Traditional perspectives

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Traditional perspectives

The traditional cultures of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are rich and powerful in shaping the way they live in contemporary society and the ways in which they relate to the natural world, to each other and to non-Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. To appreciate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures is to gain an understanding of four interlinked strands:

  • the relationship with the natural world, land and sea

  • the importance of language

  • the Dreaming

  • the Lore.

The relationship with the land and sea

The natural world of the land and sea is central to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander identity and culture.

Aboriginal culture

For Aboriginal people, the land and sea are considered the Mother and giver of life. They have spiritual, religious, economic, social and recreational significance. The natural world provides a link between the Dreaming and the people. This relationship has clearly defined responsibilities and obligations for the people that ensure the survival of the natural world. Each clan group has a role in protecting and maintaining the spirituality of their ‘country’ and its physical features.

Traditionally, Aboriginal people lived off the land and sea. Many were hunter-gatherers, moving with the seasons and carrying only necessary possessions. Knowledge was passed on to members of groups and ‘foods were hunted or gathered in a way which ensured the continuation of a stable ecology and a quality food supply’.1

Much of Aboriginal law is intertwined with this relationship with the land and the sea. The importance of sacred sites and their protection is an integral part of Aboriginal culture. This special relationship to place, to clan groups and the ancestral spirits was formed in the Dreaming.

‘The family clan groups are connected to a larger collective who share a common language, land, culture, history, tradition and customs, sometimes called a nation. The clan group shares Dreaming ancestors, whose spirits are alive in the land. These relationships to family and country identify Aboriginal people and are recorded in Dreaming stories and songs.’2

In walking over the land, returning to the sacred places, performing ceremonies, passing on knowledge and taking care of the country, the people fulfil their cultural obligations to the ancestors. This relationship to country determines how people speak to one another, who speaks about culture and laws and how they are spoken about. These protocols are important to those who are traditional to the country. Travelling across the land involves cultural obligations and respect for the traditional boundaries of neighbouring clan groups. Custom requires visitors to obtain permission to cross the lands of different nations.3

Each individual Aboriginal community was and is responsible for, and belonged to, particular areas of land, islands and sea. Although there were commonalties between groups, the range of ecologies, for example, coastal, river, mountain and desert, led to the development of diverse lifestyles. For example, the Kaurna people of the Adelaide region and the Ngarrindjeri of the Murray Mouth area lived in fertile areas with abundant supplies of food and water. On the other hand, the Pitjatjantjara of the north-west of South Australia needed to know every species of flora and fauna and the location of every waterhole in order to survive in the desert environment.

European settlers had no understanding of how Aboriginal groups related to their ‘country’ or of the complex social organisation within Aboriginal groups. Aboriginal lifestyle and social structure bore no resemblance to European ways and the complexity of the culture was not recognised.

While Aboriginal people regarded the land as sacred and an intricate part of life, the Europeans viewed the land as an asset to be possessed and exploited, to be bought and sold. Aboriginal people were thought to be ‘nomadic’ and easily moved on. They were perceived to be savages with no fixed dwellings, fences, gardens or crops. The resulting conflict caused many groups to be forced off their land despite fierce and violent altercations as Aboriginal people fought to keep their land and to protect sacred sites

Aboriginal people had no alternative but to move into neighbouring areas as they faced starvation or death if they tried to remain on their land where Europeans were settling. The traditional neighbouring inhabitants considered that laws against trespass were being breached, and resisted what they saw as an invasion of their land by other Aboriginal groups and European settlers. The movement of groups onto the land of other groups also caused problems as the land could not sustain larger groups of people. The new groups did not have spiritual ties with the area, signalling the destruction of Aboriginal people, both physically and spiritually.

The land was cleared by settlers to make way for farms, towns and mining operations. The countryside was altered as trees were cleared and fences erected. The British introduced new animals including sheep, cattle, cats, rabbits and foxes. These animals preyed on native animals and grazed on the natural vegetation causing the eventual disappearance of many species of native flora and fauna. Traditional activities like the collection of native plants for medicinal purposes became more difficult. As natural food supplies diminished, Aboriginal people had no other alternative but to kill the settlers’ stock for food, causing conflict and retaliation.

On many mission stations, Aboriginal Elders had their authority taken away and traditional ceremonies and spoken languages were forbidden. The aim of the missionaries was to convert Aboriginal people to Christianity, and to assimilate them into European lifestyles.

Pioneers and pastoralists needed Aboriginal people as cheap labour to work on their stations as stockmen and domestics. Meagre food and clothing rations were provided in payment. This enabled the Aboriginal people to remain in the vicinity of their traditional lands. However many Aboriginal people were not well treated, with documented cases of genocide and people working as slaves, and of women coerced into providing sexual services for European men.

Aboriginal people’s health suffered dramatically after European settlement. Traditional bush foods were replaced with processed European foods which were high in sugar and fat. Alcohol was also introduced, having a devastating affect on personal, family and community wellbeing. Lifestyle and diet change, together with European diseases, adversely affected Aboriginal people and eroded family structures, increased infant mortality and decreased life expectancy.

Torres Strait Islander (TSI) culture

The islands of the Torres Strait have been inhabited for at least 4000 years. The people are Melanesian and related to the people of Papua New Guinea. The Torres Strait Islanders are a culturally distinct group of people who have absorbed and transformed influences from their neighbours. They traded commodities and implements with Cape York Aborigines in the south and Papuans in the north.4

Before European settlement, Islander lifestyle was in harmony with nature, the people living off the land and the sea. The traditional diet varied from island to island but included dugong, fish, shellfish and turtle. Yam, taro, bananas and coconuts were grown in gardens and later, sweet potato, corn and cassava were introduced by Europeans. Being skilled navigators and canoe builders, Islanders have long co-existed with their island environment - the sea, the sky and the land - understanding the moods of the sea and the prevailing trade winds. Islanders have a unique culture among Australia’s people.

