What Do We Owe Native Americans?

Many Americans might not be thinking beyond a peripheral way about the legacy of some of the most important participants in the Thanksgiving narrative.

Gratitude shouldn’t be quarantined to a single day on the annual calendar, but with Thanksgiving arriving this week, many people are giving pause to some of the things they are most grateful for in life, whether it is family, friends, professional opportunities, health, or a variety of other blessings and causes for celebration and acknowledgement.

But between mouthfuls of turkey—or other holiday food for vegetarians—stuffing, and cranberry sauce, it’s not always clear whom to acknowledge on Thanksgiving. Or better put, many Americans might not be thinking beyond in a peripheral way about the legacy of some of the most important participants in the Thanksgiving narrative, and the complicated relationship those people have with modern America.

For me, it took a trip to Sydney, Australia, to appreciate part of the Thanksgiving story that had previously evaded me.

On Oct. 27, I was one of thousands of people who attended a 40th anniversary celebration for the iconic Sydney Opera House. Some of the guests who were far more noteworthy than I included Denmark’s crown princess, an Australian native who arrived with the prince via motorcade to many iPhone camera flashes, and who was one of the speakers in the two-and-a-half hour program. The event also featured a full symphony, and remarks from the Opera House architect’s son and Australian politicians.

The sun set as the program culminated with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s performance of the same music that had opened the building in 1973 (Beethoven’s 9th), and then there were fireworks. But as picturesque as the exploding colors over the “sails” or “clouds” of the Opera House roof were, the beginning of the program was, in a way, more interesting and provocative.

The event opened with an “acknowledgement of country,” in which members of Sydney’s Aboriginal community, which is viewed as the land’s custodians, performed a traditional dance. (At very important events, including some of the other Opera House celebrations, Aboriginal people perform smoking ceremonies, which are designed to cleanse the space.)  Several of the speakers voiced their recognition of the Aboriginal custodians as well. “I would like to begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of this land, the Gadigal people,” said Louise Herron, the CEO of Sydney Opera House.

“May I begin by affirming my deep respect for the traditional custodians of this place upon which we gather,” added Marie Bashir, the governor of New South Wales, “the Gadigal people of the Eora nation, their ancestors, and descendants and all of Australia’s Aboriginal people, who have nurtured our great continent for tens of thousands of years.”

Australian American musician John Butler said, “Before I begin, I’d like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of this land, the Eora nation, and the ancestors past and present. I’m very, very pleased, honored, and humbled to be playing at this very sacred place.” And the event’s emcee was Deborah Mailman, the first Aboriginal actress to win an Australian Film Institute Best Actress Award.

The land is “the core of all spirituality and this relationship has been deeply misunderstood over the past 200 years or so. This relationship is central to all issues that are important to Indigenous people today,” according to the website of the Sydney-based Australian Museum. European colonizers who first arrived in Australia misjudged the Indigenous people’s sense of “ownership” of the land, the museum site adds. “Australia was deemed to be ‘terra nullius’ and the land was claimed by the British. However Indigenous people fought, and are still fighting, for their land and their lives.”

The religious beliefs of most indigenous Australians “are derived from a sense of belonging-to the land, to the sea, to other people, to one’s culture,” the museum site adds.

To an American reporter in the audience and the opera house, the frequent recognition of Aboriginal presence on the land long before the first British colony was established in the late 18th century—particularly after some subsequent reading on the spiritual connection to the land—was a revelation.

The National Mall in Washington, D.C., is home to the National Museum of the American Indian, and Native American history has taken its rightful place in American history curricula across the nation. The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, which opened a new wing for its Art of the Americas collection in 2010, is one of many American museums that now exhibit Native American art in sections that historically housed only the art of the colonists.

But this Thanksgiving it’s worth pondering whether there’s more room to be thankful for Native American culture and spirituality (although that term may apply in a way other than the Judeo-Christian sense)—perhaps in the way that Australia acknowledges its Aboriginal culture.

The Welcome to Country—or Acknowledgement of Country—protocol dates back to when Aboriginal people gathered together, or invited others into their country, explains Clarence Slockee, the education coordinator for Aboriginal programs at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Sydney.

