I didn’t want to say anything but they all seemed to be white. This was my third one and the third time that the Aboriginal man giving the ‘Welcome to Country’ was white. I thought that Aboriginal people were meant to be black?
The ‘Welcome to Country’ is often given at the opening of events, conferences or even meetings and is performed by an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander elder. It serves as the invitation, or welcome, for participants to be on the land of the particular Aboriginal nation from that area. It is meant to echo Aboriginal practices of the past where an Aboriginal person from one nation who wanted to enter the land of another group may have lit a small fire to signal this, and then waited for a response indicating that he/she was welcome.
The ‘Welcome to Country’, usually given as a speech rather than a dance or song, will often begin with very similar scripted phrases that will include the elder speaking some of their traditional language. The land that Melbourne now sits on is the land of the Wurundjeri people and welcome in their language is ‘wominjeka’. The Wurundjeri elders will also explain where their land is – “stretching north to the Great Dividing Range, east to Mount Baw Baw, south to Mordialloc Creek and west to Werribee River.” Without actually knowing where these places are, I envisage this vast expanse of perfect harmony and with its prose always makes me inhale slightly deeper.
The first couple of Welcomes I witnessed were quite short, possibly because of time allocated, meaning there was not much more information added. This left my confusion believing Aboriginals to be black but seeing them to be white uncorrected. Thankfully, the third elder (not the one pictured) that I heard diverted from the script and gave a recent history of the Wurundjeri people. He explained that after some murdering of them, forced separation of families and voluntary marriage between Aboriginal and white people, there are no “full-blooded” Aboriginal Wurundjeri people left. He advised that if you are in Victoria and see a black Aboriginal person then they are from an Aboriginal group outside of these lands.
The elder is an Aboriginal Wurundjeri man, identifies himself as such, as do others, so from this point of view the Wurundjeri nation continues. However, his use of “full-blooded” and focus on the last full-blooded Wurundjeri person during his Welcome did infer a difference. It inferred that something had been lost from the Wurundjeri nation at the point that last full-blooded person died, or that a process of loss was in motion.
Yet, he also spoke proudly that his “full-blooded” Aboriginal relative and her white husband had married each other. That union showed that Aboriginal people and white fellas could live together and be equals. It would be a wonderful world if people from all races and nations felt free and equal to fall in love with each other and have families where the children enjoyed a heritage of two nations. But the realisation that there was not one Wurundjeri person alive who was born of two Wurundjeri people made me a little sad.
I think what made me sad was that it wasn’t just voluntary marriage that led to this situation but forced separation and murder. The demise of full-blooded Wurundjeri people was not through lots of individual choices made for love, but has largely been done to them by colonialists. By the people of my country.
I am generally ignorant about Aboriginal and Australian history so what followed was an uneducated reaction to what I had just heard; my people had killed another people to the point of extinction.
The word extinction may not be right and could be insulting to living Wurundjeri people, and I am not denying their identity as Wurundjeri people, but putting it into that context meant the enormity of what happened here began to dawn on me. There’s a lot to learn here. A lot under the surface.