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Top Spots in Perth to Discover Western Australia's Indigenous Heritage

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by Carolyn Hopping (subscribe)
I'm a freelance writer based in Perth, Western Australia, who enjoys writing about the things I love: travel, nature-based activities, the arts, spirituality and creative, fun activities for children.
Published July 5th 2013
Celebrate the Culture of the First Australians
Although the early British explorers who colonised the Great Southern Land arrogantly declared it to be 'terra nullius', or 'land belonging to no one', the continent has in fact been the home of numerous groups of Indigenous people for tens of thousands years.

Kimberley rock art. This image is from Wikipedia Commons (by Whinging Pom).
Kimberley rock art. This image is from Wikipedia Commons (by Whinging Pom).

Due to its huge size, Western Australia is especially diverse culturally. From the Noongar people of Western Australia's south-west to the Bardi and other groups of the far north, and the Ngaanyatjarra people of the central desert country, it's fascinating to learn how each responded to the challenges of the natural environment to forge a unique way of life.

Here in the Perth area there are many ways that we can learn about the rich cultural heritage of the first people of Western Australia. The following are a selection of places we can visit, experiences we can participate in and performances we can enjoy in order to better appreciate some of the most ancient, complex and deeply spiritual cultures existing in the world today, and the immense struggles they've endured as a result of colonisation.

Art Gallery of Western Australia
Situated in the Perth Cultural precinct just metres from the Perth Railway Station, the Art Gallery of Western Australia houses an impressive collection of Indigenous Australian art, both traditional and contemporary, from around the state and beyond.

Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth Cultural Centre, Northbridge.
Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth Cultural Centre, Northbridge.

The spirituality of traditional Indigenous Australian culture is intimately expressed through the visual arts. Highly symbolic and therefore confidential to all but a select few, outsiders can still appreciate its beauty, complexity and the artists' heartfelt connection to country, their people and their spiritual heritage.

The gallery's collection of traditional art includes works from around Western Australia, as well as exquisite bark paintings from Arnhem Land and ornately decorated grave posts from the Tiwi Islands, situated off the coast of northern Australia.

The Art Gallery of Western Australia also houses a comprehensive collection of works by highly acclaimed artists including several by Rover Thomas, who lived and worked at Warnum in the Kimberly, and Emily Kame Kngwarreya, from Utopia in the central desert region. Many other contemporary artists utilise both traditional and Western media and techniques, while the work of others such as Gordon Bennett, Sandra Hill, Julie (Yaminga) Dowling and Sally Morgan serves as a powerful medium for social commentary.
To learn more about the art of Indigenous Australia and the Art Gallery of Western Australia's collection of Indigenous Australian art, take one of the free guided tours which leaves regularly from the gallery's foyer. To find out more, have a look at this webpage.

Western Australian Museum
For anyone who genuinely wants to understand Indigenous Australian culture and history from a Western Australian perspective, a visit to the Western Australian Museum is essential. Although there is valuable information throughout the museum, a special gallery called Katta Djinoong - First Peoples of Western Australia, has been constructed which provides visitors with an insight into the various cultures and language groups of this part of the country. It's an amazing place which gives visitors a glimpse into traditional ways of life prior to British colonisation as well as the shattered lives and cultures which resulted from such contact.

Western Australian Museum, Perth Cultural Centre, Northbridge
Western Australian Museum, Perth Cultural Centre, Northbridge

The topics which are covered in the gallery are many and diverse. Aspects of traditional culture that are introduced include social systems, the relationship between people and country, traditional forms of shelter, art, dance and bush food. Topics that relate to the lives of Indigenous people as a result of colonisation include accounts of horrific massacres, institutional control (both government and church), the stolen generations and the cultural alienation which resulted from the loss of ancestral lands. There are also displays recounting the lives of Yalgan and Jandamarra, early freedom fighters who, despite their ultimate defeat, bravely attempted to defend their people and country from invasion.

In a nutshell, the Katta Djnoong Gallery at the Western Australian Museum is a fascinating spot that will be appreciated by people of all ages. Even younger children will be intrigued by the life-sized displays of traditional mia-mias (shelters made from local vegetation) and an artificial cave adorned with rock art.

Kings Park
Kings Park is also a good place to learn about our local Indigenous heritage. Overlooking the Swan River, Mount Eliza, the park's highest point, was known by various names, including Mooro Katta and Kaarta Gar-up. These days, Kaarta Gar-up Lookout is situated at a prominent spot on the city side of Fraser Avenue and provides spectacular views over the river and the city. Below the lookout, the Aboriginal Art Gallery sells a wide selection of quality arts, crafts and other items made by artists from around Western Australia and the Northern Territory.

