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A guide to Aboriginal cultural protocols for NSW government sector events

About this guide

What do we cover?

This guide is to help NSW government sector staff observe appropriate Aboriginal cultural protocols at official events or at events where NSW government sector agencies are the host or an official sponsor of an event.

The guide looks at:

  1. Introduction
  2. General requirements
  3. Official events and ceremonies
  4. Protocols and practices
  5. Fee schedules
  6. Calendar of significant Aboriginal events.

The PSC acknowledges that some agencies will rely on their own Aboriginal cultural protocol guidance material.

Where can you learn more?

For more information, please speak to your local expert or Local Aboriginal Land Council office. You can also contact the Public Service Commission’s Aboriginal Workforce Development Team:

Who contributed to the guide?

The Public Service Commission thanks the Aboriginal Employment Advisory Committee for the time and expertise they have given to the development of this guide.

We recognise the diverse language groups, kinship structures and customs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and communities across New South Wales.

While the guide generally uses the term ‘Aboriginal’, we are referring to both Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.


Improving cultural competency in the public sector

The NSW Public Service Commission acknowledges the unique position of Aboriginal people across New South Wales. These protocols are aimed at improving Aboriginal cultural competency in the government sector workplace, an objective of the NSW Public Sector Aboriginal Employment Strategy 2014-2017. The NSW government service is a major employer and has a role to play in demonstrating good practice in Aboriginal employment.

Recognition of Aboriginal cultural practices

Aboriginal people are the original owners of the land and it is important that this unique position of the Aboriginal people in NSW is recognised and incorporated into official protocol. This recognition allows for promotion to the wider community of Aboriginal protocol and the sharing of Aboriginal cultural practices whilst encouraging a better relationship between Aboriginal people and the wider community.

Promoting Aboriginal cultural practices

The NSW government sector has a significant footprint throughout NSW. As such, participation in official events and ceremonies is crucial to core business which means constant engagement with the Aboriginal and wider community. In participating in these events we aim to be leaders in promoting and following Aboriginal Cultural Protocols.

Incorporating Aboriginal protocols into practice by the NSW government sector:

  • Encourages recognition and respect of Aboriginal heritage and cultures
  • Encourages communication and promotion of Aboriginal cultural practices to the wider community
  • Encourages understanding from the wider community around Aboriginal cultural practices
  • Ensures that the use of Aboriginal cultural practice is recognised as useful to building relationships and partnerships.

The purpose of this guide is to assist NSW government sector agencies to observe the appropriate protocols of the recognition of Aboriginal people at official events or at events where NSW government sector agencies are the host or an official sponsor of an event.

General requirements

Consultation and planning

NSW government sector agencies should consult with relevant Aboriginal community members or Aboriginal organisations in the initial planning stages for any official event or ceremony. These organisations include:

  • The Local Aboriginal Land Council
  • Traditional owners or other regional Aboriginal advisory structures
  • Department of Aboriginal Affairs
  • Aboriginal Elders/Elders Groups
  • Notable Aboriginal organisations such as an Aboriginal Medical Service
  • Native Title Services NSW.

It is also important to consider Aboriginal staff members within the NSW government sector. They may be able to inform you of local contacts and/or participate in facilitating consultations.

Consultations with any of the above may be about:

  • Appropriate performances according to the event purpose and audience
  • Who should be included in the event
  • Appropriate remuneration for any participation
  • Ensuring that mutual respect will be promoted throughout any proceedings.

Official events and ceremonies

Types of events

NSW government sector events may include the following:

  • Opening of new buildings
  • Launches of new policies or programs
  • Conferences both internally and externally
  • Sponsored cultural, sporting or community events.

Protocols and practices

Welcome to Country

Official NSW government sector events or ceremonies should begin with a Welcome to Country. A Welcome to Country is a very specific Aboriginal cultural protocol that allows for an Aboriginal Elder to welcome all of the participants at the event to the country of their people and their ancestors. This practice is not only an official welcome, it allows for the wider community to reflect on the connection that Aboriginal people have with country and the importance of country to their existence, past and present.

A Welcome to Country should be commissioned at both NSW government sector official events and those events that the NSW government sector are a major sponsor.

The content of a Welcome to Country should be negotiated with the relevant and appropriate Aboriginal organisation, their representative or the Elder/Elders Group. The Welcome to Country itself should be undertaken by a recognised member of the Aboriginal Community who is from the country upon which you meet.

