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Aboriginal land acknowledgements are the norm in Australia. What's the significance?

Aboriginal artist Tess Alice with her dog. (Deepa Fernandes/Here & Now)
Aboriginal artist Tess Alice with her dog. (Deepa Fernandes/Here & Now)

On a recent trip to visit family in Sydney, Australia, Here & Now host Deepa Fernandes noticed something while driving around listening to the radio.

One ABC News daytime host introduced herself and said she was, “coming to you from Gadigal Land” — the Indigenous land from which she broadcast her show. It struck Fernandes that many shows on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, which is similar to the BBC, began with acknowledging country, or the land of the specific First Nations people who lived there prior to British colonization and still do.

These acknowledgments are everywhere in Australia: radio and TV shows, school assemblies and even before political speeches. Even former Prime Minister Scott Morrison, a member of Australia’s Conservative Party, acknowledged standing on the ancient land of the Nullarbor people as he addressed the United Nations.

Artist Tess Allas is a descendant of the Wiradjuri people, a language group in the state of New South Wales. Her grandfather, a Wiradjuri man, traveled down the coast in the 1930s. Allas lives in Petersham, a suburb of Sydney, on Wangal country.

Land acknowledgments went mainstream in Australia only a few years ago, Allas says. TV shows like “Gardening Australia” adopted the practice before ABC.

“I found that really fantastic because not only did it give you a new mind map to see and view Australia, it also acknowledged the people who are of that country where that journalist or presenter or broadcaster was positioned,” Allas says. “And for an organization such as the ABC to make that mainstream has been, I think, incredibly important and such a beautiful educational tool.”

Allas first noticed the change while working at an art school, where students would acknowledge Aboriginal groups at the start of presentations and demanded action on campus. But Aboriginal groups have been pushing for such acknowledgment for decades, she says.

The artist hasn’t heard the Wiradjuri people’s land acknowledged in a broadcast yet.

“I think it gives you a sense of place, a sense of belonging and a sense that your people have finally been acknowledged as being part of this country,” Allas says.

In the United States, acknowledging Indigenous land is far from mainstream.

When Allas visits another colonized country, she asks, “Who are the traditional owners? And if they don’t understand that, I will ask who are the local First Nations people?” But in some places, like the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, her questions about Indigenous people confused the staff.

Australia is ahead of other countries — but the acknowledgments can preclude concrete actions First Nations people demand. Some universities performatively prioritize country acknowledgments but fire Aboriginal staff and ignore demands from Aboriginal students, she says.

People who live in colonized countries — with jobs, homes and freedoms — directly benefit from colonization.

“Whether you are a descendant of the colonizers or a visitor to that country, it makes no difference. To acknowledge that you are here because of that history is just one way of paying respect to that history,” she says, “and the people who may or may not even be there anymore.”

But First Nations people deserve much more than an acknowledgment, Allas says.

“The acknowledgment won’t change corporate greed. It won’t change capitalism. It won’t change legislation,” she says. “But it is a tool in educating Australia about the nation that they’re sitting in and call home.”

Correction: The original version of this story misspelled Tess Allas’ name. We regret the error. 

Jill Ryan produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Todd Mundt. Allison Hagan adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.