Acknowledging Indigeneity

April 20, 2016
Stephen Gilchrist, the Australian Studies Visiting Curator, speaking during the Everywhen opening celebration, which included an Acknowledgment of Country. 

When Stephen Gilchrist, curator of the special exhibition Everywhen: The Eternal Present in Indigenous Art from Australia, speaks at gallery talks, lectures, and other special events related to the exhibition, his first words tend to take audiences by surprise.

“I’d like to begin by acknowledging the customary owners of the lands that we are now gathered on, and pay my respects to their ancestors of the past, present, and future.”

While many Americans aren’t accustomed to being reminded of complex political history or contested land claims before public presentations, this type of acknowledgment—known as an Acknowledgment of Country—is intended to pay respect to customary guardians of the land. It’s fairly common in Australia, particularly at the start of special events.

“It’s an important protocol,” said Gilchrist, the Australian Studies Visiting Curator at the Harvard Art Museums and associate lecturer in art history at the University of Sydney. Gilchrist belongs to the Yamatji people of the Inggarda language group of Western Australia. “It is an acknowledgment of place, of history, of culture, and it declares that our lands, our words, and our bodies are still sovereign.”

“In Australia, this practice does two really meaningful things: it Indigenizes a space that you’re gathered in, demonstrating that you’re open to Indigenous ways of doing and seeing and being; and it politicizes the space,” Gilchrist said. “Invisibility has been a precondition of Indigeneity for such a long time that it’s crucial to make Indigeneity legible publicly.”

The Acknowledgment of Country is voluntary among Australians, Gilchrist said (although for a time lawmakers had considered making it mandatory). But the voluntary nature of the acknowledgment makes it all the more powerful. Even at the highest levels of government, many choose to acknowledge the specific Indigenous Australian group(s) on whose land they are speaking.

Gilchrist feels strongly about bringing the practice to American audiences. At the opening celebration for the Everywhen exhibition in February, Gilchrist and the Harvard Art Museums offered an Acknowledgment of Country to the Mashpee Wampanoag, the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah), the Nipmuc Nation, and the Massachusetts people, on whose land the Harvard Art Museums stand. A Welcome to Country (given from Indigenous peoples to general audiences) was offered by Jim Peters, executive director of the Massachusetts Commission on Indian Affairs and a member of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe, and Vonnie Brown of the Wôpanâak (Wampanoag) Language Reclamation Project. Representatives performed a traditional prayer as well.

“In the context of this exhibition, it’s vital to make connections with other Indigenous peoples and to support each other to confront this historic and contemporary invisibility,” Gilchrist said. “In terms of Everywhen being an exhibition of Indigenous art from Australia, we’re guests in this country. We have to acknowledge and honor the people who came before us.”