Decoloyarning at Fenner: How to do an Acknowledgment of Country

Decoloyarning at Fenner is a series of articles about understanding how the disciplines we love thrive in a forum where respecting Indigenous knowledges and thinking sits at the core of what we do. What does it look like, feel like, and mean to embrace this approach to learning and research? What are our responsibilities and what can we learn from each other? 

We would like to thank The Decolonial Research and Teaching Circle (Fenner Circle) for helping create a space where the Fenner community can enrich our passion for the environment and society by learning with societies built through the environment’s principles and lore. This is a series for everyone, and that anyone can contribute to, whether you’re Indigenous or non-Indigenous, just started your degree or the School Director - (Saul will share his perspective and experiences in an upcoming Decolyarn).  So, if you’ve got an idea for a topic for a yarn, would like to be part of a yarn, or share something you’ve learnt from a yarn, contact The Fenner School Communications Team.

Much like when a group gathers for a celebration, opening or a meeting, this series starts with an Acknowledgement of Country. Join this fantastic discussion on how to give an Acknowledgement and why, between Wiradyuri PhD Scholar and Fenner Decolonial Research and Teaching Circle Co-Convenor, kate harriden* and Fenner School PhD Scholar Ruth Mills. After reading the “So you care about Indigenous Scholars?” poster series, Ruth realised she needed to learn more about Indigenous science(s) and decolonisation. The posters drummed home how little she knew about decolonisation and she was a bit embarrassed to recognise herself in the comments of the “stereotypical ignorant white guy” from the Indigenous Land poster who said: 

I wonder what a real indigenous community would think about this kind of talk. … Would they even care about some land acknowledgement? 

Ruth had thought similar things when she’d heard the standard “We acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land on which we meet today and pay respect to their Elders past, present and emerging” acknowledgement recited.  It seemed quite meaningless to her and she wondered if an Indigenous person listening would feel the same. So she enthusiastically took this opportunity to chat about acknowledging country with kate, one of the Fenner decolonial research and teaching circle (the fenner circle) co-convenors. 

Ruth: I’ve learnt a lot since joining the Fenner Circle, chief of which is that if I want an acknowledgement of country to be meaningful to Indigenous listeners, then I need to actually say something meaningful and not recite the standard formula without understanding why. Why does it matter that I learn to give a meaningful and respectful acknowledgment of country? I’m just one person and these are only words. Does it really make a difference? 

kate: ah, the old ‘it’s only words’ gambit 😊  Yet we all know that words do matter. Certainly reciting a standard acknowledgement of country can be a cynical tick-a-box exercise. I suspect most Indigenous peoples would prefer a standard acknowledgement than none at all. But absolutely Ruth, an acknowledgement uniquely crafted for the situation would always be preferable. As an act of relational accountability, giving a personalized acknowledgment demonstrates your respect for Indigenous protocols. 

Acknowledging country is something that Indigenous peoples have always done to demonstrate respect to the country they are on/visiting.  It is a diplomatic protocol developed in and of this place.  It is a way we show our connection to country and gratitude to those who are hosting us. I once heard a Yuin colleague describe an acknowledgement of country as ‘good manners’ to demonstrate when visiting someone’s place.  And all cultures value politeness when visiting someone else’s place.  

Ruth: You said that acknowledging Country is something Indigenous people have always done. I hadn’t realised that. Can you tell me a bit more about how acknowledgements of country fit into Indigenous culture? When do Indigenous peoples give Acknowledgements of Country? 

kate: Indigenous peoples give acknowledgements to recognise country, to recognise the sovereignty of whose country they are on and to describe how they are connected to that country.  Today's practice is a continuation of pre-invasion practices and happens when someone travels to a country that is not theirs. i’ve not seen an Indigenous person start a conference presentation or uni lecture without giving some sort of acknowledgement… and never a standard one. Sometimes the acknowledgement is not recognised as such by non-Indigenous audience ‘cos they are so indoctrinated by the standard. 

Here’s a paper about the welcome to country mudjil’dya’djurali dabuwa’wurrata (how the white waratah became red) (Bodkin-Andrew, Bodkin, Andres & Whittaker, 2016) Ruth. It’s got a good story interwoven, a brief bit about acknowledgements of country and might help you understand the reasons for acknowledging country. 

