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Acknowledgement

Dialogue between people of colour is tangled. We are united by a common source that crushes us, which is easy enough to talk about, even if the way it crushes is cruelly and conscientiously tailored for each of us. Talking laterally is harder.

That’s what Angela Flournoy tried, on the cusp of 2017, when she made some stretch of it by talking across race perspectives and continents for her article ‘What Does It Mean to Acknowledge the Past?’ in the New York Times. This is no criticism of Flournoy – I appreciate the complexity of talking across Indigeneity and the African diaspora, as well as across distant continents. That complexity makes this reply just as messy and flawed. Think of this more as a supplement, an attempt to understand and acknowledge one another. A yarn, in our kit of Indigenous intellectual tools.

For Flournoy, the Acknowledgements of Country she witnessed spoke to that common source – colonisation – and its past and ongoing atrocities. The Australian POC in my digital circles responded accordingly and with aplomb. I, and a number of other ‘digital natives’, saw the familiar trio that worms out in writing about Indigenous peoples: misunderstanding, relegation, essentialism.

The standard ‘opening remark’ to which Flournoy refers is as follows:

I acknowledge the ______ people [of the ______ nation], and pay respect to their Elders, past and present.

The ‘heartfelt’ Acknowledgements tend to deviate in small ways; maybe they’ll mention the history of the local area. The ‘perfunctory’ ones are flat recitals, followed by a sharp in-breath and the commencement of the ‘real’ proceedings.

Acknowledgements of Country are a colonial context permutation of Welcomes to Country, which itself is a practice that continues to morph. Welcomes are distinguished by their character and by the speaker: an Elder of the relevant lands on the relevant lands. Many Welcomes take active forms, and they vary widely across the continent, and confer rights and responsibilities to those present while on those lands.

Acknowledgements, however, are just that: acknowledgement. They nod to the lands and their peoples, and they have a lush and contradictory politic. They are not acknowledgements of past atrocities, but build on a practice of reciprocity and meeting. In their best form, they pose symbolic resistance to settlers getting roots in and express enduring Indigenous belonging of and to lands.

But gestures toward symbolic reparation or remembering what seeks to destabilise that belonging are ancillary to Acknowledgements. Indeed, the ‘janitorial ring’ of ‘traditional custodians of the land’ of which Flournoy complains in her article is part of the symbolic problem she later raises: the practice has become routine, rehearsed. I would say the practice has become strategically corrupted: pithy Acknowledgements, heartfelt and perfunctory alike, are equally capable of trying to dislodge Indigenous belonging when they suggest Indigenous relationship to land is ‘traditional’, managerial and ‘custodial’, or position our claim to sovereignty as  ‘past-based’, ‘non-possessive’ and merely reparative.

In Flournoy’s context on Turtle Island, reparations have their own meaning – tangible redress for the profit a nation turned on the back of atrocities. Here, reparation is stuck with the sentimental goal of white-blak trust building, or ‘reconciliation’. One such reconciliatory milestone, the national apology to the Stolen Generations, came about only because parliamentary privilege safeguarded apologies against compensation.

But both custodianship and reparative approaches to Acknowledgement can dislodge Indigenous belonging, situating colonisation as an historical event to be repaired at the level of national identity, stripping Acknowledgements of their once-powerful decolonial mandate.  Worse still, rather than doing any reparative work, the bureaucratisation of Acknowledgements can give the kind of performative social capital that allows questions of reparation, proper reparation, to be evaded completely. The habit loses the meaning, but not its sheen.

Ask me on January 26 if Acknowledgements mean we acknowledge our colonial past or present. All the while, the politics of Recognition and reconciliation sees millions poured into a campaign for similar Acknowledgement in the Constitution, itself barely a gesture of self-forgiveness with no cogent model yet proposed. As this plays out like a theatre of generic white ancestors ‘who did a horrible thing’ flagellation (never self-flagellation), legal reforms that might realise self-determination and land rights – the ultimate aims of Acknowledging Australia’s colonial history – wither without mainstream attention.

 

And yet, Acknowledgements remain crucial to me. They are a baseline, something a public room cannot be without, during which blakfullas nod and exchange glances.

Part of sharing a common source of pain means I can’t help but to seek myself reflected in racialised practices everywhere. So it makes sense to me that Flournoy, naming herself the descendant of slaves who were taken to Turtle Island through unfathomable brutality, sees reparative acknowledgement only.

But colonisation made slaves and made Indigeneity, and it used both to build itself in different ways. So we each, descendant of slave and Indigenous, seek different strategies. Flournoy seeks acknowledgement for the impact of colonisation. I see colonisation weaponising the Acknowledgement Indigenous peoples made to assert ourselves. I acknowledge that and her and me amongst the tangle of it all.

