As I peel off my chunky chaco sandals and fold my legs beneath me to sit on the surprisingly moist grass, I’m surrounded by the sounds of a beautiful fall day in Australia. Nearby children squeal and giggle as they circle a tree only stopping to hide on the other side, the sizzling sound of Korean pancakes comes from a booth nearby and the enticing smell of curry and pad-tai rolls through the air. You see, it’s festival time in Alice Springs – the heart of the Australian Outback’s Red Center. Here families and friends have gathered in the town center to catch up, grab a bite to eat and peruse countless booths filled with beautiful artwork, hand-made soaps, jewelry and clothing. Unfortunately, it’s not necessarily the brightly colored booths that have caught my eye, rather what’s behind them. Groups of aboriginals sit lining the lawn behind the market, their artwork sprawled onto the grass in front of them. They too are eating pad-tai, sucking down coca-colas, catching up with friends and watching their children play. The heavy-set women are clad in unflattering and seemingly dirty baggy shirts and shorts; their breasts hang loosely beneath their clothes. Their feet seem worn by walking without shoes (a choice many aboriginals make to connect with the earth), or they’re protected by nothing more than thin flip flops or ragged canvas slip ons. They seem out of place as if they’re foreigners in their own land. There they sit.. on the edge of the market as if they are outsiders looking in.
Luckily, as they converse in their native tongue, I am somewhat reassured their culture hasn’t been lost altogether. There are dozens of groups of indigenous people across the rolling expanse of the Red Center, but none is more celebrated or internationally-known than the Anangu people. The Anangu people are the oldest living civilization on earth – their roots can be traced back 45,000 years. In the grand scheme of things, they were introduced to white settlers only “recently” or as early as a hundred or so years ago.
Their culture is deeply rooted in the sacred stories of creation that govern how they still live today. In fact, the land including what is now Australia’s most iconic natural feature, is equivalent to their sacred scripture. Of paramount importance is Uluru or Ayers Rock as the anglos have renamed it. This rust-colored arkose sandstone boulder is much more than a simple geographical feature; for the Anangu people it’s a place of great spiritual significance. However, as more and more tourists began to discover the magnificent rock- the Australian government quickly realized it was a way to make money.
Ahhh yes..there it is: money – the factor that unjustly drives most decisions these days. As more and more tourists visited, they complained of the naked men and women living in the bush around Ayers Rock. Eventually, the Australian government forced the natives from their land moving them into missionary settlements hundreds of miles away.
Unfortunately, the problematic encounters with anglos didn’t begin there. Years before explorers and eventually settlers crossed Australia’s Red Center. It was those settlers who set up trade with the Anangu people giving them things never seen before like flour and jam for their meat. The Anangu eventually began to depend on trade and those foreign supplies, and they now recognize it today as the reason for the introduction of diabetes into their culture.
Today, it seems diabetes is just one battle facing the aboriginal people of Australia. On a return trip to Alice Springs, my sentiment was drastically different. As I crossed the same pedestrian mall that just one day before had been bustling with life, I found an empty, cold street. At only 5:30pm nearly every shop was closed, huge metal security gates had been pulled tight across windows and doors. Only a few people remained, and it seemed they scurried hurriedly to their cars. Nearby aboriginals wandered aimlessly through the grassy areas and over sidewalks.
As I climbed out of our camper van and headed to the public toilet, I was caught by a an aboriginal woman who beckoned me over. “Hello,” she shouted from across the parking lot as she made her way toward me. Having learned most aboriginal people are shy, leery of visitors and don’t like to be approached or photographed, my eyes darted around to ensure I wasn’t mistaken and yes, she was in fact talking me. Unfortunately, I used the term talking rather loosely in this case. When she was close enough to reach me, she extended her hand grasping mine in hers. I was a little taken aback, but still mysteriously felt a sense of connection. In her other hand was a tattered painting. She opened her mouth revealing only a few remaining teeth and proceeded to make a series of what seemed like whimpers mixed with grunts as she waved the painting at me. “It’s beautiful,” I said. She then moved the painting toward her stomach. “Hungry,” she mustered. A little disheveled now, I replied, “I’m so sorry, I don’t have any money.” I patted my empty pockets hoping she understood. She motioned to her stomach again then back to the painting. My heart was breaking. I honestly had not a coin or bill in my pocket. She stared blankly at my iPhone still in my hand. She knew I had money to give, and she was determined to get something. I began to withdraw my now clammy hand still clasped firmly in hers. As I turned to walk away, I was enveloped by the strangest feelings. I wasn’t sad or mad, rather I felt an odd combination of embarrassment, confusion and heartache.