Ruth: Ok, woah. I’ve just read that paper. Thanks for sharing, it was a really helpful read – I loved the way the story of the Dabuwa’Wurrata (white waratah) was woven into the paper. But right now, I’m experiencing a bit of mental jet lag arising from a sudden shift in perspective. So let me think my way through this… 

I’ve been thinking about Acknowledgments of Country in a very performative way – focused on how the people listening to the acknowledgment feel about what I say and anxious about getting it wrong.  Fundamentally, I need to shift the way I’m thinking about this, from figuring out how to showcase what I already know to being willing to learn and listen deeply. I want to try to cement that shift by trying to understand how to approach an Acknowledgement of Country when there isn’t an audience. Let’s say I’m traveling on my own, no contact with anyone else, and I leave Ngunnawal Country. Should I give an Acknowledgment of Country? When? And to whom am I giving it? 

kate: The performative thing is interesting Ruth as acknowledging country is not about the person giving it or, in a sense, even about those listening, but for and about country. You may be saying it in front of people but acknowledgements are for country and given to country. 

You hit onto something important with talk of being worried about what others think though Ruth. Non-Indigenous people seems to spend a lot of time thinking about acknowledgements (and many things Indigenous) from their own perspective, sense of comfort and ego, rather than thinking about it from an Indigenous perspective. Yet I think that non-Indigenous peoples have an obligation to learn, understand and respect that Indigenous peoples have diplomatic protocols.   

Indigenous peoples aren’t giving acknowledgments as a performance. We are giving acknowledgments because it is important to articulate the significance, value and role of country in all we do and all that we are. It reflects our connection to country and the sense of connection and relationality we have to country. As a non-Indigeneous person, it would not be inappropriate for you to acknowledge country when traveling on your own. 

Ruth: What you’re saying about ego and lack of obligation to understand protocols reminds me of Menaga in the story of the Dabuwa’Wurrata.  But back to Acknowledgments of Country... Acknowledgments of Country are given to Country?!? More mental jetlag.   

I guess this comes from Acknowledgements of Country being a diplomatic protocol - surely that means they must be given to people? Apparently not. Let me think about the diplomatic protocols that I’m familiar with that have led me to that assumption. There’s the pageantry and ceremony of visits by heads of state, which seem to be all about showing off wealth or military power and who has power within the society.  

Maybe I can also think about academic diplomatic protocols - making sure you know whether the person you’re meeting is a professor or senior lecturer and reading their bio so you can ask them about their research and recent publications. I guess diplomatic protocols actually reveal a lot about what a culture values! 

kate, how do I make sense of Acknowledgements of Country being given to Country and being about Country, while also being a diplomatic protocol?   

kate: As for diplomatic protocols…hell yeah they tell us about cultural values! Thinking that diplomatic protocols are only for human-to-human relationships is a very ‘white fella’ way of looking at the world.  In Indigenous ontology, country is an active, critical (lead) player in relationships. Country is its own sentient entity that we rely on for everything. We value what country is and does for us. It is only right that this be acknowledged. Well, that’s what wiradyuri and many other cultures on this flat brown land pre-invasion believe. 

Ruth: I’m looking back to that formulaic construction I quoted at the beginning and it’s not fitting with what you’re saying. When I came into this conversation, I assumed that wording covered the fundamentals, but in a really bland and impersonal way. But now I look at it, and… it doesn’t seem to be about Country at all. What is an Acknowledgment of Country meant to be about? 

kate: Those standard corporate acknowledgements do not acknowledge country at all, other than to note on whose country you stand. The acknowledgment is meant to be about what role country has in the reason why you are there doing what you are doing. In this sense, they are a statement of a personal connection to country. So if you are at a water related event, you talk about something water related, and relevant to the reason for being there, that country supports or provides that you value or benefit from. It doesn’t need to be long - a couple of minutes is usually plenty of time to adequately acknowledge country. 

Ruth: Oohh… it’s starting to make sense now. kate, truly, thank you for taking the time to talk me through this. And I know that this is meant to come at the beginning, but I’ll take heart from (and somewhat paraphrase) what you said earlier that an ill-timed acknowledgement is better than no acknowledgement at all. 

I would like to acknowledge Ngunnawal Country, where I was during this conversation with kate. I’d like to particularly thank the hills and ridges around my house, where I went for walks after reading almost every one of kate’s emails, and whose soothing presence helped ground me and work through the mental jet lag. I’d also like to acknowledge D’harawal Country, whose dreaming story Dabuwa’Wurrata was generously shared by traditional custodians in the paper kate recommended to me and was so helpful in prompting me to reflect on the assumptions I was making about Acknowledgments of Country.   

For more information and resources to support your own Acknowledgements:

The Fenner Circle have produced a set of guidelines that you can access by visiting this link.

You can also watch Djiribul woman and respected Indigenous specialist, strategist and service provider Shelley Reys talk about delivering a meaningful Acknowledgement of Country here

*All capitalisations and lower case spellings in this article are deliberate and informed by autonomous Indigenous thinking and writing.