Words JEAN O’REERI & SAMANTHA BETTS
Remote indigenous Australia is something that most Australians only ever hear about in movies or through the media, but don’t experience first-hand. However, remote Australian tourism has boomed over the last decade, offering the chance for travellers from both Australia and abroad to visit these traditional indigenous communities and immerse themselves in the ancient teachings and culture.
Jean O’Reeri, a Ngarinyin woman from Karunjie Station on the Gibb River Road, resides in Wyndham, right where the outback meets the saltwater in Western Australia. We asked her for some insight and advice on visiting communities the “right way”.
Ask the Elders
“The first thing you need to do is find out who the boss is and which Elder you need to see to seek permission for being on that country,” Jean shares. For most tourists or volunteers, finding the Elder in each community will be tricky as they’re often working multiple jobs and leading their communities and families. Short of finding the Elders for permission, it would be wise to find the local Traditional Owner corporation of where you are visiting or a cultural centre such as an Aboriginal Language or Art Centre.
Where you can or can’t go
Elders or the community will inform you of the areas you can or can’t visit, such as men- or women-only areas, sacred sites or places that are privately owned by Aboriginal communities.
Respect is very important in every social structure in indigenous communities. Respect for Elders, the land, animals and ancestors are fundamental aspects of Aboriginal culture.
Attend a cultural-awareness training session in the local area. While you may have done some cross-cultural training in your workplace, university or at school, no two Aboriginal areas are the same. Protocol on how to behave and what to expect will be different depending on where you are. For example, gender division, greetings, speaking and listening will vary from place to place. As visitors, you must respect local relationships with kin.
You may receive a “welcome to country”, which, depending on where you are, might involve being smoked (tapped all over with smoking leaves) or being blessed with water.
Generally speaking, these rituals clear any negative energy that may be following you and cleanse your spirit. Jean adds that they also provide a “safe passage through our country”. These rituals will differ depending on where you are and the protocols for that particular country and community.
Looking to expand your cultural awareness? Marcia Langton’s recently published book, Welcome to Country, is a fantastic guide to exploring indigenous Australia. In it, she discusses topics such as pre-history, Native Title, art and performance.
It’s important to do some self-reflection before you enter a remote Aboriginal community. Some introspection before you venture into remote Australia allows you to be completely honest with yourself. Are visiting with a plan or expectations? If you’re volunteering and have a pre-conceived idea of what you are going to achieve, you may want to reconsider.
Jean says it’s important to be willing to learn. Coming into country and listening deeply to history and aspiration is a great place to start, as well as being observant to how things work in the local area. A general rule of thumb when working with any indigenous community is the principle of empowerment: do not do for someone who can do themselves. Instead of recommending or proposing, put your idea forward as an offer and don’t be miffed it is not accepted. Jean reiterates this point, stating that “good working relationships come from guidance from country” and from visitors respecting country and protocol.
This will ensure that strong relationships are built on trust and respect and that you are working and visiting from a place of empowerment.
Be aware of your current thoughts, opinions and preconceptions about Aboriginal people. Do you hold stereotypes, prejudice or racist views? Are you willing to see life from someone else’s perspective? Do you have certain beliefs and ideas that you want to challenge in communities? Be sure to visit as an equal.
Australia has a deep history of paternalistic policy that Aboriginal communities are still trying to unravel. Be someone who supports self-determination and empowerment. Challenge yourself to be vulnerable by opening yourself to others and offering a heartfelt connection.
Respect the spirit
Liyarn, a concept of wellbeing, spirit and a good feeling in the heart, is shared across northern Western Australia. With her hand over heart, Jean describes Liyarn as a sixth sense and “feelings in here”. It is important to be aware of indigenous views on spirituality and wellbeing as they differ from Western viewpoints.
Aboriginal-owned and -operated businesses in the tourism sector are booming across Australia; however, they are in competition with existing tours that are branding themselves as Aboriginal yet are mass-organised and unauthorised. It is important to choose local and authorised products so that proceeds go directly back into the Aboriginal economy and support its development.
Visit Aboriginal-operated art and culture centres, book with indigenous tour groups and shop from businesses listed on sites such as Supply Nation or Black Business Finder.
Jean O’Reeri is a Ngarinyin woman who resides in Wyndham, Western Australia, and is a strong leader for her community and family.
Samantha Betts works in Aboriginal development.