“I take this word reconciliation and I use it to reconcile people back to Mother Earth, so they can walk this land together and heal one another because she’s the one that gives birth to everything we see around us, everything we need to survive.”
– Uncle Max 'Dulumunmun' Harrison, Yuin Elder from south coast NSW
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have been caring for Country for thousands of generations. So if we, collectively, want to find our way back to cultures that put Earth at the centre, First Nations voices, ideas and ways need to be at the forefront.
At the same time, First Nations communities across this continent will be (and already are) some of the first and worst hit by many of the impacts of the climate crisis. That’s another good reason to put First Nations people and communities first as we work for the health of our living planet. Below are some suggestions for non-Indigenous musicians, to help you do just that. The content in this section has either been shared or written by First Nations people. If First Nations readers have other suggestions, please contact [email protected]
Of course, we can’t cover everything in a guide like this. At the end of the day, this work is deeply personal - and each of us needs to take the care and time to do it for ourselves, with our communities, in the places we live. Below we offer some starting points, some advice, and some suggested paths to travel down. There’s loads here. It’s a lifetime’s work and the time to begin was yesterday. Let’s go.
Going green is not just about ‘nature’ or ‘the environment’ - it’s also about people and power, about how we see the world, who has a voice and influence. Here are some places to start for non-Indigenous allies who want to learn to centre First Nations people, ideas, worldviews and approaches in our movement towards environmental healing and justice. We reckon it’s the only way forward. That’s why we’ve given it due space in this guide.
Photo by Duncographic at Strawberry Fields 2019, on Yorta Yorta Country.
Assume there’s plenty you don’t know: Learning and healing are interwoven. A little humility goes a long way. So start by assuming there’s lots you’re not aware of. That’s ok. In fact, it’s an outcome of Australia’s cultural amnesia - our history of silencing and discrimination.
Don’t take yourself too seriously: Not everything needs to be worthy and serious. We’re ever-adapting and can have a laugh when we see the irony of our shared histories. Satire and parody are strategies of resistance. They humanise us all. And if you are not sure if it’s ok to laugh, just ask.
Don’t lump everyone together: Like all sectors of the community, First Peoples are diverse culturally, have varying social and political opinions, histories and relationships. While large sectors of our community live below the poverty line, we also have millionaires. They all still belong to community - so, it’s not one-size-fits-all.
Be patient: For broader Australian society, having the robust conversations we need to have will be challenging. The dialogue will be uncomfortable as we grow and trust is built. It’s about listening and understanding that there is another narrative to the history that has not been told. And it will take time.
Allow time for cultural observances: Allow ample lead times when working in collaboration. First Nations artists carry cultural and community obligations, especially when dealing with new work relating to specific cultural importance and age-old knowledge. When a meeting is cancelled it could be for a variety of reasons such a ceremony and/or Sorry Business.
Respect Self Determination and create safety: Our protocols and stewardship dictate that we honour our sky, land and water ancestors and acknowledge the gifts of the land we are on and the peoples of that Country who have continued ancient obligations against many challenges - be they colonisation, the climate crisis and/or government policy. In this context, your patience, advocacy, understanding and flexibility when collaborating helps ensure that self-determination is respected, and continued connections are safeguarded.
Consult with care: Whether based in urban, regional, rural or remote communities, our custodians carry responsibilities for the traditional stories, song, dance and language of Country - so continuing creative practices have broader implications. Nobody knows everything or everyone, so ensuring the right people, sectors of the community, and even genders (when dealing with Women and or Men’s Business) is essential.
Don’t jump into silences: Give it time and people will talk in their own way. In a meeting, blackfellas are aware of the kinship structure in the room, who needs to talk first, when you can ask questions and how much is given in the first connection.
Two-way side-by-side: Ensure an equality of voice when developing new collaborative work. The truth is, we all need each other. So avoid ‘us’ and them’. This centres you and makes someone else the ‘other’. Collaboration and cultural teaching is all about two-way side-by-side – Indigenous to non-indigenous and non-indigenous to Indigenous, old to young and young to old - it’s how transfer of knowledge and generational exchange happens.
Accept that some tasks aren’t for you: Decolonising material, for instance, should be written by First Nations people. Non-indigenous people are observers of, and participants in, colonisation. They haven’t experienced certain structural and systemic behaviour that will be common for First Nations peoples, and they will often have personally benefited from colonisation. The lived First Nations experience shifts the mindset.
Give credit appropriately and generously: Australia does not yet have a law that prevents alteration, distortion or misuse of traditional symbols, songs, dances, performances and story that may be part of the heritage of particular First Nations language groups.
Pay people properly: Your budget needs to include compensation for expertise and research, community consultation and guidance. Have a process of developing a financial relationship alongside a personal commitment for cultural safety and knowledge holding.
Treat relationships with care and respect: Time is always put aside for visitors. Ensure the approach is one of visiting a loved one – take a gift of food – as you would to your grandma (it’s not charity). Baking bread is symbolic. Many poorer communities, for example, can’t afford fresh produce. In those cases, a bag of fresh fruit would be very much appreciated.
Have a go: When seeking connection and communication, you don’t have to get it perfect. Some communities might not have a reference point regarding your project. But don’t underestimate people’s knowledge. Instead, give a truthful and open pitch that enables tough questions to be asked.
