Writing about the contrast of Aboriginal and western Australian culture is not an easy task.
First and foremost this is wholly my opinion, based on my own experiences travelling through the country.
Having backpacked across a number of countries with massively varying cultural and religious beliefs to my own, arriving in Australia can be quite the blast of the western world you are not expecting (especially if you touch down from South East Asia as many do).
I early one realised I felt strongly that if you want to see the heart of this land you must emerge yourself in its aboriginal history.
Not just at large tourist sites like Uluru, but through exhibitions and events also.
“The Dreamtime is a commonly used term for describing important features of Aboriginal spiritual beliefs and existence.
“Aboriginals believe that the Dreamtime was way back, at the very beginning. The land and the people were created by the Spirits. They made the rivers, streams, water holes the land, hills, rocks, plants and animals. It is believed that the Spirits gave them their hunting tools and each tribe its land, their totems and their Dreaming.
“Distinct tribes had different philosophies and beliefs about the Ancestors who made the world. [Some] believe the Ancestors were huge snakes.
“Dreamtime dates back some 65,000 years. It is the story of events that have happened, how the universe came to be, how human beings were created and how their Creator intended for humans to function within the world as they knew it.
“Aboriginal people understand the Dreamtime as a beginning that never ended. They hold the belief that the Dreamtime is a period on a continuum of past, present and future.”www.aboriginal-art-australia.com
Not all of them sit successfully with me. At times it felt like exhibitions and events could be overcompensation to right past wrongs.
I joined a free walking tour in Melbourne. It was taken by a young university student who was clearly very emotive about recognising indigenous pasts in telling the history of the city and how it was founded and developed.
It was warming to hear… and then a fellow member of the tour and I noticed a single phrase which told a thousand tales…
The guide was telling us of how early explorer John Batman established settlement in the area. It is said he signed a treaty with the local Aboriginal people to acquire the land (though it has been disputed by historians).
It is widely acknowledged today that there was resistance as Aboriginal people fought to retain their land and culture, resulting in violence and poverty.
Our guide did not deny this history, but said ‘the aboriginal people did not understand’ what they were being offered…
As if, resistance occurred because the Aboriginal community could not see the benefit of establishing western settlement on their land; of the money it would bring, trade opportunities the fertile land would produce, the western commodities they could soon enjoy?
…and in using that single term, ‘understand’, I felt, that even in educating of the past, there is an underlying theme of white saviourism here.
Well of course they did not understand; they had never witnessed money or whatever other gifts they were offered in exchange for their land. Of course they did not willingly accept them.
“As violence and massacres swept the country, many Aboriginal people were pushed away from their traditional lands. Over a century, the Aboriginal population was decimated by 90%.
“By the late 1800s most of the fertile land had been taken and most Aboriginal people were living in poverty on the fringes of settlements or on land unsuitable for settlement.
“Aboriginal people had to adapt to the new culture but had few to no rights. Employment opportunities were scarce and most worked as labourers or domestic staff.
“This disadvantage has continued and even though successive government policies and programs have been implemented to assist Aboriginal people, most have had little effect on improving lives.”Lonely Planet
Then I visited Uluru.
In the cultural centre displays highlight how western rangers are working together with the Yankunytjatjara and Pitjantjatjara people to manage the land in traditional ways and retain cultural significance.
There’s a display highlighting the day the park was handed back to the traditional land owners.
Separately there is a timeline of all the landmark moments, of this sight, from William Gosse first sighting the rock, to early ‘tourist expeditions’. Before long an airport was built and later the entire tourist resort that stands here today.
What was missing from the time line? The date the land was handed back to the Yankunytjatjara and Pitjantjatjara people.
Perhaps it was an oversight, but for me, such an important oversight.
When I paired the two displays up, and slotted this victorious moment into the timeline, it came after the development of a resort and the tourism influx.
After so much had changed to their land.
Today, you can visit an art gallery and studio at the resort where some of the aboriginal ladies create stunning pieces of works using traditional methods. You can also purchase the work.
And yes it was lovely to see these women at work but I wonder if they want to be there, to share their stories, or are they merely here because the resort is here, where they feel they belong. Where they can succumb to western culture, earn a living but at least utilising their unique, original, knowledge and skill?
I should add, I have also witnessed joyous occasions through my quest for ethical travel.
Like the opening of the Arafura Games in Darwin.
Thousands turned out with blankets to laze on the grass and witness a spectacular opening ceremony of music and dance which paid tribute to the Larrakia people, the traditional owners of the region.
I felt Darwin had a really positive relationship the Larrakia people. The member of parliament for the area even gave a speech in the Lara Language.
In my year Down Under I have witnessed indigenous families enjoying festivals, teenagers at the night markets just being teenagers, laughing with friends, eating good food.
I have spotted business people from a variety of different backgrounds, commuting and working together in vibrant multicultural cities.
I have also witnessed entire aboriginal communities living, almost in isolation, in poverty. I have stayed on camp sights with barbed wire fencing and police patrol car which turned up almost immediately after an Aboriginal lady with a push chair was spotted inside the camp.
I have visited cities where I have not seen mixed race groups of friends, or even an ethnic minority for weeks.
I am not suggesting this kind of cultural division only exists in Australia, I’m just expressing my surprise at witnessing it here.
Too often we travel to lands far from home merely in search of an exotic escape; idyllic weather, idolised beaches…
But with every trip there is a chance to explore differences to what we know back home, and what we expect to find.