An Empty Acknowledgement

When I first arrived at Monash University I was overwhelmed by the sheer size of the Clayton campus. Walking into my first class was a daunting prospect; the tension in the air, the anticipation, the blank looks on people’s faces – it was exciting and overwhelming. I know that first week of semester isn’t that scary; in my experience it is generally pointless as most of the lecture time is spent looking over the unit guide, and the tutorials are full of stupid questions surrounding exams and assessments. Personally, the most daunting aspect of my first ever university class was the acknowledgment of country. Since entering university I have often witnessed lecturers hastily read Acknowledgements of Country and pay tribute to ancestors that most of them have probably never thought of. It is a tokenistic approach to dealing with real Indigenous issues, and something that really grinds my gears.

During my first week of University I was part of several conversations that revolved around the Acknowledgement of Country and paying respect to elders. My new found friends saw it as a waste of time and didn’t understand its meaning. Now used as a form of political correctness, the Acknowledgement of Country is often misunderstood and taken out of context. It is not said to make Indigenous people feel welcome at Uni, nor is it meant to make non-Indigenous people feel welcome on Indigenous lands; it is only said because institutions feel that it is the polite thing to do. Although it is a respectful notion, very few people I have spoken with seem to understand what an acknowledgment represents or where it comes from.

Historically you could not enter another Indigenous person’s country without being welcomed by the traditional owners of that country. For the people from my country, the process would begin with lighting a fire on the edge of the country that you wanted to enter. Once a fire was lit you would wait for a group of people from that country to come and visit. There would be a process of negotiation, respects would be exchanged and the traditional owners of that land would give you a skin name.  Once you had a skin name you were free to travel across their country without fear of being killed or having bad spirits. This particular process of being welcomed into a country was how my people did it and could be different for other Indigenous people.

Another major issue with the Acknowledgement of Country is the sheer number of Indigenous countries that exist in Australia. Last time I checked, there were over two hundred Indigenous countries with their own dialects and laws. Most Australians I know are unaware of this, and are shocked when they realise just how many countries there are. Because of the number of Indigenous countries, and the access we have to efficient transport, it is impossible to be welcomed into each country we travel through. A simple drive from Frankston to Geelong would involve three welcomes as the trip would cross over three Indigenous countries.

So why do we need an Acknowledgment of Country at the start of every Monash University unit? Because it’s the nice thing do, it acknowledges the traditional owners, and makes everyone feel like they are making changes for a better world; it’s a bit like holding someone’s hand and walking over a bridge for reconciliation. What a load of crap. As an initiated Indigenous man, Acknowledgement of Country means nothing if the people who hear it have no idea what it means or who it represents.  What adds to the frustration is how little people actually know about us. Firstly, Indigenous people are everywhere in Australia; there is a large number of proud Indigenous people who live throughout Melbourne. Secondly, we aren’t all black with wide noses and curly black hair; there is a reason for this and it is called the white Australia policy. Thirdly, we are a culture of people, not a race of people; we are family orientated and highly social.

The thing that really upsets me is when people think that an Acknowledgement of Country suggests that things are heading in the right direction for Indigenous people. If you think things are being fixed, consider my story. I am one of eight children, sixty cousins and nine sets of aunties and uncles. I am the only person in my family, with exception of my younger brother, to make it past year nine. Most of my aunties and uncles and several of my cousins are dead. Twelve of my cousins are in jail. My life expectancy is twenty years less than for non-Indigenous people.  The day of reconciliation march, while the media was showing how happy everyone was, I was at the funeral of a four year old Indigenous girl who had died because her mother didn’t trust the doctors. It’s ok though, I am lucky. I am at uni, and compared to most people in my family I am wealthy.

The problem with the Acknowledgement of Country at University is that most people there know very little about Indigenous people and culture. The acknowledgement means well, but it fails to educate non-Indigenous people on the real issues that face my people. Tokenistic gestures are one of these issues, as they create a false perception that institutions really care or understand my people. So next time you hear an Acknowledgement of Country you can rest easy thinking that everything is better now, or you can challenge the person giving the acknowledgement to do something real.

Shawn Andrews

The author Shawn Andrews

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