Starter kit: Key resources that give you insight and save time
Don't waste time searching by yourself. Use this hand-picked guide of helpful, affordable resources to quickly learn about key aspects of Aboriginal culture.
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If you don't know where to begin learning about Aboriginal culture you're not alone. Hundreds of books and movies, dozens of musicians, a plethora of events and excursions make if hard to decide: Where do I start? Which ones give me value?
I've done the hard yards for you and listed valuable resources below, explaining exactly why they are helpful for your journey of discovery.
You don't need all of these resources, just pick the ones that speak to you the most right now.
All resources were hand-picked by my Smart Owls community – people like you and I. I've asked them "What has helped you when you started learning about Aboriginal culture?" and what they recommended is included below.
Tip: Long bucket lists are out. Get this actionable 2-page bucket list for Aboriginal culture and get a friend to do it with you!
Rabbit-Proof Fence introduces the Stolen Generations, one of the most important chapters of Aboriginal history, since its effects reverberate still today. It shows the heartbreak when police takes away the children, the persistence of authorities going after runaways, the squalid conditions of the reserves where the children were kept, but also the children's ingenuity and determination to return to their families. The fact that the film is based on true events makes it even more compelling.
Carmen loves its "brilliant truths" and Carlina recommends to get "a question sheet to encourage discussion and promote learning--culturally and linguistically". (For example the worksheet from the Curriculum Project.)
Utopia covers Aboriginal history after the invasion: the racist treatment of Aboriginal people, Australia’s “dirtiest little secret”. It compares life in suburban Australia with living conditions in remote Aboriginal communities -- their poverty, likelihood of going blind or deaf from preventable diseases. No local distributor offered a cinema run for Utopia. They felt the documentary was "too dark" and that "it might upset people with its myth-busting". It makes it even more necessary to watch it.
How would you experience Australia's invasion today? Babakiueria answers this question by reversing the roles: Aboriginal people land on Australia's shore where Western people enjoy a barbecue and invade the country. The film mirrors what happened to Aboriginal people. It would be a comedy if the measures weren't so sad.
Shane found that Babakiueria gets you "to see that understanding Aboriginality is mainly about understanding white history and culture".
Ten Canoes offers a glimpse into Aboriginal life before invasion. Told with a good dash of humour, it tells about hunting, how to get a wife without love, making a canoe, tribal punishment and stories of a mythical past. Be also prepared to see lots of (mainly male) nudity.
The Tracker, famous also for its powerful musical score, is a good movie for people of non-English speaking background, keen to learn about Aboriginal tracking skills and the clash of two cultures. Carlina recommends this film "because it doesn't have [a] challenging dialogue". It also happens to be an Aboriginal Australian classic.
Other movies recommended by my community include Kanyini ("A very comprehensive film to introduce me to Indigenous Australian culture and expand my thought process," says Suzanne), Mad Bastards ("The story was portrayed by real people whose acting was invoked by real experiences," admits Brad) and The Tall Man. Laura loves Last Cab to Darwin because it "had an Aboriginal woman character" in it.
Television & documentaries
NITV (National Indigenous Television)
Brought to you by SBS, NITV is a channel made by, for and about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Michelle highly recommends this channels as it's "good for general knowledge, personal insights from Aboriginal perspective and [offers] some great movies."
Indigenous Community Television (ICTV)
Videos on ICTV Play are a "gentle introduction", says Joy. They cover culture, music, contemporary stories, young people and kids.
Based on Kate Grenville’s novel, the two-part Secret River ("awesome TV mini drama") tells the deeply personal story of two early convict colonists who lay claim to a plot of land on the then remote Hawkesbury River. "While it's not a true story it sure does give you a real idea of what things where like in early colonial days," says Jo-Anne, and adds: "Highly recommend tissues."
Renee seconds this. "Although fictional, [Secret River] still [has] historical merit that I have learnt from," she says. And Eugenie believes the series is a "powerful way to think twice about the land we’re on".
Pamela recommends First Australians, a landmark documentary series that tells a very different story of Australia. It has been described as “one of the most significant documentary series in the history of Australian television”. And Sylvianne “Aunty Syl" Helm couldn't agree more. Philippa loves both the "beautiful book" and "great video" while Leesa finds it "a brilliant way of getting into our shared history".
Philippa's special tip is 'First Footprints', an "awesome and convincing" account of how the first people settled. She loves "the bit about Tasmania and the one-legged hunter". It is available at ABC bookshops in video and print.
Lisa and others suggested First Contact, a 3-part TV series about non-Aboriginal Australians who are confronted with the (harsh) reality of Aboriginal life they don't know about.
