People living in a village comprised of rows of small shacks. Children playing on dusty roads. Elders conversing around a fire.
I had expected to see these images this past summer when I had the opportunity to visit an Aboriginal cultural center in Australia. I was traveling with an adventure, conservation travel group, International Student Volunteers.
After reading a book about Aboriginal song lines, I became extremely excited for our group’s scheduled visit to the Aboriginal center in Cairns.
Song lines are the Aboriginals’ story of creation; sacred paths that their ancestors walked on to ‘sing’ everything into existence. While at the Aboriginal center, I planned to ask questions and leave with a better knowledge of Aboriginal culture.
Unfortunately, I had thought that this cultural center would be an actual reservation where Aborigines lived and worked. Because we were a special international volunteer group, I assumed we would be seeing their way of life through an exclusive visit that wasn’t open publicly.
In the end, I was extremely disappointed. My idealistic expectations were crushed by the realization that this cultural center was nothing more than an amusement park, something as touristy as the Sydney Aquarium.
It didn’t hit me at first. We watched a movie about Aboriginals’ creation beliefs. The presentation was a unique mixture of song, movie and 3-D animation.
After the presentation we walked to an outdoor stage where Aboriginal dances were performed to the sounds of the didgeridoo, an Aboriginal instrument made from branches of gum trees that have been hollowed out by termites.
The Aboriginal performers handpicked audience members to try to make fire by rubbing a stick. Then the Aboriginal dancers started to sing a song reminiscent of pop music. Yes, that’s right, a pop song (which was on sale in the souvenir shop).
And that’s when it hit me: this ‘cultural center’ was full of as much original, honest culture as Disney World’s Epcot.
I felt idiotic for thinking that this experience would be a true view into an ancient culture. In fact, I felt betrayed. Instead of experiencing their world, I was being shuffled into a gift shop filled with overpriced boomerangs claimed to be painted by hand, despite looking exactly alike.
Not only had I been duped, but the Aboriginal actors had also contributed to it. They were marketing their personal and sacred livelihood as a purchasable family fun-pack. It was hard to see the validity of the culture behind the touristy facade.
The experience was as unlikely to stick in someone’s head as would a day spent at Dutch Wonderland. And young kids, who could have had an educational, interactive experience, instead ended up with an uninformative and insipid presentation.
In the end, my experience at the Aboriginal culture center left me embarrassed for Aboriginals and ashamed of white commercialization that is forced on other cultures.
The degradation of indigenous peoples’ heritage is not the correct way to raise awareness about their history.
Yet, it certainly seems that the commercialization of traditions and customs is the only way for other cultures to gain acceptance in today’s world.
Other cultures have the right to exist alongside the commercialization of capitalism. Instead of relying on tourism, they should raise awareness and money in other ways. By promoting their cultural history through museums and documentaries while remaining dignified, real cultural sensitivity would follow. I left the Aboriginal culture center with a loss of respect.
Being able to respect other cultures is the first step in the movement to make the world understand them better.
Morgan Ashenfelter can be reached at email@example.com.