Respecting Custodianship

Australian landscape featuring beautiful clouds

by Dr Antonia Mocatta

The University of Sydney Library exists on unceded Aboriginal lands. To demonstrate commitment to fostering an environment of respect and truth telling, the Library and its staff acknowledge and respect the ongoing connection Aboriginal peoples have to these lands, and the knowledge and practices that have allowed these lands to be holistically and sustainably maintained.

We are committed to embedding culturally competent practices across our Library services, collections and spaces. The following article is a guide for those who would like to understand more about the cultural context around the tradition of acknowledging Country, and to build confidence in presenting an Acknowledgement in a culturally competent way.

The Differences Between a ‘Welcome to Country’ & an ‘Acknowledgement of Country’

What is a Welcome to Country?

For thousands of years, protocols have existed in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture for welcoming visitors to Country. Permission needed to be requested and granted for visitors to enter Country belonging to another group. Once permission was granted, the host group would welcome their visitors and offer them spiritual protection and safe passage during their time on Country.

Today, this tradition is continued in a symbolic way though the Welcome to Country ceremony that usually occurs before the start of a formal event. This can take several forms including speech, singing, dancing and smoking ceremonies.  A Welcome to Country is usually delivered by the Traditional Owners of Country, and typically by a prominent member of that community or an Elder who has the authority and knowledge to deliver a Welcome.

What is an Acknowledgement of Country?

An Acknowledgement of Country can be delivered by non-Indigenous people or Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who are not in a position to deliver a Welcome to Country. Delivering an Acknowledgement provides anyone the opportunity to show their awareness of respect for the Traditional Owners of the land they are on, and their continuing relationship with that land.

When Should a Spoken Acknowledgement of Country be Delivered?

An Acknowledgement of Country can be delivered before meetings, gatherings or events even if the content of the proceeding event does not relate to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture or history. An Acknowledgement of Country can be delivered by anyone, Indigenous or non-Indigenous.

What Should be Included in an Acknowledgement of Country?

There is no set script for an Acknowledgement of Country.

In formal meetings or when you are unsure what to say when delivering an Acknowledgement, you may opt to use the University of Sydney’s official Acknowledgement (below).

Before we begin the proceedings, I would like to acknowledge and pay respect to the traditional owners of the land on which we meet: the Gadigal* people of the Eora* Nation. It is upon their ancestral lands that the University of Sydney is built.

As we share our own knowledge, teaching, learning and research practices within this university may we also pay respect to the knowledge embedded forever within the Aboriginal Custodianship of Country.

*The Gadigal people of the Eora Nation are the traditional owners of the lands in Sydney, including the Camperdown campus. Find out and use the name of the people and Nation of the land that you are on.

In less formal settings such as internal meetings or gatherings, as a demonstration of respect, you should personalise your Acknowledgement and share what it means to you to work on Country. Doing this can demonstrate your genuine respect for Country.

Before delivering any Acknowledgement, you should learn what Country you are on, who its Traditional Custodians are, and how to pronounce the name of their community, and the historical context for the area (refer to the AIATSIS map).

Consider including the following elements when preparing a personalised Acknowledgement of Country:

  • Name and acknowledge the nation, people, or language group of the land you are on (refer to the AIATSIS map)
  • Refer to particular aspects of Country in the area – are you in the desert, on an island or there any local sacred or historical sites
  • Identify the continuing connection of the Traditional Owners to that land
  • Recognise that First Nations sovereignty was never ceded
  • Pay respects to their Elders and any First Nations people present
  • Thank them for caring for Country over thousands of generations
  • Talk about what it means to you to be on Country.

You may wish to deliver an Acknowledgement in Gadigal language.  For guidance on content and pronunciation you can watch the video below in which Professor Jakelin Troy shares with Dr Rosemary Grey how we can acknowledge Country in Gadi language.

Visit our collections

To celebrate NAIDOC week 2021, the University of Sydney Library showcased items from the collection that have been published by Sydney University Press, focusing on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and cultural heritage. Read the article here.

To mark National Reconciliation Week 2021, and the nearly three decades of Australia’s formal reconciliation process, the University of Sydney Library featured highlights from the collection by First Nations authors. These can be found through Library search either online, in our physical collection or at the Wingara Mura Research Centre.
Read the article here.