Reinstating Aboriginal history and culture in the tourism landscape

A tree bearing a special scar made centuries ago may stand in the way of progress and who is to decide its fate? Should it be bulldozed to make way for a new road or preserved as a significant part of Aboriginal, and hence Australian, heritage?

USQ researchers have been documenting a journey of discovery, as an impassioned Aboriginal woman leads her community and her region through a process of cultural sharing, to preserve heritage, history and self.

Angelia Walsh of the Surat Aboriginal Corporation felt that she needed to capture the stories of Indigenous culture and history, before these stories were lost to younger generations. 

Cunnamulla Sandhills Aboriginal site.

Her joyful childhood memories of growing up on a camp on the edge of town were at times clouded by those fearful moments of hiding from the police who were known to take Aboriginal children from their families. These tales, both good and bad, are critical moments of time in Australia’s Aboriginal history since the arrival of the Europeans and Angelia felt the need to preserve not only her memories, but those of the Aboriginal people of Surat and in other towns in South-West Queensland.

Her plan developed into the idea of a tourist driving trail, where visitors could learn about Aboriginal history and culture through stories told by Aboriginal people. A drive trail would also create employment opportunities for Aboriginal people, and help the struggling economies of the towns.

The Surat Aboriginal Corporation commissioned the expertise of USQ’s heritage, anthropology and psychology researchers, to support the development of the South-West Indigenous Cultural Trail.

The Trail would be a way to reinstate an Aboriginal past that remains all but invisible in many places.

It would also serve to educate visitors and the generations of tomorrow, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous.

Understanding that each community has its own rich story to tell, the Trail project is a partnership between the Surat Aboriginal Corporation and USQ that supports Aboriginal people in St George, Surat, Roma, Mitchell, Charleville and Cunnamulla to tell the true history of those places.

Through a process of mutual discovery, the team enables Elders, youth and other community members to re-connect with their heritage and to share it with visitors and the wider community. There are clear potential benefits for the well-being of Aboriginal people and their communities.

How does USQ research help?

USQ’s work in communities gives Aboriginal people an opportunity to tell their story, and to know that they are contributing to restoring the place of Aboriginal people’s experience in the cultural and historical landscape.

Identifying connections between heritage and well-being will give Aboriginal people stronger ground on which to argue for the importance of preserving stories and places that are significant to them.

The impacts on Aboriginal well-being - of sharing stories, of acknowledgement of the past by the wider community and indeed by the researchers themselves - will, however, only emerge over time.

USQ researchers are setting up a framework to support future studies on these potential impacts as well as other longer term impacts such as improved economic and employment opportunities for Aboriginal people.

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Significant artefacts

A scarred tree like this one at Bungeworgorai Creek near Roma is an artefact of significance; a living record of the way Aboriginal people made canoes and bowls out of bark without threatening the tree’s survival. Visitors will be able to see these landscapes differently, through the stories of the Aboriginal people who were forced to live on the edge of town but who contribute so much to their communities. Expanding and enhancing the tourism experience is likely to lead to stronger local economies and more job opportunities for Aboriginal people.

Building connections 

The process of gathering stories has strengthened the relationship between USQ and Aboriginal communities in the South-West. Through respectful listening, and demonstrating a commitment to the future of each community, USQ has established a working relationship that will see USQ increasingly engaged with these communities and with research that matters to the community. Policy-makers will benefit from a greater understanding of the connections between engagement with cultural heritage and well-being. This could lead to more culturally appropriate ways of measuring social and emotional well-being for Indigenous people.

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Anthropology Assoc. Prof. Lara Lamb
Cultural heritage Dr Jane Palmer