Where possible the use of Aboriginal language is encouraged when delivering the ‘Welcome to Country. The theme for NAIDOC 2017 recognises the ‘essential role that Indigenous languages play in both cultural identity, linking people to their land and water, and in the transmission of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history, spirituality and rites, through story and song’ (

A Welcome to Country may involve (but is not limited to):

  • A welcome introduction that may or may not be in the relevant Aboriginal language
  • The individual/group being dressed in cultural attire
  • Involvement from the participants at the event
  • Sharing of information such as local history or culture
  • Recognition of other Aboriginal Elders and Aboriginal people
  • Reciprocated respect
  • Best wishes for a successful event.

Generally, after the Welcome to Country is delivered it is important that the facilitator demonstrates gratitude for the welcome and thanks the delegate. A gift may be provided to the delegate if this is deemed appropriate.

Acknowledgement of Country

An Acknowledgement of Country is a practice that allows for any individual to pay their respects to Aboriginal people whilst acknowledging their ongoing connection to country. Acknowledgements to Country can be used by each person who has an official task at the event such as the facilitator, key note speakers, special guests and other presenters.

It is important to understand also that in some circumstances country may be disputed and therefore may be represented by two or more traditional owners. For this reason, it is important to note that when you are doing an Acknowledgment of Country and you are unsure of the name of the traditional owners you can acknowledge those owners without being specific.

An example of a statement of Acknowledgement to Country is:

“I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the lands on which we meet today (insert appropriate name here) and the Elders, past and present. I acknowledge the ongoing connection that Aboriginal people have to this land and recognise Aboriginal people as the original custodians of this land. I would also like to acknowledge any Aboriginal people that are present here today.”

Fast Facts

  • Similar to a Welcome to Country, an Acknowledgement of Country is generally offered at the beginning of a meeting, speech or formal occasion.
  • An Acknowledgement of Country can be done by everyone, Aboriginal or non-Aboriginal people, to pay respect to the fact that one is on Aboriginal land.
  • In addition to the initial Acknowledgement of Country, some speakers may also elect to offer their personal Acknowledgement of Country at the start of their own presentation.
  • At the beginning videoconference and teleconference meetings, an Acknowledgment of Country can be performed. The host from each meeting location can acknowledge that they are meeting from respective Aboriginal land/s. Similar to a Welcome to Country, an Acknowledgement of Country is generally offered at the beginning of a meeting, speech or formal occasion.

Other cultural practices

Other cultural practices may include Smoking Ceremonies, ceremonial dance and music, and observation of a minute’s silence.

A Smoking Ceremony is a cultural practice that is generally used at significant events. This traditional practice is used to cleanse an area in general and in particular to cleanse bad spirits. A Smoking Ceremony can only be performed by appropriate members of the Aboriginal Community, generally Elders.

Engagement with local dance groups or musical performers may also be appropriate based on the nature of the event. For example, if the event was a Women in Leadership event, the Welcome to Country process may include a dance group who might specifically perform a culturally appropriate women’s performance.

Culturally, it may be appropriate to perform a minute’s silence prior to events to pay respects to Elders, past and present. Consultations with community organisations will assist in determining if this appropriate and how it would be conducted.

In summary, any request for a cultural practice should be done in consultation with the delegated organisations or people within a community. An appropriate amount of time, cultural consideration and remuneration must be allowed for the process to be mutually respectful.

It is important to be mindful of other cultural commitments within the community at the time of the event, such as Sorry Business. This may have an impact on availability or attendance of people within the community for both the Welcome to Country and/or participation in the event.

Payment of fees

Importance of intellectual property

Cultural practices including Welcome to Country are intellectual property of Aboriginal communities and individuals. People who undertake these practices have been trusted by their community to share this culture with the wider community.

In providing cultural services such as Welcome to Country, artistic performances and ceremonies, Aboriginal people are using their intellectual property. As such, providers of these services should be appropriately remunerated. Consideration must also be given to transport for Elders and assistance to travel to and from the event should be provided if required.

Fee guide

The cost of services can be negotiated and determined at a local level, depending on the size and nature of the event however a guideline on fees can be found below.

This range is a guide only and subject to negotiation. To ensure consistency and fairness of practice across the NSW government sector, agencies should try not to exceed the ranges stated below when paying for a service.

