An Indigenous performer is seen during a Welcome to Country ceremony
A performer at a Welcome to Country ceremony at the Olympic Games 2032 Legacy Forum in Brisbane. (Darren England/AAP IMAGES)

Modern ceremonies claim misleads on Indigenous history

David Williams March 28, 2023

Welcome to Country ceremonies are a modern invention.


Misleading: While the contemporary ceremonies date back to the 1970s, they have their roots in pre-colonial practices.

Opponents of Welcome to Country ceremonies have claimed they are a modern creation.

This is misleading. While the first contemporary ceremony was performed in the 1970s, the ceremonies have their origins in pre-colonial practices.

A number of posts have made variations of the claim – examples here, here and here.

“Just think, what suckers are we to believe this crap,” one user wrote.

Former prime minister Julia Gillard
 Former PM Julia Gillard at the Welcome to Country to mark the opening of the 43rd Parliament in 2010 

Another described the ceremonies as “a modern invention intended to yet again make us feel bad…”

While there are differences between contemporary ceremonies and those from pre-colonial times, experts in Indigenous history and cultural practice said the modern ceremonies have their origins in ancient rituals.

The first contemporary Welcome to Country is thought to have been performed by Indigenous cultural identities Ernie Dingo and Richard Walley for the 1976 Perth International Arts Festival.

Before long they were answering requests to perform ceremonies for, among others, the Northern Territory Tourism Board, the Australian Tourism Board and even a Miss Universe pageant.

More than 30 years later, a ceremony was held as part of the official opening of Australia’s federal parliament. Soon after, it took on a life of its own, Mr Walley told The Guardian in a 2016 interview.

But experts told AAP FactCheck the ceremonies have their roots in much earlier practices.

Professor Timothy Rowse, an expert in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history and culture at the Australian National University, said the claim is misleading if it does not acknowledge the ceremonies draw on, and adapt, timeless customs.

“Indigenous Australian traditions are living,” Prof Rowse said in an email. “They continue because they change with the times, just like the English language.”

That’s not to say there were not differences, he added, pointing to research by anthropologist Francesca Merlan.

Ernie Dingo putting suncream on then tourism minister Jackie Kelly
 Ernie Dingo putting suncream on then tourism minister Jackie Kelly at an event in 2000. 

In pre-colonial times “the ‘guest’ would have been an Aboriginal person but one who did not belong to, or did not have some well established relationship with, the welcoming host’s political unit,” Prof Rowse said. Compared to now “when the ‘guest’ might well be – and increasingly is likely to be – a non-Indigenous person, possibly even a person on Zoom in another part of the world”.

Prof Merlan writes (page 299): “There is no doubt that some elements of Welcomes (such as dance) have long been in use among groups of Aboriginal people, especially among those whose ceremonial and daily practices remain more continuous with earlier ones of their people and distinct from those of other Australians.”

Field observations by anthropologists are also cited on pages 299-300.

Dr Richard Broome, professor in Australian and Indigenous history at La Trobe University, told AAP FactCheck the ceremonies were used by groups to welcome others visiting their land to, among other things, share resources.

“It was part of the protocols of ownership of Country and reciprocity and exchange, which was a vital part of traditional custom,” he said.

Dr Broome cited official reports of William Thomas, assistant protector of Aboriginals in the Port Phillip, Westernport and Gippsland districts of Victoria from 1839 to 1849.

“He described the tanderrum ceremony in the late 1840s and it was published in Letters from Victorian Pioneers (1898) … So if the Wurundjeri and other groups practised this at first contact, its origins I imagine would stretch back into deep time.”

Professor Heidi Norman, researcher in the field of Aboriginal political history at University of Technology Sydney, agreed that contemporary ceremonies resonate with long-standing practice of seeking/ gaining permission “to be on country” and for “safe passage on that country”.

Prof Norman added: “The background, as I understand, refers to the reality of carefully delineated country, with clear borders … In order to safely and appropriately move between or across country that wasn’t your own it would be necessary to seek permission, either to spirit figures or directly with clan/ or clan leaders and engage in reciprocity, exchange, ask permission, or seek assistance with passage.”

Liberal senator Alex Antic
 Liberal senator Alex Antic recently made a similar claim. 

Aboriginal woman and Yawarllaayi/Gomeroi elder Barbara Flick Nicol told SBS both the Welcome to Country and Acknowledgement of Country have been used for thousands of years and have never disappeared, even if the way they are expressed has changed.

The social media claims are similar to that made by Liberal senator for South Australia Alex Antic in a speech in the Senate (archived here) from March 7.

He claimed Welcome to Country ceremonies are “far from an ancient practice” and were in fact first used by progressive activists in the early 2000s.

AAP FactCheck similarly checked this claim.

The Verdict

The claim that Welcome to Country ceremonies are a modern invention is misleading.

While the contemporary ceremonies date back to the 1970s, these ceremonies have their roots in pre-colonial rituals.

Experts and elders said pre-colonial versions of the ceremony were used by clans to welcome other groups to their territory and to promote the sharing of resources.

Misleading – The claim is accurate in parts but information has also been presented incorrectly, out of context or omitted.

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