Australians Together DVD
Australians Together is a 4-part DVD series that aims to bring Australians back together by explaining "the wound" caused by invasion, understand Australian history and taking the time to listen and learn more about each other.
"This series has made a difference to every one we have shown it too," reveals Ushie.
The two series of Redfern Now centre on a diverse group of individuals from 6 families per season. Each episode is like a beautifully constructed short story that sees straight to the fragile hearts of its characters, without the stories becoming sentimental or obdurately political.
Sue likes especially Series 1, episode 4, 'Stand Up' which is about a school student not standing for the national anthem, and Series 2, episode 4, 'Consequences'.
Awaye brings you diverse and vibrant Aboriginal arts and culture from across Australia and the best from Aboriginal radio broadcasters around the world.
"I've learned so much from listening to that show over the years," says Erik, and recommends their "great backlog of podcasts".
Dark Emu, Black Seeds
Dark Emu, Black Seeds by Bruce Pascoe has been the most-recommended book in the survey of my community. This historical entertaining story lets us reconsider the hunter-gatherer tag for precolonial Aboriginal Australians and is of profound importance for attempts to fully understand Australian History. Even academics said that they learned a lot about Australia's "untruths" of history. Plus Bruce Pascoe has a beautiful way to write which makes understanding complex issues very easy.
"This is an important book," finds Anne. "Bruce has used details from the early explorers that have never had any importance placed on them before and shares details about Indigenous Australian crop cultivation, harvesting and storing and community ways of life that have been omitted from the history."
"Guess who baked the first bread: an Australian Aboriginal woman some 10,000 years ago," marvels Patrick. For Ushie the book defeats the "misconception that Aboriginal people were only wandering hunters and gatherers". Doreen finds it "mind changing", and Rod finds it "very easy to read and backed up with great references". "Impeccable sources," agrees Paula. "This books needs to be in all schools as this hidden hidden history was never taught," demands Mickey.
Bill Gammage: The Biggest Estate on Earth
Similar to Dark Emu, The Biggest Estate on Earth dispels the myth that Aboriginal people did not manage the land. Early Europeans commented again and again that the land looked like a park when they noticed extensive grassy patches and open woodlands. Bill Gammage shows that Aboriginal people managed the land in a far more systematic and scientific fashion than we have ever realised. He uncovered an extraordinarily complex system of land management using fire, the life cycles of native plants, and the natural flow of water to ensure plentiful wildlife and plant foods throughout the year.
It's a book teaching "respect and truth", says Martin. Philippa recommends it as "a huge and detailed account of how the Aborigines made use of the land". Ben notes the "huge shift in understanding that we whitefellas have when we learn our entire continent was managed by Indigenous Aussies as scientifically and carefully as we consider our farmers currently do".
Isabelle has a great tip: "I use children's books a lot even when teaching adults. The illustrations are lovely, the story is shown through the eyes of children rather than an historian or journalist so we get a different perspective on a particular culture and its people." She is particularly fond of Alison Lester's Ernie Dances to the Didgeridoo which explores the six seasons of Arnhem land.
Lex recommends How the birds got their colours, Warnayarra the Rainbow Snake, The Kangaroo and the Porpoise, How the kangaroos got their tails.
Not quite a children's book, Welcome to Country by Aunty Joy Murphy explains this ritual of respect and also other customs and symbols of Aboriginal Australia.
Sally Morgan: My Place
My Place is a classic Australian book about identity. To avoid social stigma, Sally's mother told her that she was Indian. Much later as Sally travels to her grandmother’s birthplace, looking for information about her family, she uncovers that she is Aboriginal. The story is deeply personal and very moving.
Doctor Wooreddy’s Prescription for Enduring the End of the World
In Mudrooroo’s unforgettable novel, Doctor Wooreddy’s Prescription for Enduring the End of the World, considered by many to be his masterpiece, the author evokes with fullest irony the bewilderment and frailty of the last native Tasmanians, as they come face to face with the clumsy but inexorable power of their white destroyers.
"A novel that provides a much needed Aboriginal perspective on Australian history - and does so with great originality, compassion and humour. I recommend it as a truly important and fascinating read," says Phil.
Monty Pryor: Maybe Tomorrow
In Maybe Tomorrow Pryor takes you on a journey through his life. The book is written as if you sat with him on a couch and he told you what he’s experienced. In doing this he follows ancient traditional storytelling, weaving important facts and events into his account.
Dhammika finds the book a "compulsive reading towards understanding our past, present and future" and an "experiential writing [that] takes the reader to the heart of issues". Maybe Tomorrow is one of the most searched-for books on Creative Spirits.
