Becoming a First Nations ally in an inclusive ‘new normal’ world

“I’d like to begin by acknowledging the Traditional Owners of the land on which we meet today. I would also like to pay my respects to Elders past, present and emerging.” These two sentences hold power and have become a key component of both formal and informal gatherings across modern Australia. An Acknowledgement of Country offers an opportunity to pay respect to the Traditional Owners of our land, and to past, present and future generations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. 

As someone who grew up in Vietnam, these two sentences at first seemed distant to me when I first moved here. However, through continuously witnessing Acknowledgements of Country in all various shapes and forms (at events, meetings, and university lectures) it quickly became apparent to me why this tradition is so vitally important in Australia. 

Sustainable Development Goal #10 – Reduced Inequalities – is a goal that pertains to the experience of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in Australia. More than two centuries of exclusion from Australian society have shaped pervasive inequalities that continue to affect the lives of Australia’s First Nations Peoples in 2020. 

Inequalities throughout Australian history and in 2020

Colonialism has impacted the structures of society in which we live today. These structures more often than not reproduce inequalities that were developed under British colonial rule. 

Many First Peoples are denied the same access to healthcare benefits that non-First Nations Peoples take for granted. According to Oxfam, the Australian Government “only spends 38 per cent more on Indigenous people even though their needs are 2.3 times greater”. Unfortunately, the gap between health and life expectancy between First Nations Peoples and non-First Nations Peoples is widening.  

The Close the Gap 2020 report prepared by the Lowitja Institute states that there is a life expectancy gap of 8.6 years for males and 7.8 for females. Furthermore, incarceration rates continue to soar as Indigenous children are 10 times as more likely to be taken away from their families compared to non-Indigenous children.

As exemplified by the critically acclaimed documentary film In My Blood it Runs, education systems in Australia currently do not reflect or incorporate Indigenous knowledge systems. The education systems that do, however, can often marginalise First Nations perspectives. 

Recently, the Raise the Age petition has gained momentum. The Raise the Age movement recognises that children as young as 10 years old can be arrested and sent to prison. First Nations children are disproportionately impacted by these laws and represent 65% of children in prisons. The movement is calling for the Australian Government to increase the age of criminal responsibility, and thereby the age at which children come into contact with the criminal justice system. 

Research shows that children between the ages of 10-13 are experiencing significant growth and development, and experts in childhood development and wellbeing are among the most vocal advocates for this change to Australia’s legal system. Unfortunately, this bill failed to pass in late July 2020, as many of Australia’s leaders claimed more information was needed on how to punish offenders between the ages of 10 and 13. The bill will be revisited in 2021.

2020 has served Australia an interesting line of events, from the disastrous bush fires in January to the deeply challenging COVID-19 pandemic. However, amid these unforeseen circumstances, there has been a beacon of strength and unity, evidenced through the Black Lives Matter (BLM) Movement. 

Thousands across the world have protested for the rights of black, Indigenous and people of colour (BIPOC) throughout the tumult of 2020. While there is still a long way to go towards an inclusive society, void of inequalities based on race, the BLM movement and advocacy efforts around it are a step in the right direction. While the momentum behind the BLM protests may have slowed, and the movement is receiving less media coverage in Victoria amid the ‘second wave’ of COVID-19, the fight for equality and BIPOC rights continues. 

On 9 August, the United Nations acknowledges the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples. This presents an opportunity to consider ally-ship in Australia, whereby non-indigenous Australians can advocate for reducing inequalities that limit the opportunities and wellbeing of First Nations peoples. 

Becoming an ally in 2020 

Becoming an ally is something all people in Australia can do, regardless of whether you were born here or overseas, and no matter how well you understand indigenous history, rights, or current issues. We all have a place and we all have a role to play; and part of that role is to educate ourselves as best we can. We must acknowledge structural injustices, recognise where we need to improve social biases, and together create a broad ranging, inclusive conversation with First Nations Peoples. 

