Brand-New Timeless Traditions

indigenous smokoWelcome to Country and smoking ceremonies involve professional mock-ups of supposed thousand-year Aboriginal traditions. Someone hires a local troupe to dance in body paint and laplaps to didgeridoo and clapstick music. The leader says a few words in the traditional language and self- translates it into New Age platitudes about peace and goodwill. Everyone goes home smug.

Matilda House-Williams, an elder of the Ngambri Clan, went home particularly happy with an undisclosed sum  for a welcome-to-country speech of six minutes for Kevin Rudd at the opening of the 42nd Parliament in 2008.[1]  She was back (as plain Matilda “House”) in 2010 for Gillard’s 43rd Parliament (fee undisclosed), and again for the 44th Parliament, led by Tony Abbott. This time her fee was disclosed: $10,500, for “entertainment services”. With stakes like that, it’s not surprising that the Ngunnawal clan, led by Aunty Agnes Shea , themselves claimed to be Canberra’s traditional owners. Parliament has now squared the circle by naming both clans as owners.[2]

In Melbourne’s inner-city suburb of Abbotsford, the Wurundjeri Tribe Land & Compensation Cultural Heritage Council Inc.   quotes (below) $570  for a Welcome to Country (Community not for profit clients, $470); $300 for a Smoking /Cleansing Ceremony ($300); $820 for a Welcome to Country and Smoking Ceremony ($720); $1700 for Jindyworabak Dancers ($1700) and $250 for didgeridoo player ($250). Travel and parking are included; 10% GST to be added.

welcome rates

Sydney’s Metropolitan Local Aboriginal Land Council quotes Welcome to Country speeches at $385-450, with a 20% surcharge after 5pm and weekends.  Dancers, didgeridoo players and smoking-ceremony handlers are not supplied by this council and come at extra expense. The council warns that its three “uncles” providing welcomes “are in high demand”, unsurprising given that welcomes are becoming mandatory.

Even the CSIRO, an organisation nominally pledged to rational inquiry and scientific rigour (OK, there is that climate-change hysteria), has bought in to the ‘welcome’ business, having issued guidelines for pay rates and accommodations when its laboratories need to be cleansed of “evil spirits” by an ochred contractor waving fiery foliage. Exposed and widely ridiculed, those guidelines were quietly removed for the internet. They remain available via Wayback Machine’s web archive, however, and can be read in full here.

The supposedly ancient ‘welcome’ tradition goes back 30-40 years, whereas the House of Commons goes back  nearly 700 years. Indigenous entertainers Ernie Dingo and Richard Whalley, of the Middar Aboriginal Theatre, claim to have invented the “welcome to country” in 1976 because two pairs of Maori visitors from NZ and the Cook Islands wanted an equivalent of their own traditional ceremony before they would dance at the Perth International Arts Festival.[3]  Another version is that activists shrewdly created the ceremony at about the same time to buttress land-rights claims. And Aboriginal Rhoda Roberts, head of indigenous programming at the Sydney Opera House, says the ceremonies were developed in the 1980s by members of the Aboriginal National Theatre Trust which she co-founded. Her speaker-for-hire profile claims she personally invented the term “welcome to country” along with the protocols involved.  She would like welcomes to include marking guests with ochre and Aboriginal sweat. Eccch.

Not to be outdone, current ABC chair and then NSW Chief Justice, Jim Spigelman, said in 2011 that he created first official use of the ceremony for the Court’s 175th anniversary in 1999, and that ceremony inspired the NSW Parliament to take it up too. Spigelman, with all respect, erred. Governor-General Sir William Deane did the deed in his annual Vincent Lingiari Lecture in 1996.[4]

Whatever the motives, the welcome meme fitted perfectly into the zeitgeist. Welcomes To and/or Acknowledgements Of Country  are now mandated by Parliaments, governments, departments,  the military, shires, corporates, educators and right-thinking groups all around the country. The mandating is normally done by Labor powerbrokers, while conservatives drag their feet but are too intimidated to resist.

Anthropologists and early settlers failed to record anything much resembling “welcome to country” ceremonies. Bess Price, CLP Aboriginal member of the Northern Territory Parliament and Minister for Community Services, has described “welcomes” as  “not particularly meaningful to traditional people anyway. We don’t do that in communities. It’s just a recent thing. It’s just people who are trying to grapple at something that they believe should be traditional.”

