Many travellers to Australia are interested in the indigenous peoples of the country.
Australia had been home to many indigenous ethnic groups prior to the arrival of the British. Much like their counterparts in the Americas, their numbers have been greatly reduced today, with many having been wiped out by European settlers either through diseases brought to Australia by the settlers, military conquests, genocides or other reasons.
The indigenous Australian people are officially known by the Australian government as Indigenous Australians, and have also been officially divided into two groupings; the Aboriginal people of mainland Australia and Tasmania, and the Torres Strait Islanders from the Torres Strait Islands located between Far North Queensland and Papua New Guinea.
The term "Aborigines" was common from the start of colonisation to the late 20th century, but is now deprecated in favour of the terms above. It is now considered to be a racist slur and should be avoided.
Each state and territory of Australia has important indigenous heritage museums, events, activities, as well as shops with indigenous arts and crafts.
Each state has organisations that coordinate promotion of Aboriginal/Indigenous tourism.
- In New South Wales, it is the NSW Aboriginal Tourism Operators Council
- In Western Australia, it is the Western Australian Indigenous Tourism Operators Council.
Australian Aboriginal people are related to the Melanesians who are a majority in New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, the Torres Strait Islands and Maluku in Indonesia, and a minority in some other regions. The two groups are thought to have arrived as parts of one migration around 50 to 60 thousand years BCE.
The last group of Indigenous Australians living in their traditional lifestyle was the Pintupi Nine in the Gibson Desert in Western Australia in 1984. However, there have been reports of one in the Great Victoria Desert in 1986, which is fairly recent.
- Dancing With Strangers, Inga Clendinnen, 2003. Australian historian Clendinnen presents her reading of a wide range of primary sources from the 18th century describing early interactions between indigenous Australians and invading British colonisers. She illustrates very early days of genuine curiosity and attempts at cultural understanding eventually soured and thwarted.
- The Battle of Parramatta: 21 to 22 March 1797, Johnathan Lim, 2016. Based on a true story, it shown the perseverance of Pemulwuy in the 1790s, having escaped 3 times, with all being successful and dared to rebel against white European settlers, haunts the story of the early European colonisation of Sydney.
There are a large range of places all around Australia that have sites that reflect the full array of the indigenous experience of the last two hundred years. In each state there are museums, galleries and places where the richness of the culture can be found.
There are also sites of ancient rock art and stories that go back thousands of years, there are places where you can see living expressions of indigenous art and culture, and everything between. The time of the British presence in Australia is very short in comparison to the time of the indigenous population’s presence on the continent. It is well worth looking at the places that have records of the presence.
- 1 Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve. Canberra's most prominent nature reserve that contains a 25,000-year-old rock shelter, which happens to be the world's oldest inhabited rock shelter. Access to the shelter is rather easy, and only requires you to walk a few kilometres.
- 2 Wreck Bay Village. A small indigenous coastal fishing village.
- 3 Brewarrina Aboriginal Fish Traps (Baiame's Ngunnhu). These heritage-registered Aboriginal fish traps are believed to be about 40000 years old, which would make them the oldest human construction existing today.
- 4 Finchley Aboriginal Area, Big Yengo. A traditionally significant area for the local Aboriginal community. Now offers a stunning lookout as well.
- 5 Mungo National Park, Mungo. Inside the national park is Lake Mungo, now a dry lake, which contains the archaeological remains of three Mungo people. Dated to over 42,000 years old, they are the oldest human remains in the Australian continent.
- 6 Myall Creek (24 km northeast of Bingara). On 10 June 1838, 28 unarmed Wirrayaraay people were massacred by 11 unprovoked, white men. Although massacres against Aboriginal people were common since the British arrived in 1787, Myall Creek was the first time when it was reported and investigated by the authorities, with 7 of the murderers who received a guilty verdict and were executed. The vast majority of massacres after Myall Creek had still not been reported. A bronze plaque and heritage-listed memorial site now stand on the site of the massacre.
- 7 Mount Grenfell Historic Site. Ngiyampaa rock art in the Outback region of NSW.
- 8 Mutawintji National Park.
- 9 Blue Mountains National Park. See the red hands from the Goodungurra and Dharug people of the now called Blue Mountains along with the sacred Three Sisters. The indigenous people believed there were three sisters who their brothers went to war and protected them to keep them safe. However, the brothers never came back from war and so they permanently remained in stone.
- 10 Tibooburra. Contains a 'Keeping Place' museum with indigenous tools and artefacts found across the Aboriginal country and home to the Karrengapa people.