So, where do we begin? Other than educating ourselves about the historical oppression of colonialism and dispossession, using accurate nomenclature is an important step towards becoming a First Nations ally.  

Too often, I have remained nervous and quiet when it comes to issues of Indigenous rights, purely because I am too afraid of saying the wrong thing. However, if we aren’t able to have difficult conversations and accept that, despite trying our best, there will be bumps along the way, will we ever be able to find that way forward? I argue, no. 

I would like to acknowledge that I am in no way speaking on behalf of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, but I have collated information using verifiable resources and would like to thank Patrick Mercer, a Wadawurrung Kulin man, for  reviewing this article.

A guide to using correct terminology as a First Nations ally 

Some of the most commons terms you are likely to come across in conversations with or about First Nations people are explained below, including the context in which they should be used. 

● Traditional Owners: Indigenous or Aboriginal peoples with familial heritage and a connection to areas within what is now Australia prior to British colonisation

● Welcome to Country: A ritual performed by Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people to welcome visitors to their traditional land, highlighting the cultural significance of the area. The welcome must be performed by a Traditional Owner of that area.

● Acknowledgement of Country: The opportunity to pay respect and to acknowledge the Traditional Owners and ongoing custodians of the land. It is performed by settler Australians and Indigenous people standing on another’s country. 

● Mob: A term used to refer to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities – generally interchangeable between nations, clans and families, or a moniker of personal identity

● Aboriginal: Mob on the mainland and in Tasmania. Note this should always be used as an adjective, i.e. ‘Aboriginal man or woman’ not as a noun. 

● Torres Strait Islander: Mob from any of the 133 islands in the Torres Strat

● First Peoples/First Nations Peoples: Acknowledging that Mob are connected to the land, the former terms were given to Mob as a result of colonisation. First Nation’s Peoples aims to eradicate this uneven power dynamic, where possible. 

● Blak: Used by many First Peoples who face different injustices to the Black community in the United States. ‘Blak’ is a relatively recent term aiming to reclaim the term ‘Black’ by contending that Aboriginality does not equate only to the colour of one’s skin and aims to reflect culture rather than colour. 

Some additional guidelines:

– Use these terms with capital letters and never abbreviate (i.e. do not use ATSI instead of  Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander into ATSI)

– These terms should be used as adjectives, not as nouns (i.e. Aboriginal man or Torres Strait Islander person)

SOURCE: This list has been collated from Taneshia Atkinson’s article ‘Can I call you that’

Understanding sovereignty and the connection between First Nations peoples and Australian land

You may have already heard the expression “sovereignty was never ceded” in conversations, official speeches, protests and/or literature. To understand why Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are the Traditional Owners of Australian land, it is important to understand what this phrase means. 

Sovereignty is a concept that relates to recognition of ownership and power over lands, including the power to govern it. As such, sovereignty is at the core of how First Nations Peoples rights have not been recognised since British settlement in Australia. Their connection to Australian land is shared by individuals, families, tribes and nations. It is the ideal for First People’s to exist in harmony with their nation, contributing actively to their society in respectful and inclusive ways.

“Sovereignty was never ceded” recognises that First Nation’s Peoples’ land was invaded, rather than discovered, by the British. Australia was considered to be Terra Nullius, or vacant land, and therefore the property of the British crown. This robbed First Nations peoples of sovereignty over their land.  Their land was violently seized, and to this day, inequalities persist in social, political and economic life for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.  

Not only this, but former government policies allowed Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children to be taken away from their families and communities. These children, whom are also known as the Stolen Generation, were fostered or adopted by white families or communities. These children were expected to assimilate into a white Australia and leave their Indigenous heritage behind. Unfortunately, many children suffered from psychological and emotional trauma. These policies were later removed around 1969 and 1970. 

It is important to note these instances in Australian history, to acknowledge the harm caused and the ongoing effects in contemporary society. In doing so, we can progress forward with open arms and open minds, knowing that we are on stolen land.  