Tony Thomas’s new book of essays, That’s Debatable, will be launched at 6.30pm Thursday, May 19, at Il Gamberos Restaurant, 166 Lygon St, Carlton.
Order your copy here

Anthropologist Ron Brunton found in WA some evidence for permissions being required to enter neighbouring clans’ land (although more honoured in the breach these days) but saw no evidence of any welcome-to-countries  in the state where the ceremonies were (probably) first invented.

Adelaide archival researcher and geologist Alistair Crooks says,

“During years of geological site inspections, I have never seen or heard of a welcome ceremony being performed when entering tribal land (invited), nor have I seen the ceremony performed when transporting Aborigines into or across various tribal boundaries. Nor is any such ceremony described by any of the early explorers or anthropologists that I am aware of.”

Except, of course, the rather simple penis-touching ceremony around Oodnadatta described by Berndt and Berndt and Roheim.[5]

The Berndts recorded,

“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.[6] 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.”[7]

Explorer Edward John Eyre also describes the permissions of one group wanting to enter the land of a neighbouring group for ceremonial reasons, and what the process involved. There didn’t appear to be any “welcome” ceremony.

Crooks says,

“Central to Eyre’s notes is the aboriginal belief that only the old and young can die of natural causes. All adults only die as the result of contact with sickness country, by the action of malignant spirits, or by the intervention of sorcery by neighboring tribes.

Thus when two tribes meet at one tribal boundary, they first settle accounts for all the tribal deaths attributable to sorcery by each tribe since they last met. After a discussion a group of men would be selected out and would allow themselves to be speared by the other tribe. After this settling of accounts, normal relations were established and they could get on with the business.” [8]

One early observer, a certain Mrs Smith, wife of a Mt Gambier missionary, noted that welcomes don’t always end well: “The tribes, like most savage peoples, were in continual dread of each other; and although they occasionally met up on friendly terms to hold a murapena (corroboree), it usually eventuated in a fight, in which one or two were killed and afterwards eaten.”[9]

A typical modern “welcome” was the 2014 ceremonial year-opening for the Australian Command & Staff College in Canberra.  About 170 middle-ranking officers took part, preparatory to a year’s “intensive course which includes strategic policy, leadership and ethics, joint operations, single service studies and capability development components”. Nearly all officers wore ribbons signifying their valor and active service.

The welcome ceremony was by Canberra’s popular Wiradjuri Echoes Dance Troupe (or “troop”, as the ADF  misprinted it). It comprises Wiradjuri man Duncan Smith and his four teenagers, who’ve performed for Denmark’s Prince Frederik and Princess Mary and three of our Prime Ministers. As Duncan explains his career, “Having five kids, it isn’t easy to raise them, I’ll start a business up in culture. But I had no idea about doing it, I sat in business seminar after seminar [laughs]. ‘Yes, I can do this!’ I got the ABN and stuff and started building a business and reputation.”  His much-awarded Echoes are the go-to group for high-level  performances.

Good luck to the  Echoes as a thriving small business catering to whites’ liking for color, movement and exotica. But it was the reverential behaviour of the 170 military officers that intrigued me.  After the dance, Duncan stood on the pathway into the lecture theatre with a bark holder containing smoking gum leaves. Every one of the officers filed past and mimed pushing the smoke into their faces. Their expressions were as solemn as at church-going. Inside,  Ngunnawal elder Aunty Agnes Shea (Matilda House’s rival claimant to Canberra land) presented the commander, Brigadier Peter Gates, with a nicely-painted message stick. Any officer raising an eyebrow at possible inauthenticity, would kiss his/her career goodbye.[10]

Lisa Phelps, head of the ADF’s Directorate of Indigenous Affairs, joined the speakers. Like those responsible for the  national school curriculum, the ADF wants “a cultural awareness piece in every training package continuum that is developed.” The ADF has also committed to more than double its intake of Indigenous recruits, to 2.7% of the force. This quest is seriously chewing up resources that could otherwise be recruiting more successfully elsewhere to help eventually push back ISIS and other bad guys. I sometimes wonder if the ADF has any inclination for combat after all this cultural correctness. See also here.

