ceremony to welcome a group of Maori artists who were participating in the Perth International Arts Festival? If so I’m deeply disappointed. Next someone will tell me that Geoffrey Bardon and his students didn’t invent dot painting in the 1970s as well. And don’t get me started on Hindmarsh Island or Bruce Pascoe…

  • Stephen

    On the weekend I tuned in to Channel 9 to watch Australia’s glorious victory over the old enemy, England, in the Rugby Union Test Match. The time wasted on Welcome to Country, God Save the Queen and Advance Australia Fair was just too much. Welcome to Country is childish and embarrassing. Back in the day we would all just sing a rousing chorus of God Save the Queen and then on with the game. That was all the ritual I needed.

  • geoff_brown1

    Reading the articles concerning the “Yoorrook Justice Commission” in Victoria, it seems “Yarning circles” are to be the new “Welcome to Country.”

  • NFriar

    Thank you Keith – I did not know about the correct tribal name for Canberra.
    Funnily my dad used to say – ‘Camberra’ – I wonder now…….he was born 1907.

    @March – indeed.
    I get irritated at ‘…and emerging!!!”

    Mind you my social outtings are limited now – I check if AoC on the agenda – and turn up late or not at all.

    Sadly it appears acceptable everywhere – I attended The Melbourne Festival of Comedy on a north coast town – as the lights dimmed – a voice boomed acknowledgement of country.
    Overwhelming and intimidating – it threw me for the rest of the night.
    I contacted the organisers to see if it was a Council thing.

    No a prerecording of Jack Charles voice – they apologised for it being scarey blaming the sound system.

    I had nightmares for three nights.
    I usually check first – but this was a gift ticket.
    Thank goodness as it was $50!!!!!

    PS I don’t believe anyone else noticed.

  • Peter Marriott

    Good piece Keith. The whole thing is an insult to all of us born here, and it sounds like it’s just a joke to most aborigines as well, but so long as they think the insult and the jokes on us it seems, the progressive transnational types keep ramming it down our throat. I don’t need to be welcomed to my own country, and to see the way they’re getting themselves all dressed up in cave man like theatrical gear and pretending to get a tune out of a sort of hollow stick they call a didgeridoo makes an even bigger joke of it all, and smacks very much of mockery……and just who are they mocking I wonder, or are they just ramping it all up to support the equally big mockery, but more dangerous….. ‘the voice’ ?
    It makes me angry to say the least, and I know I’m not Robinson Crusoe.

  • Macspee

    Along with smoking ceremony and dot painting.

  • Joseph

    If you have been involved in schools and education you would have had the misfortune to be involved in many of these ‘ceremonies’. Teachers and schools were early adopters, even if surreptitiously. Rarely however did I see the teachers themselves recite the sacred words of welcome, they always pushed forward some little charmer to recite a series of meaningless words, often in language. Assemblies were a favourite time for this farce. I did have the great pleasure of seeing a live comedy show breathlessly interrupt the middle of their act because they had forgotten to do the acknowledgement. They quickly rattled off the special words in mock solemnity and carried on with the show. Very brave I thought and very funny. You had to be there because I have never seen this happen at any other time.

  • Brian Boru

    Thanks Keith. Like other commenters here this W to C rubbish upsets me. However, I suggest that by remaining silent we are actually agreeing with it and encouraging it.
    .
    If in any gathering it is presumed all agree with the W to C the responsibility of a person who does not agree is to say aloud; “I disagree”. The more that reaction occurs, the less attractive it will be to the racists to push it.

  • STJOHNOFGRAFTON

    This “Welcome to Country” absurdity seems eponymous with “The Goon Show”. That classic episode “It’s All In The Mind, You Know” seems to apply. However, whilst “The Goon Show” was a good laugh for many of us in more sensible times, the foisted “Weclome to Country” ceremony is all a bit infra dig for real Aussies.

  • john.singer

    Great Article Keith Windschuttle.

    In my recent research I have been astounded by the number of papers and books written about Aboriginal traditions and their ownership/custodianship of the Land. I wonder who finances them all as they vastly outnumber the books and papers which try to give an alternate view.

    Having read that excellent book “Hasluck versus Coombs” by Geoffrey Partington I spent months scouring the net and eventually found a copy of Paul Hasluck’s “Shades of Darkness”. Then last month I finally found a copy of Coombs book “Kulinma” and have just survived the reading of it.

    Reading Coombs is like reading a large Government report on something your were interested in reading about when you began and wished you hadn’t by the time you finished. But in that book he makes a roadmap for nearly everything that has gone wrong “race relations” since its publication in 1978.

    The Liberal Partyroom did Australia a great disservice by electing John Gorton Prime Minister instead of Paul Hasluck because Hasluck was then lost to the Aboriginal relations cause and was of course then silenced by his new job of Governor General.

    There is an urgent need for new books and papers presenting the other side of the frontier as Reynolds would put it and a decent slice of Government funding to make it happen.

  • rickhurst

    Ric Hurst
    Cannot disagree with Keith or any of the comments.
    These false ceremonies are divisive as is the aboriginal flag and the footers on so much correspondence which proffers
    respect for “emerging elders”.
    A ludicrous statement as respect must be earned and is not a right.
    A friend intends walking out of any function prefaced by a welcome to country…something we all should consider.

