Knowing Where We Stand: Welcome to Country is Not a Given

A “Welcome to Country” is a sacred ceremony that’s performed by special members of Australian Aboriginal countries. These countries occupy all lands and waters of Australia and have done so for at least sixty-millennia. These countries are yet to be recognised by the Australian Government. However, there is an increased acceptance of this truth, which is why “Welcome to Country” ceremonies are now becoming part of normal practice at events and gatherings.

The special people that provide the “Welcome to Country” are the Elders of that land. They are the royalty of that community, they are the knowledge holders, and they are the guiding lights for their people. They are loved, cherished and highly respected within the Aboriginal community. Despite common perception the title of Elder is not linked with age. Elder is different from elder (please note the capitalisation of the “E” as Eldership is a title, a proper noun and not an adjective). Only Elder’s with custodial bloodlines directly connected to that land can give a “Welcome to Country”. So you can image how exceptional and honored these people are in the Aboriginal community.

The “Welcome to Country” is like being welcomed into the home of a family. When you are welcomed into that home, the welcome transcends the word “welcome” or the accompanying warm intentions. A “Welcome to Country” also includes a meet & greet, personal & spiritual protection, and a hand extended as an invitation for mutual respect.

An Introduction: A Ceremonial Meet & Greet

One part of providing a “Welcome to Country” is to meet newcomers of the land. A way for the Elders to know who is entering the lands they are responsible to. It’s a chance for the Elders to introduce themselves as the senior people within the community (most Elders are very humble, and probable wouldn’t lay it out as blatantly as I just have, but their seniority within the community is real and honored). By introducing themselves to newcomers, they are indicating that they’re a responsible for your visit. You are their personal guests to those lands and waters. Ideally all intended activities and locations to be visited by newcomers should be passed by the Elder’s for blessings and determination whether those activities are culturally respectable. For example, a company might want to host a conference on Whadjuk Noongar country that is culturally respectable to the custodians of that land. The company organisers would contact the Elder’s to discuss the possibility of a “Welcome to Country”. The organisers would also inform the Elder’s of:

  • the purpose of the conference
  • the activities and locations for the activities
  • who would be attending
  • how many are expected to attend
  • the length of time those visitors are expected to stay.

This doesn’t have to be in great detail, a general overview of the visit is would usually suffice but be sure to ask what the Elder requires. This is no different to having a discussion about a visit you’d normally have if you intended on staying at another persons home.

Personal and Spiritual Safety of Visitors

When you welcome a person into you own home, there is an unspoken agreement that you’re responsible for that persons safety. This is the same for a “Welcome to Country”. The only difference is, the Aboriginal concept of home surpasses that of four walls & a roof and extends to all the borders of that country. To Aboriginal people, home is the land they belong to. (If you would like to read more about this you can do so in my article “Respect Australian Lands like the Homes of Others“). When giving a “Welcome to Country”, the Elders are accepting the responsibility not only for the personal safety of the visitors but also the spiritual safety too. Part of the “Welcome to Country” ceremony is the spiritual aspect. The Elder speaks to the spirits of their ancestors (whom are also custodians of that land), as well as all other spirits of that place. The Elder speaks to the spirit world and requests your spirit is kept safe while you visit. It’s a ceremony to grant safe passage & stay in those lands physically and spiritually.

An Open, Extended Hand for Mutual Respect

A “Welcome to Country” is not a given. It’s not a symbolic gesture with no meaning behind it. Providing a “Welcome to Country” is a genuine offer of respect. It’s a kind gesture to say the Elder trusts you to do the right thing by them, the community and the land. If the Elder feels the newcomers are visiting for ingenuine, disrespectful or destructive reasons, the Elder has every right to deny a “Welcome to Country”. It would be unwise to welcome people into your home if you suspect the visitors have ill-intentions. So, if you travel to a new country and you have the honour of being welcomed by an Elder of that land, please understand that this ceremony is a way of showing you respect. They are providing an opportunity for you to return that same respect to them, their country, their community and their culture. It’s an open, extended hand for mutual respect which could be the start of a beautiful friendship.

Knowing Where We Stand Welcome to Country is Not a Given Aboriginal indigenous

The actions of visitors before, during and after a “Welcome to Country” are very good indications of whether that hand has be respectful embraced or disrespectfully rejected. The ball is in the court of the visitor. All actions have consequences and the Elders have the support of their community, their ancestors and the spirit world. I certainly would not like to experience the ramifications of disrespecting an Elder. Would you?

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Until next time, much love, joy and peace to you!

Feature photo credit: Photo by Claudia van Zyl on Unsplash

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