'Alien Abductions', Kimberley Aboriginal Rock-Paintings, and the Speculation about Human Origins: On Some Investments in Cultural Tourism in the Northern Kimberley

By Redmond, Anthony | Australian Aboriginal Studies, Fall 2002 | Go to article overview

'Alien Abductions', Kimberley Aboriginal Rock-Paintings, and the Speculation about Human Origins: On Some Investments in Cultural Tourism in the Northern Kimberley


Redmond, Anthony, Australian Aboriginal Studies


Abstract: Controversy over the origins of the 'Bradshaw' or Gwion paintings of the northern Kimberley are considered in the context of the very pragmatic struggle over land, Indigenous Australian economic interests and the representations that are made of Aborigines in the media, the academy and the fledgling cultural tourism industry in the remote northwest of Western Australia. In regard to cultural tourism, some less conscious determinants of non-Indigenous fantasies about Aboriginal societies are identified as both stimulants to cultural tourism but also operating as constraining stereotypes.

The issue of cultural tourism in the northern Kimberley, Western Australia, became fraught during the 1990s. To a great degree, this is the result of the socioeconomic implications of the tourist trade itself. There is an ever-increasing desire amongst visitors to the region to experience something of the cultural world of the Indigenous peoples of the area. Indeed, it is exactly this desire that has brought many European and North American visitors to Australia in the first instance. (1) Many local cattle stations have been operating 'farm stay' tourist facilities (with or without licences) that, in addition to giving visitors a glimpse of the highly iconic Kimberley cattle industry at work, also capitalise on the presence of Indigenous peoples as 'local colour', as well as on the Indigenous cultural heritage sites located on the pastoral leases (WWWNT 2001:6928-9). This arena of cultural tourism, which for many years has operated largely as non-Indigenous owned businesses employing local Aborigines as paid-by-the day 'guides' for tourists, has lately become a site of hotly contested political and economic power between pastoral and Indigenous interests tourists (Schulz 1999). This contestation has thrown into stark relief some of the contradictions previously buried within the longstanding system of non-Indigenous patronage of Aboriginal communities located on these remote pastoral leases.

As Indigenous interests have moved towards establishing tourism operations under their own proprietorship, and indeed been encouraged by Commonwealth funding agencies (such as the Indigenous Small Business Fund) to achieve exactly this, the issue of ownership of cultural materials, narratives and the landscape itself has become highly salient. In this article, I look at one particular controversy that, on the face of it, has been cast as involving a simple contrast between Western epistemological practices, namely the 'scientific view', and Indigenous explanations of the origins of the world. In fact, a closer scrutiny reveals a very pragmatic battle over Indigenous cultural heritage values that the native title process has brought to a head in this particular region. At stake are not just personal reputations, theories of racial origin, questions of art history and aesthetics, and the question of Indigenous control over significant cultural sites and the public statements made about them. Also at stake is the 'serious money' invested in the tourism operations run from non-Indigenous owned pastoral leases. Indeed, some of these leases appear to have been purchased recently not just for their pastoral potential, which remains extremely low (ILC 1998: satellite map of pastoral potential of Kimberley Region), but also in order to control access to culturally significant places located within their boundaries with a view to their future tourism potential. It is not unusual now for leaseholders offering their properties for sale to try to capitalise on this potential by attempting to factor in cultural heritage values as part of the package being sold and thus raising the price being asked. Much to the dismay of local Indigenous peoples, this has sometimes succeeded in raising the price of pastoral leases in the region beyond the reach of Indigenous Land Corporation (ILC) buy-back programs for groups with traditional connections to the land. …

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