• Cameron Smith stands up to say an Acknowledgement of Country on the opening on the Rugby World Cup 2017 (Getty Images AsiaPac)Source: Getty Images AsiaPac
Was the Rugby World Cup's Indigenous tribute an act of culture or simply an act of obligation? Writer and die-hard League fan, Serena Rae discusses.
Serena Rae

31 Oct 2017 - 12:11 PM  UPDATED 31 Oct 2017 - 2:15 PM

Friday evening saw the opening of the Rugby League World Cup, held on Boonwurrung Country (Melbourne). Despite being on Australian soil, the match between Australia and England both had their fair share of supporters, made apparent by the range of team merchandise, banners, flags and home-made signs strewn throughout the stadium seating.

The usual fanfare of the pre-game took place, with musicians belting out hit songs (Casey Donovan - sing it sis!), fireworks galore and a thorough analysis of the player list for each team. It was fairly obvious that with a number of major changes to the Australian-side that there would also be something different about this game … And then came the Acknowledgement.

Sure, it feels a bit paradoxical that England stood as the opposing side when the Australian team momentised First Nations' culture, but with the 50-year anniversary of the last Kangaroos' Indigenous 'tribute' (performing Stradbroke Island's Mallee Mullara Choomooroo Tingal as a war cry in France in 1967), it "made sense" to coach Meninga who finally gave the long-discussed project green light for Friday nights' match.      

“We, the Kangaroos, Acknowledge and pay respect to our traditional owners. We welcome all nations to our country for this World Cup...” announced the squad captain, Cameron Smith as he stood in the centre of a kneeled Australia team, that were to rise at the punchline, “...and we will rise as one.”

This then followed with a unusual choreographed team movement into some kind of boomerang shape. Johnathan Thurston, who initiated the Acknowledgement, then spouted off a few lines, "Like the coat of arms on our heart ... we will be selfless and with the chevron on our chest, we will be selfless in victory. We are from different backgrounds but we strive for excellence and will rise united."

Historically, Friday night's Acknowledgement was incredibly significant, kicking-off the Rugby League World Cup with a recognition of Australia's First Peoples. And whilst some viewers took to social media to express their confusion at this display, for the most part it was received with great enthusiasm. Indeed, the Acknowledgement gave non-Indigenous people a chance to do their bit for reconciliation and reiterate just how much they hate racism, but for some - namely Indigenous audiences - it didn’t quite hit the mark.

Somewhere in amongst all the choreography and didgeridoo playing was a definite cuss from Thurston, but that wasn’t what sat weirdly with me. It wasn’t the one Aboriginal man out of the camera frame dressed traditionally performing corroboree in the background, nor was it the notion of Cameron Smith “welcoming” the players to a land that he had just proclaimed wasn’t his. No, I think what unsettled me the most about this Acknowledgement was the applause afterwards.

The standard for celebrating Indigeneity should not be so low that a couple of words, backed by a bit of didg playing are enough - or even the very best - that the NRL can do to celebrate the rich culture of Aboriginal people and the contributions they have made to this Nation.  

Whether people were clapping out of obligation or because they genuinely thought that this Acknowledgement was incredible is unclear, but it is also irrelevant. The standard for celebrating Indigeneity should not be so low that a couple of words, backed by a bit of didg playing are enough - or even the best - that the NRL can do to celebrate the rich culture of Aboriginal people and the contributions they have made to this Nation. It seems as though the intent of this Acknowledgement was not to honour Indigenous Australians but to be just 'Aboriginal enough' to warrant a pat on the back from the international spotlight heading into such a culturally-rich competition.

Thurston was a driving force behind this showcase and as an Aboriginal man himself and without a doubt had the right intention going into this project. However, in true form, Acknowledgements of Country are done to recognise the Traditional Owners of the land, to adhere to their customs and protocols and ensure safe passage.

So, when the status of colonisation is - at the very least - an ongoing imposition to Indigenous culture, reminding non-Indigenous people of the lore of this land becomes integral in not only, remembering history but grounding our existence as First Nations People. The importance of an Acknowledgement of Country cannot be understated but also should not be reduced to what it was on Friday night.

The NRL Indigenous All Stars game in February boasted an incredible display of culture including a war cry, traditional dancing and instruments. Demonstrating that the NRL, champions of Indigenous Australia, has the means necessary to make these showcases more frequent, so why are we instead relegated to celebrating Indigeneity one game in pre-season and an Indigenous round mid-season? In order to acknowledge our Indigenous players in a more meaningful way, we need more consistency and less tokenism; we need something that is lead by the Indigenous players that is less palatable for non-Indigenous people and more focussed on taking pride in culture.

Having lived in Melbourne for a few years, I know the sort of access that there is to culture in the Kulin Nation and how willing mob are to share it - I highly doubt Melbourne mob would have been opposed to taking part in a proper Acknowledgement/Welcome to Country on an international stage, had they been asked. Take the Dreamtime at the G, for example; that game is without a doubt one of the most extraordinary displays of culture and Aboriginality in sport and it does wonders for the Aboriginal community to be acknowledged in such a way. Starting with The Long Walk through Melbourne leading up to a football match and awards ceremony, the day is dedicated to celebrating Indigenous culture through not only football, but traditional dance, oration, storytelling and performance. Being from Queensland, I have been a die-hard league fan since day one, and I hoped for something that didn't suggest we have a long way to go before we get where we need to be in terms of reconciliation.

While I can appreciate the effort of Johnathan Thurston and the support of the Kangaroos players for even making this Acknowledgement a possibility, but as a country performing on the international stage, a choreographed boomerang and recognising Traditional Owners whose tribes go unnamed, cannot be the low-level standard we hold ourselves to. The war cries of Tonga, Samoa and New Zealand are revered as powerful displays of culture so where is that power and recognition of respect for our own Indigenous players and their cultures? We are certainly not short of emotional and extraordinary customs, after all, we are are the oldest living culture in the world. 

With the event labelled a "HistoricIndigenous tribute, as Indigenous people we should not be expected to be grateful for a cordial nod in our direction when our people are integral to the game, integral to this nation and integral to this world. We deserve better.  

Serena Rae is a Mamu Waribarra woman based in Melbourne. She likes to write poetry, sassy opinion pieces and reviews of current Indigenous social issues. 

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