- 11 Worimi Conservation Lands (includes Worimi National Park). Home to the largest sand dunes in the Southern Hemisphere, these lands have plenty of cultural artifacts and you can experience them on tours.
- 12 Australian Museum, 6 College Street, Sydney, ☏ . Daily 9:30AM-5PM except 25 December. The Australian Museum has an Indigenous Australia gallery. It is also involved in helping indigenous communities preserve cultural artefacts throughout New South Wales. $12 adult, $6 child, family admission and concessions available.
- 13 Museum of Sydney, Corner Phillip and Bridge Streets, Sydney, ☏ . Th-Su 10AM-5PM. The Museum of Sydney has an exhibition focussing on the Cadigal people of Sydney including artefacts, paintings, film and soundscapes. $15 adults, children and concessions $12.
- 14 Art Gallery of New South Wales, Art Gallery Road, The Domain, Sydney, ☏ , fax: , firstname.lastname@example.org. Daily 10AM-5PM, except 25 December and Good Friday. The Art Gallery of NSW has a permanent collection of indigenous art, rotated through the Yiribana Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Gallery.
- Rock Carvings, can be seen in 15 Royal National Park - catch the train and ferry to Cronulla and Bundeena. There are extensive carvings in 16 Kuringai Chase National Park, near West Head that are accessible only by car. Closer to the city, there are examples at Balls Head and Berry Island, near to Wollstonecraft station. There is an interpretive walk at Berry Island.
- 17 Devils Marbles Conservation Reserve (Karlu Karlu) (105 km south of Tennant Creek). A collection of huge red boulders sacred to four Aboriginal groups of the Barkly Tableland and formed over millions of years.
- 18 Ewaninga Conservation Reserve. The reserve is a claypan, a natural storage of water even after light rain, which attracts flora and fauna to the area. Rock art was imprinted into the soft sandstone by the Arrente people, the precise age of which is not known. What makes the art stand out is its recurrent circular motifs.
- 19 Kakadu National Park. Home to the Bininj people in the north and the Mungguy people in the south, Kakudu contains rock art before and during the last ice age, showing a unique perspective on life in northern Australia at the time.
- 20 Tiwi Islands. Islands off the Northern Territory mainland where the majority of inhabitants are Tiwi people. The Tiwis traded with Macassan voyagers from present-day Indonesia for hundreds of years before the British arrived. Tiwi culture is fairly different from mainland Aboriginal culture, including neighbouring Arnhem land. For example, Tiwi art is considered to be more abstract, colourful and geometric. Wood carvings of birds is an important artistic tradition on the islands.
- 21 Uluṟu-Kata Tjuṯa National Park. The heart of Australia's Red Centre and Australia itself. A part of the nation where indigenous culture continues to thrive and where the sacred Uluru (Ayer’s Rock) monolith stands.
- 22 Cooya Beach (15 mins north of Port Douglas). The Kuku Yalanji people traditionally spearfished by the coast and gathered native bush plants from the neraby mangroves and mudflats. There now provide interactive tours showing their way of life.
- 23 Ngarrabullgan (Mount Mulligan) (100km west of Cairns). A large tabletop mountain bounded by high cliffs, Ngarrabullgan is about ten times the size of Uluru, which runs for about 18 km along the northern Queensland landscape. It lies at the heart of the Djungan nation, whose traditional owners describe the mountain as a sacred and dangerous place inhabited by the evil spirit Eekoo, a figure in the Dreaming story, who is said to cause sickness.
- 24 Mount Cooroy, Cooroy. Spiritual mountain peak in the Noosa Hinterland, once known to Kabi peoples as Kuribigilba, meaning the place where the Sun God came down to Earth (Dhar). The legend believes that the mountain turned yellow during the year, most likely due to the flowering of an unknown endemic species, particularly the Grevillea robusta.
- 25 Torres Strait Islands. A part of Australia where indigenous people are still the majority. Torres Strait Islanders are ethnically Melanesian and are more closely related to Papuans to their north than to Aboriginal Australians who are native to the rest of the country. Some Torres Strait Islanders were also engaged in agriculture since precolonial times, another way in which they are distinct.
- 26 Ikara-Flinders Ranges National Park. Go on the Arkaroo Rock hike and see the ochre and charcoal rock paintings within the rock shelter. The Wilpena Pound is also another sacred site, which is a natural large amphitheatre.
