How do I start learning about Aboriginal culture?

There's so much to learn that it can feel overwhelming. Fear not! This guide helps you get started at just the right pace.

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Why is it important to learn about Aboriginal culture?

Exploring another culture opens you up to learn a different point of view, other solutions, new wisdom, and helps you to connect and have empathy. When you understand a bit about someone's culture it's much easier to relate to them.

Learning about Aboriginal culture specifically gives you an understanding of a vast history of this continent that history books and lessons struggle to capture or convey. It is also an opportunity to understand the damage invasion and colonisation did to Aboriginal culture.

When you know Aboriginal perspectives you can bring a greater understanding to your and other peoples' lives. Just think about the massive bushfires that devastate Australia time and again – if more authorities had and applied Aboriginal cultural knowledge, they might prepare the land differently.

Carla Rogers, a co-director of Evolve Communities, knows why we need to learn more about Aboriginal culture:

"A lot of people say, ‘Well, I wasn’t around 230 years ago, I didn’t do these things,’ but a lot of these things are still happening today. There’s the unofficial stolen generation and the ongoing discrimination that Aboriginal people still experience today. I witness racism, I witness prejudice and I witness the privilege and opportunities that I have as a non-Aboriginal person, and also the things I don’t have to think about." [1]

Maybe, when we bring light to the darker chapters of our history, we are surprised to discover that there is also beauty and wisdom where we expected to be only pain and despair.

And if you are Aboriginal yourself, you might find that there is not much knowledge passed down in your family because of the Stolen Generations and dispossession, and you want to supplement what you know with more.

Almost no Australians know anything about the Aboriginal civilisation because our educators, emboldened by historians, politicians and the clergy, have refused to mention it for 230 years. — Bruce Pascoe, Aboriginal writer and historian [2]

Where do I start?

When asked where the best place was to start becoming more engaged with Aboriginal issues, Aboriginal writer Tony Birch replied: "There’s no starting place, and no end. Just read, watch, look and listen to everything you can." [3]

Learning about Aboriginal culture is a little like setting up a new garden bed. First you need to clear the ground and pull out the weeds. Then you put new seeds into the ground, give them fertiliser and water them regularly.

And that's exactly what we are going to do!

Step 1: Clearing the weeds

Let's first become aware of some weeds that might get in the way of learning: stereotypes, myths and unconscious bias. They are tricky buggers and might have long, hardy roots.

Let's start with stereotypes and myths. You might have copied them unconsciously when you first heard (and believed) them. Many people carry them around and pass them on, spreading them literally like weed spreads. Let's look at two common ones.

Is there one 'Aboriginal culture'?

A very common misconception is that there is one Aboriginal culture and language. "What's the Aboriginal word for ...?" is a symptomatic question.

An important foundation of your new garden bed is to know that Aboriginal culture is very diverse. Before invasion there were about 250 different Aboriginal nations, each with their own language and dialects, cultural protocols, diet and customs.

Think of it: Australia is as large as Europe and has very different environments, from coastal to inland, from desert to rainforest. A boomerang is of little use in the rainforest, just as knowledge about crocodiles is in the desert.

Remember: There are many Aboriginal nations which are as diverse as a beautiful garden of flowers.

Aboriginal people have dark skin and live in the outback

This is a very noxious weed that grows everywhere! Just look at images used by the tourism industry: Aboriginal people are painted and dancing, are not named and shown in nature. It's hard to rip this one out.

Most Aboriginal people don't work for the tourist industry, are not painted and don't dance. They hold jobs like you and me and try to master their challenges just like we do too.

Statistically speaking, the largest number of Aboriginal people live in Western Sydney and not the outback. Proportionally (i.e. as a percentage of the population) you'll find the highest percentage lives in the Northern Territory.

As for their skin colour, remember diversity. Aboriginal people literally come in all colours, from very dark skin to fair skin. Why is this so? Because their ancestors mixed with other Australians as they fell in love across cultures, or, on a more dark note, when Aboriginal women were raped by British invaders and colonists.

It's not the colour of your skin that determines if you are Aboriginal, it is your ancestry and your own decision about how you identify.

Remember: The highest number of Aboriginal people live in cities and their skin colour is just as diverse as their culture.

Unconscious bias

Unconscious bias is almost like a weed that you can only see at night which makes it very hard to get rid of. It is very likely that you hold some bias that you are not award of, as 75% of Australians tested for unconscious bias hold a negative view of Aboriginal people. [4] This is not good as it can lead to widespread racism. Some call it "undercover racism". [5]

So what can you do to pull this one out? Be aware of how you think and talk about Aboriginal people is a good start. Search and read some positive stories to balance the mainly negative news the media wants to feed you.

Next steps

Before you wash your hands from all the weed-pulling, immerse yourself into a few more, so nothing grows where your new knowledge will sprout.

Homework: Clear more weeds! Read about even more myths and stereotypes you can put into the dumpster. Browse the list of Aboriginal people who are members of the Order of Australia and find out more about some of them.