2017 fee guide

Cultural Practice Expectation Range
Welcome to Country One or several Elders depending on the size of the event $100 – $300
Smoking Ceremony One or several Elders depending on the size of the event $300 – $500
Dancers Individual dancers or a group of dancers $300 – $500
Musical Performers Individual or group musical performances $300 – $500
Guest Lecturer
(such as an Elder’s address)
Based on 2 hours preparation, 1 hour delivery $100 – $200

Calendar of significant cultural events

Significant Cultural Events

Survival Day

Celebrates the survival of a people and culture expected to die out since British invasion in 1788. Marked by events such as the Survival Day concert first held in Sydney in 1992, but now held in different forms and locations across the country.

How to recognise:

The name Survival Day expresses the fact that Aboriginal culture is still strong, and many Aboriginal people’s identities are positive and alive despite all that happened since colonisation. Aboriginal people have celebrated Yabun since 2003. It means “song with a beat” in the language of the Eora, the original people of the Sydney region. The event is held in Victoria Park, Sydney

26 January Annually

National Apology Day

Anniversary of the formal apology made on 13 February 2008 by the government and the Parliament of Australia to Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people – in particular to the Stolen Generations.

How to recognise:

Each year people, schools, work places, and communities are encouraged to hold events in their local areas to commemorate National Sorry Day. The theme continues as ‘SORRY. Still Living on Borrowed Time!’

13 February Annually

Charles Perkins Freedom Ride

Inspired by the Freedom Rides of the United States in 1961, a group of 29 students from the University of Sydney undertook a bus trip to a number of towns in New South Wales from 12 to 26 February 1965. freedom-ride

12 February – 26 February Annually

Significant Cultural Events

National Close The Gap Day

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples are still dying 10 to 17 years younger than other Australians. For that reason, more than 40 national organisations came together in 2006 to form Close the Gap – Australia’s largest ever campaign to improve the health of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Close the Gap day is an opportunity for organisations and communities to hold events and raise awareness of the Indigenous health crisis.

How to recognise / celebrate:

The National Close the Gap Day highlights the need to improve health outcomes for Indigenous Australians through events held in schools, workplaces and in communities across the country. The sixth annual Closing the Gap report released in 2014 shows the enormous challenges still to be met to eliminate Indigenous disadvantage and raise people’s awareness of these issues on this day and every day is important

19 March Annually

Harmony day

Harmony Day celebrates the cohesive and inclusive nature of Australia and promotes a tolerant and culturally diverse society.

How to recognise/celebrate:

You can see what’s on in your local area by visiting the on-line National Harmony Day Diary search facility. You can also choose to share your own Harmony Day plans with others across Australia. Many schools, community groups and organisations across Australia hold events to celebrate Harmony Day, and there’s almost no limit to the types of events that you can hold. These events don’t have to be only on 21 March.

21 March Annually

Significant Cultural Events

National Sorry Day

National Sorry Day offers the community the opportunity to acknowledge the impact of the policies spanning more than 150 years of forcible removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families. The first National Sorry Day was held on 26 May 1998 following the 1997 HREOC report Bringing Them Home, which recommended that a national day of observance be declared.

How to recognise / celebrate:

The National Sorry Day Committee (NSDC) works to support and encourage schools and community groups across the country each year to plan and hold their own Sorry Day events and participate in memorial services, commemorative meetings, survival celebrations and community gatherings, in honour of the Stolen Generations to learn about the experiences of the Stolen Generations, their families, and their communities.

26 May Annually

NSW Indigenous Veterans Commemoration Service

As part of National Reconciliation Week, a ceremony is held in each capital city to commemorate the service and sacrifice of Indigenous veterans. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders have fought for Australia in every major conflict since the Boer War.

How to recognize:

Organise an event, such as a morning/afternoon tea, in an Aboriginal community that commemorates Aboriginal service history and raises funds for a veterans’ cause. You may also wish to invite Aboriginal ex-servicemen and women to speak at community or workplace functions.

NSW Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Veterans Association

27 May – 3 June
Annually during Reconciliation Week

Significant Cultural Events

National Reconciliation Week

National Reconciliation Week was initiated in 1996 to provide a special focus for nationwide activities. The week is a time to reflect on achievements so far, and the things which must still be done to achieve reconciliation.

