Opinion: How Aboriginal Cultural Centre can be uplifting and healing

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The recent announcement that a site had been selected for the Aboriginal Cultural Centre was cause to celebrate.

The fact that it was chosen by the Whadjuk Cultural Authority representatives on the Aboriginal Cultural Centre Steering Committee is monumental.

An Aboriginal Cultural Centre for Perth has long been talked about and now it seems it will be a reality.

In 2008, the Committee for Perth released its seminal report — A Cultural Compact — in which we suggested that “WA make its acknowledgement and respect of its Aboriginal culture and heritage visible at all times across the State” and “that a World Centre for Indigenous Culture be developed on a central, prime site on the Swan River”.

On the night of the report’s launch, there was a shared sense of optimism about the centre and how it could redefine Perth. We have been fortunate as an organisation to be guided by Dr Richard Walley on this issue as well as our reconciliation journey.

As one of the first 50 organisations in the country to have a Reconciliation Action Plan, we were ambitious about what reconciliation could deliver, saying that “Perth could be the city in Australia that acknowledges, respects and celebrates its Indigenous culture”.

In the intervening years since the launch of the cultural compact, we have reinforced our support for an Aboriginal Cultural Centre in successive research reports including Boorloo Kworp, “Perth is good”, in which we recommended that a centre of this kind would put WA on the map.

The report made front page in this newspaper with “One Big Thing” as the headline of the day.

Dr Walley has helped to guide our six RAPs and been patient as we have explored the Stolen Generation, constitutional recognition, native title settlement, and changing the date of Australia Day.

He has been more than generous in sharing his culture, language, music and stories for more than a decade. In 2019 when the Lord Mayor of London visited Perth, Dr Walley welcomed him to country in language and played the didgeridoo with the sounds of the kangaroo thumping through the bush, the kookaburras calling in the dawn and a chorus of frogs croaking in the night.

The Lord Mayor told me it was an experience he would never forget.

A Tourism WA investigation found that “visitor interest in Aboriginal experiences continued to far outweigh participation in the tourism offer in 2019-20.

“Four in five visitors (81 per cent) would be interested in experiencing an Aboriginal tourism experience or activity if it were easily accessible in WA, however less than one in five visitors (17 per cent) participated in Aboriginal tourism during their WA holiday”.

To understand the opportunity as well as the huge weight of responsibility the centre will have in truth telling and sharing culture, I have visited both Indigenous and non-Indigenous cultural centres and we have researched even more.

In Melbourne’s CBD the Koorie Heritage Trust had a powerful display — Black Deaths in Custody.

I’ve visited our own Boola Bardip which magnificently shares WA’s Aboriginal culture and heritage and I’ve been privileged to speak in the yarning circle.

Visiting New Zealand, I was hosted by the Maori co-CEO of Te Papa who greeted me in the traditional way, Hongi in which we pressed our noses and foreheads together.

In Auckland, Kaumatua (elders) welcomed me in song.

A visit to Vancouver saw me enjoying the University of British Columbia’s Museum of Anthropology.

I’ve even been fortunate enough to visit the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington which has the wow factor you would imagine but my lasting memory is eating food from different tribal groups in the food hall.

Truth telling is predominately oral and in that regard is well captured in Los Angeles’ Holocaust Museum through the Tree of Testimony with 1000 survivors telling their story to camera.

However, one of the most powerful displays I saw was in another museum on the east coast of the US where no words were needed.

A large glass box twice the size of a backyard swimming pool contained shoes of every shape, size and colour — baby booties, men’s work boots, women’s heels, school shoes and slippers.

Each taken from people arriving on the trains before they entered the concentration camps.

As I’ve already acknowledged, the cultural centre has so much responsibility in sharing more than 60,000 years of living culture, both its beauty and blight.

The centre needs to be a place of celebration, truth telling, healing and reconciliation — a one of a kind.

A space in which locals and visitors alike can experience Aboriginal culture and be moved by it — uplifted one minute and shocked the next.

Ultimately it must move us closer to the middle, as Dr Walley often says — “we agree on more than we disagree”.

Marion Fulker AM
CEO, Committee for Perth
Adjunct Senior Research Fellow, UWA

Published in The West Australian, 25 August 2022

Acknowledgement of Country

The Committee For Perth acknowledges the traditional custodians throughout Western Australia and their continuing connection to the land, waters and community. We pay our respects to all members of the Aboriginal communities and their cultures; and to Elders both past and present.