In all my education, I can’t admit to ever definitively learning about Australian history or aboriginal culture. But the history I heard during my time down under was a familiar story, like déjà vu from my American history classes of yesteryear. While its comparing wombats to raccoons, there’s still an underlying theme: colonialism came to the “country” and shattered the indigenous culture through land expansion, disease, re-education or, sadly, annihilation. The result from both histories is lost languages, forgotten histories, ended bloodlines and an ugly scar on the past. What does remain are those quirky naming conventions, tribes who were given land reserves, and a new sense of urgency to preserve and share the culture of Australia’s FIRST people: the aborigine.
This is me thinking out loud right now – and maybe someone reading this may have some insight that I hope you’d share: When I think of Australia, the aboriginal people are among the first five things that come to my mind. For the person outside of the US thinking of traveling to the states – is America’s indigenous culture/Native Americans among the top things you’d consider when planning a trip? My instinct tells me that the aboriginal culture is more woven into Australia’s identity than Native Americans are to the United States. That’s just an unbacked presumption. If it’s true, it’s a damn shame, but I digress…
Back on topic.
My point is, I never learned much about the aboriginal culture. While it reminded me of home’s history, there were still some learning moments that I found interesting or surprising during my dreamtime walkabout tour in Queensland.
To initiate, our guide “invited” us into the forest with a smoke ceremony – he chanted as we walked through a billow of smoke from the fire. This gave us permission to enter the Daintree Rainforest – the oldest rainforest in the world. One is not permitted to enter the rainforest unattended by one of the tribesman. Today, our aboriginal guide was Dingo. Dingo proceeded by explaining the tale of his friend who entered the rainforest without him and happened upon a stinger plant (very, very painful). Dingo made sure the rainforest had its retribution – he casually avoided telling him the remedy for his pain until he couldn’t take it any longer. I’ve usually been one of the philosophy that it’s better to seek forgiveness than permission… but not when it comes to revered aboriginal land!
Once inside the rainforest, I could feel the sacredness. Vines coil, leaves shimmer, bold sunrays penetrate like heavenly spotlights through the branches. It’s an emerald maze. Just knowing the deadly things hidden within the trees would be enough to keep me out without a tribesman. But despite all the dangers, the forest holds all the remedies. The rainforest is medicinal and healing. The rainforest possesses everything needed to survive. And we know it’s true, as the aborigine have flourished here for ages.
We traipsed along the trail, stopping as Dingo showed us different plantlife and points of interest. We circled around innocent-looking leaves – it was the stinger plant, one of Queensland’s most toxic plants that can leave redness and a painful stinging sensation for months. We analyzed a menacing-looking vine with thorns and learned it to be nature’s fishing wire and hook.
Dingo demonstrated how termite nests are better predictors of the weather than a local meteorologist with their fancy equipment. He passed around tree bark with natural elements to help bug bites. I kept a piece of bark for myself and soothed my red bumps for the rest of the walk.
We made our way to the Mossman River – what a beautiful sight! The water slithered over the round boulders in a mystical fashion – I felt like I encountered a magical fairy pond. Dingo wet different colored rocks and began rubbing them against a boulder. Within seconds, he had created “paint” which he used to dab those iconic aboriginal dots on his arm. Then, he grabbed some leaves, dipped them in the water and began to scrub them vigorously. A sudsy substance began to bubble… SOAP! Nature is so cool.
The cultural insight I found most fascinating was the kinship model. Tribes marry other tribes. When a couple is married, the husband is not allowed to speak to or be in the presence of the father of his wife. Contact is not acceptable and should be avoided. The way husbands can make connections with their “father in law” is through one thing… Have you guessed it yet? Children! When a couple has kids, the children go to their grandfather as a way for the husband to communicate with his bride’s father. I asked Dingo “why” and his response was a simple & wonderful, “I don’t know. That’s just how it is.” He laughed as he told us a story where he almost bumped into his wife’s father at an event, and his brother saved the day, avoiding an aboriginal faux pas.
There might be some husbands out there who would appreciate a system like that, right?
I loved our dreamtime walkabout tour in the Daintree rainforest. As our group gathered around a picnic table and enjoyed tea & damper at the conclusion of the tour (there’s always tea & damper), I reflected on how wonderful it is that despite a rough past, there’s an effort to keep these cultures alive and shared. Despite the trauma and persecution these peoples once endured, there’s newfound support for these indigenous communities. It wasn’t until 2008 that the Australian parliament released an official apology to the lost generations of aboriginal culture (2008… I know, right?). I think it such an honor that I was able to spend the afternoon with this group and I sincerely hope that other travelers visiting Australia consider making an aboriginal cultural experience a top priority.
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