And more tangled it gets! Speaking only from my own experience, when I was recently on Turtle Island for a fortnight separately on the lands of the Ohlone and Massachusett peoples, ‘Country’ was not commonly Acknowledged and I was not Welcomed in the same way mob do here. When lands and peoples were Acknowledged, it was always for me: a way to press our cultures together in a mutual seeing of one another, offered as a salve. Bundjalung woman Evelyn Araluen Corr pointed me towards where Mununjali woman Ellen van Neerven says it better. In Berries, a poem from her recent collection, Comfort Food, van Neerven imparts:

it is when original people are acknowledged

the room breathes easier for me…

take off your socks, show your fur

and I’ll show you my feathers

Flournoy mentions van Neerven’s experience of Acknowledgements in Texas and Virginia (perhaps the same as these described by Berries) and imagines them. In these, Flournoy says an omission of the mention of Jefferson and of the atrocities of chattel slavery ‘feels wrong’. When I look only at Berries, I see a mutual entanglement between Indigenous peoples of different lands. These are vastly different from the Acknowledgements Flournoy experienced: delivered by a white woman at the front of a chaired room. If those were delivered on Turtle Island as mere remembering practices, it would feel wrong, just as their use here as only remembering practices feels wrong. But, Acknowledgements are already taking place on Turtle Island, in complex forms with vastly different goals. In van Neerven’s Berries, although the possibility to speak to trauma and injustice is open, we are not only looking to or united by the mutual source of colonisation. We are looking as diverse peoples to one another to relate outside its gaze and enact an enduring sovereignty.

Despite Flournoy’s whole article speaking almost solely to Acknowledgements of Country, she omits mention of any country but Australia: Byron Bay, where she experienced her first Acknowledgement, lies on Bundjalung Country. Flournoy also does not ask First Nations on Turtle Island what they think about Acknowledgement, or about the ways they negotiate land, meeting and belonging. Nor does she mention the dishonouring of Treaties, or suggest on what cultural foundation acknowledgement rituals of atonement and belonging for all people of colour would be based. Despite this, Welcome and Acknowledgement alike have land and context at their very skeleton. To build like rituals on their back is another way to dispossess the Indigenous, which is not just about the ‘displaced peoples’ referred to by Flournoy, but their place, their land.

There lies the danger of relegating Indigenous peoples as ethnic or racial minorities, without also contemplating us as the place upon which a racist and colonial force built itself. Homogenising people of colour by the mutual experience of racism without looking into its niches is an injustice to each of us. We can treat principles as mutually applicable to all racially oppressed groups, we can disregard the relevance of land and place, we can neglect to see the forces that make the Indigenous, and that made terra nullius. We can stake Indigeneity only on what we suffer; we can make Indigeneity only responsive to the whiteness that seeks to destroy it. It’s a cleaner narrative, but it inhibits what we are told is possible for us by Acknowledgement. It inhibits the sovereignty we speak.

Increasingly, Indigenous peoples on this continent are shifting away from the politics of Acknowledgement and reconciliation. We need something other than just remembering. We assert our being in ways that continue to weave on, both despite white contact, and without it. I want to tell Flournoy that, and I want to show her why.

It’s not only what we hold in common between Indigenous people and people of colour, but what we separately hold, that can better ally us. We acknowledge ourselves as strangers to one another’s racial contexts just as Flournoy was Welcomed, and Acknowledged, to the lands that make us. Hold together. Be messy. Salve and get justice for one another. Let’s tangle-talk between ourselves.

 

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Alison Whittaker is a Gomeroi poet and law graduate living on Wangal lands. She is the author of the award-winning collection Lemons in the Chicken Wire (Magabala Books, 2016).

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Comments

  1. Great tangle-talk. Small comment. I find adding ‘emerging’ further activates my acknowledgements. Have not yet had a student’s eyes glaze over and don’t think it’s because its the first thing we do together. Their responses, this article, and Van Neervan’s cited words encourage me to continue.

  2. When an Acknowledgement is done at my kids’ school, it includes (I forget the exact wording but something like) “we acknowledge the Elders, past, present and future, some of whom are sitting in this room”. I don’t know if this form of words is used at all public schools in NSW. For me, this makes it clear that the Acknowledgement is not something that situates both ‘custodianship’ and colonisation in the past, but that it is something active, lively, and relevant. I can only imagine what the feeling and meaning of this form of words might be for the Aboriginal children and their families.

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