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More Australians are paying tribute to Indigenous people. Some worry it’s just lip service.

The Jurikai perform a traditional “welcome to country” at the 2018 Quiksilver Pro and Roxy Pro Gold Coast surfing competition in Australia. (Ed Sloane/World Surf League via Getty Images)

SYDNEY — In a nation known for laid-back attitudes, a solemn protocol is spreading. Before weddings and rugby matches, school assemblies and art gallery openings, board meetings and legislative debates, Australians are increasingly paying tribute to Indigenous people.

The custom, known as an “acknowledgment of country,” has been growing for decades. But it has accelerated during the pandemic as workplaces have incorporated it into online meetings.

Short statements recognizing Indigenous people and their ties to the land now adorn shop windows, wine bottles and corporate websites. And, in a sign of its increasing impact on pop culture, the issue featured recently in the finale to one of Australia’s most popular TV shows, “The Bachelorette.”

Many Indigenous leaders say the trend is a small but important step toward Australia’s recognizing and redressing the violent dispossession of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

But others fear that the custom has become a Band-Aid, hiding wounds in need of surgery.

“If you look at the trajectory of Aboriginal advocacy for structural change, the kind we’ve never done, the kind that actually will make a big difference … every time we get close to it, we just choose to do really inane things as a nation that don’t get us anywhere but make everyone feel good,” said Megan Davis, a law professor at the University of New South Wales.

Acknowledgments of country have become more common in the United States and Canada as they reckon with their own histories of mistreating First Nations people.

Canada pays tribute to indigenous people before hockey games, school days. Some complain it rings hollow.

In Australia, Indigenous groups ceremonially welcomed each other for thousands of years before British colonists arrived in 1788. Britain never entered into a treaty with Indigenous Australians and eventually deemed the continent “terra nullius,” or land belonging to no one. Pogroms and pestilence would kill the majority of the Indigenous population over the next century. When Australia became a nation in 1901, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were unmentioned in the constitution; they were unable to vote until the 1960s. And for much of the 20th century, Indigenous children were forcibly removed from their families and land in what became known as the Stolen Generations.

Indigenous activists began publicly to revive “welcome to country” ceremonies in the 1970s and ’80s as the Aboriginal land rights movement gathered momentum.

In one of the custom’s first contemporary iterations in Australia, artists Richard Walley and Ernie Dingo performed a welcome to country in 1976 in Perth at the behest of Indigenous musicians visiting from New Zealand and the Cook Islands.

“We didn’t have a formula,” Walley said in an interview. “I spoke to my elders, my parents and uncles and aunts, and they said yes, you can do it because it’s something that has been done here for thousands of years. So we spoke the old language of calling on ancestors and the spirits of the place to keep us safe.”

“It was about acknowledging that we are on First Nations land,” said Rhoda Roberts, who says she coined the term “welcome to country” as part of the Aboriginal National Theater Trust in Sydney in the 1980s. “But it was also a way of showing Australians that there was this diversity among First Nations, that there were different language groups. So it was an education as well.”

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Welcomes to country, which are performed only by Indigenous people, and acknowledgments of country, which can be shared by anyone, began to be adopted by local governments in the 1990s after a watershed legal case that recognized native land title and overturned terra nullius.

The 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney opened with a welcome to country. And in 2008, the custom kicked off federal Parliament for the first time, with acknowledgments of country becoming a daily ritual for legislators in 2010.

That same year, however, conservative politician Tony Abbott, who later became prime minister, called the growing acknowledgments of country “tokenism” and a “genuflection to political correctness.”

A decade later, murals marking “unceded land” are common in major cities. Many Twitter users list Indigenous names for their location.

In November, the last Sydney city council refusing to conduct an acknowledgment of country relented. And the current conservative prime minister, Scott Morrison, frequently starts speeches with an acknowledgment of country, although critics say he undercuts it by also acknowledging members of the military and veterans.

Meggan Brummer, a marriage celebrant in Sydney, said the number of couples asking her to begin ceremonies with an acknowledgment of country has spiked in the past two years.

“Now it feels almost like you’re expected to do it,” she said.

Google Trends shows the number of searches for acknowledgment of country has roughly doubled since late 2019.

Davis, who is Aboriginal, said the custom got out of hand during the pandemic as academic Zoom calls were flooded with an acknowledgment of country from each participant.

“It became this big performative competition for Australian progressives,” she said, adding that one acknowledgment is enough.

At the same time, the very real gulf between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians was growing, she said.

First Nations people were supposed to be a priority during the pandemic. Instead, they have lower vaccination rates and higher infection rates than non-Indigenous Australians. Already sky-high rates of Indigenous suicide and incarceration became worse.

A push for greater political recognition has also flagged. A 2017 convention of Indigenous leaders resulted in the Uluru Statement from the Heart, a document calling for a truth-telling process, a treaty-making commission and a constitutionally certified Indigenous advisory body to Parliament.

Morrison’s government rejected the first two and recently revealed what critics say is a watered-down version of the advisory body ahead of a federal election next year.

“We have gone backwards in most areas of Aboriginal rights,” Davis said. “At the same time, we’ve got this embracing of Aboriginal culture in a pop culture sense. Covid has just made it worse.”

Some companies have begun to use a recorded welcome to country as if it’s an “in-flight safety demonstration,” she said.

Davis said she and some other Indigenous leaders have stopped doing formal acknowledgments of country. She has created scripts recommending people not only acknowledge Indigenous Australians but also their unceded sovereignty and the Uluru Statement.

As chairwoman of Sydney’s Metropolitan Local Aboriginal Land Council, Yvonne Weldon has performed scores of welcomes to country. Some audiences watch intently. Others have asked her to wrap up in 30 seconds.

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“There is definitely tokenism, where some people are just trying to tick off on something,” she said. “I want people to think and be reflective, but I also want them to take action.”

Weldon recently became the first Aboriginal candidate for lord mayor of Sydney, a fact she said was “appalling.” She lost but probably earned a seat on the city council.

Roberts, the theater director, said she has transformed her welcomes to country into interactive “callings” that demand more from the audience.

“Now that Australians have accepted the acknowledgment, they are ready for the next layer,” she said.

Walley admits that not enough has changed for Indigenous people since he performed his first welcome to country in Perth 45 years ago. But the actor, writer and musician said he thinks the growing embrace of the custom is only a good thing.

“From little things, big things grow,” he said.

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Canada pays tribute to indigenous people before hockey games, school days. Some complain it rings hollow.