I live in Peramangk country, the traditional land of the Peramangk people, just one of over 250 language groups of the first people of Australia. I have been privileged to have been part of a smoking ceremony conducted by an aboriginal elder in my town, which involved being immersed in the wafting smoke from smoldering eucalyptus leaves as he silently walked among us. If you ever get the chance to be involved in one of these ceremonies as part of a welcome to country I would urge you to do it, it’s quite a moving and special experience and one that is significant in cleansing the past for a better future.
It’s from having experiences such as this and others in my travels that led me to a book by Professor Marcia Langton, called ‘Welcome to Country, A Travel Guide to Indigenous Australia’. Marcia Langton is an anthropologist, geographer, author and highly respected voice for Indigenous Australia, and in this book she takes the reader on a journey like I’ve never read before about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s relationship to the land and how they have cared for it for centuries. It looks at their art, music and stories and how these have been passed on for generations. But it is not only an historical look at the culture it also goes into Indigenous Tourism today and the etiquette for visitors interested in travelling to different states and looking to gain a greater understanding of, and experience one of the world’s oldest cultures.
It is a book of two parts with the first section introducing the cultural practices of the past and present, including the Aboriginal land management system and the use of plants and animals and sustainable land practices employed.
It looks at various customs and languages of which 120 are still spoken today. Did you know that you are speaking an aboriginal language when you say words such as kangaroo, koala, billabong and dingo? It touches on the different styles and mediums of aboriginal art, and why it is important to visit aboriginal art galleries and buy authentic.
Performance art is also looked at from ceremonial dance to dance troupes of today as well as Indigenous music of which there are more and more artists being recognized in mainstream radio.
The book doesn’t sugar coat the past though. No punches are pulled when it comes to speaking about Native Title, The Stolen Generation and racism in this country. It can be tough to read in places but I believe you can only learn by confronting the hard issues and hearing all sides of history. Education is the key to greater understanding and respect.
There are still many issues and ongoing arguments about the treatment of Indigenous Australians, but this book at least is helping to bridge the gap in our knowledge and understanding. It even goes into cultural awareness for visitors around such things as asking questions, protocols when visiting aboriginal country, taking photographs and videos, why we should be aware of these and how to navigate these issues.
One fact I found quite sad was that only 5% of international tourists cite indigenous experiences as an activity they want in Australia and worse than that, domestic visitors have little interest in indigenous tourism either. That may be because of the perceived remoteness but personally I can’t stress enough the richness of experiences you can have by choosing to seek out these options. Unfortunately I think ignorance of the culture is another factor. I bet it would be surprising how many Australians see it as important and believe in immersing themselves in other cultures overseas and yet may not have done it in their own country.
The second part of the book is a practical guide into exploring indigenous Australia with state by state listings of indigenous tour operators and experiences you can take part in. It lists festivals, art galleries, national parks and other well-known places where you can explore indigenous culture. It just goes to show that we can all learn more without having to travel too far from home.
However, you’d be missing out if you didn’t try to visit some of the best known places, their remoteness which makes them all the more special. To me the depth of presence you feel in these places is palpable, especially if you are lucky enough to visit without crowds.
This is one book that I believe everyone travelling or living in Australia should read.