National Reconciliation Week offers people across Australia the opportunity to focus on reconciliation, to hear about the cultures and histories of Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and to explore new and better ways of meeting challenges in our communities. The Week is timed to coincide with two significant dates in Australia’s history, which provide strong symbols of our hopes and aims for reconciliation.

How to recognise / celebrate:

During National Reconciliation Week, you can participate in lots of activities and events that focus on the value of recognition. You can think about hosting an event at your school, organisation or workplace, it can be as simple as flying an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander flag, you can think about recognising someone in your life or take the time to learn about the rich Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture or find the time to talk with your family and friends about why it’s important for all Australians to build respectful relationships with each other, and especially with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

27 May – 3 June Annually

1967 Referendum

In 1967 over 90% of Australians voted in a Referendum to remove clauses from the Australian Constitution which discriminated against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians. The Referendum also gave the Commonwealth Government the power to make laws on behalf of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

How to recognise/celebrate:

Recognise the 5th only change to the Australian Constitution and the injustices against Aboriginal people prior to this by having discussions with friends, work colleagues, communities and students and remembering the Aboriginal people who helped to make it happen.,_1957-67

27 May Annually

Significant Cultural Events

Anniversary of Bridge Walk

On Sunday 28 May 2000, more than 250,000 people participated in the Corroboree 2000 Bridge Walk across Sydney Harbour Bridge in support of Indigenous Australians.

28 May Annually

Anniversary of Torres Strait Islander flag

The Torres Strait Islander Flag symbolises the unity and identity of all Torres Strait Islanders.

29 May Annually

Mabo Day – Torres Strait Islander

Mabo Day marks the anniversary of the High Court of Australia’s judgement in 1992 in the Mabo case. This is a day of particular significance for Torres Strait Islander Australians. The High Court, in an historical judgement delivered on 3 June 1992, accepted the claim by Eddie Mabo and the other claimants that their people (the Meriam people) had occupied the Islands of Mer for hundreds of years before the arrival of the British. The High Court found that the Meriam people were ‘entitled as against the whole world to possession, occupation, use and enjoyment of lands in the Murray Islands.’ The decision overturned a legal fiction that Australia was terra nullius (a land belonging to no one) at the time of British colonisation.

How to recognise/celebrate:

Have discussions with people in your community, workplaces and schools around who Eddie Mabo is, what the Mabo decision is, what Native Title means, why it was so important and what the result of the decision was.

3 June Annually

Significant Cultural Events

Coming of the Light – Torres Strait Islander

This is a particular day of significance for Torres Strait Islander Australians. It marks the day the London Missionary Society first arrived in the Torres Strait. The missionaries landed at Erub Island on 1 July 1871.

Religious and cultural ceremonies are held by Torres Strait Islander Christians across the Torres Strait and on the mainland to commemorate this day.

How to recognise/celebrate:

Torres Strait Islanders living on the islands or on the mainland come together to honour this anniversary every year. Islanders of all faiths celebrate the Coming of the Light in a festival like no other in Australia. Activities include church services and a re-enactment of the landing at Kemus on Erub. Hymn singing, feasting and Ailan dans strengthen community and family ties.

Coming of the Light Torres Strait Islands

1 July Annually

National NAIDOC Week

NAIDOC Week is observed from the first Sunday in July to the second Sunday in July each year.

NAIDOC celebrations are held around Australia to celebrate the history, culture and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

The week is celebrated not just in the Indigenous community, but also increasingly in government agencies, schools, local councils and workplaces.

Wherever you live, taking part in NAIDOC Week is a great way to celebrate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and to build bridges between all Australians.

NAIDOC originally stood for ‘National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee’. This committee was once responsible for organising national activities during NAIDOC Week, and its acronym has become the name of the week itself NAIDOC Week is primarily celebrated by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in recognition of their culture, history and achievements although these celebrations are often open for other Australians to participate in too. NAIDOC week is a great time for Australians of all different ethnic backgrounds to learn more about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, so be creative.

3 July – 10 July Annually

Significant Cultural Events

Anniversary of the Australian Aboriginal flag

The flag was first flown on National Aborigine’s Day in Victoria Square in Adelaide on 12 July 1971.

July 12 Annually

Garma Cultural Festival

Garma is held on a significant Yolngu ceremonial meeting ground called Gulkula, outside the Gove township, north east Arnhem land in the Northern Territory.

