More than a quarter of Northern Territory’s population are Aborigines, a far higher proportion than anywhere else in Australia, and half of the Territory is once again Aboriginal-owned land, returned following protracted land claims. As a tourist, however, meeting Aboriginal people and getting to know them can be difficult. Excepting the national parks, most Aboriginal land is out of bounds to visitors without a permit or invitation, and most communities and outstations, where the majority of Aboriginal people live, are remote even by Territory standards.
There’s a tendency for outsiders to think of “Aborigines” as a single mass of people, overlooking the fact that dozens of distinct indigenous groups have traditionally inhabited the NT region, many of them with very individual cultural beliefs and practices. But it’s true, sadly, that the most visible Aboriginal people in the main towns of Darwin and Alice Springs are those living rough on the streets, a sad sight that shows little signs of changing. Likewise, the extent of certain social problems – most apparently alcoholism – is unavoidable.
But while these issues might be real they’re far from all-defining, and for those interested in getting to the heart of the enigmatic Australian Outback and meeting indigenous Australians, the Territory provides an introduction to a land that’s sustained fascinating and complex cultures for at least forty thousand years. Some Aborigines have a new-found pride in their heritage and identity, demonstrated in superb museums, successful tourism projects, and a flowering of indigenous art, media, music and literature.
The most meaningful contact for the short-term visitor is likely to be from an indigenous tour guide, a knowledgeable non-Aboriginal guide, or – if you time things right – a visit to a cultural festival. Try to choose Aboriginal-owned tour providers, for example Northern Territory Indigenous Tours or Batji Tours. Keep in mind that most tours will only scrape the surface of a complex way of life – secrecy is one of the pillars that supports traditional society, so what you’ll probably learn is a watered-down version from people unable to give away some of the particulars of closely guarded “business”. But if you’re keen to learn about the meaning of the country for Aborigines, about languages, bushtucker, bush medicine and Dreamtime stories, these tours can be enriching.