Marcia Langton On The Etiquette For Visiting Indigenous Landmarks

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We may be a little biased, but Australia is one of the most stunning countries in the world. From rainforests stretched like lush, green quilts across Queensland and the hot vastness of the savannah country in northern Australia to the iconic beaches, nature is really turned up to 11 here.

And while we’re well versed in adjusting our habits to treat certain places with respect and ensure they’re around for future generations, it’s just as important to do the same when visiting Indigenous landmarks. Just as it’s natural to adhere to dress codes in particular places, cultural awareness when engaging with Indigenous tourism should front-of-mind when travelling Australia.

AWOL spoke with Marcia Langton AM, one of Australia’s foremost Indigenous academics and activists, about the etiquette for visiting landmarks and engaging with Indigenous tourism in Australia. In her book, Welcome to Country: A Travel Guide to Indigenous Australia, Langton notes that there are few other places on the planet where you can see and experience one of the planet’s oldest living cultures, but acknowledges that it can be difficult to know what’s considered appropriate behaviour – and what’s not.

The basics


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“There are over 600 language varieties, and because of the complexity and diversity of Aboriginal societies and Torres Straight Islander nations, the rules are different from place to place,” she told AWOL.

She stresses that it’s important to be respectful to your hosts wherever you go and outlines some of the best practices for visitors in Welcome to Country. These relate to participation in rituals, protocol around asking questions, when to use names of places and people, and taking photographs and videos. However, one of the most important things a visitor can do is follow signs and instructions communicated for their benefit.

“Wherever there’s signage about an Indigenous place, it’s very important to follow it. Indigenous people have found a way, say, with a ranger program or cultural heritage centre, of working with partners to explain to the public what their culture is, without people feeling burdened by their culture. Indigenous people want visitors to enjoy themselves and not feel extremely rule-bound, but there are pretty simple things – like not swimming in dangerous places – that one should abide by.”

What some visitors fail to understand is the specific sense of responsibility Indigenous Australians have for them. Langton explains that “everywhere, the traditional owners feel a responsibility for people visiting their country. They don’t want to contribute to the harm of visitors by not being clear about the dangers present. It’s not general advice, it’s very specific advice because they don’t want any harm to occur.”

In more explicit Welcome to Country ceremonies, Langton says visitors will likely hear, “look after our country, behave properly in our country, and the country will look after you.”

Follow the guides


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Respect of sites also extends to following marked trails and leaving everything exactly as you found it. Citing grave-robbing that occurred after bushwalkers in Arnhem land posted maps of gravesites online in the 1990s, Langton stresses to not take anything from a site even if visiting it is permitted.

When it comes to finding reputable companies to travel with, Welcome to Country contains an extensive list of Indigenous business and tourism operators for each state. “Most big travel agencies also know and market Indigenous businesses,” Langton adds, “anything from Voyages Indigenous Tourism Australia is terrific.”

Discovering Australia from the perspective of a people with a 65,000-year history means travellers will walk away with a completely different appreciation of it. “Many people come to Australia to see something they’ve never seen before. With an Aboriginal ranger or tour guide, you’ll probably actually get to see these things,” says Langton. “If you want to see a kangaroo, you’ve kind of got two options, go to Canberra, or go to someone who knows.”

Something to keep


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If you want to purchase art or souvenirs, Langton says “the main rule is to check the labelling”. While it can be difficult when you’re travelling, it’s important to know you’re buying something genuine and “you absolutely shouldn’t buy parts or objects made from endangered animals – it’s unethical and illegal and contributes to shocking loss of species”.

“The same applies globally now to cultural heritage products,” Langton explains. “If you’re buying rubbish, you’re putting that culture at risk. It’s not a neutral action, because endangered cultures aren’t able to protect themselves from exploitation.” Remember that the inherited designs you see in Indigenous artworks are informed by millennia-old tradition. Much like sacred places, they’re believed to hold spiritual identity.

“People think it’s extraordinary that Indigenous people place restrictions on visitors, but wouldn’t you rather know how to behave appropriately and not behave inappropriately?” And it’s really not that much to ask – most people cover up to enter the Vatican without a second thought or maintain their reverence when visiting a Japanese temple.

When interacting with the Indigenous people who called this land home long before I did, I know I would rather know.

(Lead image: Holger Link / Unsplash)

Qantas is proud to support the Spirit of Reconciliation. To find out more about the work Qantas does with Indigenous foundations and groups click here.