These days, Indigenous ceremonies are everyone’s feel-good exercise, but not long ago, with Indigenes more stroppy, there were glitches. The greatest was the Pageant of Australian History organized by the National Trust at Old Government House at Parramatta to celebrate the Federation Centenary in 2001.  The audience included the mayor, state and federal parliamentarians, and local Indigenes.

As recounted by anthropologist Kristina Everett, the Trust’s plan was to round up some local Darug to welcome attendees and display pre-contact Australian life.[11]  White actors were lined up to orate as Governor Philip, the MacArthurs, the Macquaries, Marsden, Greenway, the Rum Corps etc. The Indigenes were to do their picturesque things and then conveniently disappear after  dispersal by Red Coats firing muskets.

The Darugs, embittered by failed attempts to establish land-claim title to the end on which Sydney is built,  played along with the script at rehearsals. But for the performance, they dispersed only temporarily at the musket fire and re-instated themselves in the shrubbery, shouting at the Governor Philip actor in their ersatz Darug tongue and then re-emerging, Everett said, “moaning, groaning, clutching their stomachs, their heads, their hearts, and then ‘dying’ on the lawn of Old Government House.”

 “I became increasingly concerned that the theatrical ‘Governor Philip’ would retaliate by calling the Red Coats. ‘Governor Philip’ began to lose his concentration when delivering his speech concerning his mission to establish a new British colony and to treat Aboriginal inhabitants according to British justice and fairness. His words became labored as dancers began to ‘die’ at his feet.”

The audience, both black and white, got queasy, unused to disrespectful interruptions of theatrical performances. Plus it was obvious that the Darug had a  point.

“Stifled giggles, soft murmurs, and puzzled expressions emanated from the audience as many shifted in their seats.  As ‘Governor Philip’ exited back into Old Government House, I, for one, felt relieved when the Darug performers ‘rose from the dead’ and disappeared into the shrubs followed by spirited applause.”

The actor playing Francis Greenway came out on the portico  clad in powdered wig, velvet knickerbockers, ruffled blouse and buckled shoes, and the painted-up Darug in loin-cloths returned in force to writhe, moan and expire once more “on the grass at his feet.” Each time colonial worthies came out for inspired oratory, the Darug repeated their counterpoint.

“The pageant became for me, almost impossible to watch. It was programmed to take only one hour, but seemed interminable. It was clear from the tension, comments and restlessness of other audience members that I was not alone in my distress. One Aboriginal man near me complained to a woman beside him,  ‘Gawd Lornie, I dunno if I can take much more o’ this. It’s embarrassin’.”

The actors playing   founding white mothers and fathers stuttered awkwardly, whether at being interrupted or feeling their roles had been subverted by the bodies littering the lawn.

One of the female dancers later explained to Everett, “Feelin’ uncomfortable in our own country is what bein’ Aboriginal is all about. It don’t do no harm for whitefellas to get a taste o’ it.” She writes:

“’Dead’ bodies remained on the lawn until some National Trust organisers discreetly escorted them out of sight. The audience did not know how to respond. A few people began to applaud but it was not taken up by everybody.  It was not until a ‘thank you and good night’ speech was made by a National Trust representative that the audience broke into applause.”

Everett in her preamble explains that “the Darug” as a group only emerged in the 1980s after genealogical research by a biologist Dr James Kohen identifying 6000 suburbanites as Darug.  The “vast majority” didn’t identify even as Aboriginal before or after Kohen’s research. But between 200 and 300 took up the cause of being Darug and began creating a Darug identity, putting in three unsuccessful land rights claims to Sydney. She wrote, “The process of becoming an Aboriginal community has not, however, been without its share of sweat, blood and tears. Over the last thirty years Darug people have been experimenting with various ideas about how to be Aboriginal.” Over time they convinced themselves:

“It seems that the expressions of group identity they have developed over some decades have now become such values in themselves that they cannot and will not be relinquished. Welcome to country ceremonies are one of these articulations.” (author’s emphasis).

Facets include learning from academics about original Darug ancestors, “to some people actually behaving in ways that they imagine Darug ancestors behaved.” Those facets include forms of ‘primitive’ dancing, ceremonies and speaking a claimed version of Darug language.