As I darted toward Dan, who was just hundreds of feet away on the lawn, I was immediately joined by two aboriginal men who like the woman I had just encountered spoke little to no English, but tried to get my attention by yelling single words in their native tongue. The moment I made eye contact with Dan, he motioned toward the street. “Let’s get out of here,” he said from afar. As we rushed away from the grass that was welcoming just a day ago, Dan admitted loudly, “These guys are making me uncomfortable.” As we walked, he told me how the two men had placed their hands on his back and began to beg.
In ten minutes, my fairytale view of aboriginal life vanished. This is what many of them are now relegated to – begging for money from tourists who have traveled thousands of miles to learn about their storied past. I tried to put myself in their shoes, but to be honest I thought that would only be irrational and disrespectful. Very few people can comprehend and understand the transition the aboriginal culture has undergone in the past several hundred years. I couldn’t fathom living a very basic life off the land, a life that is deeply engrained in sacred traditions, and having that ripped away only to be replaced with an expectation to assimilate into a lifestyle you don’t understand.
Yes, many aboriginals have done exceedingly well. They’ve chosen to learn English, gain an education and work to provide for their families in today’s society. Many live a wonderful life still working the land in specific aboriginal regions and communities, but there are those who are left out in the cold – caught in clash of two advancing civilizations.
It was all starting to make sense now. On any given day, a trip to the Anangu’s sacred Uluru reveals few natives and instead hundreds of tourists. It’s now a part of Uluru Kata Tjuta National Park. However, after years of intense debate and pressure, in 1985 the Australian government returned Uluru and its surrounding land to the Anangu people, who in turn agreed to lease it back to the government for 99 years to run as a national park. The park is managed jointly by a board consisting of 8 traditional or aboriginal owners (4 elder men, 4 elder women) and 4 white, non aboriginal members. While an attempt has been made to respect the Anangu people and in turn Uluru and its grounds, it appears to be still somewhat feeble in a sense.
A cultural center detailing why Uluru is so sacred stands unassumingly to the side of the rock. It’s here the Anangu people welcome their visitors via plaques along the wall detailing dumbed-down stories of the creation ancestors and how they wrote the basic principles or laws that still govern how the Anangu people treat each other and the land. Yes, the land which they no longer rely on for survival and is now crawling with tourists stomping on their sacred sites. Nearby, a walk through the beautiful arts market filled with amazingly detailed works of aboriginal art revealed a rather strange conversation that caught my attention. As an aboriginal woman (one of only two we saw around Uluru) was walking from the back room, in an attempt to be kind that came off more as belittling than anything else, a ranger stopped the woman and said, “You worked hard today.” As if she didn’t understand, the woman stopped and shrugged her shoulders. The ranger proceeded to list off what the woman had done.. a tour, painting, etc.. With each activity the woman answered yes in her native tongue. Again, in a belittling tone the ranger said, “you earn lots of money.”
Is this what they have been relegated to? Their land and way of life have been taken away from them, leaving behind a culture based ancient sacred stories that give directions for a life seemingly incompatible with the 21st century. The frustrated feeling in the pit of my stomach only grew as I walked out of the art center to find another aboriginal woman, her dark hair shading her even darker face, sitting on the sidewalk painting. In front of her, sitting upright on the concrete was a sign with the outline of a camera and a red circle and slash splashed overtop – “No Photography” it read beneath.
Now I must admit, I have photographed people in other parts of the world. The Peruvian women cloaked in colorful woven cloths with a child slung across their backs for example. Nothing struck me as strange then, but perhaps it should have. How could we photograph them as if they are something different from ourselves – they are people after all.
