Aboriginal Culture & Traditions

Posted: 27 June 2022

CELEBRATING ABORIGINAL CULTURE

AUSTRALIA'S First Nations people cherish a profound and primal connection to this land that stretches back millennia to be anchored in timelessness.

The first Indigenous Australian stepped onto this now sacred soil around 50,000 years ago – only a few thousand years after the first modern humans ventured away from Africa – and simultaneously swept around the country following the eastern and western coastlines while also fearlessly venturing inland.

A recent University of NSW study suggests a sequence of treacherous sea voyages brought Australia's earliest residents to this continent, with the last leg a multi-day paddle on rafts from the now Indonesian islands to our north that landed somewhere on Western Australia's foreboding Kimberley coast.

Those first surveying steps on the red ochre soil of Australia's sun-baked coast started a moving and meaningful relationship with Country that is spiritual and soulful and which is explained by songlines and Dreamtime stories.

Exploration and habitation were so careful and complimentary that, in the years before James Cook's arrival signalled the start of white settlement, more than 500 first nations groups called this country home with tribal communities inhabiting every corner from the Top End to Tasmania.

UNDERSTANDING ABORIGINAL TRIBES

Every step we take on the land sees us moving across territory belonging to Australia's First Nations people, with the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island Studies (AIATSIS) map showing the traditional ownership of Terra Australis an almost-psychedelic spread of colours that identify the plot connected to each tribal group.

Borders are purposefully blurred, as Indigenous Australians didn't observe firm and fixed boundaries, and the terrain claimed by a tribe could cover a few compact kilometres to vast claims that exceed the space occupied by some European countries.

"Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australia is made up of many different and distinct groups, each with their own culture, customs, language and laws," the AIATSIS website reveals.

"They are the world's oldest surviving culture; cultures that continue to be expressed in dynamic and contemporary ways.

"The map attempts to represent language, social or national groups of Aboriginal Australia (and) shows only the general locations of larger groupings of people which may include clans, dialects or individual languages in the group."

WHAT IS ABORIGINAL CULTURE?

Experiencing Aboriginal culture is about discovering ancient rock-art paintings at Ubirr Rock in Kakadu National Park and sharing a moving Welcome to Country from a member of the Wadandi people at Cape Naturaliste in Western Australia's deep south. 

It's sampling bush tucker during a sunset stroll beside a dry creek bed in Tjoritja/West MacDonnell Ranges, watching artists creating colourful canvases at a community centre in the shadows of Uluru, and hearing stories about traditional hunting techniques during a stop at Tower Hill in Victoria's south-west corner.

But Indigenous Australian culture goes much deeper. It's the languages, traditions and tribal lore that dates back more than 50,000 years to exist long before Stonehenge, the Pyramids, Angkor Wat, Machu Picchu and the Acropolis.

It is the Dreamtime or Tjukurpa - truths that are as old as the land itself and the walking routes that have linked significant sites and spaces of nomadic settlement for centuries, with these stories and songlines coming together to pin a people to a place and define the bond Australia's First People have with Country.

COUNTRY AND ABORIGINAL CULTURE

Country is the word used by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders to describe the place – the land or the water – to which they are linked that's been adopted by all Australians to explain the symbiotic association First Nations people have to their precious patch of the planet.

But it relates to more than simply real estate. It holds spiritual connections rooted in every aspect of values and identity from culture and customs to language, tribal lore, and the influence of family in the community.

Aboriginal leader Mick Dodson – a member of the southern Kimberley's Yawuru people, and 2009 Australian of the Year – describes Country as something well beyond a dictionary definition.

"We might mean homeland, or tribal or clan area, and we might mean more than just a place on the map," he explains.

"For us, Country is a word for all the values, places, resources, stories and cultural obligations associated with that area and its features. It describes the entirety of our ancestral domains. 

"While they may all no longer necessarily be the title-holders to land, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians are still connected to the country of their ancestors and most consider themselves the custodians or caretakers of their land."

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WHY WELCOME TO COUNTRY

The Welcome to Country is an Indigenous ritual rooted in history and goes back to the time when a stranger or visitor had to wait to be welcomed into a community. History tells us visitors would sometimes be left waiting outside a camp for days, until the people inside were ready to receive them and sure they weren't a threat, with the ceremony an indication that the gathering is linking the past to the present.

Ngunnawal elder Jude Barlow explains the value of being welcomed to Country is about ensuring not only a visitor's "spiritual safety" but the safety of the people receiving the stranger into their group.

"Being welcomed to Country means that you are talking to your spiritual ancestors and you're saying just let this person come through, we trust that they're not going to do any harm on this Country and so do not harm them," she says. 

"My ancestors and I understand that the ancestors of many other First Nation people are still present on Country, because they are still with us. They are in the animals and in the trees. When I walk onto another First Nation's Country I look to be welcomed so I feel a sense the spirits are OK with me being there."

HOW WE WELCOME TO COUNTRY

AAT Kings and Inspiring Journeys travellers can experience a Welcome to Country when visiting certain regions. Working in partnership with local Aboriginal-owned and managed businesses, these programmes provide an opportunity for First Nations people to educate visitors about the importance of the ritual to the traditional owners and ensures that guests leave with a deeper understanding of culture and how stories continue to be passed down through the generations.

Tours of Tasmania that pause in Launceston – Perfect Tasmania, Tassie Parks & Nature, Tasmanian Wonders, Tassie's Wilderness Icons – venture into charming Cataract Gorge to spend time with local elders, listening to stories and seeing sites significant to Tommeginne people.

This encounter begins with a Welcome to Country created specifically for AAT Kings, before a stroll through a place celebrated as the north-coast settlement's "own piece of wilderness just 15-minutes’ walk from the city centre" to hear history through the eyes of the Aboriginal community.

