What Does It Mean to Acknowledge the Past?

Acknowledgment of Country

Below is an extract from Angela Flournoy’s article ‘What does it mean to acknowledge the past?’ which appeared in the New York Times, Dec 31, 2016:

“The first time I heard the term [Acknowledgment of Country] I was jet-lagged. I’d flown 20 hours to Byron Bay in Australia from New York, and was sitting on a stage with other American authors under a tent in the rain. We were in that pocket of the world for a writers’ festival, and before our panel discussion began, a volunteer welcomed the soggy audience of more than 200 people and mentioned that the land was originally part of an indigenous nation. This, an outright mention of a displaced population, connecting the space to a time before colonialism, was something I’d never experienced before. In Australia, it’s called an ‘acknowledgment of country.’

By the time I flew home, after a month there, I’d witnessed at least a dozen of these acknowledgments, and one called a ‘welcome to country,’ in which a member of the local indigenous community provided remarks. I learned that although the practice was relatively new in mainstream settings, the tradition itself had been an indigenous custom for centuries. In just a few weeks, I heard these remarks in places as modest as a classroom and as grand as the Sydney Opera House …

Why, I thought, bother with any of it? Why can’t we just get started with a speech or a football game without playing an anthem? The aftermath of the presidential election has changed my thinking …

The Sydney Opera House celebrated indigenous culture with a ‘Songlines’ projection in May 2016. Credit Hugh Peterswald/Pacific Press — LightRocket, via Getty Images

I was still struck by what the Australians did: begin symphonies and lectures and talks among writers with a succinct acknowledgment that their country had a complicated past. What would it be like to consider something like that here? What good did it do there? …

I came to understand that for indigenous Australians, the tradition is not so much about revisiting a nation’s past sins as it is about restoring the oldest of ceremonial gestures to a place, returning a bit of context to where it was once violently stripped away …”

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