Indigenous elder removed from Barack Obama event in Australia for being ‘too difficult’

·3-min read
<span>Photograph: Darrian Traynor/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Darrian Traynor/Getty Images

The organiser of an event featuring the former US President Barack Obama on Wednesday night has apologised for cancelling the appearance of an Aboriginal woman who was due to give the welcome to country.

The organiser said “security reasons” had led to a last-minute change to the program, excluding the Wurundjeri elder Aunty Joy Murphy. She has been invited to a lunch event with Obama on Thursday.

Murphy was scheduled to welcome Obama to Wurundjeri land on the latest leg of his speaking tour of Australia.

But she was removed by the event’s organisers, Growth Faculty, after she asked them to provide a support person to help her at the event at John Cain Arena and also asked them to provide Obama with a gift in line with cultural practice.

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In a statement, the Wurundjeri Woi-wurrung Cultural Heritage Aboriginal Corporation said: “She was told that she was being ‘too difficult’ and was removed from event proceedings.

“This is a deep offence to the Wurundjeri people and to all First Nations people.

“Our Welcome to Country protocols are our traditional law and practice that have been used to welcome and offer protection to our guests on Wurundjeri lands for millennia.”

Aunty Joy, 78, who has welcomed dignitaries including Nelson Mandela and the Queen, said she was shocked at the way she had been treated.

“They have always shown me respect and accepted my Welcome as a gift from our people,” Aunty Joy told the National Indigenous Times. “I have been shocked and distressed by the way I have been treated by event organisers.

“I am 78 years of age. I have never been treated or spoken to in this way in the past. I do not want this to be a reflection on President Obama. I am a leader of the Wurundjeri Nation. I asked to be treated as an equal.”

In a statement, a spokesperson for Growth Faculty said changes to the ceremony due to “security requirements” meant a welcome to country was instead delivered by a Wurundjeri-Willam woman, Mandy Nicholson.

“Growth Faculty had been working with Aunty Joy and the Wurundjeri community for many weeks ahead of last night’s event,” the statement said.

“Due to security requirements, the organisation was unable to accommodate last minute changes to the agreed upon ceremony.

“Growth Faculty has apologised to Aunty Joy that last night’s ceremony could not be changed.”

The spokesperson said Aunty Joy had accepted an invitation to perform the welcome to country at Obama’s business lunch taking place in Melbourne on Thursday.

Aunty Joy said on Thursday that organisers from Growth Facility called her on Wednesday evening to personally apologise.

“I have accepted their apology and will receive President Obama on behalf of my people,” she said.

“Although it saddens me to think that I had to go through the events of yesterday, I’m happy that Aboriginal culture has been given appropriate recognition. It will be my great pleasure to welcome the first Black American president to Wurundjeri Country on behalf of my community and Ancestors.

“I hope that this meeting with Obama helps to achieve healing and change.”

In a statement, the Wurundjeri Woi-wurrung Cultural Heritage Aboriginal Corporation said that Aunty Joy had requested a support person and the opportunity provide Obama with a gift “weeks in advance”.