Playing the Star Spangled Banner at the beginning of sporting events — and the silent protests it sparked — drew its share of controversy in 2016. For some this ritual stirs deep pride in country, for others anger at injustice.
Australia has a very different tradition for beginning meetings and public events, the reading of a “Welcome to Country” statement. It honors the contributions of indigenous peoples. Here is one example developed by the group Reconciliation Australia:
“Reconciliation Australia acknowledges the Traditional Owners of country throughout Australia and recognises their continuing connection to land, waters and community. We pay our respects to them and their cultures; and to elders both past and present.”
A recent Op/Ed in the New York Times — What Does It Mean to Acknowledge the Past? — has an interesting take on the value of this ritual to the indigenous peoples of Australia — and what would it be like to consider such ceremony here in the United States.
Do such statements simply become background noise to captive audiences, like the flight attendant explaining how to buckle a seat belt, or do they have meaning?
Angela Flournoy, author of the novel “The Turner House,” wrote the Op/Ed piece for the New York Times. She points out the difficulty of writing such a statement in the United States. For instance, how could you read such a statement at an event in Virginia and not acknowledge the history of slavery, too? Each community would have its own story.
Flournoy talked to a number of Australians about whether the “Welcome to Country” statement was meaningful or not. Here is what she concluded:
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. …
And she asks:
What might it look like for us to devise a new ritual for commencing our events? To recognize the most marginalized among us, simultaneously celebrating their traditions and keeping alive a more accurate story of our origin?
As a P.S., this is very much a live conversation for religious communities, where ceremony really matters.
Several denominations have passed formal resolutions repudiating what is known as the Doctrine of Discovery. (List here.) The Doctrine of Discovery refers to the religious and legal justification used by Europe’s colonial powers to claim lands occupied by indigenous peoples, seize their property, and convert, enslave, or kill them. Christian churches are heir to this legacy and the genocide that ensued.
For example, the United Methodist Church passed a resolution in 2012 calling on all levels of the Methodist Church to: “condemn the Doctrine of Discovery as a legal document and basis for the seizing of native lands and abuses of human rights of Indigenous Peoples.” It says that the Church will work toward eliminating the Doctrine of Discovery as a means to subjugate Indigenous peoples of property and land.
The Methodists and other denominations are trying to figure out how to create rituals — and give substantive meaning — to their resolutions renouncing these past actions.