Held from 12-21 May 1973, the Nimbin Aquarius Festival was a watershed event in the growth of an alternative movement in Australia. A salient feature of the festival, both at the time and in recollection, was its incorporation of Aboriginal culture. The organisers of the ten-day event decided early in their planning that the festival would be an exploration of alternative lifestyles – ‘a prophetic vision of the world we wish to live in.’ Pitched as a ‘survival festival’ (not a pop or rock music festival – certainly not, as many people now see it, Australia’s version of Woodstock – but as an experiment in self-sufficient community living), festival-goers were urged to form themselves into tribes, to cook and eat communally and to live in harmony with the natural environment. The slogan ‘Nimbin is our Dreamtime’ captured a shared view that the festival was the modern equivalent of an Aboriginal corroboree, and that festival-goers were the inheritors of an Aboriginal tradition that was in danger of being lost.
Anthropologists tend to condemn this type of engagement with indigenous cultures as appropriation, but the story is more complex than that. Unusually for the time, the festival organisers sought permission from local Aboriginal people to hold the event; they asked questions about the area’s ritual and spiritual significance and attempted to incorporate this into the festival’s design; they invited Aboriginal people to open the festival and to give talks on Aboriginal culture and traditions. This level of consultation with Aboriginal people and engagement with Aboriginal culture was, and remains, a source of considerable pride for the festival organisers. Viewed through the lens of history, their efforts stand as one of very few examples in Australian history where settler Australians have sought to learn from Aboriginal people and to adopt Aboriginal cultural practices, not unproblematically or uncontroversially, but sincerely and with respect. With the fortieth anniversary of the Nimbin Aquarius Festival this month, it is timely to reflect on this little-known embrace of Aboriginality by members of the counterculture – the self-proclaimed ‘Aquarius Tribe.’
Dr Rani Kerin, School of History, is a Research Fellow with the National Centre of Biography and
Research Editor with the Australian Dictionary of Biography