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“Ideas for Cultural Videoconferencing in the Cairns Area (Northeastern Australia)”

by Eric Miller
Cairns, May 2005

In the years and generations to come, places in Australia where local Aboriginal languages are no longer known will be seen by some as culturally impoverished, with less to offer to visiting scholars, people in the arts, and tourists.  It would be to the long-term benefit of the Cairns area community as a whole for development of local languages and oral verbal arts to be a focus of Aboriginal cultural, as well as of rainforest, development. 

Plans are underway to enable people around the world to engage in educational and storytelling videoconferences with Australian Aboriginal peoples, and the Cairns area should be involved.  Among the conceived distant participants in such events are schoolchildren; people in universities, museums, and libraries; and potential tourists.

The Tanami Network, founded in 1992 in the Alice Springs area, was, it seems, the world’s first tribal-people-related videoconference network.  The Tanami Network as originally constituted is presently inactive, but the Outback Digital Network grew out of it, and one section of the ODN, the Cape York Digital Network, is continuing the work, with videoconferencing facilities in fourteen Aboriginal communities north of Cairns. 

What might occur in educational or tourist videoconferences with Aboriginal peoples of the Cairns area?

The story of a place could be told, and paintings of the story and place could be shown, followed by discussion.

We are approaching the point at which people will be able to videoconference from outdoor locations via mobile telephones.  Until that ability is attained, people can videoconference from community videoconference facilities.  Visits to nearby landmarks could be videotaped, and these recordings could be shown in the course of a videoconference.  Another possibility is that a videoconference camera on the roof of a videoconference facility could be pointed in the direction of the landmark being discussed (this was done in a number of Tanami Network videoconferences). 

An oral language lesson could be given, which could include displaying onscreen text, typed in various languages.  This would be in the tradition of how Tjapukai, the award-winning Cairns area Aboriginal cultural park, makes the audio recording of a theatrical presentation available in eight languages simultaneously (visitors choose which language they hear by rotating a knob on a small audio receiver).

Other videoconference activities could include the demonstration, discussion, and teaching of local traditional crafts and skills.  One such skill is hand-talk (a form of sign language), which is practiced especially by certain elderly Aboriginal women.

Another such skill is medicinal uses of plants, which also tends to be known especially by elderly women, as they are often the ones who informally nurse the young and the old of a community.  Such elderly women, who may speak pidgin English and thus may retain elements of old languages in their speech, have in the past often not been in the position to meaningfully interact with people outside the community.  We, the people of the world, must seek to enable these very important tradition-bearers to speak and share in public spheres. 

The Cairns area features a rare co-existence of tropical rainforest, and developed civilisation.  World-class transportation, electrical, and telecommunicational infrastructures are in place, and yet a healthy amount of rainforest still exists, seemingly in a protected and sustainable manner.  Sensational work -- including the Skyrail, and numerous paved and wooden trails -- has been done which enables people to see and visit the rainforest without getting their feet and hands dirty.  Ecological and cultural videoconferencing will serve a similar function.

The benefits of biological diversity have now been clearly established.  There are similar benefits to cultural diversity.  For example, just as there is ecological tourism and education, there is also cultural (including language) tourism and education.  Each of the world’s languages is an irreplaceable cultural treasure, and much of a culture disappears forever when its language is lost.  On the other hand, exposure to a living local language can give fascinating depth to the tourist and educational experiences. 

Two uses of documenting and developing local culture are: 1) doing so for the community itself, especially its young people and future generations; and 2) doing so for visitors.  What is presented to these two groups would certainly be different.

Don and Judy Freeman of Tjapukai ( are experts in international cultural tourism.  They have recently worked on a project regarding Buddhism in Hong Kong, and before their work in Australia, they participated in community theatre projects in Canada, India, and elsewhere.  They are a tremendous resource for the Government, businesses, and people of the Cairns area.  Tjapukai has been an excellent beginning in terms of cultural tourism and education.  It would be wonderful if Don and Judy Freeman might increasingly share their knowledge and expertise of production and marketing with others in the community. 

Today, numerous additional educational and tourism projects -- including the Malanda Falls Visitor Centre (, and Kuranda’s new Djabugay Country Tours -- are going into greater depth and detail about the local aboriginal cultures.  Balkanu (the Cape York Development Corporation) is developing a fine Traditional Knowledge Recording Project. 

The Yarrabah Primary School is doing wonderful work with its Virtual Trails project (, which involves collecting stories from elders about local landmarks and taking children to these places, where storytelling sessions about the places are held and videotaped.  Project leaders are beginning to place aspects of these recordings on the project website, and to make animations of the stories, in conjunction with English literacy training.

The School of Australian Aboriginal Studies, and the Native Title Studies Centre, of James Cook University are well-positioned to help develop all of above-described types of work.  Perhaps one day, these or other university entities might have a presence in downtown Cairns.  This would be a great boost for the city.  There is no substitute for the intellectual and creative ferment that university life provides.  Such a university presence could surely promote the local development of cultural videoconferencing.

Universities around the world are developing a new generation of the Internet, known in some locations as Internet 2 (  Internet2 enables high quality videoconferencing between multiple sites.  Cairns would do well to seek to be a part of this loop -- through which it could share the cultural and natural riches that abound here. 

Eric Miller, a Ph.D. candidate in Folklore at the U. of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia, USA), is presently visiting the Cairns area.  A native New Yorker, he is enroute from NYC to his new home in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, south India.  <>,