ACKNOWLEDGING COUNTRY IS ALSO SIGNIFICANT

Those stepping onto the land also have an opportunity to pay their respects to the traditional owners, with an Acknowledgement of Country a sign of respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and the continuing connection to Country.

"An acknowledgment is a person, who lives on another person's Country, acknowledging and honouring the traditional owners of that Country," Ngunnawal elder Jude Barlow explains.

"It's an exchange of respect and honour and honouring the country on which you are standing when you do that acknowledgement.

"It doesn't have to be a First Nations person who does an acknowledgement, non-Indigenous people can do it as well and that's just paying respect for the country on which you stand."

ABORIGINAL ART APPRECIATION

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Aboriginal art – and by that we mean more than the symbolic dot, line and circle paintings proudly produced by today's talented Indigenous artists – is integral to First Nations' culture and the most obvious way to appreciate and understand the tribal traditions that literally stretch back thousands of years.

Scientist now believe paintings can date back more than 30,000 years ago, with some tribes trusting the pictures were left by Dreamtime ancestors to tell the tales of origin, to the marks left on everything from weapons to musical instruments.

It was the costumes and body painting used in ceremonial occasions, the elaborate headdresses and shell jewellery created to define rank, wooden toys carved to keep children entertained, and the baskets woven to carry bush tucker.

Indigenous art was used to tell stories and, with no common language but hundreds of regional and tribal dialects, the traditional owners used symbols and icons to not only share information about hunting and gathering but suggest instructions for survival and communicate stories about history to future generations.

ABORIGINAL ART IS ON THE ROCKS

Australia is famous for its Indigenous outdoor galleries and there are more than 100,000 significant rock-art sites around the country. There are more than 5,000 of these precious places inside the boundary of Kakadu National Park with works scattered across the country from Nitmiluk National Park to the Ikara-Flinders Ranges and the Kimberley to the Gariwerd/Grampians.

Opportunities to appreciate the rock art hidden around Kakadu is woven into the AAT Kings and Inspiring Journeys itineraries visiting the Northern Territory's most famous UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Northern Territory Explorer, an 11-day journey from Darwin to Alice Springs, and the shorter Top End Highlights which takes a week to make a loop from the Northern Territory capital are both expeditions that spend two nights inside Kakadu to make exploring Indigenous art an easy endeavour.

During these journeys a local guide will lead the way to alfresco galleries at Ubirr, Burrungkuy and Nanguluwurr to not only explain how the centuries-old pictures provide priceless insights into the spiritual heritage of the Bininj and Mungguy people but illustrate encounters with the first European arrivals.

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PAUSE TO SEE COLOUR COME TO LIFE

One of the team's favourite Indigenous experiences is a meaningful moment during Uluru Aboriginal Art & Cultural Experience, a half-day tour departing daily from Ayers Rock Resort crafted to provide an insight into the lives of the region's traditional owners.

The outing, hosted by an Aboriginal guide who speaks in Pitjantjatjara and translated to English by a companion interpreter, pauses at the Maruku Arts studio located at the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park Cultural Centre, to watch Anangu artists at work and listen to them talk about the dot paintings they create to share their insights.

Travellers that are inspired while they learn are encouraged to create works of art and share their own Tjukurpa, or story, as they paint alongside an Anangu artist. Guests can take home their own artwork or purchase a piece from the gallery nearby.

JOURNEY TO DISCOVER ABORIGINAL CULTURE 

For those travellers seeking to get under the skin of their destination and explore its cultural heart, learning about First Nations people directly from Indigenous guides and tour leaders is an important way to experience living culture firsthand, understand the significance of country, art and community.

Aden Ridgeway, Gumbaynggirr man and former chair of Indigenous Tourism Australia, says aboriginal culture is an intrinsic part of the Australian experience and something that "starts with its people".

"We are one, we are different to each other, and we are many," he says. 

"Aboriginal guides open a door into a world that many people don't know still exists. A world where past, present and future meet. There's nothing more exciting for a traveller than a totally new experience. That's what memories are made of."

INDIGENOUS TOURISM AND SUSTAINABLE TRAVEL

There's no doubt sustainable tourism is one of the positive trends of the post-pandemic era. The two-year pause in travelling has prompted holidaymakers, adventurers, and travellers alike to reconsider the way they interact with people, planet and wildlife, and ensure that they MAKE TRAVEL MATTER® on their next trip.

Gone are the days when travel was about simply crossing sightseeing stops from a travel to-do list and posting to Facebook. Today's savvy traveller is seeking to collect experiences that let them learn and enhance their perspective while also curating memories and gathering life-changing moments. 

They are also demanding encounters that help make a destination a better place and encourage traditions and arts to thrive, by partnering with local Indigenous-owned and managed business to provide on-tour experiences that elevate all local community members.

The Indigenous tourism experiences offered by AAT Kings and Inspiring Journeys focus on this very thing. Both brands partner with the grass-roots groups that safeguard experiences significant to their cultural group, create employment opportunities, and feed funds into all levels of community.

A highlight of Outback Contrasts – the six-day loop from Alice Springs that takes in Red Centre icons like Watarrka National Park/Kings Canyon and Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park – is a visit to the Wanmarra Community Centre. Here travellers can discover the bond the Luritja and Pertame people have with their tribal territory.

During this break in the journey across Central Australia's red landscape, there's ample time to wander the desert with a traditional owner and discover bush tucker and traditional medicine while gaining a greater cultural understanding of the sacred sites around Uluru and Kata Tjuta’s ochre domes.

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By AAT Kings
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