Banjo Woorunmurra, Howard Pedersen: Jandamarra and the Bunuba Resistance
Learning about Aboriginal history would be incomplete without learning about their resistance. Jandamarra and the Bunuba Resistance is the thrilling true story of the great Aboriginal resistance fighter, Jandamarra, a legend, forever etched into the Australian landscape. Thought to be unstoppable, he led the Bunuba against the forces invading their land. Jandamarra’s courage and fighting spirit made him one of the region’s most wanted men.
Jandamarra and the Bunuba Resistance is a "book which introduces an important aspect of the Aboriginal resistance," agrees Geoff.
The Little Black Red Yellow Book
The Little Red Yellow Black Book is an authoritative introduction to Aboriginal people. Easy-to-read and written as a first-person Aboriginal narrative, it gives voice to the Aboriginal perspective. It includes real-life case studies and covers history, culture, arts, sport, languages, population, health, participation in education and the workforce, governance, resistance and reconciliation.
Oodgeroo Noonuccal: My People and Stradbroke Dreamtime
Oodgeroo's (Kath Walker) writing is often a provocative and passionate plea for justice. My People is a collection of poetry and prose and a reminder of Oodgeroo's contribution to Aboriginal culture and the journey to reconciliation. His other works include Stradbroke Dreamtime.
Marie loves Oodgeroo's works: "[They tell] the reader of her culture, and experiences of her people, in a direct and also humorous way. One learns so much from reading about her, her Aboriginal background and the various ways Aboriginal people were and still are being treated."
Indigenous Etchings—Black and Sexy
This anthology offers a good collection of contemporary writing and art by Aboriginal people from around Australia. It gives a good overview of the diversity of writing and art: the story of Payback Records, stunning photography, an interview, insights into the stories of the Sista Girls (lesbian Aboriginal women), and lots of stories and poetry. It even includes some music reviews. Writing is not only black, it can also be sexy. Go to my Special Offers page to save 20%.
Aboriginal writer Anita Heiss is often labelled as writing "chick lit", as she mostly writes books for women.
Renee recommends Barbed Wire And Cherry Blossoms because "although fictional, [these books] still have historical merit that I have learnt from". Am I Black Enough For You is one of her classics, and others include Not Meeting Mr Right, Avoiding Mr Right, Tiddas, Manhattan Dreaming and Paris Dreaming.
Other books recommended by my community include
- Both Amy and Brad love Henry Reynolds' books, Forgotten War and Why Weren’t We Told? because "both raise some important points that may seem very left-field to many, but through discussion and his forth-right [style] we may see [a] breakdown and honest dialogue of the Australian psyche".
- The Last of the Nomads – a book that helped Ruth "understand the connection between the past and the present of Aboriginal cultures a lot," specifically how "the way old traditions changed or were incorporated in contemporary daily life".
- The Songlines – a book "so profound to every aspect of Aboriginal cosmology," says Ruth, "that I would suggest it is the first thing one needs to understand".
- Jackson's Track : Memoir of a Dreamtime Place – which "demonstrates the clash of cultures and subtle ways dispossession has effected local [Victorian Aboriginal] Koorie people," a challenge to Victorians who, according to Steve, "think it is easier (and convenient)... to ignore the local Aboriginal history".
- Aboriginal Australians by Richard Broome is "a great book for the impact of colonisation/invasion, especially for Aboriginal Studies students," says Anna.
I've tried to find two representatives for the most common styles of Aboriginal music so you can lean back and just click "play".
I'm linking to each artist's discography, so if you feel touched you can explore their albums for more.
Jimmy Little: "Yorta Yorta Man"
Jimmy was a celebrated and beloved Yorta Yorta musician and actor whose career spanned six decades. He became known throughout Australia as one of its founding and premier country music stars.
Casey Donovan: "Last Regret"
Casey Donovan is a singer, theatre actress and author, best known for winning the second season of Australian Idol. She won the competition aged 16, becoming the series' youngest winner.
Yothu Yindi: "Treaty"
Yothu Yindi (Yolngu for "child and mother") formed in 1986. They blended traditional instruments with those associated with pop/rock bands. Treaty is their most known song.
Us Mob: "Genocide"
Us Mob are an early Aboriginal reggae rock band from South Australia which appeared in the film Wrong Side of the Road. Their recording of the soundtrack made them one of the first contemporary Aboriginal bands to be recorded.
Troy Casser-Daley: "They Don’t Make ‘Em LikeThat Anymore"
Troy Cassar-Daley is a country musician from New South Wales. He released his first EP, Dream Out Loud, in 1994 and was nominated for his first Golden Guitar for Best Male Vocalist the same year.