  • whitelaughter

    Given that when they try to ‘acknowledge’ the tribe, they frequently get it wrong, not surprising that they’ve started dropping the names.
    Parliament House will acknowledge the Wiradjurri – who never crossed south of the Molonglo. The tribe was the Walgulu, who engaged in raid against the northern tribes until driven back to the river by mercenaries hired from the Bathurst mob.

    It’s fun tracing the oldest possible dates for Aboriginal culture. Dot paintings? Created in public schools in the 1960s. The Min-Min lights? Created by highbeams over the horizon, so earliest possible date is 1890s and the Cobb and Co coaches. The Rainbow Serpent came down from the islands to the north, so cannot predate the Indonesian trapang fleets – and *their* culture has the Serpent Stones, which probably inspired the Aboriginal legend.
    And if the Rainbow Serpent is the oldest, then the tale of the 7 sisters was not being told until western sailors, taught the tale of the Pleiades, were being shipwrecked off the coast.

  • brandee

    Such good support for this contribution by Keith means there is energy for a much needed pushback.
    My pushback was made recently to the the large prestigious Christian school attended by my grandchild. There as everywhere the ‘welcome’ is given with nauseous repetition. My suggestion was for an addition to be made to the ‘welcome’ to include reference to the Coming of the Light annual celebration by Torres Strait Islanders on July 1.
    It is not convenient for the media to mention this happy event that celebrates the coming of the Christian missionary to Torres Strait in 1871. The London Missionary Society was seen to offer the culture that could transform the incessant inter island and communal violence. This historic violence is recounted in the some of the books of Ion L Idriess who was familiar with the area during pearling days.
    The Coming of the Light celebration recalls an enthusiastic welcome to country that is expressed annually with heartfelt gratitude. Yes, gratitude.

  • Adelagado

    Anyone noticed that pre-paid Australia Post parcel bags now have a space in the address box for the ‘traditional’ place name ‘if known’? Aren’t Australia Post deliveries slow enough as it is without adding this kind of confusion?

  • Claude James

    The Left endorses and encourages ignorance and light-small intellectual capability.
    Evidence: Look at what the Left has achieved in this line by way of their control of the education systems, from Kindie to Uni, and in the ABC and SBS, and in 80% of the commercial media.
    And must understand:
    The Left’s control of the public services -Fed, State, Territory, Council levels- is at least as consequential, in massively negative/destructive terms, as the Left’s political dominance in the parliaments and assemblies.

  • Biggles

    Another thing that bugs me is seeing the ‘Aboriginal’ flag flown from the centre pole in, say, a group of three. Victoria Police stations do this. In addition, I was taught that the national flag should fly higher than the others. Same message; despising our western heritage.

  • Susan

    The astounding arrogance of imposing the WtoC mantra on people amazes me. In future I’ll walk out of gatherings where this is announced, but I’m very likely to be out of pocket. Objecting verbally is likely to provoke accusations of “Racist!” I am very sad about Australians’ submission.

  • Daffy

    I worked once for an Aboriginal organisation run by super well paid and smart Aboriginal folk. We had to intone the ‘acknowledgement of country’ at every…yes, that’s right, every meeting. As I’m not about to utter what amounts to a pagan paean to a piece of dirt…even if recently invented, I’d respectfully and in sombre tones ask one of the Aboriginals present to do it. They were nice blokes and happily did so.
    Now, that off my chest. I’d love to see a ‘flash crowd’ leap up at some such ceremonial confabulation and heartily, and ideally in a slightly tipsy state, sing an uproarious Queen’s anthem (our old ‘national’ anthem).
    And, point three.
    A welcome to country should invite a response. “We are pleased, as descendants of original colonisers and of people from many, many other places to share with the elders past, present and emerging, the roads, the mobile phone system, and of course, [big grin to all] the booze.” Sir Les Pattison would be the character to adapt here.

  • Katzenjammer

    They call it an invasion. Everything they want needs approval and financial support by the invaders. In response to the welcome to country, remind them how successful the invasion has been.

  • john.singer

    The emerging problem.
    Sacred Traditions invented tomorrow.

  • wdr

    I would be in favour of everything they want, if they agree to live in the exact manner of the pre-1788 Aborigines, including the way they dressed and their “houses.” What could be fairer than that?

  • gareththomassport

    I recently helped set up a jazz festival in Orange, my home town.
    We formed a committee with local musicians and enlisted the help of the Sydney Improvised Music Association.
    Unfortunately, being artists, everyone involved were various shades of green, teal and red. Naturally, there was an agreement that we must have a WTC.
    I lacked the fortitude to resist, and felt there were better battles to fight
    Pleasingly, the young Aboriginal man doing the WTC actually thanked ALL Australians for making the country great, and made it quite “inclusive”.

  • colin.white18

    A Club in North Queensland recently dispatched its Board for introducing a WTC without consulting the members.
    Australians have not been consulted about their desire to endure a WTC ceremony before every public event, those who foisted it upon us should similarly be dispatched;it is covert indoctrination and if it is not resisted, non-indigenous Australians will become second class citizens.

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