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‘More than a word’: practising reconciliation through Indigenous knowledge-sharing in tourism

People stand by the ocean
Bart Pigram, Yawuru owner/operator of Narlijia Experiences Broome, WA, out on Country with visitors. Bart Pigram, Author provided

We acknowledge the Bininj, Larrakia, Noongar, Ngarluma, Yindjibarndi and Yawuru peoples as the Traditional Owners of Country where this article, and our research, was conducted and written, and we pay our respects to Elders past and present.


In a reconciled Australia, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander rights, histories and cultures are recognised and valued as part of our shared national identity. In the 2021 State of Reconciliation in Australia report, Bundjalung woman Karen Mundine (CEO of Reconciliation Australia) says:

Reconciliation cannot just be about raising awareness and knowledge. The skills and knowledge gained should motivate us to ‘braver’ action.

The 2020 reconciliation barometer survey revealed we are at a tipping point in our nation’s reconciliation journey, with public support for reconciliation higher than ever. It is time to take tangible steps to walk together towards a more fair, equitable and sustainable nation.

However, many of us don’t quite know how. Too often, we are afraid of not “getting it right”, of not being able to do enough. We may feel paralysed, not knowing how to move forward. It may seem safer to not act at all.

Actual reconciliation is not a box-ticking exercise. It requires individuals and communities to have meaningful and shared visions of places and relationships.

To do this, we need to increase the visibility and recognition of Indigenous people as knowledge holders, as co-author Warumungu Luritja woman Dr Tracy Woodroffe explains:

My strength, and the strength of Indigenous people, is in who we are at the core. The core is our Indigenous knowledge. It is the foundation for our strength of character and our Indigenous perspectives are a uniting force.

Engaging in Indigenous tourism is one way to experience meaningful connections and hear stories of Indigenous perspectives. There are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander tourism operators across the country who are ready take visitors on a learning journey into the world’s oldest living culture.

How we can avoid “reconciliation paralysis”?

As Australia opens up, many people are taking the opportunity to “tour our own backyard”. In a time when we cannot travel overseas, many are rekindling their curiosity for local places. Who better to guide us than Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who have intimate knowledge of this country and of the cultures that have sustained it – and been sustained by it – over millennia?

Aboriginal tourism operators are keen to meet visitors and share their knowledge of their Country and its stories, as Ngarluma and Yindjibarndi man Clinton Walker (Ngurrangga Tours in Karratha, WA) says:

I got into tourism so that I could preserve this knowledge and pass it on and teach others about it so that future generations can enjoy it too.

Participating in Aboriginal tourism is an accessible and enjoyable option. There are many ways to get involved, including guided nature walks, four-wheel drive tag-along tours, cooking classes, visiting art galleries, and being entertained by storytelling under the stars, as Noongar woman Marissa Verma, (Bindi Bindi Dreaming in Perth) says:

Business is fun and can take you anywhere and everywhere. I love what I do!

We don’t even need to travel very far, as Njaki Njaki Nyoongar man Mick Hayden (Njaki Njaki Aboriginal Cultural Tours in Merredin, WA) says:

I want to try to get across to the locals, come and know a little bit about your own backyard before you go elsewhere.

Mick Hayden, Njaki Njaki Aboriginal Cultural Tours, Merredin, WA. Author provided

These activities are not mere entertainment. We argue they are precisely the types of actions required for us to experience reconciliation in practice.

It can take courage to leave our comfort zones and connect in this way, hence the theme for National Reconciliation Week 2021: “More than a word: Reconciliation takes action”.

“We are reconciliators”

Our recently published research “We are reconciliators”: When Indigenous tourism begins with agency shows how Aboriginal tourism operators from Western Australia and the Northern Territory have experience in three key elements of tourism: hosting, connecting and sharing.

Hosting is the act of creating culturally safe spaces for interactions between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. Connecting is the practice of establishing common ground with visitors. And sharing involves stories of culture, people and places.

These aspects of Indigenous tourism proceed from the agency, or self-determination, of operators, as Whadjuk Nyungar woman Kerry-Ann Winmar (Nyungar Tours in Perth) describes:

We want to share our own culture. We want to tell our own story our own way.

Showing up and supporting Aboriginal people and their businesses is a part of reconciling, as Yawuru man Bart Pigram (Narlijia Experiences in Broome, WA) says in a powerful call to action:

I believe that reconciliation – because it’s about people coming together – I believe that we need to do it. Politicians don’t need to do it and sign a paper, each and every one of us need to do it. This is our lifestyle. That’s why I said, ‘we are reconciliators’, because that’s how we get paid, by practising reconciliation, not by talking about it.

Learning and unlearning

However, it is important Indigenous Australians are not left to bear the responsibility for reconciling. Reconciliation must be a reciprocal process. It requires non-Indigenous Australians to learn about and reflect on the stories of Indigenous cultures and peoples, and of our shared Australian history.

It also requires taking responsibility for so-called “white ignorance” and unlearning prejudices which may not be easily seen.

We need to be mindful that National Reconciliation Week can be challenging for Indigenous Australians because of the mental strain of attention being called to how much change is still needed.

The required change is not only about shifting individual attitudes or biases — systemic change is also needed. This is the difficulty. When systems “work” for the non-Indigenous majority, there is an underlying reluctance towards change. This can be seen in the inertia in decolonising the Australian education system. However, there is a way forward.

Indigenous voices can change Australian education for the better

There is much to be gained by listening to Indigenous voices. Indigenous voices, and an Indigenous standpoint, provide an opportunity to consider perceived problems holistically by identifying inadequacies in systems.

Then we can focus on what change is required to meet the needs of people. We need to begin with education and developing our workforces to be confident in engaging and working with Indigenous people and communities.

Reconciliation is a two-way process. The Uluru Statement from the Heart calls on Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike to:

Walk with us in a movement of the Australian people for a better future.

Indigenous tourism operators are agents of reconciliation. They are showing us what reconciled interactions can look like. Through acting as educators and sharing their cultural, environmental and social knowledge and values with their visitors, they bring reconciliation into the present.

We are grateful to Aboriginal tourism operators Bart Pigram, Clinton Walker, Kerry-Ann Winmar, Marissa Verma, Mick Hayden and Roland Burrunali for sharing their stories with us. We appreciate their generosity in helping us to understand more about their Country and culture.

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