Bennelong Papers

Welcome to Country: Bogus but Preferable

Contrary to popular belief and practice, there is no evidence the fashionably modern “Welcome to Country” ceremonies were ever a part of traditional Aboriginal culture. Instead, as is well if not widely known, they were created as recently as the 1970’s by none other than Ernie Dingo and his cobber, Dr Richard Walley. An article in The Australian, published in 2010, explains how it came about

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.

In a few words, the visiting dancers had a ‘welcoming’ routine, so Messrs Dingo and Walley, feeling obliged to return the favour, whipped up their own welcome out of whole cloth. In doing so they perpetrated what amounted to — oh, irony of ironies! — an act of cultural appropriation, as the Welcome’s white-bread cliches have become a droning obligatory overture before everything from football matches to the opening of parliaments.

Yet in re-scripting “authentic” Aboriginal greetings as something blandly akin to a Rotary Club’s pre-lunch preamble, Dingo rather tactfully chose not to endorse what he described as a genuinely indigenous greeting. This involved getting “the sweat from under their arms and [rubbing] 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’.”

As someone with an undergraduate degree in anthropology, these types of issues have always been of interest to me. What were the actually 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, at various points president of the Anthropological (1934) and Royal (1940-41) societies of New South Wales, the Australian Anthropological Association (1941) and the Australian Institute of Sociology (1941-44). In 1964, some 15 years before his death at the age of 88, Elkin published the final edition of The Australian Aborigines: How to understand them, which first went to press in 1938 and is still viewed by many as a classic — an appraisal predictably decried by today’s blacktivists, who regard it as imbued with paternalistic racism.

Unsurprisingly, in his almost four-hundred pages analysing indigenous culture, Elkin never mentions either the custom of ‘Welcome to Country’ or ‘Acknowledgment of Country’. Significantly, what details he provides by way describing how indigenous communities “inter-related” with other tribes is quite shocking. If a mischievous imagination is amused by the mental image of, say, 100,000 spectators at an MCG Grand Final exchanging underarm secretions to honour Aboriginal culture, the convention of swapping wives to promote amity amongst potential rival groups will make the mind boggle. In his book, Elkin gives the following six examples:

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, will send 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 thought 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 “though not unknown in the past in Europe, are considered by us to be objectionable”, Elkin declines to provide a sanitised interpretation, rejecting such bowdlerisation as fundamentally and historically dishonest. In keeping with the current sexual zeitgeist, one can only hope that, like sweat-swiping, mass wife swapping is not taken up as a further tribute to indigeneity. Apart from my moral objections as a man of the cloth, the seats at the MCG aren’t designed for it, and the big game would be annoyingly delayed as the wives of Richmond supporters returned from their peace-making missions to Geelong barrackers and vice versa.

Both ‘Welcome to Country’ and ‘Acknowledgement of Country’ practices not only fail to honour traditional Aboriginal culture, such as it was, but are disingenuous representations  as to what indigenous people historically did. Interestingly, the The Australian article 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.

Mark Powell is associate pastor of the Cornerstone Presbyterian Church in Strathfield, NSW

24 comments
  • Doubting Thomas

    While beaucoup dollars continue to be made available to selected “elders” and their accomplices by gullible or complicit officialdom, there is no prospect of the fraud being abandoned.

  • DougD

    The Queensland Government has agreed to place before Parliament a Bill to further the Path to Treaty with its indigenous citizens. The proposed legislation will include acknowledgment that: First Nations cultures and knowledge is an enormous resource for Queensland .

    It is not at this stage known whether traditional mass wife swapping, as a further tribute to indigeneity, is part of this enormous resource for Queensland.

  • Harry Lee

    Singin’ and dancin’ while daubed in coloured dirt.
    This will not remedy the extreme violence against children and women among Aborigines -and that is the obvious main tragedy/calamity facing Aborigines.
    And this violence must be remedied before anything can be done to guide Aborigines to peaceful, productive, flourishing lives.
    It’s bad that only a very few Aboriginal leaders will face up to this.
    And it’s ultra-bad that influential Whites and Other non-Aborigines do not work to help Aborigines to understand the reality that they now face.