One group leaned towards the academic knowledge, the other group towards “more cultural and behavioral forms of expression”, causing the original group to split, sometimes with acrimony. Notwithstanding, local councils, governments and schools have fallen over themselves to invite Darugs to give welcome to country ceremonies, even to massively-attended shows like the 2000 Olympics, the 2006 Commonwealth Games torch relay and the 2001 Federation shows, along with numerous minor shows, flag-raisings and conferences. About the only group that does not invite Darugs to do welcome-to-country shows are rival Aborigines.

Everett gets particularly interesting on the re-creation of Aboriginal languages for use at such ceremonies. This is symbolically important in claiming pre-contact ancestry — although, at best, only a few vestiges of the language remain in urban settings. Everett says current Darugs have virtually no knowledge of the old Darug spoken language, other than a few words.

“There is no Darug language community. Nor are there any records in full and very little in part of Darug language…The Darug descendants…use what they insist is a version of Darug language that they have developed with the help of word lists from a white supporter in the early days and then by themselves over the last thirty years to conduct welcome to country ceremonies.”

When they use it, “it is not understood either by the audience or the speakers themselves” – since it is  “a recently invented verbal ritual affirming Darug identity…and is hence more of a dramatic ritual performance than a language”.  Everett cites the following example of Darug “language” as spoken by a senior woman in the 2001 Federation pageant:

Tiati murra Daruga pemel,
Koi murra ya pemel ngalaringi bubbuna.
Ban nye yenma wurra nang.
Ney dice gai dyi ya nangami dyarralang.
Ngalaringi tiati nglararingi gai.
Gu-ya willy angara gu-nu-gal dag u-nu-gal
Da la-loey gnia tarimi gi-mi-gal.
Jam ya tiati nglararingi eorah jumna.
Mittigar gurrung burruk gneene da Daruga pemel.[12]

Make of all that what you will. Everett says this speech was received with great audience enthusiasm, spirited applause, head-nodding and warm smiles at this ‘authentic’ display.

Meanwhile, state education departments are handing authority over Aboriginal teaching and curriculum to local Aboriginal groups. This is seen as being culturally sensitive, but in reality endows the Aboriginal lobby with classroom control. As last year’s Victorian official guideline on the courses puts it, “Any education materials produced must be developed directly by or in partnership with Koorie community representatives — at the local level this work must be in consultation with LAECGs [Local Aboriginal Education Consultative Groups].

As Ronald Berndt noted 30 years ago,  “Aboriginality is sought in an Aboriginal past. Not in the reality of traditional Aboriginal life, contemporary or otherwise, but in their idea of what it was (or is) like…in re-creation of what they think Aboriginal life should be…

“A great deal of interesting myth-making is going on.”[13]

Tony Thomas blogs at No B-S Here, I Hope


[1]  She concluded the speech: “With this renewed hope and our pride, our strength is refreshed. Like our ancestors, we can reach new heights soaring on the wings of the eagles. Thank you very much, and welcome to the land of my ancestors.”

[2] The President now says, “I acknowledge the Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples who are the traditional custodians of the Canberra area and pay respect to the elders, past and present, of all Australia’s Indigenous peoples.”

[3] The Middar Theatre was actually founded in 1978, hence the invention date may be 1978 rather than 1976.

[4] “We acknowledge that we are meeting on country for which they and their forbears have been custodians for many centuries and on which Aboriginal people have performed age-old ceremonies of celebration, initiation and renewal. We acknowledge their living culture and unique role in the life of this region”

[5] The author studied under the Berndts in 1961 at UWA

[6] In the Western Desert a boy becomes a man by having an upper central incisor pounded out of his head with a rock, without anaesthetic, without permission to express pain or terror; by having his foreskin cut off in little pieces with a stone knife and seeing it eaten by certain of his male relatives, and as a climax of agony, by having his penis slit through to the urethra from the scrotum to the meatus, like a hot dog… Professor of Anthropology John Greenway, Down Among the Wild Men. Little, Brown, 1972. p3

[7] Berndt R. and Berndt C., The World of the First Australians. Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra 1999. p176

[8] To be whimsical, such ritual spearings   of white leaders by Aboriginal performers at Welcome ceremonies could lend an authentic touch and generate some literal healing of past wounds.

[9]  Mrs. James Smith, 1880. The Booandik Tribe of South Australia. South Australian Government Printer. 1965 facsimile produced by the SA Libraries Board.