The Pigram Brothers: "Nowhere Else But Here"
The Pigram Brothers are a seven-piece Aboriginal band from the pearling town of Broome, Western Australia, formed in 1996.
The Pigram Brothers discography
NoKTuRNL: "Same Old Song"
NoKTuRNL is a band formed in 1996 in Alice Springs, Northern Territory. Sometimes called rap metal their music is hard to categorise, but their lyrics are influenced by their Aboriginal experience.
The Last Kinection: "Balooraman"
The Last Kinection is an Aboriginal hip-hop group from Newcastle, New South Wales. The band was formed in 2006 by Joel Wenitong, DJ Jay Tee and Naomi Wenitong.
The Last Kinection discography
Warumpi Band: "Blackfella/Whitefella"
Warumpi Band were an Australian country and Aboriginal rock group which formed in the outback settlement of Papunya, Northern Territory in 1980. This is their iconic song.
Christine Anu: "My Island Home"
Christine Anu is an Australian pop singer and actress. She gained popularity with the release of her song My Island Home and has won several ARIA Music Awards.
Kev Carmody: "Thou Shalt Not Steal"
Kevin Daniel "Kev" Carmody is an Aboriginal Australian singer-songwriter. His song "From Little Things Big Things Grow" was recorded with co-writer Paul Kelly for their 1993 single which helped made him famous.
Archie Roach: "Took The Children Away"
Archie Roach, is a singer, songwriter and guitarist. He survived being a member of the Stolen Generations and developed into a powerful voice for Aboriginal people.
Brotha Black: "Are You With Me Out There!"
Shannon Narrun Williams, known as Brotha Black, is a Sydney-based Aboriginal Hip Hop performer. Brotha Black was a founding member of Deadly Award-winning group South West Syndicate.
Impossible Odds: "Everything"
Impossible Odds is an Aboriginal Hip Hop and Rap group from Brisbane. Impossible Odds consist of lyricist Fred Leone and Jeremy Youse.
Coloured Stone: "Black Boy"
Coloured Stone is a band from the Koonibba Mission, west of Ceduna, South Australia. Their sound has been described as having a unique feel and Aboriginal qualities.
Emma Donovan: "Gumbayngirr Lady"
Emma Donovan is an Aboriginal singer and songwriter. She is a member of the renowned Australian musical family the Donovan family. She started her singing career at age 7 with her uncle's band, The Donovans.
Wilma Reading: "That’s How I Go For You"
Wilma Reading is a singer from Cairns, Queensland. Reading began her singing career in 1959 after singing for friends at a Brisbane jazz club.
Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu: "Bapa"
Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu is an Aboriginal musician, who sings in the Yolngu language. He was born in Galiwin'ku, off the coast of Arnhem Land, northern Australia about 69.5 kilometres from Darwin.
Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu discography
Vic Simms: "Stranger In My Country"
Vic Simms is an Bidjigal singer and songwriter from La Perouse, New South Wales. He learnt the guitar while in prison. His first album, "The Loner", was recorded in a mobile studio in the prison dining room. It has been described as "Australia's great lost classic album of black protest music".
Oka: "Music Makes Me Happy"
Oka combine guitar, sax, flute & woodwinds with organic juju beats to create a "signature feel good Australian earth sound". They've been playing local gigs as well as internationally.
Online communities & websites
Join local groups on Facebook "so that you can find out when local things are happening, then all you have to do is get involved," is a hot tip from Jasmine. For example, Lyn recommends liking the page of the Sovereign Union as "a fantastic place of knowledge and articles".
Aunty Wendy's Mob
Aunty Wendy's Mob promises to be "an interactive performance-based introduction to Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander cultures for pre-school and early primary school children", a resource recommended by Marianne because it's "proven to be popular with the very young children". The site also offers CDs and teacher's resources.
Blakside Story gives voice to Aboriginal people of all ages and from around Australia to tell you what it means to be Aboriginal. A great resource to learn first-hand from Aboriginal people. Thanks, Jacinta, for the tip!
When learning about Aboriginal culture it's best to learn from Aboriginal people themselves. The Koori Mail is 100% Aboriginal-owned and run. While some articles come from mainstream distributors (such as AAP), a lot of content is unique and allows you to peek into the Aboriginal perspective of what's happening in Australia. The large Aboriginal sports section is second to no other paper.
For online news you'll have to go to the smaller, often independent, newspapers, for example The Stringer and The Conversation, as Ben suggests.
