[CAVEAT: I am not an Aboriginal Australian. I am a white person constantly trying to be better at supporting indigenous rights.]
When I lived in Australia, we had a large house; we got a good deal in an ugly part of town, and had spare rooms for days. As a result, we hosted a lot of couchsurfers. I remember one French couple in particular: “We want to travel to the outback and stay in an Aboriginal community for a few days, but… Do you think they wouldn’t like us because we’re lesbians?” one asked. My boyfriend and I looked at each other. “Honestly, they won’t like you because you are tourists,” we told them. “You can’t just expect to show up for a few days and be welcomed into someone’s hometown.”
One of the mainstays of Australian tourism is indigenous culture. Aboriginal Australians and Torres Strait Islanders are the oldest continuous and living culture on earth — recent testing indicates that their ancestors first left Africa and migrated to Australia between 60,000 and 75,000 years ago. This is almost 25,000 years before the wave of migration that populated Europe. Despite direct campaigns of extinction (of the people themselves, and of their culture) by the white Australian government, indigenous Australians have managed to maintain ties to cultural practices carried on for thousands of years. They do not have a dead culture or a homogenous one — check out this current language map of Australia. Intricate dot paintings, important cultural heritage sites, or going on walkabout, these traditions are valuable to the people who have passed them down for generations… And also to tourists, who want to pay for them.
1. Visiting significant sites that are also tourist destinations.
Nobody can go to Australia without seeing a picture of that big rock lunging up out of the ground. The sandstone inselberg (“island mountain”) called Uluru (or Ayers Rock) was formed when a mountain range gradually eroded away and left it standing more than 1000ft high. It is a gorgeous masterpiece of the Australian landscape. It is also a place of great significance to the Pitjantjatjara, and covered with signs that range from asking you politely to begging you not to climb the rock. One of the signs explains: “That’s a really important sacred thing that you are climbing. You shouldn’t climb. It’s not the real thing about this place.” So, of course, what is the first thing many visitors do when they get there? Leap for the climbing chains. This happens at many of the beautiful natural landmarks around Australia: The Olgas, the Bungle Bungles, Kakadu National Park, the Burrup Peninsula rock paintings; tourists march in, and sometimes literally stomp all over sites that have great meaning to their traditional custodians. However, you don’t have to avoid the sites themselves to avoid this kind of behavior. Obey the signs and any requests made by traditional owners. Be aware of culture when you take pictures and use traditional names rather than modern names. Hire Aboriginal-run tour operators, if at all possible. And for god’s sake, don’t scratch your name into something you shouldn’t even be touching in the first place.
2. Trying to visit Aboriginal communities.
This is not your chance to see the REAL Australia by snapping pictures of some dogs and houses in the Red Centre. These are people’s homes. These are their families. They live here. Why would you think you could barge your way into any small town and demand to be welcomed like someone who grew up there, surrounded by relatives? It just won’t happen. In central Australia, many Aboriginal communities are only accessible to outsiders with a permit, in an effort to help residents maintain some privacy. Don’t treat people as tourist attractions. If you absolutely must visit a remote community, do not take pictures without asking, and do not trespass into areas that are off-limits. There are important rituals and cultural norms that you are not allowed to be involved in: respect that. If you want to actually be involved in a community, consider getting a job there: become a teacher for local schools, or join the flying doctors.
3. Destroying the environment.
Aboriginal Australians and Torres Strait Islanders have a unique relationship with landscape and water. It is very important to their way of life and their cultural heritage. Climbing around on sacred rock piles, or picking up bits of an important tree are incredibly disrespectful. Resist the urge to have a tangible souvenir of your trip to the outback: Leave twigs, stones, fossils, and everything else exactly where you found them. The traditional owners of an area likely also have a special relationship with its flora and fauna: this means you need to drive carefully (at night especially) to avoid hitting any local wildlife. In fact, taking public transportation can greatly reduce your environmental impact; since Australia is an island, you likely already built up a pretty big carbon footprint just to get there, might as well reduce it where you can. Don’t poke or destroy ant hills, termite mounds, or spider webs, either: it’s rude, and if that’s not enough, you might get a very nasty surprise.
4. Ignoring the history of colonialism.
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd apologized to the Stolen Generations — the thousands of Aboriginal Australians who were taken from their families and homes and placed into residential schools — in 2008, but that doesn’t mean that everything is all hunky dory now. Aboriginal Australians still have a lifespan almost twenty years less than white Australians. BeyondBlue, an Australian mental health organization, reports that 4 out of 5 Aboriginal Australians experience racism regularly. They also polled non-Aboriginal Australians and found that almost half of them believed Aboriginal Australians received “unfair advantages” from the government, while 1 in 5 would avoid sitting next to an Aboriginal Australian on public transport. This is appalling. Read about the history of the region you plan to visit; learn the names of the traditional owners. Go to history museums. Find out about terra nullius, Mabo, and the Aboriginal Tent Embassy.
5. Buying “Aboriginal art” or artifacts without checking where they’re from.
Not everything marketed as “Aboriginal art” is actually made by Aboriginal Australians or Torres Strait Islanders. Just like boomerangs and didgeridoos, there are a lot of white folks making and marketing Aboriginal-style artworks to make a quick buck off the indigenous tourism trend. Learn about the role the item you want to buy plays in the culture it’s from, and who made the one you see in the shop. Make an informed decision about whether you need to buy an object that plays an important role in a different (minority) culture; as an example, didgeridoos are not just a fun toy for you to play with, they were used in ceremonies, and never further south than Alice Springs. Also, there are a lot of modern artists, musicians, and fashion designers making non-traditional but no less Aboriginal products. Support them too!