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  • Writer's pictureJL Nash

Tjapukai - Cultural Reclamation in Australia

An ‘unforgettable Indigenous experience’ is what the website says when you are ready to book your aboriginal trip at the Tjapukai Aboriginal Park. No, it’s not a theme park of first nations people, it’s a cultural centre where you can learn about Australian Indigenous culture.  Now that phrase for many people will pose a problem. How can there be one indigenous culture when there were over 360 different tribes with more than 360 languages (pidgin and creole being added to them). For example, the word for kangaroo in one tribe was completely different for another tribe. 

The main unifying factor today, is the English language. There technically is no single indigenous culture in Australia. The missionaries and the persecution of the indigenous cultures attempted to wipe out their languages and in doing so, their cultural identities. Indeed they were not considered to be equal humans for many years.  The indigenous population of Australia only got the vote in 1962 and it took until 1965 before the final state, Queensland, allowed it. The only caveat was if they had been service men or women then they were allowed to vote starting in 1949. Through time, in certain areas, men had been allowed to vote but from 1859, they were excluded.  When you remove rights from a people, you remove their humanity and in such disregard and through the stolen generations, the various cultures diminished or disappeared.

The “stolen generations” refers to children of aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders, who were removed from their families by the Australian government and missions. In some states, up until the 1970s, some mixed race children were still being removed! The Australia government’s estimation is that approximately between one in ten and one in three were being forcibly taken from their communities and families in the years between 1910 and 1970. This shocks me — when I was born, it was happening — and I am only 50 now.

The stolen generations is too large a topic to cover here but the upshot was the loss of culture. Sure, the indigenous received a western education, but to what end? No families and no connections with the land, their language, their rituals, their culture. Add to that few human rights and you have a displaced people who have not been raised in their own history.

What is Tjapukai about? It is some Disneyesque whitewashed version, a sight-seeing tour of our first nations? No. It is a centre where local indigenous artists and clothes designers can sell their work. It is a place where you can taste traditional food like kangaroo, crocodile and emu.  It is a place of harmony and education of the new approximation of culture. Like the first nations of the United States, it has been prudent for the tribes to come together and depending on which region you are from, will be delivered the most common practices through the tribal mix.  One tribe might have made belts using human hair, another with leather,  both are demonstrated here.  The singing at the fire lighting ceremony might be from one tribe, the playing of the didgeridoo from another.  There is a new culture and it is a first nations culture. It is what they have salvaged from the ravages of their history. This is a melting pot of indigenous culture and within it, a single modern version is emerging. A reinvention of self in order to protect and preserve the ancient ways.

I attended the Tjapukai (CHA-PU-K-EYE) night ceremony last week.  At first we were served canapés and sparkling wine. I dreaded the evening — was it going to be a western experience? I needn’t have worried. The first talk was about didgeridoos and how they are made, resulting in a demonstration. It was both funny and informative.  After that we were escorted down to a fire pit outside in the darkness, where fire sticks were used to light a fire, from which a lit spear was thrown into the distance, causing a huge fire flame to emerge from beyond the river — a spectacular scene enhanced by our using clapping sticks ( a musical instrument) and learning how to sing two songs, one for the fire to be lit and the other signifying the fire had been lit. We learned about how aborigines were defined as water or earth people, earth people being only allowed to marry water people, keeping the gene pool as healthy as possible. One of the first nations cast smudged earthen ochre stripes upon my cheeks, and in that moment I realised the enormity of what I was doing. I was entering into a world of secrets. Once these rituals would have been hidden from white men and women and would have been ‘black fella’ business, but now, we can share.  I felt humbled in this still, tourist environment and proud to have taken the time to learn a bit more.

After the fire ceremony, we ate at a sumptuous buffet, and as well as traditional food like damper (Australian bread made inside a pot over the fire), kangaroo and crocodile was on offer and unusually for this vegan, my curiosity got the better of me and I tried both meats.  The kangaroo was a strong but succulent meat, with a game flavour (in delicious gravy) and the crocodile ribs were the texture of fine chicken without much taste at all.  Fresh local fruit was served up as dessert.

Sitting at our tables, we were beside a rudimentary stage. The cast from the fire ceremony performance joined us once after we had finished eating, this time singing, playing the didgeridoo and explaining the meaning of difference movements in indigenous dance. Once again — what we saw is part of the new culture, a mixture of many tribes — but therein lies their strength. What I took away with me is part of a new identity  created from the old.

Apart from recommending this outing if you are ever in Cairns, Queensland, Australia, I wanted to bring to your attention not only the fallout of apartheid in Australia but also the hope for the future.  The cast members were all under 40. A testament to a new attitude.

Photos is courtesy of Tjapukai

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