BECAUSE OF HER, WE CAN EXPERIENCE AUSTRALIA THROUGH ABORIGINAL EYES
Professor Marcia Langton AM has long been at the forefront of Indigenous issues in Australia. As one of the nation’s most respected Indigenous academics, she is a frequent media commentator, speaking out passionately on issues such as Indigenous rights, justice and artistic expression. She is the first Associate Provost and Foundation Chair of Australian Indigenous Studies at the University of Melbourne, and in 1999 was one of five Indigenous leaders granted an audience with the Queen to discuss proposed changes to the Australian Constitution. Now, she’s the author of the first ever published travel guide to Indigenous Australia. Communications Manager Lina spoke to Professor Langton as part of Ecotourism Australia’s Respecting our Culture | Celebrating Diversity Through Ecotourism campaign.
EA: Professor Langton, congratulations on the release of your book, Welcome to Country – A Travel Guide to Indigenous Australia. It’s a beautiful book and such a valuable resource for travellers to this country. What inspired you to write it?
ML: I have actually been thinking about a book like this for a very long time, but it was Hardie Grant [publisher] who put the idea to me. Turns out that if you keep wanting something for long enough, the door will open! I think I’m very fortunate to have had the privilege of being involved in this project. All of us were surprised at how quickly the book has been selling – and now we’re wondering: does this indicate a change in the way people are thinking [about Indigenous tourism]? I think it does.
EA: We love that the book includes a large section on Indigenous history and culture – do you think this is something which is not well enough understood by travellers?
ML: Oh yes, that is a serious problem. You know, Aboriginal people have been talking about this for years; trying to think of ways to educate travellers to be more sensitive to the people whose land they’re travelling on. But it’s a complicated and multifaceted issue.
EA: The book also includes a lot of Indigenous festivals and events – what role do these play in Indigenous tourism?
ML: These festivals started as a way for Indigenous communities to get together - not for tourists. I attended my first festival in about 1985 and it was fantastic! I had no idea that you could have so much fun. I don’t think it ever occurred to me back then that these festivals could become tourist attractions, but now they often sell out months in advance. If you can get into one, you’ll have the best experience you’ll ever have.
EA: Do you think these festivals can help dispel misconceptions that travellers may have?
ML: They can, yes. It’s funny though how people don’t necessarily understand what they’re looking at (laughs). Someone came up to me [at a festival] once and said “they really have to translate the meaning of these dances” – but he hadn’t been listening when the speaker had announced what the next dance would be about. Of course, [local] people think, well everybody must know what the emu dance is about, I’ve seen it every year, so why don’t they [visitors] know? (Laughs). Locals know what to expect, but first-time visitors often don’t.
It’s difficult too, because unless you’re from that clan or closely related, it’s against custom to answer visitor’s questions. So, as well meaning as you might be, it’s not always the right thing to do to ask a lot of questions, and it can be embarrassing for people who aren’t authorised to answer.
EA: What about Indigenous tour guides?
ML: Tour guides are often professionally trained. This training makes them more comfortable because they learn that they don’t have to answer questions fully but can still help tourists to understand.
EA: Do you think that Tourism Australia and State Tourism Organisations are doing enough to promote Indigenous tourism in Australia?
ML: I think they’re certainly trying… (Pause) They do try, yes. (Long pause). I hope that everybody learns from the book about how to do it better.
EA: What’s your favourite gem, hidden in the book?
ML: Charcoal Lane – it’s a joint venture from the community and Mission Australia to train young Indigenous people in hospitality. They have very fresh grilled kangaroo!
EA: Sue Monk Kidd, author of the New York Times bestseller, The Secret Life of Bees, once said that “stories have to be told or they die, and when they die, we can't remember who we are or why we're here.” What’s the power of storytelling in Australian Aboriginal culture and how can this help travellers to understand their place in the wider world?
ML: That quote is spot on, and I think that’s why we travel too, isn’t it? To see how other people do it, how other people do life (laughs). Indigenous storytelling - through visual artists, authors, actors, playwrights, poets and film makers - enriches Australian life so much. And Indigenous storytelling through visual art has attracted collectors from around the world for decades. This has really been at the forefront of Indigenous tourism.
EA: You’re an anthropologist by background – why do you think that some visitors to Australia are more interested in having an Indigenous experience than others?
ML: I think there’s a different way of looking at Indigenous people in the northern hemisphere, particularly in Europe. Europe is the homeland of the colonists, so they want to go to the world that they colonised to see what’s going on. There’s a certain romanticism, I think, about Aboriginal people, particularly from 18th, 19th and early 20th Century literature. But there has long been an interest in other peoples, particularly in Europe.
EA: NAIDOC week is on the 8-15 July and the theme is “Because of her, we can!”. Who is a woman who you believe will leave a legacy on Indigenous tourism in Australia?
ML: Almost nobody will have heard of her - but I worked with her many years ago, just briefly. There are some people you just never forget, you know? Her name was Mavis Malbunka and she, with her husband, had set up one of the early tourism projects in central Australia. They invited tourists to come to their outstation, go for a walk around in the dessert, hear stories about their country, and then finish their walking tour with a cup of tea and damper with the residents of the outstation. My job, working for the Central Land Council back then, was to do their tour as an experiment to see whether it worked. It was fantastic fun! I think it was when I first realised that there is so much to be learned from taking the time to be hosted by the Traditional Owners of the land. I want to give people that opportunity too, through my book.
EA: Do you think that tourism – particularly Indigenous owned and operated tourism and Respecting our Culture certified tourism, can aid in the reconciliation process?
ML: Oh yes, I’ve seen it happen with my own eyes. Often people come in thinking they’re going to tell Aboriginal people how to do things, then learn that actually, the Aboriginal people have already thought through many of the issues and come up with their own innovative ideas and solutions. This can be a big learning curve for non-Indigenous people.
EA: What’s your vision for Indigenous tourism in Australia?
ML: I believe that you don’t know what you’re looking at until somebody has pointed it out. And once you see it, you can’t unsee it! But my vision is also for Australians to get to know the country they live in through Aboriginal eyes, the eyes of the First Peoples.
For more information about the book Welcome to Country – A Travel Guide to Indigenous Australia, please visit the publisher's website, or find it at your local bookstore.
For more information about Ecotourism Australia's ROC Certification, visit the ROC website.