Find out which Aboriginal language belongs to the area you live in: Go to the Gambay map of Australia’s first languages and search for your place of residence or work. Then click the language name to find out more. A different version of the map allows you to search for the Aboriginal name of that place.

Step 2: Putting in the seeds

Before you rip open the new bag of seeds there's an important step to take: Always read the label. Why? Because in our case we need to speak the same (respectful) language when we talk about Aboriginal culture – especially if you are talking to Aboriginal people later on.

Use the right words

As you read more articles and posts you'll notice different words and terms that people use to refer to Aboriginal people. Let's sort the good seeds from the poor ones.

Good seeds to use:

  • Aboriginal people. This is the most accepted term. I use it on this website in an inclusive way, meaning I include people from the Torres Strait. You can also use "Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people". Don't abbreviate it (that abbreviation has a bad rep).
  • Use the Aboriginal nation. Even better: Use the nation's name if you're talking about a specific group of people. You would say "I love Italian pasta" and not "I love European pasta", right? Then say "I met some Wiradjuri people" rather than "I met some Aboriginal people".

Poor seeds – don't use these:

  • "Indigenous people". This is used a lot, unfortunately, and I assume mainly because it nicely combines "Aboriginal" and "Torres Strait Islander" into one term. But many Aboriginal people don't like it. Let's respect that.
  • "Aborigine". This term was used by invaders and colonisers and thus got a bad taste to it. Some media are still using it today – please don't repeat their mistake.

Remember: By using the right terms you show your respect and demonstrate that you have already learned something.

Homework: There are many more words to steer clear of. Review the list of appropriate words so you can keep your seed bag clean. Especially if writing is your business.

Step 3: Let it grow

With what you know now you are already ahead of many Australians. Now it's time to water and grow what you've planted.

Aboriginal Culture Essentials

I've realised that many people have less time to read long-form and in-depth articles (i.e. much of the content I've written for this website!). That's why I've created a resource that has short chapters about the essential and important aspects of Aboriginal culture.

Consider getting a copy of the ebook Aboriginal Culture Essentials so you can nurture and expand what you learned here today. Don't worry about the infographics for now, just get the ebook. It comes with quizzes and fun activities so you won't be bored, I promise!

Get the ebook!

Aboriginal culture in a coffee cup

That's how I call my mini-course about Aboriginal culture. Shorter than the ebook it's a compact introduction into some of the important issues of Aboriginal history. It costs you around the price of a coffee, hence the title. Get it here.

Whatever you decide as your next step, don't forget to water your growing knowledge: Read, participate, ask, be open. There is so much to learn, and it is exciting!

Remember: Just like a garden is never finished, keep maintaining and extending your knowledge about Aboriginal culture.

Did I miss something? Do you have a pressing question to get started? Let me know!

Is it safe to show your support?

As you start to learn about Aboriginal culture you also might want to support their cause. But you might have concerns doing that, just as this subscriber of mine:

"I am totally in solidarity with Aboriginal people and would like to openly show people my support to their causes. But given the unfriendly reaction I've seen of some people against the Aboriginal cause, and the feeling I have that this topic is a bit of a taboo, I am concerned to show my support.

"I have only a few Australian friends and I don't know yet whether they also have sympathy for the Aboriginal people or not. I think my biggest concern is to be seen as criticising the wrongdoings of the first settlers and the government, which is not my aim."

Showing support for a minority in public can be scary and is definitely not for everyone. Quite a few Australians, especially older Caucasian males, carry underlying racism that sometimes only needs a scratch to surface.

My recommendation: If you have concerns to show your support in public or are not comfortable with it, choose indirect ways of support instead.

Indirect ways include buying Aboriginal books, movies and music, making donations, anonymously signing petitions, participating in official events (if you're shy choose those with large crowds, e.g. Australia Day), watching TED talks, participating in an organised tour (check also your local council program), subscribing to newsletters and more.

You don't need to wear the t-shirt yet. Leave that for a time when you feel confident to 'officially' support Aboriginal culture and its causes.

References

View article sources (5)

[1] 'In This Together', Evolve Communities, February 2020, www.evolves.com.au/in-this-together/, retrieved 29/2/2020
[2] 'Australia: Temper and Bias', Bruce Pascoe in: Meanjin Quarterly, Spring 2018, meanjin.com.au/essays/11312/, retrieved 21/2/2020
[3] 'Approaching Indigenous characters and culture', First Nations Australia Writers Network 23/11/2015, www.fnawn.com.au/approaching-indigenous-characters-and-culture/, retrieved 17/5/2020
[4] 'Three in four people hold negative view of Indigenous people', Australian National University, 9/6/2020, www.anu.edu.au/news/all-news/three-in-four-people-hold-negative-view-of-indigenous-people, retrieved 23/6/2020
[5] 'Without treaty, incoming senator can't feel part of 'Team Australia'', SMH 25/6/2020

Harvard citation

Korff, J 2020, How do I start learning about Aboriginal culture?, <https://creativespirits.info/how-do-i-start-learning-about-aboriginal-culture>, retrieved 11 August 2020

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