Upon leaving the center and driving to the base of Uluru, my sentiment only worsened. I felt guilty for being there, as if I shouldn’t be one of the hundreds of thousand that flock to Uluru to gawk. As we approached the rock, I saw people following a rope strung to the top. At the information center I had learned that hundreds of people climb Uluru each week. They waltz past signs and chose to ignore postings and videos showcased around the park detailing why the Anangu people ask that you not climb the rock. The reason to them is very complex, but to us it should be simple: the same path tourists use to scramble up the rock is in fact a path only to be traversed by Anangu men during certain sacred ceremonies. Signs that simply can’t be missed posted directly at the base of the climb alert visitors of the cultural violation and disrespect of climbing Uluru. As if that weren’t enough, warning signs about the extreme danger of the climb are meant to divert people as well. To date, 35 people have died trying to climb Uluru. Yet you still see them..the silhouettes of tourists grasping tightly to a rope as they lurch forward up the rock and hours later slide their way back down.
As I stand at the base in awe, I can’t help but be disgusted by the enormous disrespect shown to the Anangu people. As our aboriginal guide pointed out..and I quote, “They don’t care, the Japanese just come off their AA buses [an Australian tour company] and they walk right past the sign and shoooop, climb right up the side.”
Of course, it’s not people from just one nationality who have chosen to be so disrespectful rather people from all across the globe have traversed the surface of the Uluru. If you’re anything like me, you’re wonder why the traditional owners just don’t close the climb. They own the land, they hold the majority of seats on the management board – it makes sense. Unfortunately, it seems politics driven once again by money and greed instead of true concern for respecting others wins again. Our guide told us Tourism Australia wants to keep the climb open. In fact, our guide says they conducted a survey a few months ago to find out what motivates most people to visit. The answer? Apparently the majority of people come to Uluru to simply climb the beautiful natural masterpiece. To be honest, I’d like to see how that survey was worded. Still, to keep the tourists coming and money flowing – the climb stays open against the wishes of the Anangu people. Call me ignorant or maybe I simply didn’t do my research ahead of time, but I didn’t even know you could climb Uluru.
I knew that it was a place of great spiritual significance for the aboriginal people of Australia, but I had no idea just how sacred Uluru is for the people who believe in its storied past. Do I believe in their stories of how the land was created? No, I don’t. Do I expect them to believe in my opinions on how this earth came to be? No, I don’t. But I do expect that people have a common decency to respect others and their religious beliefs and ways of life.
When talking with an Aussie we met during our travels, he asked about racism in the United States. It seems he couldn’t quite grasp the concept of treating another group or culture differently. Unfortunately, when we asked about discrimination against the aboriginal people of Australia, he simply replied, “Oh no, they’re not discriminated against.” When we told him that wasn’t exactly what we had heard his response took a turn for the worse. “Well, they’re lazy,” he said. “They don’t want to work – they’d rather just take what we give them.” My heart sank. Though thousands of miles of water separate the United States and Australia, it’s amazing how closed minded sentiments can be the same. The fellow we were talking with was an educated man, and by all US standards leaned far to the left. He was baffled by what he saw as ‘American’s stance on gun control’..heaping us all into the category of gun-lovers, and didn’t understand why ‘Americans’ were against socialized health care. Yet, here he was..taking a very unsocialized approach to caring for his fellow man in his own country, at least for the aboriginals.
It’s not just the Anangus who are impacted by politics and changes in Australia. All across the country there are hundreds of groups of aboriginal people who are fighting for their land, fighting for a say and fighting for their way of life. To say Australia has turned a blind eye to the needs of its aboriginal people is a lie. The country is embracing its past and the decedents of its original inhabitants. In fact, each day you learn the issues facing aboriginals and how the Australia government is responding on the National Indigenous News network. While you do hear of cooperation in decision and policy making as well as scholarship opportunities and advancement in sport, you also hear of healthcare deficiencies and challenges, the fight against alcoholism and the ever-growing network of outreach programs.
As we traveled from the outback, to the rain forests and the along the beautiful Gold Coast, we saw and met aboriginals proud of their past, but focused on a successful future. To the same token, we also talked with old, washed-up surfers who snidely and jealously remarked that one day the aboriginals will own all the land in Australia as the government just, “keeps giving it back.” So while some Aussies may dismiss the idea of division and controversy surrounding how to care for and advance the country’s aboriginal population, just know they may be turning a blind eye to issue or their backs on their fellow countrymen.
With this being said, the journalist in me could have spent month’s in Australia meeting with government officials and outreach groups trying to better grasp the challenges the Australian population faces. Unfortunately, I don’t have the time nor the resources, and I can only write what I see and hear, based only on my experience and not a journalist’s facts or figures. It’s for that reason, I may be sadly mistaken. I am the outsider caught looking in.