Indigenous history and tourism in Australia: The dark side of our past

Juan Walker shades his eyes from the glare of the Queensland sun as he looks out over Kuku Yalanji country, his country, his ancestors' country. He sweeps his arm across the vista of Four Mile Beach, the lowlands where Port Douglas spreads, out to the hills in the far distance.

This is where his people are from, he says. Out to the mountains there. And then his voice barely changes pitch as he continues: this is where the white bounty hunters would roam. This is where they would hunt and kill the Kuku Yalanji people and carry their heads back to town to exchange for money.

They did this, Walker says, into the 20th century. Not so long ago. They killed Indigenous people for sport around here – for reward – up until the time his grandparents and so many others were dragged out and sent to a mission where they were forced to give up their spiritual beliefs and train to become servants for white people.

Juan Walker works as a tour guide now, at Walkabout Cultural Adventures (his last name, incidentally, comes from the family his grandfather went to work for. That naming convention ring any bells?). He takes tourists out in Kuku Yalanji country, around Port Douglas. He takes them crab catching and food gathering and swimming in waterholes. And he tells them the truth.

"It's about sharing part of our history," Walker explains. "The main reason I like to talk about that sort of stuff is, it makes me who I am, it defines my family structure and the way I think. It makes us who we are.

"And you know, those family stories, we were told those same stories, not to make us bitter or anything, but to give us an understanding of what our family had to deal with, how we've overcome all of those bad things, how we use those hard times to be able to move forward."

This week is NAIDOC Week, a celebration of culture and achievement for Indigenous Australians, and a time for the non-Indigenous to consider their relationship with Australia's traditional owners. It's also a time to learn the truth of our history and to acknowledge that truth, no matter how disturbing it might be.

For travellers, accessing those stories is actually relatively easy. Just book yourself an experience with a local Indigenous guide on your next holiday. Those guides are not just there to tell you Dreamtime stories and pass on ancient bush-tucker knowledge, though in all likelihood they will do that. They're there – if you ask the right questions – to talk about the true horror of the last 250 years.

"It's not really about making [people] feel sorry for us," Walker says. "It's more about education, making sure people understand our side of the story. The more openly we talk about these things, the better off everyone is in the end.

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"And that's what it's about, being able to create those conversations, even though sometimes they might be difficult issues to talk about. But I believe they need to be talked about to move forward."

Scratch the surface in any part of Australia, including popular tourist destinations, and you're bound to hear horror stories. Gorgeous Rottnest Island, for example, is a former Indigenous prison – a little like South Africa's Robben Island – an appalling place where 370 inmates died in custody before it was eventually closed in 1931. Over in beautiful Gippsland, an idyllic weekend getaway for Victorian city-dwellers, about 450 Indigenous people were hunted down and killed by settlers and police over just a decade, beginning in 1840.

"I think if you sit down and have a good one-on-one chat with Murris, or most Aboriginal people around Australia, they will give you the history, if you're willing to listen to it," Walker says. "I'm lucky, I get a captive market. People are with me and they're here to learn about it. So I'm able to educate people. But if you're having a chat with a Murri, you need to be proactive, you need to bring those things up and be willing to hear some pretty horrific things."

And that's the key point. The big question. Can you handle the truth? Are you ready for this? Do you want to spend part of your next hard-earned holiday hearing about the shocking brutality inflicted on Australia's Indigenous population by people you might even be distantly related to?

In my opinion, you should. This is no different to many of the experiences you've probably already had overseas. Many of us have visited a former concentration camp in Germany or Poland and heard the truth there. You might have been to the Killing Fields in Cambodia, or visited Tiananmen Square in China, been to a dawn service in Gallipoli or even walked the Kokoda Track in PNG. We're always up for hearing about history, shocking as it may be, when we're overseas.

So why not Australia's history? Its real history. The truth. Now is as good a time as any.

Do you think it's important for Australian travellers to learn from traditional owners? What are the best Indigenous tourism experiences you've had here? And what do you plan to try next?

Email: b.groundwater@traveller.com.au

Instagram: instagram.com/bengroundwater

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