When the English established a penal colony in Australia in 1788, the British declared the land uninhabited by human beings – terra nullius. However, between 300,000 and one million Aboriginal people lived there. The British prisoners and their hapless guards had no idea how to survive in that bush, but they never asked the natives – the worlds oldest surviving culture – how to adapt. The indigenous people were never given a name. Just Aborigines. No treaty was signed, no wampum exchanged.
In the decades after 1788, thousands of Aboriginal people died from European diseases and by outright genocide. Europeans introduced non-native plants and animals that, along with development, caused more loss of species than anywhere else in the world in such a short period of time.
As the Aboriginal people were removed to outstations and missions, the knowledge they had gained over 60,000 years was harder and harder to pass down from the elders to the children. The cornerstone of their education was crumbling.
Finally in 1967, Australia granted them citizenship. In 1992, the High Court said that terra nullius was wrong and gave them limited land rights – but only on Crown Lands, not freehold.
Learning in a Bush University
In 1995 on a three-month trip around the outback, I experienced numerous Aboriginal tours. But I was two months into that trip before I finally sat on a rock in the Flinders Ranges of South Australia and listened to Adnyamathanha elders explain what the land means to them: It is their Bible, their law, their environmental guide.
Shortly afterward, I went to a “bush university” in Pitantjatjara country west of Uluru. Tourists were there to learn by living the way the indigenous populations did before the British missionaries arrived. We slept in humpies, had no showers, used a “long drop” toilet. Each morning, the Aboriginal men and women gathered to decide what the days activities would be. Some tourists saw this as wasted time, but those who watched their democratic process began to understand how their culture worked.
Each day the women walked the songline of Ngintaka, the giant Perentie lizard. This showed the women where to dig for bush tucker. The men went kangaroo hunting. Everyone ate what they had collected and caught, and we had campfire meals. The experience enabled to me to comprehend the magnitude of what the Aboriginal populations had survived. At the end, one elderly woman looked deeply into my eyes and said “You come, learn, teach.”
Environmentalists say Australia’s Great Barrier Reef was saved from destruction because tourists saw its value and lobbied for protection. No such worldwide lobby exists for the worlds oldest surviving culture. Like the reef, though, one of the best opportunities for the survival of this ancient lore is for tourists to call for its preservation. For that to happen, Aboriginal groups must teach tourists about their culture, an act that not only helps the outside world learn, but helps them pass the traditions down to their own children.
Can You Help Save a Culture?
Mainstream tourism exists on numbers: how many people come, how much money spent. Most travellers to Australia only experience Aboriginal culture through some dancing, didgeridoo playing, and boomerang and spear throwing. Then again, can you explain your culture to a total stranger in just one morning? The only guide in Australia I have encountered who can actually do this is Willie Gordon of Guurrbi Tours, near Cooktown.
When I started my business in 1999, however, there were almost no high-quality Aboriginal tours being promoted by the industry. Now, Tourism Australia has a website dedicated to Aboriginal tourism. It even has a list of “champions.” The list is excellent, but not complete, and some of the tours listed are not ones I would use. But it is evidence of a strong effort to deal with a very problematic issue: the conflict between Western standards of tour consistency and reliability, and the reality of Aboriginal culture, where, for example, a tour will not happen if there is a death in the community.
Another issue is logistics. What if you see three tours you want to take. Are you sure you can make them happen? Many of the tours are seasonal. And if nothing’s running, few travel agents have personally experienced enough of the outback to organise a high-quality tour with an Aboriginal focus. Would they know where to look?
Aboriginal art abounds in brochures, websites and even on some aircraft, but the worlds oldest rock art is difficult to access and often expensive to reach. The tour to the best rock art site I have ever seen only managed to stay in business for a few years. The fantastic “bush university” tour I mentioned above is no longer operated on a regular basis.
There is also a tendency by the tourism industry to approach indigenous tourism from the top down. On AboriginalTourism.Australia.com, there’s a video by a well-intentioned photographer who opens by saying he did not know what indigenous tourism was, so endeavoured to find out. Tourism Australia could have hired someone who knew the successful operators and grasped their missions. For example, in many shots, the tourists are sipping wine. Yet alcohol is forbidden in Aboriginal communities because of the devastation it has caused.
A Proud Nation
Australia is justly proud of its economy, one of the strongest in the world. It’s proud of its people – a newly multi-cultural population that laughs at the remains of olde English culture. These days you can even find Aussies who are proud of their “pommie” (Prisoners of Her Majesty) heritage. Good on them, I say! They too are survivors!
And yet, we have so much to learn from people whose culture has survived longer than any other on earth. If we care about their survival, we have to take the time to go to their traditional lands and listen to them explain why rocks, earth, plants and animals are not commodities: They are the source of all life.