|Mirdidingkingathi Juwarnda Sally Gabori's Dibirdibi Country (2008)|
The sentient power of country and the spirits who reside within it is not to be underestimated. Still today, trespassing on another's country is a reckless and dangerous act. It is customary in many parts of Australia to be formally "introduced" to country by traditional custodians, which can take the form of an exchange of sweat or a baptismal dousing so the land will accept or sense one as a countryman or woman and not make the newcomer sick. Almost invariably, senior community members will walk ahead at a special site, calling to their ancestral spirits so they will recognise and not harm the visitors.
It is in this context that the "welcome to country" has evolved; and it is a culturally appropriate means of brokering a social engagement with another community by formally recognising their ties to their homelands in the contemporary world.
It is a matter of no small concern that there has been the inevitable invasion of anti-political correctness creeping into this profoundly symbolic gesture of respect, particularly in areas where the Western legal criteria used to determine native title rights dispossess the traditional custodians from any other form of public recognition. The criticism of federal Opposition Leader Tony Abbott that the protocol is merely a "genuflection to political correctness" could be applied equally to singing the national anthem. How many Australians know all the words of the anthem, and how many really believe that we are a nation "young and free"?
The welcome is an appropriate way of reiterating the message that Australia is home to the oldest continuous cultural tradition in the world, as a counterpoint to the endless parade of men on horses immortalised in bronze that line our city streets.