- 27 The Coorong (Coorong National Park). Its name is a corruption of a word in the indigenous Ngarrindjeri language by British settlers that means "long neck". Today, the local Ngarrindjeri people run a cultural centre where visitors can go on bush tours and learn about their origin stories, as well as their relationship with their land.
- 28 Bay of Fires. The area has many impressively large shell and bone middens that grew from the local Palawa people eating seafood over thousands of years here.
- 29 Kutikina Cave, Franklin-Gordon Wild Rivers National Park. The cave is archeogically rich, with over 30,000 stone artefacts and 200,000 bone fragments have been discovered with much of it still not excavated. The tools found include knives, scrapers and hammers and were made from quartz, quartzite and Darwin glass.
- 30 Budj Bim. The earliest evidence of aquaculture in the world is found here. As early as 6000 BC, the Gunditjmara people created a system of channels, dams and weirs trapping eels and fish. The eels were smoked and preserved and were eaten all year around.
- 31 Grampians National Park. The Grampians contains over 80% of all Aboriginal rock art found in Victoria. The rock art is primarily found in five shelters: Bunjul, Manja, Billimina, Ngamadjidj and Gulgurn Manja .
- 32 Mount William Stone Axe Quarry, near Lancefield. This greenstone quarry contains over 200 mining pits, some up to 18 metres deep, over 30 flaking pits and many mounds of rocky debris. It was an important source of raw material for the production of stone hatchets which were then traded across the southeastern region.
- 33 Wurdi Youang. An Aboriginal stone arrangement forming an egg-like shape from above. About twice as old as Stonehenge, the site is one of the oldest prehistoric astronomical observatories in the world, accurately measuring the setting and rising of the sun during the equinoxes and solstices.
- 34 Abrakurrie Cave (48 km NW of Eucla). Holds the deepest penetration of Aboriginal art of any cave system in Australia.
- 35 Murujuga National Park (Burrup Peninsula). What was an island and is now an artificial peninsula is estimated to have the largest collection of rock art in the world, with up to 1,000,000 individual petroglyphs.
- 36 Parnngurr. On the edge of the Great Sandy Desert and is a remote Aboriginal community inhabited by the Marta peoples. It sits within the Karlamiyli National Park.
- Bangarra Dance Theatre, Pier 4/5 Hickson Road, Walsh Bay, Sydney, ☏ , fax: , email@example.com. The Bangarra Dance Theatre combines indigenous history and culture with contemporary dance. They tour Australia-wide.
- 26 January, the anniversary of the invasion of the First Fleet, and commemorated officially as Australia Day, is marked by indigenous Australians as Invasion Day, a day of political action, or Survival Day, marked with concerts and community events celebrating the survival of the indigenous peoples. In more recent times, the term "Invasion Day" is being marked by more and more non-indigenous Australians.
- The National Aboriginal and Islander Day Observance Committee has a week of events in the Australian winter each year.
In all of the capital cities and towns with significant Aboriginal populations (such as Cairns or Alice Springs), there are plenty of workshops and lessons where you can immerse yourself in indigenous culture.
- Boomerang throwing is a popular skill that many tourists want to acquire. If you want to learn throwing a boomerang that comes back to your hand, make sure you have a suitable boomerang for returning. Most boomerangs available in Australia are in fact non-returning. It is best for beginners to not try throwing in windy weather. It will be hard to make progress and build confidence. You can also learn how to throw hunting boomerangs that move in a straight line. Similarly, spear throwing lessons are available across the country.
- Didgeridoo lessons are as common throughout the country. Learning how to play the didgeridoo is not easy and it can take a long time to truly master the instrument. You will need to have strong lungs and learn the art of circular breathing. Despite that, there are many lessons suitable for novices that teach the fundamentals, which are more than useful. Note that it is disrespectful for women to even touch a didgeridoo due to its long and sacred history. However, most places don't allow women to have didgeridoo lessons due to many cultural reasons.
- The practice of fire-stick farming, used by Indigenous groups to change the composition of flora and fauna, control weeds, reduce hazards and increase biodiversity, is taught in interactive cultural tours, particularly in the Top End.
Aboriginal arts and crafts are among the most sought-after souvenirs when overseas tourists visit Australia.
There has been a rise in fake or inauthentic Aboriginal artwork, that is, products that claim to be made by Aboriginal Australians but were not, or where the design of a particular product was not licensed to be reproduced. One way to make sure what you are buying is genuine is to look for the Indigenous Art Code logo. Not only does the logo signify that the product is authentic but that the artists have been fairly paid too.
