As an American, I knew virtually nothing about Australia’s Aboriginal heritage when ventured Down Under for the first time. I had seen photos of Aboriginal people growing up, but Australia was so far away from the United States that I didn’t pay much attention.

The images I had seen fed common stereotypes, as publications including National Geographic have acknowledged.

And, like in many modern societies – especially ones that were colonized during the Age of Exploration  – the stories of Indigenous peoples are often underrepresented.

From day one of my trip to the Kimberley, however, I was immersed in this history. The Kimberley region can’t be fully appreciated without understanding its Aboriginal heritage.

I had no expectations, but I certainly didn’t expect their story to be as familiar to me as it was.

Cape Leveque, Western Australia

The sacred cliffs of Cape Leveque, which are owned and preserved by the Indigenous Bardi Jawi Communities.

Aboriginal Australians and Native Americans

As I learned about the experience of Aboriginal populations in modern Australia, it occurred to me that I had heard this story before: It had many of the same plot points as Native American history since European colonization began in North America.

Americans of European descent (me included) tend to look back on our heritage fondly. We proudly say that our ancestors came from this country or that country back in 1664 or or 1725 or 1882, while overlooking the fact that our fond association comes at the expense of entire populations of people whose descendants look back on pain and suffering.

And some who don’t have descendants living today, because they were wiped off the map.

I’m not suggesting that people need to apologize for their ancestry, but it is important to learn the whole story. While we can’t turn back the clock, we can do our best to understand the forces at play and educate ourselves about the rich cultures that preceded our ancestors’ arrival.

The Sydney Morning Herald stated that “if Aboriginal culture were 24 hours old, then the First Fleet arrived just five minutes and four seconds ago.” Here’s a look at the people who have been around for the other 23 hours and 55 minutes.

A Bunuba guide leads a traditional smoking ceremony.

Our Bunuba guide, Emmanuel, educates us on a traditional smoking ceremony before entering Tunnel Creek.

Aboriginal Heritage in the Kimberley

The purpose of my trip to the Kimberley had nothing to do with learning about the region’s human history –  it was to be out in nature exploring the untouched outback wilderness.

It’s easy to overlook cultural heritage as we focus on hikes and views and getting the best Instagram photo.

But as Aboriginal guides showed us around the natural wonders I was so eager to see, I found myself listening to story after story with keen interest. I quickly became aware of how closely the land and its original inhabitants were entwined (something that seems obvious, but hadn’t crossed my mind).

The Kimberley region’s Aboriginal heritage is nothing short of remarkable.

For one, Aboriginal Australians are some of the oldest surviving civilizations on earth, having crossed over to what is now Australia around 65,000 years ago during a time when sea levels were much lower. It’s possible that Australia’s earliest inhabitants actually walked onto the continent via a land bridge connecting it to Papua New Guinea.

These societies have a level of sophistication with the land that can only be gained from thousands of years of living on it. I’ve shared some examples below.

Prescribed Burns

The Kimberley’s early inhabitants quickly learned that burning the land helped it rejuvenate and thrive. They practiced prescribed burning for tens of thousands of years before European settlers arrived.

A Kimberley controlled burn.

Recently-burned land regenerates with bright green spinifex grass.

With the onset of colonization in the northwest in the 19th and 20th centuries, landowners stopped the practice of burning the bush. This resulted in a buildup of vegetation that fueled catastrophic, uncontrolled wildfires late in the dry season each year. Indigenous fire management techniques have been reintroduced to create fire breaks and safeguard important habitats and ecosystems.

Believe it or not, these burns actually help preserve precious ecosystems, promote regrowth, and attract wildlife. A couple of notable examples:

  • Eucalyptus trees in this part of Australia have evolved to re-sprout following a fire. The bark on some trees is thicker and more fire-resistant at the base, and not at the top since controlled burns usually only affect the lower half of a mature tree.
  • Some of the first plants to appear following a fire, such as the wattle (acacia) tree, assist with overall plant regrowth by converting nitrogen released into the atmosphere from burned vegetation into a form suitable for other plants. The soil would be far less suitable for plant regrowth without the reintroduction of nitrogen.

Though somewhat counterintuitive, land management through prescribed burns also helps curb the effects of climate change.

Traditional Fishing Practices 

Aboriginal populations in the Kimberley’s coastal and inland areas cultivated sophisticated fishing methods that continue to be used to this day.

One example are handmade fish traps made of piled stones that take advantage of the region’s giant tides. Placed at low tide, fish are flow in with the surging water and get trapped when it recedes, making them easy to collect.

Looking out to sea from One Arm Point on the Dampier Peninsula.

Looking out to sea from One Arm Point, where Aboriginal guides Deborah and Kevin told us about their traditional land and fishing practices.