  • Blair

    “It is not at this stage known whether traditional mass wife swapping, as a further tribute to indigeneity, is part of this enormous resource for Queensland.”
    Not sure if wife beating, cannibalism, infanticide and head-hunting add to the mix either.

  • padraic

    If the ABC and SBS and their acolytes were to read the above article and the associated comments they would not bat an eye at and would feel comfortable with the curious historical cultural habits outlined but instead would hone in on the word “wives” as being so horribly gender specific and report everyone to the AHRC for whatever is the fashionable victimology cause du jour in relation to gender nouns.

  • Ian MacKenzie

    Sounds like the kind of parties conducted by Bob Ellis and friends “expressing their unity and friendship to one another”.

  • Stephen Due

    From the Reconciliation Australia website regarding Welcome to Country and Acknowledgement of Country ceremonies:
    “While visitors were provided with a safe passage, they also had to respect the protocols and
    rules of the land owner group while on their Country”.
    I refuse to participate in any meeting or event that begins with an “Acknowledgement of Country”. Quite apart from the obviously fraudulent nature of this farcical ceremony, I refuse to present myself as a “visitor” in my own country. And I certainly will not agree to “respect” any Stone Age “protocols and rules”.
    In my day it was the custom to play the national anthem.

  • Harry Lee

    The Anglosphere spends more money and expends all sorts of other energy on non-Whites, incl Muslims, than they’d get anywhere in non-Western, non-White, or Muslim precincts. Who creates all that wealth that is transferred to non-Whites and Muslims from everywhere? Answer: Whites, esp the most productive 25% of Whites.
    Note that no White-created money now controlled by “the government” can be used to explain to non-Whites and Muslims just how fortunate they are, in being so benefitted by White productivity and White generosity. Marxist Whites aided by White naive idealists ensure that this is so.

  • Lonsdale

    Sorry, but are you implying that a traditionall welcome to my wife was homophobic?

  • rosross

    The traditional ‘greeting’ between strangers in stone-age Aboriginal Australia was a green bough, commonly reported by explorers, i.e. Bruce Pascoe’s much-loved Thomas Mitchell for one.

    It was not so much a welcome to country as a sign from the stranger entering someone else’s territory, that intentions were peaceful, even if outcomes were not.

    To take up an invented tradition like Welcome to Country would be less controversial if an Australian version were constructed which included not just Aboriginal descendants but all of the many peoples who created this nation, and it was only ever used for visiting foreigners. To use WTC to ‘welcome’ Australians to their own country is insulting.

  • rosross

    @Stephen Due,

    Aboriginal peoples did not have a concept of land ownership but ‘food and water ownership.’ This is what they sought to protect and would allow, not always, but probably often unless times were very hard, strangers to access.
    No doubt in areas where cannibalism was common, any stranger risked being added to the menu.

  • Doubting Thomas

    rosross: “To use WTC to ‘welcome’ Australians to their own country is insulting.”
    Which is entirely their point.

  • ianl

    @Harry Lee

    >”This will not remedy the extreme violence against children and women among Aborigines -and that is the obvious main tragedy/calamity facing Aborigines.” [your accurate comment]

    Over two decades ago, the then TV Ch9 ran a news ‘n comment Sunday program. One episode actually had genuine video clips of this appalling violence.

    The rest of the MSM made no reference to any of this – ever – but the reporters involved in making the episode experienced quiet but nasty blowback (later on, they supplied the evidence for that). Of course nothing useful was done.

    Nor will it be. Consider just what the real aim of the hypocritical woke is. Never-ending repar…ions.

  • rosross

    @Doubting Thomas, I don’t agree the goal is to insult. The goal is to establish their own superiority even if their Aboriginal connection is so small it is a joke.

  • NFriar

    @ Peter
    ‘Both ‘Welcome to Country’ and ‘Acknowledgement of Country’ practices not only fail to honour traditional Aboriginal culture, such as it was, but are disingenuous representations as to what indigenous people historically did.”
    @ rosross
    “The goal is to establish their own superiority even if their Aboriginal connection is so small it is a joke.”

