the Great Silence Love Everything Travel

Travelling across outback Queensland and into the NT, we were impressed how a lot of effort has been made in many small towns to, to stay alive and prosper, in extraordinarily difficult circumstances.  People are working hard to offer more to travellers, scratching together eclectic displays of relics (both people and objects) and highlighting natural attractions,  and relating their stories to interested travellers in brochures, museums, street notice boards and roadside ‘points of interest.’

There are many incredible stories of discovering amazing natural wonders, stories of adversity in the face of natural disasters, hard toil in opening up the country for developing industries like sheep and cattle and of course the quintessential ‘Outback Spirit’.

Sadly though, for us, there has also been a deafening silence, especially across Queensland. History skips, like a knocked record, from the incredible dinosaurs, to whitefellas chasing gold rushes or land to farm.

We have come across so few stories that identified the name of the language or family name of traditional owners in a town or region; or what the experience of ‘discovery’ and industry development was like from the perspective of Aboriginal people; or Aboriginal stories of the country; or what Aboriginal people’s presence, initiatives, and aspirations are now in a particular area.

It was a disappointment in going into the visitor information centre or local caravan park and asking what was the name of the local Aboriginal people to be told, ‘I don’t know’.

Where it did exist, the little public information that we saw presented usually went something like this….

The name of the town originated from [insert white explorer, governer etc]

The Aboriginal people /tribes that occupied the area now known as… were [insert name] * although even this basic acknowledgement seemed to be a struggle for many towns

There was the Dreamtime.

First European settlers moved into the region after 18xx, following in the footsteps of [insert name] explorers. [ Insert several more large passages of information ]

The town continues to thrive today. 

While in town visit the information centre/ museum and learn about [insert pastoral, mining, vintage car/truck, local sewing craft, natural environment point of interest] and take a self guided stroll on the [pioneer pathway or heritage walk], with a commentary on flora, historic buildings and sometimes quirky white people.

The choice of language has also been telling (of what we’ve seen), as it is quite powerful, and probably deliberate in that:

  • All the histories shared in these small towns and pastoral property displays are histories told through white eyes.
  • Everything amazing apparently didn’t exist or have a name, until it was “discovered” by a white man. The positioning of white man as first ‘discovers’ is perpetuated, when clearly Aboriginal people have known about them, and had existing names, and relationships for thousands of years.  [for an interesting read on the doctrine of discovery I suggest parts of Celia Kemp’s recent publication]
  • The tone and tense used when writing about Aboriginal people is distant and historic. It gives a sense that Aboriginal people aren’t connected, almost that they aren’t here today, or any longer.

It would be great if there were more support for black and white community members to come together locally to integrate stories from the perspective of Aboriginal peoples into the stories Australian towns are sharing with the world.

There are so many rich stories that have already been told through the native title processes run in the last 20 years and the Stolen Children’s inquiry. With permission these could be heard again in local communities and woven into the fabric of the story being shared with visitors.

We are in no doubt, that first some truth telling is needed, as called for through the Uluru Statement from the Heart. And we aren’t just about talking about the stretched, little remote shires and communities; the leadership has to come from the State and other, bigger networks too.

The shame remains in the silence.   It is an incomplete story that is being told.  It would be far more compelling and richer; to tell some other stories too, the good and the bad. If supported to do so well, people and groups could come together to be brave.  Stories wouldn’t emerge overnight.  It would take time and stories might emerge slowly. Safe stories first, then challenging ones, then new ones, crafted together.

It was a small joy to have Boulia as our last stop in Queensland before heading over the NT border.  In Boulia there clearly remains an Aboriginal community (with the local Aboriginal corporation door’s open on the main street and many community members congregating for a morning cuppa) and the local historical museum had made an attempt to present a collection of Indigenous history – post colonisation.   It was a fractured story, a random collection rather than a curated, thoughtful one that might have happened if undertaken in partnership with Pitta Pitta people (or at least that is how it appeared, but was still far better and more informative than anywhere we’d visited)  We’re only spending a very short time in a town of course, searching for an experience, and wanting to acknowledge and learn a little of the story of first nations people.

We’re now visiting national parks that are jointly managed between Aboriginal people and Governments.  The experience of visiting Uluru has been so special, particularly because we also heard directly, from the Traditional Owners of this country, who were actively involved in managing the park and educating visitors.

23/8/2018, near Uluru, on country of Yankunytjatjara and Pitjantjatjara peoples.

By Jane Holden

To read more about Jane and Jen’s trip, check out their Camp Fire blog CLICK HERE

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