Another practice is to use crushed leaves from the freshwater mangrove to poison fish in water holes. The intoxicated fish float to the top belly-up, creating a low-effort catch for the fishermen.

My jaw dropped when I first heard about using mangrove pulp to poison fish. I’ve gone fishing twice in my life and have never caught anything. This tactic would have made me a guaranteed success!

Using Nature’s Rhythms to Harvest Crocodile Eggs

I was told a remarkable story along the way about how some Aboriginal populations would harvest freshwater crocodile eggs. It exemplifies their highly-attuned observations of the intricate workings of their traditional lands.

There is a small tree that grows in the Northern Territory, Brachychiton megaphyllus, which has characteristic red flowers that transition to seed pods during the dry season. Aboriginal people took notice somewhere down the line that the reproductive cycles of freshwater crocodiles mirrored the growth of the flowers and seed pods on the tree.

The crocs would lay their eggs at the same time the flowers would appear on the trees each year with a high degree of reliability, even if weather conditions accelerated or delayed the flowering in a given year. Nature’s clock is never wrong.

Aboriginal Rock Art in the Kimberley

Australia’s Aboriginal populations have been creating complex and distinctive rock art for thousands of years. Some of the finest examples can be found in the Kimberley.

An ongoing practice, Aboriginal rock art can date back more than 10,000 years, making it one of the longest traditions and some of the oldest rock art found anywhere in the world.

The paintings I saw at Galvans Gorge and near the Gibb River mainly depicted Wandjinas, or “Creator Beings” symbolizing supernatural power and fertility. Other common depictions include ancestors, animals and plants.

Aboriginal rock art at Galvan's Gorge in the Kimberley, Western Australia

A painting in a protected overhang at Galvans Gorge in the Kimberley.

Effects of European Settlement

The first documented visit to the Kimberley coastline by a European was when Abel Tasman sailed up in 1644. Land exploration began in the early 19th century, with colonization gaining steam in the late 1800s with pearlers, cattle ranchers, and gold prospectors all coming to seek opportunity and prosperity. This forever altered the way of life that distinct Aboriginal groups had built over millennia.

Learning about the pearling industry at Cygnet Bay Pearl Farm from a third-generation Bardi Jawi guide.

Learning about the pearling industry at Cygnet Bay Pearl Farm from a third-generation Bardi Jawi pearler.

One of the first industries to be set up in the Kimberley was pearling. The world’s largest oyster – getting to be the size of a dinner plate – grows in abundance off the Kimberley coast.

This was a gold mine (err, mother of pearl mine?) for pearlers who could harvest mother of pearl in excess. By 1910, about 80% of the world’s mother of pearl was exported from the Kimberley for shells and buttons.

The European owners of pearling operations bought and sold Aboriginal women and men to work in the industry. Divers – sometimes pregnant women – were forced to swim to great depths over long hours to find oysters.

Forced labor was common in the Kimberley, with Aboriginal people being rounded up, chained, and marched far from their traditional lands to work. Those who weren’t captured for slavery faced challenging conditions at home, as new landowners and cattle encroached on their lands and cut off their hunting grounds. Hunting the new cattle, of course, was outlawed.

The Resistance of Jandamarra

The presence of settlers and thousands upon thousands of head of cattle presented numerous challenges for Aboriginal people. A common form of resistance to European settlement was to kill the livestock that were moved into the region.

An Aboriginal guide speaks about Tunnel Cave in the Kimberley, Western Australia.

Our Bunuba guide, Emmanuel, talking about the significance of Tunnel Creek during our tour of the cave.

One of the more famous stories of resistance is of Jandamarra, a Bunuba man who lived in the Oscar and Napier Ranges. He grew up as a slave and became friends with William Richardson, who was white.

Richardson went on to join the police force, and Jandamarra was hired to be his tracker. This, of course, put him squarely in the middle of the disputes between the Bunuba people and the local police force.

One such dispute involved his uncle, Chief Ellemarra.  His uncle presented him with a choice: to side with his people, or to be dutiful to his job. Chief Ellemarra threatened to cut him off from the tribe if he backed the police. Loyalty won over, and Jandamarra killed his childhood friend.

That event began three years of a cat-and-mouse chase and organized resistance by the Bunuba people. The first armed attack with guns took place in 1884 against European settlers. Jandamarra became legendary for the way he would appear seemingly out of nowhere from hideouts in the Napier Range, and suddenly disappear again to evade authorities.

It wasn’t until 1897 that an Aboriginal tracker hired by the police force caught up to Jandamarra in Tunnel Creek. Jandamarra was killed in a shootout, ending the resistance.

Tunnel Creek cave, the Kimberley, Western Australia

Inside the Tunnel Creek cave, where Jandamarra was killed.

Though the police force won in the end, settlement in the Kimberley never gained the steam that it did in other parts of Australia. It’s possible that the resistance of the Bunuba and other groups played a part in dissuading a tide of settlers, in addition to the known dangers of rugged terrain, limited crop cultivation opportunities and a long dry season.