Actions to take in order to become a First Nations ally

As  allies trying to educate ourselves, it’s important to consider ‘what can I do or what can I do better?’ 

According to The Guide To Allyship, here are a few Do’s and Don’ts when it comes to allyship:

Allyship begins with acknowledging our shortcomings. Allies must be willing to unlearn what they know in some contexts, and must recognise their privileges by providing spaces for others to lead advocacy efforts, and to amplify their voices in this conversation. 

While this article acts as a starting point for understanding allyship, I encourage you to read widely, listen closely, and continue educating yourself in how to become an ally.

Additionally, we must hold governments, business, and the wider community to account for the ways in which they address or perpetuate inequalities between First Nations peoples and others in Australia. It is important to use advocacy to pursue and advocate for inclusive policies. 

Towards an inclusive ‘new normal’ world

I would like to remain hopeful and optimistic to welcome a ‘new normal’ world as we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic, that is inclusive and diverse. Despite the hardships we have all faced in 2020 thus far, I believe we can forge a stronger and better society in future. 

The events of 2020, and COVID-19 specifically, have highlighted the continual injustices and inequalities faced by different communities around the world.  Now that we recognise the need for many social, political and economic changes, our ‘new normal’ world will be where we begin to enact these changes.

We, as humans, are accustomed to continually learning and adapting to change. To ensure we develop in the right direction, we should reflect on Sustainable Development Goal #10 – Reduced Inequalities – and its targets. By 2030, the top three aims of SDG 10 are:

1. To “progressively achieve and sustain income growth of the bottom 40% of the population at a rate higher than the national average”

2. To “empower and promote the social, economic and political inclusion of all irrespective of age, sex, disability, race, ethnicity, origin, religion or economic or other status”

3. To “ensure equal opportunity and reduce inequalities of outcome, including through eliminating discriminatory laws, policies and practices and promoting appropriate legislation, policies and actions in this regard” 

We must remember that to create change for the people who are being excluded in society, it is crucial to invite them into the conversations that concern them and empower them to participate in driving change. 

I have lived in Australia for 4 years now, and while I am proud to say that I now know more about Indigenous history than I did on that first day when I stepped off the plane, I acknowledge that there remains far more for me to learn. I am thankful for everyone who has been patient with me and who has openly supported my learning to become a better ally. I am inspired by the individuals who have the courage to speak up and agitate for change, whether they do this online, in person, or in both spaces. 

For those reading this, whoever and wherever you are, I hope you are also inspired to continue your journey to become a better ally. If you have any suggestions or reflections to add, I invite you to write them in the comments. 

Curious to learn more? Resources to assist with becoming a First Nations ally


● In My Blood It Runs (2019)

● Top End Wedding (2019)

● The Final Quarter (2019)

● The Australian Dream (2019)

● 10 Canoes (2016)


● Talking to My Country – Stan Grant (2016) 

● Talkin’ Up to the White Woman: Indigenous Women and Feminism – Aileen Moreton-Robinson (2000)

● Dark Emu – Bruce Pascoe (2014)

● Living on Stolen Land – Ambelin Kwaymullina (2020)

● Forgotten War – Henry Reynolds (2013)


Koorie Heritage Trust

COVID-19 Victorian First Nations Mutual Aid Fund

Warriors of Aboriginal Resistance

Pay the Rent 


Lifeline 13 11 14: Crisis support and suicide prevention services

Beyond Blue 1300 22 4636: Anxiety, depression and suicide prevention

1800RESPECT 1800 737 732: Support for people impacted by sexual assault, domestic or family violence and abuse

A fantastic online resources sharing document regarding the Australian BLM movement can be found here

Always Was, Always Will Be, Aboriginal Land

Written by: Nina McLean, Events Coordinator, UNAAV YP Network

Edited by: Maeve Martyn, Marketing and Communications Manager, UNAAV YP Network

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