“The kingfisher tried to warn the Mala men about the devil dog approaching, but it was too late. Some weren’t able to escape. You can still see them there,” Rachelle, our guide, pointed to the contours of the cave wall.
It was as if the men were petrified for eternity in those reliefs, struck in a terror pose as they tried to flee. While my rational mind acknowledged a scientific explanation for the geological formations around me, I slowly began to admire them in a different way, as if the stones were living, given life through story.
It’s odd I admit to consider Uluru, a 600-million year old monolith in the middle of the Australian Outback desert, as being “alive.” It’s a rock, after all. However, the more we learned about the Tjukurpa — the lattice work of laws and stories that hold together the knowledge of the creation period for the local Anangu people — the more I understood that this seemingly barren and empty land carried both life and history.
As Rachelle continued and reflected on the over 30,000 year presence of the Anangu in the area, she reminded us that the version of the story she told was intended for beginners: “To Aboriginal people we non-Aboriginals are newborn babies. We’re only just starting to learn.”
Aboriginal Australia: It’s Complicated
Aboriginal Australia. It’s inspiring and fascinating. It’s also tragic and complicated I would come to find. As this discovery unfolded for me, I struggled with how I might celebrate the beauty and wisdom of the oldest living culture in the world at nearly 50,000 years while acknowledging the discrimination and socio-economic challenges that so many of today's Aboriginal people face.
Perhaps, even with my newborn eyes, this was the beginning of my arc of understanding of Aboriginal Australia – its past, its present, and maybe a glimpse into its future.
Cafe Chloe: An Open Discussion
Aboriginal History: Not One Tribe, But Human
An Aboriginal map of Australia was laid out before us on the table at Café Chloe, a new Aboriginal community job training and traveler interaction center in the town of Tully, Queensland. The map was not only visually appealing with all its blocks of different colors, but it was also instructive. In school, I'd learned that Aboriginal people in Australia were one. Instead, Australian Aboriginals are drawn from hundreds of different cultures, approximated by the presence of over 250 distinct languages at the time the first Europeans arrived.
This was new information for me, as I suspect it was for most of the other travelers in our National Geographic Journeys group. They leaned in as Dr. Ernie Grant, a Jirrbal Rainforest People elder and Aboriginal scholar, offered something more shocking. Until 1967, Aboriginal people in Australia were legally categorized as flora and fauna. That is: plants and animals, not human. Fathom that. Aboriginal people, considered to be the oldest continuous-living culture in the world (between 40,000 and 50,000 years old), did not possess any human rights in the eyes of the modern state in which they lived until 50 years ago.
Theirs is a story of mass disruption to what was once a long-standing way of living. Long-standing perhaps being the understatement of our times.
I should add that I’m aware this history sadly echoes the history of my own country, the United States, and its treatment of Native Americans. My thoughts here also recall a piece we’d written several years ago while traveling in Chile and Argentina: Unspoken Patagonia.
Aboriginal Youth: Educating the Future on Their Past
After our discussion with Dr. Grant, a local Jirrbal high school girl read one of the creation stories to our group so as to inform and inspire an interactive Aboriginal painting session that would follow. She was nervous, her delivery halting. She had trouble reading some of the Jirrbal words. Standing just at her side, her mother leaned in to provide pronunciation guidance. Although the pockets of silence felt awkward, the experience exuded a sort of authenticity. Many Aboriginal youth are just now learning the language and stories of their ancestors.
Sonya, Dr. Grant’s daughter and project leader, explained that training students to lead painting classes and share Jirrbal stories is not just about providing job training. Sharing with travelers from around the world also empowers Aboriginal youth by helping them to take pride in who they are and to appreciate what makes their culture valuable and worthy of cultivation.
Uluru: Stories, Tradition, Code, A Way of Life
Flying from Cairns (Queensland) to Uluru, an expanse of red-tinged desert landscape sailed beneath us. Scrub trees and tiny, scattered homes drifted by. Onto this vast landscape filmstrip I overlaid the map of the diversity of Aboriginal peoples that Dr. Grant had shown us just days before. I tried to imagine the different nomadic groups who'd made this place their home for tens of thousands of years, how they'd lived from this seemingly barren land.