Dispossession and Resettlement

One aspect of recent Aboriginal history in the Kimberley will sound familiar to Americans: The resettlement of Aboriginal people away from their native lands in the early 1900s.

It began with European colonization forcing the traditionally self-sufficient people into Western-style communities and social constructs.

After Europeans arrived on the continent, Australia operated under the policy of terra nullius, or the idea that the land belonged to nobody. This policy rationalized the continued colonization and overtaking of traditionally Aboriginal lands. (The Aboriginal Heritage Act of 1972 now governs the preservation of significant Aboriginal sites in Western Australia.)

In addition, Europeans considered Aboriginal people to be primitive. They believed that they needed to provide education, culture and a different community structure (theirs) in order to ensure the survival of Aboriginal populations.

Paternalism guided Australian policy toward Aboriginal people deep into the 20th century.

Examples of this policy abound, and it’s easy to understand how damaging it was to Indigenous groups. One illustration from the mid-1900s was when entire populations of people were relocated from their traditional lands into new settlements like the Mowanjum Community near Derby.

In the case of the Dambimangari people, few people have actually returned to their traditional lands even after native title laws were put into place in the 1990s to grant land ownership back to Aboriginal groups. (Nowadays, 86% of Western Australia’s land area is either registered or is awaiting determination under native title laws.)

The forced resettlement caused lasting damage as people struggled to adapt to a way of life that was so vastly different from the self-sufficient means they had thrived on for thousands of years. Myriad cultural and personal violations occurred in the name of educating and acculturating Aboriginal people into white society, including forcibly removing children from their families (who are now known as the Stolen Generations). Today, Aboriginal populations have high rates of poverty, in more than just the traditional definition.

Still, some groups have been able to rebuild successful communities including Beagle Bay and One Arm Point on the Dampier Peninsula. Now more than ever, formal efforts and policies are seeking to preserve Aboriginal culture and heritage and right some of the wrongs of the recent and distant past.

An island in the Buccaneer Archipelago, Dampier Peninsula

An island in the Buccaneer Archipelago, an example of the traditional lands that Aboriginal people were removed from in the mid-20th century.

Today’s Efforts to Preserve Aboriginal Heritage & Culture in the Kimberley  

The Australian Law Reform Commission aptly states that “…changes in policy, even when addressed to problems created by the past, do not erase the past. The history of forced resettlement on reserves, the placing of many thousands of children in institutions, and the loss of land and culture are evident in the disadvantages still experienced by many Aboriginal people today. “

Understanding these challenges, there are a number of ongoing efforts to create equity for Aboriginal people, protect their lands, and celebrate their heritage.

For instance, many tour operators in the Kimberley are either owned and managed by Aboriginal people or hire Aboriginal guides, including Kimberley Wild, the company I toured with.

There is increased awareness, respect toward, and local operation of traditionally Aboriginal lands. Cape Leveque is fully owned and run by the Indigenous Bardi Jawi Communities, and Purnululu National Park is jointly operated by its traditional owners and the Department of Conservation and Land Management.

Features of the Kimberley that were once renamed for European explorers are being restored to their traditional names. For example, Geikie Gorge is being renamed Danggu, its traditional Bunuba name.

Geikie Gorge, soon to be restored to its traditional Bunuba name, Danggu.

Geikie Gorge, soon to be restored to its traditional Bunuba name, Danggu.

Now, greater efforts to involve Indigenous communities in scientific research are helping to solve a number of challenges. DNA is one example. Water use is another.

An excerpt of a study done by the Australian Rivers Institute states, “It is evident that across Australia water managers are beginning to recognise the potential of Indigenous hydrological knowledge to contribute to contemporary water resource management challenges.” Progress has been slow, but it is gaining momentum.

How Visitors Can Respect Aboriginal Culture When Visiting the Kimberley

Tourism is an important means to educate people about Aboriginal culture, heritage and customs. As a visitor to the region, there are a number of ways you can ensure your presence is respectful and supportive of Aboriginal populations and the ongoing efforts for equity and cultural preservation.

  • Seek out Aboriginal guides or tour operators that hire Aboriginal guides.
  • Respect sacred lands and vulnerable sights. It is not worth disrespecting – or worse, damaging – precious sites and ecosystems just to feed your social media.
  • Abide by the laws and rules of natural areas, such as staying on marked paths.
  • Purchase souvenirs that support local communities.
  • Learn about Aboriginal heritage and share your knowledge with friends and family to combat stereotypes.

Additional Resources and Context

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Many visitors – like me – know little about the Kimberley's Aboriginal heritage before visiting. This brief visitor's guide provides an overview of Aboriginal history in the region and ways that you can support Aboriginal communities through your tourism.