Aboriginal Culture and Tourism in Australia
Aboriginal indigenous cultures in Australia are complex and diverse. The Indigenous cultures of Australia are the oldest living cultural history in the world – they go back at least 50,000 years and some argue closer to 65,000 years. One of the reasons Aboriginal cultures have survived for so long is their ability to adapt and change over time. It was this affinity with their surroundings that goes a long way to explaining how Aboriginal people survived for so many millennia.
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Cultural heritage is seen as ‘the total ways of living built up by a group of human beings, which is passed from one generation to the next’, given to them by reason of their birth.
In Australia, Indigenous communities keep their cultural heritage alive by passing their knowledge, arts, rituals and performances from one generation to another, speaking and teaching languages, protecting cultural materials, sacred and significant sites, and objects.
Sacred sites and Dreaming stories
In most stories of the Dreaming, the Ancestor spirits came to the earth in human form and as they moved through the land, they created the animals, plants, rocks and other forms of the land that we know today. They also created the relationships between groups and individuals to the land, the animals and other people.
Once the ancestor spirits had created the world, they changed into trees, the stars, rocks, watering holes or other objects. These are the sacred places of Aboriginal culture and have special properties. Because the ancestors did not disappear at the end of the Dreaming, but remained in these sacred sites, the Dreaming is never-ending, linking the past and the present, the people and the land.
For Aboriginal people all that is sacred is in the land. Knowledge of sacred sites is learned through a process of initiation and gaining an understanding of Aboriginal law. It is, by definition, not public knowledge. This is why the existence of many sites might not be broadcast to the wider world unless they are threatened.
Perhaps the most well-known sacred site in Australia is Uluru. Located in the centre of Australia, southwest of Alice Springs, the first European explorers named it Ayers Rock. The caves inside the rock are covered with Aboriginal paintings. In 1985 the Commonwealth Government of Australia returned Uluru to its traditional owners, Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara people (also known as Anangu).
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Performance – music, songs, dance and ceremony
Ceremonial performances are seen as the core of cultural life. For example, for Tiwi Islanders, these performances bring together all aspects of their art – song, dance, body decoration, sculpture and painting.
Music, song and dance was and is still today a very important part of Aboriginal life and customs. There were songs for every occasion, some of which were expressed in special ceremonies.
Songs and dances were exchanged often at large ceremonial gatherings when many people gathered together and when trade goods were also exchanged. These gatherings often occurred at a time and place when there was plenty of food.
Dance is a unique aspect of ceremonies which is learnt and passed down from one generation to another. To dance is to be knowledgeable about the stories of the ancestral heroes although dancing, unlike painting and singing, is learnt at an early age.
This allows large groups of people to demonstrate their clan rights in front of an audience. Dance is also seen as an occasion to entertain and to be entertained and through the work of dance to show their love for families and kin. It is for this reason that dance may be performed at the end of every day in some communities.
Aboriginal tourism has only recently emerged as an industry. A diversity of tours and experiences that promote Aboriginal culture and lifestyle are available for travellers throughout Australia. The experiences range from organised tours to performances of dance, the purchase of traditional Aboriginal artefacts and an opportunity to stay on Aboriginal land to experience the daily lives of Aboriginal people.
Businesses vary from enterprising individuals to highly professional commercial operations and tourism projects owned and financed by local land councils. There has been an increasing interest in Aboriginal culture, particularly from Australian retirees and overseas visitors. Within the Aboriginal community, tourism is seen as a practical, important way to provide an economic base to ensure that communities prosper and that Aboriginal heritage is supported.
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