“Aboriginal people certainly place great significance in Welcome/Acknowledgement protocols and [it] continues to be an important component of both traditional and contemporary Aboriginal ceremonies and festivals,” says Slockee, who was supposed to participate in the opening ceremony at the Opera House but was unable to make it that day. “Welcome/Acknowledgement serves a dual purpose of educating non-Aboriginal [people] about the history of this country and the significant connection to country despite dislocation and European colonization.”

Slockee admits that non-Aboriginal people’s acknowledgements can seem insincere but adds, “There are exceptions to the rule with many non-Aboriginal people understanding the struggles still facing Aboriginal people in this country.”

Alexander (Sasha) Grishin, professor of art history at Australian National University in Canberra, agrees. “Is it tokenistic?” he says. “A bit like saluting the flag, it may be a hollow gesture, but it does serve as a reminder.”

“Our race relations in this country are riddled with guilt,” Grishin adds. “The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples were poisoned, raped and then their half-caste children taken away from them, their land was considered unoccupied, and only recently they were acknowledged as citizens and given the right to vote.”

Welcome to Country, according to Grishin, both acknowledges Aboriginal people’s existence and the fact that they lived on the land several thousand years before European settlement.

“There is a similar practice in New Zealand and in parts of Canada,” he says. Slockee, of Sydney’s Royal Botanic Gardens, adds that in New Zealand (Aotearoa in Maori) there is only one language, which makes things easier. “We have over 250 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages,” he says.

Randell Baze, a native Oklahoma Choctaw speaker and a librarian at Edmond Public Library in Oklahoma, thinks the Welcome/ Acknowledgement protocol could translate well in the United States but could get tricky.

“Lands have changed hands between various tribes even before Columbus and the European invasion. The lands held dear to Lakota nowadays was stolen from the Crow, Cheyenne, and Arapaho,” he says. “Determining who to attribute may be difficult research in a few areas. But all in all it would be good to see more recognition of tribes at non-native events.”

It would also have to be done tastefully, he says.

“So long as the dancers were of American Indian descent and they were traditionally trained, then it would be rather flattering if intertribal (non-native) events honored the local Indian nations,” he says. “Now if a native dance was performed before a Redskins game, then it would be rather offensive.”

Menachem Wecker
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  • ScottVA

    Your white guilt is amusing.
    Get over yourself. Neither you nor I abused or displaced the aboriginal peoples of North America.

    That said, displacement has always been the way of civilization.
    Perhaps we ought to have ceremonies acknowledging the Neanderthals’ keeping of the land before us, too.

  • Catken1

    You and your family profited from their displacement and abuse, however, and some acknowledgment of our debt to them seems appropriate.
    Neanderthals were European, not American.

  • nobe

    wow! White guilt? I am thankful for this land and the article’s expression of an appropriate thanksgiving for those peoples who occupied this land before us. We owe the tribute to the people who came before us so that the next generations can do the same for us who care and love this wonderful land of ours. Acknowledgement of the history of the land is important and we need to adopt more of the cultural sensitivity of the history of the land and the people as this article suggests.

  • nobe

    Wow, White guilt?…The article expresses the cultural taste of the Americans who shares their generosity toward the history of the people who occupied the land so that the next generations can honor our love for this country. Acknowledgement of the history of the peoples and the land is important part of our heritage and it does not necessarily all begin on our Independence Day. I agree with the suggestion that on the right occasions we should acknowledge the peoples who occupied this land in the past. The lost history does not give less meaning to the truth of the human history.

  • Catken1

    Scott’s just annoyed that someone’s asking him to consider non-Christians as human beings worthy of consideration and respect. He’s quick enough to whine about the oppression and persecution of Christians in this country, and to tell us all we should feel horribly guilty for denying Christians the right to 100% of the attention ALL the time, and the right to force us all to obey their religious rules even when seeking a civil contract. But he sees no reason why he should show any sympathy or concern for people who were murdered, raped, abused and stolen from by Christians, since obviously Christians’ actions are always right and anyone who complains about them is a whiner.