Local elder Derek Councillor knows by participating in an Australia Day welcome to country that some of his fellow Indigenous community members see him as a “traitor”.
But he sees his involvement differently — as a small step in bridging the cultural divide that seems to be even wider on January 26, and helping unite the broader community.
As the controversy around Australia Day and changing the date debate ramps up, many Indigenous people boycott the national day, dubbing the date marking the landing of the First Fleet as “Invasion Day”.
Mr Councillor, a Yamatji Naaguja elder, will lead a welcome to country and smoking ceremony to open the City of Greater Geraldton’s Australia Day celebrations on Wednesday. He spoke to the Geraldton Guardian to share his thoughts on the issues surrounding Australia Day, and why he chooses to take part in it, despite the negative connotations it holds for other Indigenous people.
He said he saw Australia Day as a time to reflect on how Indigenous people had endured colonisation, and celebrate how far we had come as a country.
“We had to overcome the lies of terra nullius to get where we are today,” Mr Councillor said.
“Terra nullius means land of no laws, or no culture. If you look at Indigenous laws and customs, there’s rules so strict. Nobody broke them.”
Mr Councillor says he does receive some backlash from his community for taking part in what he acknowledges is a difficult day for many. But he sees the ceremony as an opportunity for the wider community to come together.
“People say ‘you’re a traitor to your people for doing welcome to country’. That’s a very common thing,” he said.
“1788 was a long time ago, and I’d like to see us be counted as one. It’s not about whether you’re from Europe, or Asia, or Africa, or you’re an Indigenous Australian.”
Mr Councillor said he hoped to keep his welcome to country apolitical, and tell the story of colonisation from an Aboriginal perspective.
“The truth hurts. I do cultural outreach, and I get people who’ve been told a story since they were a child. When they hear it from my perspective, it’s very shocking for them,” he said.
The smoking ceremony holds particular significance as new citizens are welcomed to join. Mr Councillor explained the ceremonies were performed — pre-colonosation — by women on the arrival of a baby, to ensure ancestral spirits would watch over them. He believes the smoking ceremony would offer new citizens the same welcome and protection.
“We only use leaves from a certain tree, because the smell lets the spirits know that this child is protected, and they will be protected for a long time,” he said.
The ceremony also serves as a cultural experience for those new to Australia. Mr Councillor said he was glad to have the opportunity to showcase an integral part of his culture for those who might be experiencing their first Australia Day.
“The first Australians are always left out, and when we are involved its usually in a small way,” he said.
“You go to other countries all over the world, and you see there is a culture and a connection with people and the land. People want to know and recognise the Yamatji connection with this country.”