• Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park has closed, leaving Traditional Owners 'devastated' (Supplied - Liz Inglis Media )Source: Supplied - Liz Inglis Media
In 1980s Queensland, race relations were fraught. First Nations people were just breaking free from the state's oppressive Aborigines Protection Act, tension was building around deaths in custody, and the land rights movement was gaining momentum. It was in this political climate that a new cultural tourism venture opened its doors.
Ella Archibald-Binge

29 Mar 2018 - 3:11 PM  UPDATED 29 Mar 2018 - 3:13 PM

When the Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park first opened in 1987, performers would roam the streets trying to entice people inside. 

At the time, Indigenous tourism was virtually unheard of, so when a group of theatre-lovers teamed up with a handful of Aboriginal buskers to launch a cultural stage show in the far north Queensland rainforest village of Kuranda, there was a general sense of trepidation. 

"I think at that particular time they didn't think that the park would last, that no one would want to come and see a group of Aboriginal people," recalls Shirley Hollingsworth, a Djabugay woman who grew up in Cairns and later became Tjapukai's Deputy General Manager. 

Fast forward three decades, and the park has become a cultural tourism icon. The new state-of-the-art venue on the outskirts of Cairns attracts more than 80,000 visitors each year - even hosting Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip in 2002. Through bush tucker talks, hunting workshops, performances and the telling of Dreamtime stories, visitors experience the culture of the Djabugay people from the rainforest of tropical north Queensland. 

"I think the perception of Indigenous tourism has changed," Tjapukai General Manager Bryce Madgwick tells NITV News. 

"In north Queensland here there's the big three, which is reef, rainforest and Indigenous tourism, so cultural tourism. I think people recognise the Indigenous tourism factor in Australia now."

The cultural park is a key contributor to the local economy. It's currently owned by Indigenous Business Australia, with the aim to hand ownership to traditional custodians. In 2016-17, Tjapukai injected $4.3 million into the local Indigenous community through wages, royalties and the commissioning of artworks. Seventy per cent of employees are Indigenous, and half of the Indigenous staff identify as Djabugay. 

"That's a number one [priority]: jobs, employment - it's for great benefit to the community," says Djabugay Aboriginal Corporation Chairman William 'Biri' Duffin,  who's also a lighting and sound technician at the park. 

"Instead of money going elsewhere, it remains in that circle in the community."

Shirley Hollingsworth is one of Tjapukai's success stories. The Djabugay woman started at the park as a junior retail assistant in 1997, before furthering her business studies and working her way up to deputy general manager — the first Traditional Owner to hold the role. 

"I think the whole concept of the park was about providing opportunities for a lot of our youth," she says. 

"If they didn’t have skills, it was about giving them an opportunity to gain skills, but it was also about rebuilding the pride in who we are, as a people.

"As they get more exposed to negative things out there, it's actually a pull, like brought people back to the right path. Because I think that's what needs to be understood, cultural identity plays a very important part with Indigenous youth, and I know people have steered themselves in a better position."

'A lot of people walk away with a different mindset about Aboriginal culture.'

Tourists from Australia and abroad visit the park in search of an authentic taste of Indigenous Australian culture. For many, it's their first encounter with First Nations people. 

"I've been here 17 years, heard a lot about [Indigenous culture] on TV... but this is the first ever we've been exposed to it," one Australian visitor told NITV News. 

"Now since I've been exposed to it, I'm very inquisitive to know more about it, and it's very fascinating to be first-hand getting information from the real people."

William Duffin says the history element of the park is "the big eye-opener". 

"We have a short documentary and a lot of people walk away with a different mindset about Aboriginal culture, and mainly the Djabugay culture."

Elders must be involved in decision-making process

But there are challenges around what can be shared, and how. Tjapukai has a cultural content agreement with Traditional Owners to ensure culture is presented accurately, and elders are consulted during the development of new content and performances. Where issues have arisen, Shirley Hollingsworth says communication is key.

"Djabugay was always like reconciliation in action, so there has to be mutual respect between people," she says.

"You’ve gotta be able to listen to each other’s opinions and ideas and not either way being shut down – a bit of give and take.

"It’s important that you have the eldership very much involved in the whole process, and even around some of the decisions that are made. Ultimately they’re the holders of knowledge and wisdom and things like that...

"Even just as a junior retail assistant, seeing a lot of the old people walking through this park, gave the surety on what it was that you were delivering, but it also lifted that importance of pride element."

A sense of pride is something every Djabugay staff member seems to share. For Shirley, pride is being the first Traditional Owner to hold a senior management role at the park. For lead performer Richard 'Djundjurru’ Bing, pride is the tear in his eye as his two young children sit in the crowd to watch him dance. For 25-year-old Garna Leroy Brim, it's making little ones feel like they're "still in the Dreamtime" and educating people about the "missing piece of Australia". 

"It starts with passion, that’s [what] started driving Tjapukai," says William Duffin.

"Before employment comes in, it brings back a lot of community pride, brings community back together, more united. And the sky’s the limit when you all pull together."

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See the full story on The Point - tonight at 8.30pm on NITV, and streamed live on NITV's Facebook page.