The Working Group for Aboriginal Rights (Australia) (WGAR) compiles press articles relevant to Aboriginal affairs into daily emails that you can subscribe to for free. If you don't want to wait for a printed newspaper, or dig deep into mainstream news websites, this service is for you.
My own newsletter gives you quality content, for example all days significant to Aboriginal people, explaining what happened and why it's important to know, announcements of new articles or e-product discounts. Plus exclusive content such as a traditional healing event. Why not join the Smart Owls now?
Online & offline studies
Cultural awareness training
Ask your workplace, university or community if they offer Aboriginal cultural awareness training. "This shouldn’t be a one off!" insists Tess and highlights the benefit that "different presenters give different stories".
Excursions & events
Aboriginal rock engravings in your area
You might have visited a rock engraving area in the past, but this visit should be different: Try to figure out the meaning of the engravings. What do they depict? What could be stories told? Some engraving sites are educational, others might have served ceremonies. Make sure to read the interpretive signs or research the site before you visit.
Learn about where you are right now
Every area belongs to an Aboriginal group. Maurice recommends getting to know the place where you live or work and looking at it from an Aboriginal point of view. What tribal group or tribal clan used to, or still does, live there? Which languages were spoken? Are there events or tours on offer that allow you to learn more? How can you say 'hello' in your local language?
Set yourself a Google alert for "aboriginal event" plus your local suburb or area, or watch your library newsletter. Attending an event helps you dive into contemporary Aboriginal affairs, allows you to ask questions or have a chat with an Aboriginal person afterwards.
You might go to a weaving course, take a tour, do a short course or join a yarning circle--anything "so that you can meet local people and learn at the same time," as Jasmine recommends. Visiting the old places of history "makes for a touching and emotional experience you won’t forget," says Tess and recommends getting "involved in community events" such as NAIDOC week or a walk for reconciliation.
Andrew marvels: "Learn about the old ways of lighting a fire. Talk about the old ways of telling a story. Value the nature. Enjoy the seasons; the scents and the smells. Grow to love others [who are] different."
Liz suggest that you "go to a story-telling session, a bush food session etc with local Aboriginal people, preferably on country" as an antidote to intellectual overload: "It isn’t as threatening as sorting your head out about reconciliation issues or history wars, and creates an easy engagement to 'real people' (and is fun, and may also contribute to Indigenous businesses)."
Talk to an Aboriginal person
Not many people have ever met, let alone talked to, an Aboriginal person. They don't meet them in their day-to-day environments: schools, universities, work places, sports. But it's not difficult at all: Attend an event (see below), join an Aboriginal tour, visit an art gallery -- there are numerous possibilities. The only effort required: You need to seek them out. Once you have done it gives you a chance to overcome the barriers that you might have to meet someone from this great culture.
According to Gil, getting to know an Aboriginal person is "both the best and probably the hardest thing to do. Best because most Aboriginal people I’ve met are generous, funny, genuine and respectful. Hard, because you probably need to go out of your way to ever meet an Aboriginal person."
Duncan couldn't agree more. He recommends "having an Aboriginal friend and encouraging such contacts at work," but also "meeting Aboriginal artists through art centres and [starting] an Aboriginal art collection".
Australia Day, Invasion Day, offers the perfect opportunity to get the Aboriginal perspective of this day, but also to celebrate their survival with them. Chat to a stall owner, listen to talks, settle next to, and make contact with, someone listening to music on the lawn. A friendly "gidday" followed by small talk and a question or two about their life goes miles in your understanding of Aboriginal people.
Tracey thinks community events are the "best way to meet people and see, first-hand, all that’s positive about Aboriginal community and family life".
Dance performance or concert
Visit any such event to relax and enjoy Aboriginal culture. Here's a recipe to get more from the event: Read up on the performer or artist, check out what their act will be about before you enjoy it. This will give you a far better understanding of what's happening on stage, or what the songs are about. The Bangarra Dance Theatre is a professional example.
I'm serious - joining an Aboriginal protest is an experience that helps you more see the world from their perspective. Inquire what they are protesting about, why it matters to them and what the responses from the authorities are. Watch closely how police or security interact -- it gives you valuable hints about their attitudes towards Aboriginal people.
Even more you can do
Sometimes we need to change our thinking as we start exploring new cultures. "Think critically about what people said around [you]," recommends Monique.
You can also check which days are important to Aboriginal people throughout the year. Paul likes this idea because it "provid[es] information which is real relevant and pertinent to promoting and developing a sense of unity and engagement".
This is intentionally a list I tried to keep fairly short to help you dive into Aboriginal culture easily.
If you're keen and longing for more, check out my Ultimate List of Things to do to Support Aboriginal Culture.