Author: Dr. Yasmine Musharbash, senior lecturer in anthropology at the Australian National University. The focus of her ethnographic work has been on Warlpiri people living in Yuendumu, in the Northern Territory, Australia. Her interests include the anthropology of the everyday, human/other-than-human interactions, and the anthropology of emotion.
Editorial note: On July 15th 2019, an Australian politician made the insensitive statement to our national media that she “didn’t get” why tourists should be banned from climbing Uluru – which is one of Australia’s most iconic natural wonders – but more importantly, is a sacred site for the Anangu people. She argued that tourists have been climbing the rock “for years” and that to prevent this now would be akin to shutting down a beach “because a few people had drowned”. This post, from Dr. Yasmine Musharbash, aims to shed a little more light on the issue.
Uluru — that magnificent purple-red-orange glowing monolith in the red heart of Australia — is not just one of Australia’s most iconic landmarks, a top tourist destination, and a UNESCO World Heritage listed site. It is also an Aboriginal sacred site of monumental cultural significance, located on Pitjantjatjara country.
Uluru’s traditional owners, the Anangu people, have long ‘fought’ (in the most conciliatory, non-aggressive, patient, and tolerant ways imaginable) to stop tourists from climbing it. Traditionally, only certain men at certain times for certain reasons were allowed to climb it.
Apart from the explicit lack of respect displayed by ignoring these spiritual restrictions, traditional owners were also concerned about tourists climbing ‘the rock’ for two other reasons. The first reason relates to the risks of injury and death (since the 1950s, there have been 37 confirmed deaths). The other reason concerns the environmental impact of large numbers of people climbing (and relieving themselves) on the rock.
Campaigning against the climb
A decades-long campaign relying on education, pleading, negotiating, and more education will come to fruition on the 26th of October 2019, when the climb up Uluru will finally be closed to tourists. As the date comes nearer, ever-growing numbers of tourists flock to Uluru expressly to climb it “before it’s too late.” Domestic and international media report daily about hordes of tourists, illegal camping at the over-extended resort town, and mountains of illegally dumped waste.
It is easy to condemn “tourists” for their blatant contempt for the wishes of the Anangu traditional owners, for their ecological misconduct, and for their selfishness. Such a critique would take on national proportions when abstracted to the level of generality; of non-Indigenous people rushing for a last chance to disrespect Aboriginal laws, lore, and wishes in order to literally and figuratively ‘be on top’.
People in glass houses
But, to my mind, such easy judgement leaves behind a little bit of a bad taste. Is there not something too easy about it? These tourists rushing to ‘the rock’ to climb it while they can are like a cut-out version, an overdrawn stereotype, of a most unsubtle example of Australian “whiteness”. Judging them means being easy on ourselves.
After all, the crassness of their act veils less subtle examples of Australia-at-large; of what is done everywhere by non-Indigenous people every day.
These are tourists disrespecting the wishes of the traditional owners of a world heritage site. Yes, that is insensitive behaviour. But, what if we scale that down a bit and look at the local?
Engaging with Traditional Owners of land
Do you know who the Traditional Owners are where you live? Do you know their wishes? Their sacred sites? How to conduct yourself? Chances are that where you live, local Aboriginal sacred sites have been built upon, have been destroyed, have been turned into ANZAC war memorials, playgrounds, or ports.
Chances are many continue to exist and local Traditional Owners continue to have spiritual protocols; no women allowed near the top of that waterfall; no men allowed near the shore of that lake; no climbing of that hill, etc. Do you know any of these? And just in case you do, do you abide by them?
Perhaps, rather than throwing stones while in a glass house, it is time to examine why we like to judge overdrawn versions of ourselves. Or, we could go and talk to some local Traditional Owners and learn a little more about this place where we live.