On the ground, we got a glimpse into how this worked. As we walked around Uluru, Rachelle told us Anangu stories that were directly related to our surroundings: we could see each part of the story in the physical markers around us. These tales were an attempt by Aboriginal ancestors to make colorful yet practical sense of their surroundings. Cave paintings taught the next generation how to find watering holes, when to hunt, how to dig for food, and which plants were poisonous. Through story and image, they passed on lessons of how to survive and to get along with one another as a community.
Theirs was an entirely different way of thinking about life, its origins and the implications for one’s day-to-day. No better, no worse than the framework I’d grown up with. Just different. And perhaps something we could learn from.
Alice Springs: A Reality Check
Our last stop in the Northern Territory Outback: Alice Springs, an unlikely urban center that rises from the middle of the desert. The situation of Aboriginal people on its city streets was a shock and contrast. Many looked itinerant; some hung around in parks and slept on benches while others walked in a substance-induced haze. You could hear yelling back and forth between groups in a nearby park. The raised voices, we’re told, is a cultural feature and doesn’t always indicate anger or violence, but it added a palpable sense of tension.
Once you understand what has happened to local Aboriginal people – that the basis and traditions of their communities was stripped from them through forced deportations, murder and discrimination — you might begin to understand how they could become lost. Displace a people, introduce a substance they aren’t biologically well equipped to metabolize (alcohol), deteriorate their social structure, and you’ve executed a perfect recipe for societal decay. Our experience served as a reality check on what life is, and has been, for many Aboriginal Australians.
During our final morning in Alice Springs, we walked through town toward one of the museums recommended to us. On the way, we saw a tiny sign, hastily positioned on the sidewalk inviting us to a non-profit Aboriginal art gallery. We made the turn and found ourselves in the middle of a Salvation Army soup kitchen and social service center. A sea of people swirled around us, many waiting in line for food. The path to the art gallery, if there was one, was not clear.
Eventually, one of the employees spotted us (i.e., disoriented tourists) and led us to an unassuming office art gallery with some impressive work. Images included representations of villages, women gathering, communal hunts, and desert animals such as snakes. On the back of each canvas the artist had written in pencil the story represented, bringing context to patterns of colorful dots and strokes. Artists are paid immediately upon delivering the work to the gallery, so with each sale, money is paid forward for a new commission.
As we read the biographies of the artists, we saw talented yet ordinary members of the local community who were visually translating the stories told to them, often by their grandparents.
“Mandy [Anderson] has been painting for many years and was taught to paint by her mother and grandmother. She paints the stories handed down to her from her grandmother such as the story of six women being chased by a man. She also paints the bushtucker.”
We imagine that these artists, many of whom are parents and grandparents themselves, use their paintings not only to earn income for their families, but also to pass on their stories to the generations that follow.
So the story cycle continues.
We walked away with a handful of paintings, each with a story of an artist, each with a story of continuity. While we knew our purchase would not change things on a grand scale, we felt it a tiny, personal productive step forward.
A Look to the Future?
A trip to Aboriginal Australia can unfold a double-edged story of cultural pride in the face of discrimination and exclusion, a story of changing the equation to create opportunities for Aboriginal people. It’s about celebrating Aboriginal culture and recognizing the strengths and uniqueness of this worldview so that Aboriginal communities might enjoy a newborn grounding, pride and satisfaction.
It’s also the story of how we travelers — wide-eyed, open minded novices — can learn from the Aboriginal sense of relationships based on respect and balance between people, plants, animals and the land. The more I peer into this world, the more I see how we all might benefit by applying this ancient wisdom to our modern lives so we might be better stewards of our ever-fragile world.
The story of Aboriginal Australia today is a story of how each of us, through our engagement, can take part.