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Maastricht University

Walking on Stolen Land: Colonialism versus Occupation in Australian History

Nadia Wheatley, Independent scholar and author, Sydney, Australia


This article began as a question from one of the Network convenors.

            After seeing the Acknowledgement of Country on the home page of my website, he asked ‘Why do Australians now open any talk they give or article they write with an acknowledgement to the traditional (Aboriginal) owners of the land on which they live and work? And what insights can this give to Occupation Studies more generally?’

            As Jeremy Taylor’s discussion of The Changing Face of Occupation Studies (this blog, November 2021) pointed out, scholars are increasingly willing to question the ‘distinction between occupation and colonialism’; at the same time, ‘occupation [has] come to be a far more commonly used concept in Indigenous history’. While Occupation Studies offers a new way of thinking about what has been happening on the continent of Australia since the First Fleet arrived in January 1788, the Australian situation also tests the definition of ‘occupation’ as set out in the Hague Conventions.

            As Taylor explains, ‘under international law, occupation represents a specific type of control in which the sovereignty of occupied territory is not usurped’. In Australia there was not a single sovereign power; governance was in the hands of hundreds of groups of Elders. Today, the slogan ‘sovereignty never ceded’ is a battle cry for some Aboriginal activists; in this sense Indigenous sovereignty is sometimes defined as ‘inherent rights deriving from spiritual and historical connections to land’. In nineteenth century Australia, however, the significant legal issue was not sovereignty but the question of the occupation and ownership of the landmass. It is this matter that is highlighted by the practice of Acknowledging Country.


When the occupation began, the continent comprised as many as 250 (or even 500) Aboriginal Countries, nations and languages, and there were more in the islands of the Torres Strait. With the legal right of ownership of Country under traditional Law came a set of spiritual and curatorial responsibilities that were (and are) very different from a purely possessive or exploitative sense of ownership. Under the same Law, strangers arriving in Country had to ask permission to enter; if this was granted, traditional landowners gave them a ceremonial welcome.

            But when the white ghosts arrived in Eora Country in their big canoes in 1788, they did not ask permission to land. Instead, the occupiers declared the continent to be terra nullius (unoccupied land). This lie was the justification for the land grab that brought dispossession, dispersal, ethnic cleansing, and the genocide of the Eora of the Sydney coastal region.

The Country of the Gadigal (or Cadigal) clan of the Eora nation ran from the foreshore of Sydney Harbour to land that is now covered by suburbia. Although almost all the clan members died within the first three years of Occupation, their ongoing ownership of this building site in Sydenham is acknowledged in the graffiti at rear.

If, as Cornelius J. Lammers (quoted by Taylor) maintains, occupation is ‘Foreign domination brought about and/or sustained by force of arms’, in Australia the ‘force of arms’ resulted in at least 400 documented massacres between 1788 and 1930, according to the Massacre Map produced by the Centre for 21st Century Humanities. Lyndall Ryan, who led the mapping project, states that massacres accounted for 60 per cent of the reported deaths of Aboriginal people on the frontier in Victoria, and nearly 70 per cent of frontier deaths in Tasmania.

            Many of those who escaped the killings were forced out of their Country and onto missions or reserves, where they were forbidden to speak their traditional language. Thousands of children over a number of generations were forcibly removed by governments, churches and welfare bodies to be raised in institutions or adopted by non-Indigenous families. Despite this widespread dispersal and language loss, Aboriginal people who do not speak their traditional language or live in their traditional Country continue to regard their ancestral homeland as their Country, and the name of the language and nation defines who they are.

            A continent-wide sense of Indigenous nationhood was declared on ‘Invasion Day’ (aka Australia Day) 1972 when four young Aboriginal men sat under a beach umbrella outside Parliament House in the national capital and declared themselves to be the Aboriginal Embassy. Tents replaced the beach umbrella when Aboriginal people from Countries across the continent flocked to this ‘occupation’ that defied police intervention for six months. Over these same months, the distinctive red, black and yellow Aboriginal flag (seen in the cover photo) was flown for the first time. Both actions could be seen as a claim of national sovereignty.

            The Land Rights movement that was newly invigorated at that time led to the Mabo High Court Judgement of 1992, which overthrew terra nullius. This was confirmed by the subsequent Wik Decision of 1996. Two years later, the question of making a national apology to the Stolen Generations was publicly raised at the first ‘Sorry Day’. Over this same decade, the practice of Acknowledging Country grew as a largely spontaneous movement, without being directed from the Aboriginal community or subject to significant pushback from the political Right. So subtle was the process that I cannot remember when I first heard someone acknowledge Country; I cannot remember when I first did it myself.

At this community event on Bidjigal Country (Cooks River), the Acknowledgement of Country was given by a Dharawal man from Gamay (Botany Bay), and included a smoking ceremony.

So what is it?

            An ‘Acknowledgement of Country’ is a statement recognising the ownership by a named group of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander Australians of a particular homeland. While a Welcome to Country can only be made by a traditional owner, an Acknowledgement may be said by a non-Indigenous person, or by an Indigenous person who comes from a different Aboriginal Country. A basic wording might be along the lines of:

‘I acknowledge the Traditional Owners of the land on which we are gathered — the [language name] people — and recognise their continuing connection to land, water and community. I pay my respects to their Elders, past and present, and extend that respect to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.’


