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Why Aboriginal Culture Should Be Part of Your Australia Trip - and How to Do It Right

Australia Insider Guides Culture
by Ali Wunderman Jul 18, 2018

The author acknowledges and pays respect to the past, present, and future Traditional Custodians and Elders of Australia and the continuation of cultural, spiritual, and educational practices of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

If you’re heading to Australia on a Qantas 787 Dreamliner anytime soon, you may notice an intricately-designed livery. What you’re seeing is an adaptation of Yam Dreaming by late Northern Territory artist Emily Kame Kngwarreye, and it’s more than just a pretty painting.

“As the national carrier [for Australia] we’re thrilled to showcase another piece of Indigenous culture on one of our aircrafts, and to reiterate our ongoing commitment to reconciliation with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people,” says Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce. “It’s a beautiful, bold artwork and so we hope it catches people’s eye and sparks a conversation about our country’s dynamic Indigenous culture.”

Visitors to Australia would benefit from engaging in the kind of conversation Joyce references, not only because exploring Aboriginal culture expands what visitors can see and do in Australia, but also because those of us outside the country (and many within) are woefully unaware of one of the richest cultures on the planet, which has also been one of the most persecuted.

Australia was initially colonized by Great Britain in the late 1700s under the guise of creating settlements for convicts. But people were living on the continent well before European settlers. Between 70,000 and 40,000 years ago, the longest-living civilization came to be in Australia; today, it’s comprised of the Indigenous Australian community. For these tens of millennia, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians thrived on the land, sustaining themselves physically, spiritually, and culturally.

Settlement brought decades of genocide, strategic kidnapping of children, and general destruction of the Indigenous people, Indigenous languages, and Indigenous ways of life, a trend which has not yet ceased.

So, if we as travelers want to engage with Indigenous Australians and their culture, we need to understand what they’ve been put through, and to not perpetuate colonialism by claiming ignorance. To do just that, here are six pieces of advice that will help you experience Aboriginal Australian culture, the appropriate way.

1. Acknowledgment of Country: recognizing that the land was taken

Just like in the United States, just like in Canada, Australian modern society is built upon stolen land. Although Australia’s first peoples did not treat the land they lived upon as their property (rather they thought of themselves as part of it and stewards of it), it was their home before they were forced out. Ignoring this fact does nothing to further harmony between all people.

According to Reconciliation Australia, “An Acknowledgement of Country is an opportunity for anyone to show respect to Traditional Owners and the continuing connection of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to Country. It can be given by both non-Indigenous people and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.” I’ve included one at the beginning of this article. It’s a personal step that, when done collectively, can help in undoing the erasure and exclusion long inflicted upon the first peoples of Australia.

2. Indigenous people are people.

A lot of people I’ve talked to about this have asked me, “How am I supposed to talk to them?” Well first, stop othering Indigenous Australians as if they’re another species. Everyone comes from a culture with unique histories, mythologies, and cultural practices, and everyone is a person with hopes and dreams and needs. Indigenous Australians are no different than anyone else in that regard or any other: like any group of people, they are not a monolith. Treat everyone you meet like the human beings they are and you won’t be at a loss for words.

3. Show respect.

The most obvious and famous example of respect travelers can show to Aboriginal people in Australia is not climbing Uluru (Ayers Rock), the big red monolith in the outback. It is sacred to the Anangu people, who ask that visitors refrain from scrambling all over it. This isn’t just about preserving the rock itself: “Anangu have a duty to safeguard visitors to their land,” explains Ayers Rock Resort. “They feel great sadness if visitors to their land are killed or injured,” and because climbing Uluru is rigorous, there are physical risks involved. Climbing Uluru is a selfish act, and one cannot claim to support Indigenous rights and issues while simultaneously violating what has been requested by those same people.

Another example is taking photos of people or artwork without permission. According to Nullarbor Roadhouse in South Australia, “Reproductions and photographs of deceased Indigenous people are absolutely prohibited. This is to protect specific Aboriginal knowledge that may not be open to everyone.” So, put your camera away unless you’ve been given the greenlight.

4. Give what you get.

Australian Indigenous history and culture are fascinating to experience, whether it’s in music, dancing, storytelling, art, or food preparation. Visitors are encouraged to engage with these aspects of culture at all levels, and they should because there is a lot of beauty to witness. But, if we’re willing to consume these aspects of Indigenous culture, we should also be ready to be allies when it comes to protecting Aboriginal people from policies and cultural shifts that affect the communities. Even though we as foreigners aren’t able to vote on these matters, we can still choose which organizations our money (and by extension, our support) goes to, as well as take the time to talk with friends back home about the nuances of Australia’s political climate.

5. Go to the Northern Territory.

Roughly 3 percent of Australia’s population has Indigenous roots, but in the Northern Territory it’s closer to 27 percent. You are more likely to find authentic Indigenous experiences (as in, the money you pay goes to the actual community), as well as witness First Nations people simply living, rather than just entertaining you in this part of Australia. Start in Darwin, explore the national parks like Kakadu, Nitmiluk, and Litchfield, and take the time to explore Alice Springs and (relatively) nearby Uluru in the country’s red center. Some ideas for where to head are Provenance Arts in Darwin, the annual Taste of Kakadu food festival in Kakadu National Park, and Top Didj in Katherine. In the Northern Territory, there are endless opportunities to partake in learning about Indigenous peoples in a way that grants them the agency any human deserves.

6. Do your research before booking

Take time to vet who is behind the experiences that catch your attention so that it’s Aboriginal Australian people who truly benefit from your interest. And before you set off, read Indigenous voices in their own words, like writer and activist Marlee Silva, or Marcia Langton’s book Welcome to Country, which is the first ever travel guide dedicated to learning more about Australia’s first peoples.

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