- See also: Bush tucker
The food and cuisine of Aboriginal Australians, and for that matter any dish made from native Australian ingredients is known as bush tucker. Unlike the foods eaten by many of the pre-Columbian peoples of the Americas, the European colonisers were not too keen on the foods encountered in Australia and did not attempt to grow most of them on a commercial scale. The one exception is the macadamia nut which spread to Hawaii in the 1880s and is now famous the world over.
Meats include kangaroo, crocodile, emu, goanna and witchetty grubs. The seafood Indigenous Australians particularly on the coast ate was diverse and comprised barramundi fish, catfish, mud crabs, angasi oysters along with many other fish and crustaceans. Plant foods range from the quandong and riberry fruits to the warrigal greens leafy vegetable. Lemon myrtle is a spice that has become popularly used in teas. The traditional diets of some Aboriginal ethnic groups may include endangered species, the consumption of which is strictly limited to those specific groups using only traditional hunting methods, and unlikely to be available to you.
The Indigenous Australian bread making tradition is among the oldest in the world. Breads are made by grinding seeds, roots and corms. The precise ingredients and methods used vary by group and location. Certain seeds had to be leached of their toxins before it was made into dough and cooked over an open fire.
In many fine dining restaurants, many chefs are incorporating more indigenous ingredients into their dishes in what is known as "Modern Australian" cuisine.
The best way for a traveller to contribute to the well being and dignity of the people is to support indigenous-run tourism and cultural ventures and to treat individual indigenous people with respect.
Indigenous Australia is a complex group of living, continuing cultures: it is important to understand many aboriginal sites are not museum pieces arranged for the benefit of curious travellers. When visiting sacred sites or fragile ecosystems of cultural significance, many indigenous communities prefer that visitors arrange their trips through formal community programmes or indigenous organisations.
Some communities, townships and protest sites can also be places where issues are fragile and current and can be problematic with a range of issues occurring. Understanding that some locations might best not be part of a travel itinerary is well worth researching before travelling to them.
There are two flags representing Indigenous Australians; one representing the Aboriginal People, and the other representing the Torres Strait Islanders. Aboriginal athlete Cathy Freeman famously did her lap of honour carrying both the Australian and Aboriginal flags after winning the gold medal in the women's 400m event at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
Some sites may not look sacred, but they are sacred for many Indigenous Australians – do not take photos of sacred sites. In particular, don't take photos of sites that are depicting rock art of a human.
Until January 2022, the Aboriginal flag was under a strict copyright, and it was unavailable for most uses. However, in January 2022, the federal government bought the flag at a cost of $20 million, making it free for public use.
Indigenous Australians is the official blanket term used to cover all people indigenous to Australia. Aboriginal people is generally used to refer only to those indigenous to mainland Australia and Tasmania, while those indigenous to the Torres Strait Islands are regarded as a separate group called the Torres Strait Islanders, and do not identify as "Aboriginal" as they are more ethnically Melanesian. The term First Nations is increasing in use.
Avoid using the terms "Aborigine", "Abo", and "Noonga" to refer to indigenous Australians, as those terms are very derogatory and offensive.
It is important to understand the diversity of the indigenous communities. There are over 400 Aboriginal nations in Australia, with over two hundred different Aboriginal languages still spoken among them. Aboriginal people in Sydney are not the same nations as those in Dubbo.
In Tasmania, there are descendants of Aboriginal people who are serious about their indigenous roots. It is not correct to say the Tasmanian Aboriginal community no longer exists.
Each state has variation as to how the governments have related to the indigenous population; it is not just the peoples responses. States have differing levels of involvement in indigenous rights and heritage.
Due to a long history of oppression, indigenous Australians, as a whole, are disadvantaged relative to other Australians in many ways. Although they have been granted full citizenship rights on paper since 1971, many indigenous Australians are impacted by many problems arising from higher poverty rates, including higher rates of imprisonment, unemployment and drug abuse, as well as lower education levels, life expectancy and access to adequate sanitation and healthcare.
When travelling, you may encounter Aboriginal people asking for money or other items. This is called 'Humbug', and should be refused. If humbug is entertained, you only encourage the problem. However, this is becoming less of a problem now.
Rather than giving money to beggars, consider visiting an Aboriginal art centre (there are many around) and support those who are making a living, or if you can't access an art centre, consider giving to an Aboriginal charity, such as Conways Kids, a charity in Central Australia set up to ensure that cultural Aboriginal Children from remote communities have the same opportunities as youth from the rest of Australia.