Mentor and share knowledge: Be aware of varied cultural differences and capacity. It’s two-way learning - when you work with a community you receive knowledge and awareness and, in return, they receive your expertise and skills.
Be committed and genuine: If you believe in equality and diversity, ask yourself the simple questions that deepen your efforts: How am I engaging? Who on my team is from a First Nations background and/or is a person of colour? Where is the venue and who are the local mob? Do I know how to say hello and farewell to audiences in the local language?
One-on-one experience: Have you spent time on Country? Book your next weekend or holiday with an Aboriginal operated cultural tourism experience using the only Aboriginal-led national booking agent, ‘Welcome to Country’
Don’t assume: Don’t assume just because someone is First Nations, they’ll necessarily be an environmental expert. While First Nations musicians may be connected to ancient teachings and cultures with valuable perspective and potential for access to important knowledge, being First Nations doesn’t magically confer knowledge in this area. Many people have been disconnected from traditional lands through Government removal policies over generations. For those and other reasons, many may not know elements of ceremony and culture, including language, or have appropriate cultural permissions, seniority or experience to share knowledge relating to culture and Country. The truth is, we’re collectively working through such big stuff. And everyone has their part to play. Part of yours is to create space and work to empower others, while not bringing unrealistic assumptions or expectations to the table.
For more, find your entry point in the resources below, get educated and get active:
With any of this work, consider forming a group of allies to learn together. It’s better you don’t do this work alone and we’ve all got a responsibility to support others as we go. You could form a Decolonising Solidarity book club or get a reading group together based on the suggestions provided below.
As human beings we’re all passing through this place. While we’re here, we must be aware and open - always learning. There are no mistakes, only lessons. We’ll never learn it all but a few tips can be helpful. So here are some from me. And remember, every one's community requirements are different.
Rhoda Roberts AO
There’s loads of ways to improve your cultural competency. Along with self-directed research, being willing to listen and learn are powerful assets to carry with you. You can also do training:
Now that we’re adults, it’s time to take responsibility for learning the important things we weren’t taught in school. There are so many possible entry points, from books to films, from online sources to formal courses. Here’s just a few accessible resources to get you on your way.
You Can’t Ask That: Indigenous (ABC): For some basic questions answered by a diverse group of Indigenous folks.
As you learn and explore, you’ll deepen understanding and relationships and find yourself capable of more meaningful action. Below, as an example, we’ve looked at how the ‘Acknowledgement of Country’ can be delivered at different levels of personalisation and meaning. If you live in Australia, you will have heard an Acknowledgement of Country. It’s a way of showing respect by noting the ongoing connection, resilience and strength of traditional custodians. What if, at our shows, instead of just a basic Acknowledgment, we practiced ‘Calling Country’ with Traditional Custodians? Read on, to see what that might look like.
One step we can all take is to make an Acknowledgement of Country at the start of our shows. Check out this map to see whose land you’re on. Practice saying it beforehand to make sure you get the names right (this is about respect after all).
Some suggested wording:
I acknowledge the unceded Sovereign Traditional land that this event takes place on. I pay my respects to the (insert people) people of the (insert nation) Nation, to the Custodians of the old ways, to today’s leaders and the knowledge holders of tomorrow. Thank you for having us on Country.
It’s worth noting that we don’t mention ‘emerging elders’ here. That’s because elders don’t ‘emerge’. Being an elder is an inherited birthright for which ceremony and obligation guide you until the time is right for custodial passage.
Make your Acknowledgement more personal. While an Acknowledgement is an important thing to do, it can be considered tokenistic when it is the same dialogue repeated. Showing a deeper understanding of the region and the connections of country, culture and community will help shape new perspectives.
Calling Country. A welcome does not have to be just spoken. For music events - ‘Calling Country’ through a call and response song is one possible way of giving a deeper, and even more culturally-appropriate welcome.
A suggestion: Calling Country
From the above background, you can see why simply making an acknowledgement or even having an elder do a welcome is not the deepest way you can respect Traditional Owners and Custodians. Imagine, instead, organising a call and response welcome from the clan whose land you are on - with the members of your band or crew calling to enter and a response from the local custodians, welcoming you in front of the audience. Think of the calling as a question, the response as an invitation and your music as a gift. And be creative with how you do it.
This creative and meaningful idea is a suggestion of what’s possible when we understand the history and engage with local people and treat these practices as real opportunities for relationship and trust-building.
For those with a platform, one of the most powerful things we can do is to advocate for First Nations musicians, sharing work, offering headline billing, stage time and support slots. We’ve got a brilliant list of First Nations music, radio and media on our website. Check it out and find your new favourite artist, show or information source to share and amplify.
Pay the Rent by making a regular donation of your income or ticketing profits to a body led by First Nations Elders. It’s a step up from acknowledgement and is a tangible transfer of power. This great article and this list of FAQs explain how it works.
Victorian musicians can set up a regular payment via Pay the Rent. For those elsewhere, use this guide to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander charities, the links in Shannan Dodson’s article above, or the #paytherent links in this anti-racism resource to choose a group that’s genuinely controlled by the community, without government interference. If you’re unsure, consider supporting First Nations environmental activists like SEED Indigenous Youth Climate Network.
“Music connects people to place, culture, strength, pride and traverses geography. Every person’s voice is important. When we engage with music, we engage with culture and we all engage in healing, we hear the laughter and the joy for our better tomorrow.”
Dr Shellie Morris