[10] To some extent, the ADF was providing some local culture for the 25 or so foreign officers taking the course, as occurs on a reciprocal basis in defence circles. But the ADF is suffusing this culture through its total systems.

[11] Kristina Everett, Welcome to Country…Not. Oceania, Vol 1/79,  March 2009, pp53-64.

[12] Coincidentally, I assisted noted linguist Dr Carl Georg Von Brandenstein on his work translating Pilbara song-poetry from four dialects (Taruru, by Brandenstein and Thomas, Rigby, 1974). To give the flavor of some authentic Aboriginal language, however remote from NSW,  here’s a sample,  “Air Raid on Broome”, Karierra dialect, by Billy Thomas-Wombi:

palanamu jiaanimalgu wajangaarnu
savan nulikadaer jiaanimalgu
palanamu jiaanimalgu wajangaarnu


They’re coming in from the east
— terrifying!
Seven they are – coming in from the east.
Coming in from the east
— terrifying!
Those chaps with the protruding eyes.

(We’re not sure if “protruding eyes” refers to the pilots’ goggles).


[13] In Johns, G. 2011. Aboriginal Self-Determination, The Whiteman’s Dream. Connor Court Publishing.


6 thoughts on “Brand-New Timeless Traditions

  • Rhyl Martin says:

    I would have thought the ADF would be much too practical to be blindsided by Left political correctness and falderal but they seem to be out there leading the way of late.

  • rh@rharrison.com says:

    As potent a sign of how degenerate our governing institutions have become is what how happens in our parliaments.

    Since the seventeenth century, parliaments in the Westminster tradition have refused to allow the Sovereign or the Sovereign’s representative to enter the popularly-elected chamber, such as the House of Representatives. The symbolism is stark: even the most mighty power in the land cannot intrude into the solemn precincts of the people’s representatives.

    Now we have an inversion whereby the location of those solemn precincts is deemed to be the traditional home of some tiny band of painted frauds, and our elected representatives allow themselves to be “welcomed” there.

  • Geoffrey Luck says:

    The Darug racket has been shrewdly advanced by picking the soft targets. The official website of Macquarie University, built on what were market gardens as recently as the 1950s, acknowledges that the university is on the land of the Darug people. Not – what was once the land of the Darug people, mind you. In a presentational video featuring one Jacinta Tobin, she adopts an arrogantly proprietorial attitude: “Our family has learnt in this country for forty, fifty thousand years. We ask you to come here and learn again.” Tobin concludes with a song which she has cleverly copyrighted – as if many would want to borrow it. It’s not exactly a “Happy Birthday!” Welcome to country and/or smoking ceremonies are now part of all graduation ceremonies and official conferences on the Macquarie campus; the University boasts its own resident “elder”. Uncle Lexodious (Is that poking fun at white man’s law?) Dodd has his own office and telephone (02 9850 8653) and when not welcoming people to his country, “informs our teaching and research practice within the discipline of Indigenous Studies.” In 1974 when the University hosted a high tea for foundation alumni to celebrate its jubilee, Dodd and one of his mates gave not merely a welcome but also a ten minute historical harangue. When I wrote a lettr of protest about this nonsense to the new Vice Chancellor, I received a peremptory rebuke about my cultural insensitivity, with the implication that he would have taken away my MBA if he could have. Sentimentality, guilt and childish fascination with ersatz cultural performances have gripped the nation. Tony has done well to expose what is really a surreptitious part of the campaign to establish a two-nation Australia.

  • dsh2@bigpond.com says:

    Given that we are now being forced to accept that white men invaded Australia, it seems incongruous that there would have been any welcome to country ceremonies back then.

  • a.crooks@internode.on.net says:

    Nice article Tony.
    I noticed in your translation in the footnotes “seven they are coming”. This surprised me as I know of no aboriginal language which has a word for a numeral higher than three. The word “seven” though is presumably a translation of that ancient indigenous word “savan”. Perhaps this proves a link between aboriginal languages and proto-indo-european languages. From the time of first settlement they been considered to part of the Caucasian family.

    • padraic says:

      I just about puke when I am at a function where this patronising “Welcome to Country” is trotted out. To me it is saying we native born Australians of the paler variety are not real citizens of our own country. Well, sorry guys. I’ve got news for you.

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