TRIBAL elders in the south-west have questioned the motives of metropolitan Aboriginal leaders who charge up to $850 to perform a 20-minute smoking and welcoming ceremony.
Some councils have paid up to $22,000 over the past two years for the Welcome to Country and smoking ceremonies at civic events, according to a Herald Sun report this week.
By comparison, Warrnambool elder Rob Lowe snr said his usual payments for local events were between $100 and $200, but he sometimes offered to perform ceremonies free of charge.
“I don’t give a price. Sometimes I do it for nothing because we’re proud to do it, because we are welcoming people to our traditional country,” Mr Lowe said.
“It’s not up to me to say how much I charge; it’s what the organisation offers me and how much they’re funded to give.”
Aboriginal activist and Framlingham elder Geoff Clark said the Welcome to Country had lost its value after being commercialised over the years.
“I think some people have monopolised the process and it’s lost its impact and its purpose,” he said.
“This has been exploited by a few people for the wrong reasons. A Welcome to Country is a respectful thing. It’s not a gimmick or a circus you’re turning up to.
“To my knowledge there’s never been a situation where you have to be rewarded and some people have made this a personal reward. This is a community collective, this is about respect and dignity and it’s supposed to unite groups and develop trust for one another.
“It’s gotten out of control.”
Mr Lowe said councils should not be paying up to $850 for the duties and elders should consider their motivation for setting costs.
“That’s good money and it’s stupidity if they’re paying that much.
“If people are charging a ridiculous price, to a certain extent it is losing sight of why we’re doing it.
“Is their heart and soul in doing what it’s meant to be?”
Mr Clark told The Standard the misuse of ratepayers’ funds was secondary to deeper issues around the ritual’s purpose.
“It’s hypocritical — there’s also that side of it.
“You can’t keep welcoming people while they continue to commit genocide on you.
“This needs to be an issue that Aboriginal people can discuss and we have very few forums to discuss these type of matters.
“Let’s have some debate on it. It needs a democratically elected voice to adjudicate on these matters.
“It’s given no resources or energy into policy-making.”
A spokeswoman for Aboriginal Affairs Victoria said the Victorian government supported the Welcome to Country ceremony for many major forums and functions, particularly if the event was significant for Aboriginal Victorians.
“The ceremonies are performed by traditional owners to welcome and remind people of the history and connection Aboriginal people have to that land,” she told The Standard.
“The decision about whether or not to include a Welcome to Country at forums and functions is made by the host, and participation is entirely voluntary.”