    It is working – the rise in part kids attitude to whites on the east coast is problematic both in schools and outside.
    Neither school authorities nor the police can touch them.
    The have have had Ack of Country at weekly school assemblies for well over 7 years now.
    Their self seen superiority is telling in their attitude and behaviour.

  • Alistair

    I’m saddened that the genuinely traditional “penis-holding” ceremony has disappeared :

    “Throughout that area (Oodnadatta), too, there is the rite of penis-holding. When a man with a subincised penis enters a strange camp, he takes up the hand of each local man in turn, pressing his penis flatly on the palm. This gesture, of offering and acceptance in a close physical contact, signifies the establishment of friendly relations, and is associated with the settling of grievances.”

    I’d like to see that re-established as an integral part of the opening of Parliament.

    Berndt, Professor Ronald, and Berndt, Catherine, 1999, p176. The World of the first Australians : Aboriginal Traditional Life Past and Present. Aboriginal Studies Centre.

  • Farnswort

    It is remarkable how “Acknowledgement of Country” and “Welcome to Country” genuflections have crept into almost every facet of public life. These ceremonial acknowledgements have an almost religious aspect, involving mostly deracinated white people being obliged to pay their respects to Aboriginal “Elders past, present and emerging” on a daily basis. I am supportive of recognising and promoting Australia’s historic Aboriginal cultures. But making the rest of the Australian population feel like interlopers in their own country does not seem particularly conducive to actual reconciliation.

  • Harry Lee

    In the various Aboriginal cultures existing before 1788, there were, in certain limited ways, the behaviours of “learning from experience”. True, non-empirical and anti-empirical superstition dominated the Aboriginal mind. Anyway, it’s time for those who actually care about Aborigines to help them learn that looking backward to their anti-empirical past is certain to keep them looking backward instead of dealing with actual Reality here and now. Same for many Whites and almost all Others.

  • simonbenson65

    In Perth’s leafy Peppermint Grove, I hear their ‘Welcome to Country’ goes something like, “We acknowledge the traditional owners of this land, the Forrest and Hancock families.” When it comes to paying lip service to our real Aboriginal people, not fakes like Bruce Pascoe & Co, ‘Welcome to Country’ takes the cake. It’s about as crass and dumbed-down a tribute to an ancient culture as one can imagine. Inner city leftists would do well to acknowledge that the logical extension of ‘Welcome to Country’ is to pack their bags and sign over their properties (yes, the hobby farm at Bowral too) to Aboriginal people and leave these shores.

  • Tricone

    So what does Ernie Dingo say about WTC now?

    Is he too scared to buck the consensus that it should be compulsory or will he speak up?

  • Farnswort

    Simonbenson: “Inner city leftists would do well to acknowledge that the logical extension of ‘Welcome to Country’ is to pack their bags and sign over their properties (yes, the hobby farm at Bowral too) to Aboriginal people and leave these shores.”

    Indeed. Let them put their money where their mouths are.

  • Peter Q

    Humans have engaged in territorial disputes throughout history and it is inconceivable that all of the present-day aboriginal groups or tribes would have arrived at the same point in northern Australia, at the same time, and together allocated territory amongst themselves throughout a land mass which they had not yet seen or measured: there would have been territorial disputes all the way down to the Yarra Yarra and Tasmania, with the result that the tribe now regarded as ‘traditional owners’ would have acquired their land in a territorial dispute, just as did the white tribe centuries later.

  • abrogard

    Anyone happen to know where I might borrow a copy of that book for a while?
    Dearly love to give it a read. They have it in the big city main libraries but I’m in the country and can’t get there…

  • Daffy

    I must say, as I visited many Aboriginal groups in northern NSW in the early 2000s: most enjoyably at Toomelah near the McIntyre river, I did not receive one ‘welcome to country’. We simply got down to business. I was working on a wonderful development program where Aboriginal firms were to employ local Aboriginal youth as apprentices/trainees to work in building their communities’ houses. My meetings were with Land Council members and local community committees, elders and anyone I bumped into. Nice time had by all, I must say and I really enjoyed chatting with the locals about ordinary things as well as work.

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