29 July – 1 August 2016 Annually

National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Children’s Day

National Aboriginal and Islander Children’s Day (NAICD) is an annual event celebrated on 4 August each year, having been established by SNAICC in 1988. Each year,

SNAICC has a theme for Children’s Day to highlight a significant issue, concern or hope for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children. SNAICC encourages all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community organisations, mainstream child and family welfare services, government agencies, schools, preschools, child care services and any organisations with an interest in children to celebrate National Aboriginal and Islander Children’s Day.

How to recognise/celebrate:

Host your own children’s day event in your community with a morning tea or BBQ, arts and craft sessions, cultural exchanges, concerts and performances, competitions, sporting days, games and activities, and so much more. If you aren’t an Aboriginal organisation you could invite an Aboriginal Elder or community representative to talk about Children’s Day and how it is a time to for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families to celebrate the strengths and culture of their children.

4 August Annually

International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples

The United Nations’ (UN) International Day of the World’s Indigenous People is observed on August 9 each year to promote and protect the rights of the world’s Indigenous population. This event also recognises the achievements and contributions that Indigenous people make to improve world issues such as environmental protection.

9 August Annually

Significant Cultural Events

Gurindji Land Rights Anniversary

On 16 August 1975, 3,236 sq. km of Wave Hill Station was handed over by then Prime Minister Gough Whitlam to the Gurindji, with the ceremonial gesture of pouring earth into Vincent Lingiari’s hand.

26 August Annually

Indigenous Literacy Day

Indigenous Literacy Day aims to raise funds to improve literacy and the lives and opportunities of Indigenous Australians living in remote and isolated regions.

2 September Annually

Neville Bonner first Aboriginal Senator – Maiden Speech

Neville Bonner was the first Aboriginal person to sit in Federal Parliament as a Senator for Queensland from 1971 until 1983.

8 September Annually

United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

13 September Annually

International Human Rights Day

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted on 10 December 1948. The date has since served to mark Human Rights Day worldwide.

The Declaration adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948, consists of a preamble and 30 articles, setting out a broad range of fundamental human rights and freedoms to which all men and women everywhere in the world are entitled, without any distinction. rightsed

10 December Annually

Significant Sporting Events

Ella 7’s

The marquee event for the Indigenous Sevens Rugby is the Ella 7’s. Named after the famed Ella Brothers – Gary, Glen and Mark – who played for the Wallabies during the 80’s, this tournament is getting bigger and better each year. In 2014, the Ella 7’s includes Cairns, Brisbane and Coffs Harbour. Hosting between 10 (Cairns) and 44 teams (Coffs Harbour) in both men’s and women’s divisions, up to 2000 people attend these Sevens carnivals.

NSW Annual Rugby League Knockout

The NSW Aboriginal Rugby League Knockout, known to most as the Koori Knockout, has been held annually since 1971, with eight teams participating in the first event. The Koori Knockout grew out of a longstanding tradition amongst Sydney’s Aboriginal community of playing and watching rugby league, starting in the 1930s with the formation of the Redfern All Blacks and the La Perouse Panthers. Regarded as the biggest sports gathering of Indigenous people in the world and one of the biggest gatherings in Australia, the Koori Knockout is rugby league at its best. Over 150 teams, across the men’s, women’s and junior tournament battle it out annually for rugby league glory.

How to recognise/participate:

Attend and support and cheer on or sponsor your local teams, community and government agencies can have stalls over the course of event promoting their Aboriginal services.

NSW October Long Weekend Annually

Koori Netball Tournament

First tournament was held in 1999 and now attracts over 200 players across NSW

How to recognize/participate:

Attend, support, cheer on or sponsor your local teams Community and government agencies can have stalls over the course of event promoting their Aboriginal services.

NSW annually

Indigenous All Stars Game

The Indigenous All Stars represent their Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families and communities. The Indigenous All Stars play with plenty of pride and passion every year as they try to retain the trophy.

The introduction of the World All Stars in 2016 will ensure that pride and passion among represented nations will also be on show with players selected from countries including Australia, England, New Zealand and from across the Pacific.

Played on the anniversary of the National Apology to the Stolen Generations, Rugby League is proud of its role in dealing with social issues and the achievements of programs and initiatives delivered across the Game.

February Annually