View from Kaarta Gar-up Lookout. This image is from Wikimedia Commons (by cardboardbird).
View from Kaarta Gar-up Lookout. This image is from Wikimedia Commons (by cardboardbird).

Kings Park's management is committed to honouring the indigenous heritage of the area, and this is reflected by the presence of many artworks in the park that have been created by local Noongar artists. You can learn more about these by following the Botanic Garden Art Trail. A tiered stone amphitheatre, Beedawong, designed by artist Richard Walley and landscape artists Plan E is also the venue for regular cultural programs such as traditional dance and storytelling. The Kings Park Festival, held every September, is an especially good time to catch a performance.

An immense diversity of flora and vegetation can be seen in Kings Park, all of which were utilised by the local Noongar people in various ways. To learn more, follow the Boodja Gnarning Walk which features interpretative signs explaining various cultural practices, how plants were used and traditional stories connected with particular sites. Go to this webpage to find out more.

For school groups wanting to learn about our local Indigenous heritage Kings Park Education also provides a range exciting educational programs that are suitable for students of all ages. Check out this webpage to learn more. Kings Park provides a wide selection of information brochures to enhance your visit, including several related to the area's Indigenous heritage. To download them, go to this webpage.

Walyunga National Park
Situated approximately 40 kilometres north-east of Perth in the Avon Valley, the Walyunga National Park is a place of great cultural significance to Aboriginal people, and contains one of the largest known campsites in the area. Although there are several walking trails in the park, the Aboriginal Heritage trail, an easy 1.2 kilometre track, is closely connected to the original inhabitants and contains interpretative signage. For more information, take a look at this website.

Yanchep National Park
Yanchep National Park also provides programs to teach visitors about our local Noongar culture. Wangi Mia, also known as the Aboriginal Experience program, is available on weekends and public holidays, and special presentations can also be organised for school and community groups. For more information, take a look at this website or call (08) 9405 0759.

This image is from the Department of Environment and Censervation website
This image is from the Department of Environment and Conservation website.

Manjaree Heritage Trail
An exploration of Fremantle's Indigenous heritage, the Manjaree Heritage Trail begins at Cantonment Hill (known to the land's original caretakers as Dwerda Weeardinup), and follows the river, passing the Round House and Bathers Beach, and ending near the corner of Marine Terrace and Cliff Street, where a 'Native School' used to be situated. Download this brochure for more information and a map.

Rottnest Island
While Rottnest Island is considered these days to be Perth's premier holiday resort, for thousands of years it was known to the Indigenous people of the region as Wadjemup. Following British colonisation, the island served as a prison for thousands of Aboriginal men from all around the Western Australia for almost a century (1838 - 1931, although it officially closed in 1904), many who died there, heartbroken, far from their homes and families. To learn more about this tragic period, a visit to the Rottnest Museum is recommended. A guided walking tour called History of the Island, which is escorted by volunteer guides is also run regularly, although some visitors feel that it doesn't focus enough on the hardships endured by the Aboriginal prisoners but more on their colonial captors. The Aboriginal Cemetery, where over 369 prisoners are buried, is located within the settlement area at Thomson Bay.

Yirra Yaakin Theatre Company
Translated from the Noongar language as 'standing tall', Yirra Yaakin is Australia's leading Indigenous theatre company, and is based at 65 Murray Street in the heart of Perth. In addition to their world-class performances, Yirra Yaakin is also a leader in community development throughout Western Australia, inspiring a wide range of cultural, developmental and educational programs. To find out more about their history, productions, upcoming workshops and other programs, take a look at the Yirra Yaakin website.

This image is from the Yirra Yaakin Theatre Company website
This image is from the Yirra Yaakin Theatre Company website

Urban Indigenous Tours
Whether you're a local or a visitor, a great way to learn more about the area's Indigenous culture is to join a tour operated by local Noongar people. Urban Indigenous Tours describe their business as 'the hip, urban Aboriginal trip', and their cool and knowledgeable guides escort tours around the Perth area, teaching participants about various aspects of Noongar culture. You'll get a didgeridoo lesson, take an Aboriginal art class, try some bush tucker, hear personal stories and much, much more. For more information check out their website.

This image is from the Urban Indigenous Tours website.
This image is from the Urban Indigenous Tours website.

Every year during the second week of July, NAIDOC week is held, showcasing and celebrating the diverse cultures and traditions of Australia's original peoples. The acronym NAIDOC stands for the National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee, and during this time hundreds of events are held around Australia, many of which are in Perth and include awards ceremonies, family days, exhibitions and performances. Go to this webpage to find out what's happening in 2013.
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Why? We can show our appreciation and respect for Indigenous Australian culture by learning more about it.
When: Throughout the year.
Where: At various places around Perth.
Cost: It varies.
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