In reply to criticism in 2016 by conservative historian Keith Windschuttle that ‘the Welcome to Country stuff’ was ‘invented fifteen or twenty years ago’, Nyoongar man Richard Walley stated that ‘It’s an old thing that’s been around for thousands and thousands of years. It’s the new interpretation of it that’s quite recent.’

But critics who see Acknowledgement of Country as ‘political’ are correct. This indeed is why it is important for non-Indigenous people to follow the protocol.

An Acknowledgement of Country implies that the land and the original owners of that land are under occupation. The recognition of traditional ownership is a rejection of terra nullius, and an endorsement of the Mabo and Wik judgements. It is a reminder that non-Indigenous Australians ‘walk upon stolen land’ (as someone has pointed out in this graffiti).


When I was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, I could not have named a single Aboriginal Country. But now names of Country appear on every news item, weather report, or lifestyle segment on our national broadcaster. They are written outside schools and other public buildings. As you enter a local government area, the Aboriginal Country is usually named on the road sign. It is also on the Council website. It is impossible to claim you cannot find out whose land you are occupying.

            Of course, the fact that ownership of Country is acknowledged does not mean that life is good for First Nations Australians. In a national referendum held in October 2023, sixty per cent of voters rejected the proposal to give Indigenous people a constitutionally guaranteed Voice to Parliament. More recently, the 2024 Closing the Gap report (an annual survey of the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians on socio-economic issues including health, housing, education and employment) showed the federal government meeting only four out of nineteen targets. Aboriginal people (including children as young as ten) are wildly over-represented in the prison system, and there have been 557 Aboriginal deaths in police or prison custody since the 1987 Royal Commission into the issue.

            In the wake of the 2023 Referendum, there has been a backlash in certain quarters against First Nations people and initiatives. Empowered by the size of the No vote, some local councils have decided to downgrade or cancel Welcome ceremonies and Acknowledgements at official events. But I believe there will be no overall turning back. Go into any primary school — public or private, secular or religious — and children will eagerly tell you the name of the local Indigenous people, and they will happily join you in saying an Acknowledgement of Country. For these non-Indigenous voters of the near-future, the protocol is a part of Australian life.


From an Occupation Studies perspective, the theoretical model of ‘occupation’ illuminates Australian history by collapsing notions of invasion, settlement, and colonisation into an ongoing process: not one invasion (or arrival) but many; not one act of settlement but thousands of such acts; not colonisation followed by post-colonialism, but a continuum. This bypasses the invasion-versus-peaceful-settlement question at the heart of the virulent national debate known as the History Wars. It also, however, strikes at that part of the definition of occupation that proclaims it as temporary.

            Further, the idea of all non-Indigenous Australians as occupiers puts new immigrants into the same category as immigrants from longstanding communities (particularly those, such as myself, with a British or Irish heritage). No matter when our families arrived, none of us can trace 60,000 years of legal and spiritual connection to the land we occupy.


Written on the unceded Country of the Cadigal and Wangal clans of the Eora nation. The author does not assume to speak on behalf of First Nations people.  



Andrea Booth, ‘Welcome to Country ceremonies are 15-year-old inventions, says historian’, SBS NITV, 31 March 2016, https://www.sbs.com.au/nitv/article/welcome-to-country-ceremonies-are-15-year-old-inventions-says-historian/o6cakmkyc

Centre for 21st Century Humanities, https://c21ch.newcastle.edu.au/colonialmassacres/

Anna Haebich, Broken Circles, Fragmenting Indigenous Families 1800-2000 (Fremantle: Fremantle University Press 2000)

Bill Gammage, The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia (Crows Nest: Allen & Unwin, 2011)

Heather Goodall, From Invasion to Embassy, Land in Aboriginal Politics in New South Wales, 1770-1972 (Crows Nest: Allen & Unwin, 1996)

Marcia Langton, Welcome to Country 2nd edition, (Melbourne: Hardie Grant, 2021)

Jack Latimer, ‘What’s Aboriginal Sovereignty and can a Voice Extinguish It?’ Sydney Morning Herald, 9 February 2023, https://www.smh.com.au/national/what-s-indigenous-sovereignty-and-can-a-voice-extinguish-it-20230113-p5ccdk.html

Stuart Macintyre and Anna Clark, The History Wars (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2004)

David Marr, Killing for Country (Wurundjeri Country: Black Inc, 2023)

Henry Reynolds, The Other Side of the Frontier: Aboriginal Resistance to the European Invasion of Australia (Sydney: UNSW Press, 1981)

Henry Reynolds, The Law of the Land 3rd edition (Camberwell: Penguin, 2003)

Lyndall Ryan, ‘Mapping the Sites of Frontier Massacres’. National Library of Australia, March 2020. (This public talk includes a moving Welcome to Country by Ngunawal man Tyrone Bell, who explains the protocols for a Welcome to Country, and the meaning of Country.) https://www.nla.gov.au/stories/audio/mapping-the-sites-of-frontier-massacres#

Jeremy Taylor, ‘The Changing Face of Occupation Studies’, Occupation Studies Research Network, 6 November 2021

Uluru Statement from the Heart. https://ulurustatement.org/the-statement/view-the-statement/


Photo credits: all photos © Ken Searle and Nadia Wheatley

Cover picture:​

In the cover photo for this piece (taken 2012), the Sydney CBD is the backdrop for the Aboriginal Flag, proudly displayed at Redfern, the inner-city suburb that has been home to thousands of Aboriginal people who have flocked to the city from rural homelands over the past 150 years.

Nadia Wheatley is an independent scholar and author