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Caring for Country: Aboriginal Australia

When attending a conference on cultural landscapes in Australia, the Aboriginal people I met all worked in the field of conservation as land managers, rangers, and interpreters.  Now this was not too surprising considering the circumstances, but as it turns out this caring for place, or as it is called down under – country, is a deeply rooted tradition of Indigenous Australians.  Recent scholarship by historian Bill Gammage in The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia (2011) documents intensive management of the continent’s landscape primarily through fire.  He found their care of the land merged theology and ecology in a web of practices that made natural resources bountiful, predictable, and in balance.

Today Australia’s Aboriginal peoples make up only 2-3% of the population, but their presence is made visible in multiple ways. The landscape is defined by the names they gave its geographic features.  Interpretive signage and even hotel blurbs recognize the original inhabitants of the land.  Most powerfully, every official event or meeting in Australia opens with some variation on the words, “ I would like to begin by acknowledging the traditional custodians of the land we are meeting on today and pay my respects to their elders past and present.”

At a major public meeting there will often be a welcome by an Aboriginal elder – someone recognized as having ancestral connection to the country where the meeting is taking place. These rituals or protocols known as Acknowledgement of Country and Welcome to Country are one element of the nation’s reconciliation movement  that began in the 1990s. To visitors from the United States this regular and public acknowledgement of Indigenous peoples and their place on the land is striking.  By contrast in our country the long history of the American Indians on the North American continent is not routinely recognized. It is only featured if the meeting impacts tribal lands or is a big deal big international event – think the Olympics in Salt Lake City.

In Australia, as in the United States, the arrival and colonization by European populations followed a similar grim pattern of exploitation, disease, and displacement.  In Australia the initial devastating impacts of outside contact were followed by programs of resettlement in missions and in the 1950s the forcible removal of children from their families. The people that had lived on the continent for almost 60,000 years were only given the right to vote in 1962 and the right to be counted in the nation’s census in 1967. An increasing push for the rights of the Aboriginal community culminated in 2008 when Prime Minister Kevin Rudd made a national apology to the Aboriginal peoples and specifically to the stolen generations. He noted that saying your sorry is powerful simply because it restores respect.

What are the lessons we can learn from Australia and apply in the United States? In 2009 our Congress issued an apology to the American Indians – tucked deep inside the 2010 Defense Appropriations Act. The wording of the apology concludes that we should  “harmoniously steward and protect this land together.” Unfortunately this apology has recieved little attention. But here is an idea perhaps  the conservation community could take the next step.  What if we started to “acknowledge” the traditional caretakers of the land and better yet what if we developed effective programs to recruit American Indian young people for careers in the lands protection and stewardship.

Just a thought…