Broome’s Aboriginal Heritage – A Deep Dive Into Indigenous Culture


Broome may be best known for its beaches and sunsets, but beneath its surface lies centuries-old stories that date back millennia. This sleepy town holds a fascinating heritage of Aboriginal, Malay, Chinese, Japanese and European cultures that spans over time.

Bart Pigram heard stories from his grandparents about “old Bryan”, an unknown white person they called Bryan who later turned out to be a pearling slave master who victimised Indigenous workers. Yu’s research exposed this truth – Bryan was actually an abusive pearling slave master who brutalised Indigenous workers.

The Pearl Industry

Broome was built around a shell. Since its discovery by Europeans in 1881, Roebuck Bay’s abundant supply of large oyster Pinctada maxima transformed Roebuck Bay into an important pearling center; even today the area hosts numerous mangrove swamps north of town and at sunset Cable Beach can still conjure memories of pearlers’ tents and luggers (pearling boats). To get a true taste of past glory head north to visit mangrove swamps or cable Beach at sunset where cable Beach would once have been lined by tents dotted by pearlers’ tents and luggers (pearling boats).

By 1914, Broome had produced 80 percent of the world’s pearl shell production and its luggers were crewed by people from all around the globe – predominantly Malay, Chinese, Indian and Japanese workers from many different nationalities; indigenous Australians also joined this workforce. Many workers signed an indentured contract that bound them to work in exchange for passage back home; these indentured workers frequently died; graveyards still dot Broome today as evidence.

This industry was also beneficial to local Aboriginal populations, offering them an alternative means of earning an income outside traditional hunting and gathering activities. Unfortunately, its work was both hard and dangerous – particularly for skin divers, who did not use diving apparatus, therefore having to brave crocodiles and sharks without protection as well as diseases such as beriberi chest and ear infections.

Today, pearling remains an integral component of Broome’s economy; however, tourism has also grown considerably and this town offers plenty of attractions.

It is easy to understand why so many are drawn to this region of Australia, as its natural beauty offers much to discover and experience.

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Broome of today has come a long way since its pearling past, yet no visit to Broome would be complete without learning more of its history and visiting sites associated with it. A great way to do this is through taking a guided walk along the Lurujarri Heritage Trail: this 90km walking track follows an oral history map called songline; divided into three color coded trails such as Nagula (heading towards sea), Minyirr (through bushland) and Lurujarri (over dunes), that can be taken independently or via an Indigenous-led tour guided by Indigenous guides.

The Yawuru People

The land of the Yawuru people – more commonly known as the Kimberley Coast – is sacred and home to thousands of years of culture and heritage. Speaking Dampier language, their society is highly complex with strict law and cultural traditions governing every aspect. In 2006, Federal Court recognized them as native title holders for the town of Broome and surrounding area which gave them greater access rights as well as more sustainable means of managing their country.

These coastal people were seafarers, harvesting fish, turtles, stingrays and dugong from the sea or hunting land-based animals such as sand monitors and flying foxes for food. Seasonal harvests in pindan scrub country provided additional sustenance in form of fruit roots vegetables as well as edible bush fruits like tamarinds that are still consumed today by local Aboriginal communities.

Traditional Yawuru were semi-nomadic peoples, traveling regularly between their coastal homelands and coastal homelands with their families and clan groups to take advantage of resources available during different seasons and for ceremonial reasons. This allowed them to maintain traditional lifestyles with strong identities that preserved heritage for future generations.

Today, Nyamba Buru Yawuru (NBY), an Indigenous organisation dedicated to building good country, healthy community and strong communities is committed to its vision of mabu liyan, mabu buru, mabu ngarrangunil. To fulfil their goal, they established Mangara (which means forever) as their living archive in 2014. Since then they are using Storylines software to expand their collection, train emerging curators and share the NBY story via exhibitions, apps, walking trails, books tours and signage.

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Book a tour with an indigenous guide in Broome to gain a fuller experience of its vibrant Aboriginal history and culture. There are various operators around, each providing something different; but for an engaging hands-on and in-depth experience join Bart Pigram from Yawuru Traditional Owners Association’s Narlijia (translated ‘true for you’) tour of Rubibi.

The Great Barrier Reef

Welcome! Explore how the Yawuru people – traditional owners of Broome and its nearby region, Roebuck Bay – feel deeply connected to this land that they call their homeland.

Broome’s history is an intricate tapestry, comprising Aboriginal songlines, South Sea pearl luggers and World War II bombings. You can explore this heritage on your own or join a guided tour with local experts for deeper insight.

Broome is a town that celebrates multiculturalism with street names like Yamashita, Johnny Chi and Stracke. But that wasn’t always the case: Broome was one of Japan’s main air raid targets during WWII and many lives were lost here; visiting Broome Cemetery will give insight into life during that era for those involved in pearling industry development.

Broome’s pearling industry wasn’t limited to white men alone – there were Chinese, Malays, Javanese, Japanese and Filipino workers from different backgrounds who toiled long hours under difficult conditions to create its famous pearls. You can visit one of Broome’s pearl farms for an insider tour that provides an unprecedented look into this historic industry.

Broome has witnessed an encouraging revival in Aboriginal language, culture and knowledge thanks to local efforts by Yawuru communities such as Yayul. Additionally, several organisations offer workshops, talks and tours of local area.

Broome is an ideal location for exploring the Great Barrier Reef. Most Australian capital cities fly directly or connect through Perth Airport; car rental companies, tour operators services and bus services also operate throughout Broome and its environs.

Broome is a place of incredible beauty and diversity, from beaches and gorges to the Kimberley wilderness and all points in between. Take the time to visit and explore what this region has to offer – you won’t be sorry you did!

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The Kimberley Coast

Broome’s far northwest offers an incredible treasure chest of natural wonders – shimmering white sands, iridescent blue-green waters, and chilli red rock are just a few examples of its magnificent natural attractions. Additionally, its cultural significance can be seen through Aboriginal rock art sites and traditional hunting, gathering and fishing practices still practiced today.

Broome offers many community-led experiences for guests to connect with indigenous culture, such as sunset beach outings with Narlijia or mangrove tours aboard Broome’s Cable Beach Narratively cruise. Indulge in breathtaking Horizontal Falls tours either by plane or cruise; visit Purnululu National Park’s stunning karst landscape where beautiful canyons and waterfalls abound!

The Kimberley is also renowned for its vibrant art scene, boasting some of Australia’s best known artists like Paddy Bedford and Freddie Timms as residents and workers here. Numerous indigenous art centers and companies work to foster emerging talent while hosting exhibitions and sales events; yet this region remains not without challenges – an inquest revealed 13 Indigenous children and young people in Western Australia had taken their own lives over the past 10 years alone.

Broome’s pearling and Aboriginal heritage has an undeniable impact on its food, buildings and culture. Take an oyster farm tour for freshest oysters; dine at seafood-rich fusion restaurants; explore gem boutiques or explore fossil footprints of dinosaurs at Gantheaume Point or join a guided walk to trace pioneer footsteps!

Welcome to Yawuru country! It is our duty and privilege to care for and preserve our land, culture, traditions and spiritual connections while sharing them with visitors like yourself. It is essential that visitors understand our way of life over time – we hope your stay with us is enjoyable!