How to be an ethical traveller on Aboriginal land

Carly Williams
Branded Content Editor

The thoughts running through our minds in the lead up to a holiday are pretty mixed.

Have I packed my favourite linen shirt? Do I have enough SPF? Will the hotel lobby bar have happy hour? What will my first Instagram pic be?

But what about being mindful of the traditional owners of the land? How many of us stop and think about indigenous protocol when exploring an ancient and spiritual land like Australia?

According to the recent ‘Help or Harmful’ study by Kathmandu17% of Millennials have knowingly breached a local law or culturally sensitive custom. 

The sacred Ellery Creek Big Hole in Northern Territory. Photo: Getty

I have indigenous heritage and was raised to respect sacred sites but I must admit, I had to recently polish up on on-country customs when asked by a colleague about travelling on indigenous land.  I realised protocol might not be widely known by travellers, which is why it is so important for big travel companies to create a better understanding and appreciation for culture and community.

This is exactly what Contiki is doing with its Make Travel Matter program in partnership with KARI’s aboriginal cultural unit.

The travel company launched the initiative with aboriginal dancer Darren Compton and indigenous Canadian activist Sarain Fox, who explained Contiki want to ensure travellers not only connect with locals and indigenous culture in an authentic way but also be conscious of traditional protocol while on tour.  

Sarain during an acknowledgement of country and smoking ceremony with Darren and the Muggera Dancers at Kari. Photo: Sarain Fox

We’ve taken some of the learnings from our successful Canadian program to our Indigenous brothers and sisters in Australia to see how it can benefit their communities,” Sarain said.

“By partnering with the KARI Foundation, we have the opportunity to directly impact the ways in which travellers see and interact with the Indigenous population.

Welcome to country, Sarain. Photo: Sarain Fox

“Creating a program where local artisans and cultural practitioners can share their own stories and art form.”

Visiting the Australian outback is a stunning experience, but the proper understanding of our culture may get lost on visitors.  I spoke to Sarain about how to be an ethical traveller when visiting Aboriginal land…

Sarain shares her knowledge on being mindful while travelling on indigenous land. Photo: Sarain Fox

Permission to enter
“People think they’re the expert, but none of us are the expert when travelling outside of our territories so it’s about travelling with humility and knowing that you don’t have the right to enter into sacred space without permission.   So, slowing down and asking those permissions is important or travel with someone who is doing that for you, whether it’s a guide or a community member who can make sure you’re acting in an appropriate way and following protocol.”

Don’t do it for the ‘gram
“With this idea of social media, so many people end up in the middle of a really sacred place and they don’t know where they are.  Back home, we’re always seeing the aftermath on Instagram and we don’t get to be on the ground preventing it from happening because a lot of these places are remote. One big mistake visitors can make it not slowing down to ask questions and gain proper permission.”  

A place of deep cultural significance should not be treated like a theme park. From October 2019 visitors will be banned from climbing Uluru. Photo: Getty

Be inquisitive
“In Canada, we have over 500 nations but for my people, in sacred spaces women wear skirts.  But if you don’t ask then how would you know? So it’s always important to slow down and ask questions.”

Pics and video
“We don’t take video or photos in sacred spaces in Canada. Before you take out your camera and start filming, ask yourself  ‘do I have permission to be recording this content.’”

Speaking of the dead
“I know this is an aboriginal custom in Australia – there are many similarities with Canadian Aboriginal culture.  For us, we wait one year after someone passes to speak their name. You also don’t look at their photos or have any of their stuff around.  When people pass, we put away all of their belongings and don’t speak their name for one year so they can make their way to the spirit world.”

Treat the outback like you would The Vatican (and don’t appropriate sacred artefacts for your festival outfit!)
“The same rights that you would give anyone from The Vatican needs to be given to our sacred space.  We don’t have churches, our churches are the wilderness. Our churches are our territory, the bush. Those are just as important as a sacred monument so if you think it’s wrong to spray paint a national monument then people should consider the native headdresses the same as an artefact in The Vatican.     

A headdress is a direct connection to creator or god, the disrespect in terms of appropriation is just as serious as disrespecting the bible.”  

Always ask before taking pics of sacred sites and artwork. Photo: Getty

Contiki offers multiple outback tours where travellers are taught by indigenous artists, take part in traditional art experiences and learn about the meanings entwined in aboriginal culture, all while giving back to the communities.   

“Contiki is literally creating a space for travellers to learn, that’s reconcili-action. It might sounds like a small thing but it’s a massive step in changing the narrative,” Sarain explained.

Check out more on Contiki’s Make Travel Matters campaign here.

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