Gardening was important not only for subsistence but also to provide food for ceremonies and festivals and to exchange with other Islanders. Considerable ritual was associated with gardening.

‘A person’s prestige could be measured by their ability to produce enough surplus for local consumption or trade, or by their ability to produce ‘show’ gardens, with fruits and vegetables of prodigious size. Gardening techniques were carefully preserved and passed on. Young people would observe their Elders at work and mimic the techniques, thereby mastering them.’5

Local customs were powerfully bound to the environment and wildlife. Pigs were of prime importance, both culturally and as a food source. The sea and weather cycles influenced traditional ways of life, with Island populations meeting and mingling to trade in animal and vegetable products.6

The Queensland government established an administrative centre on Thursday Island in 1877 and formally annexed the Islands in 1879. As the centre for the pearling industry, the Thursday Island settlement grew rapidly and still has the largest population of the Islands.7 Government policy imposed segregation, hotel bans and banned sexual relations between races. It was a policy of separate and isolated development for the Islanders. The specific needs and identity of the Torres Strait Islanders have been ignored until recent developments to address them.8

With the introduction of western culture, traditional life rapidly changed on the Islands. The introduction of alcohol and processed foods adversely affected the health of the Islanders, similarly to mainland Aboriginal people. Today Islanders still travel by canoe and dinghy but air flights are common. The people still go hunting for dugong, turtle, fish, shellfish and crayfish. Before the missionaries arrived in the Torres Strait Islands, people wore grass skirts and bare tops. However, after contact, people were discouraged from wearing traditional clothing and encouraged to cover up. Today, instead of living in round grass huts with coconut palm poles, the people live in western-style houses. They still have gardens and grow taro, yams, mango and ‘wangai’ a type of wild plum. The culture has been maintained and dances are regularly performed using ‘wasikor’ drums, masks and family singers.9

When the pearling industry collapsed after World War II, many Islander people moved to the mainland. There are now some 39 000 Torres Strait Islanders of whom approximately 33 000 live on the Australian mainland. There are communities all over Australia with most concentrated in Brisbane and coastal cities and towns of North Queensland.10


By the late 18th century, there were between 600 and 700 dialects of 200 to 250 languages spoken by the Aboriginal people living in Australia. It is believed that these languages evolved from the one language as Aboriginal people gradually moved out over the continent. Aboriginal people traditionally kept oral records. After European contact, many languages were lost forever when their speakers passed away. Well over 100 of Australia's Aboriginal languages have disappeared and only a few are expected to survive this century.11

However, the Western Desert languages around Alice Springs, Kala Lagaw Ya in the Torres Strait, and a number of the languages in the far north are doing well. Bilingual education is occurring successfully in some communities. Two of the most spoken Aboriginal Australian languages have around 3000 speakers. However, the most commonly used dialect now is Aboriginal English which has evolved since European settlement.

Across the continent, the Australian Aboriginal languages share much of their vocabulary and have similarly unusual sounds. Membership of a particular language group is of great social and cultural significance for Aboriginal people – as land, language and people are intricately bound.12

Languages ‘belonged’ to tracts of land and according to Aboriginal tradition, had often been bestowed by Dreaming creator figures. Often neighbouring clans would have similar forms of speech, which could be called dialects of the same language. Many Aboriginal people are multi-lingual, speaking their own language as well as neighbouring languages, and these days English as well. Many words from Aboriginal languages which describe the environment and native species have been incorporated into Standard Australian English. Place names are some of the most common connections to Aboriginal language and heritage.

The establishment of permanent communities in missions, reserves, stations and Aboriginal communities where different languages were spoken encouraged the emergence of one language as the lingua franca. Children in these communities tended to learn the dominant language that allowed them to communicate with the most people.13

While many Aboriginal people speak Standard Australian English there are also many varieties of Aboriginal English. Aboriginal English mostly uses English vocabulary but incorporates sounds, words, features of grammar and many cultural meanings from the Aboriginal languages.14 Aboriginal English is a unique social, cultural and historical record, and its use links speakers with one another and with this common tradition.15

Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians largely live in two different worlds. Links between the two worlds only occur in special circumstances like sport, work, education or projects. Non-Aboriginal people are mostly unaware of the Aboriginal world. However, being a minority group, Aboriginal people need to be aware of the non-Aboriginal world to do such things as shop, go to work or to school. The world view of Aboriginal people with little exposure outside their communities is based on Aboriginal English which is not always understood by non-Aboriginal people. This can lead to misunderstanding when speakers from both worlds think they have understood the others’ meaning but in fact they have missed the true meaning of the conversation.

Shared experience and knowledge connect Aboriginal people to family and community circles. In conversations several people may speak at the same time, contributing to the information which they all share. Speakers will assume what needs to be explained and what is already known. In Aboriginal English the speaker is under no obligation to provide all the information required for understanding. Aboriginal English values economy of words. Short phrases may express a lot of meaning and people do not require lengthy explanations about their planned activities. In Aboriginal society, conversation is ongoing and listeners are under no obligation to listen or give feedback to the speaker with nods or gestures. Aboriginal speakers do not require eye contact and in traditional groups eye contact is often inappropriate.

In many remote areas the rules for politeness and avoidance reflect traditional languages.People avoid speaking to families-in-law and use a special vocabulary, which could include sign language, when speaking with them. These are so called mother-in-law speech registers, used only in the presence of certain close relatives. Mother-in-law languages, or avoidance languages, are a feature of many Australian Aboriginal languages, whereby in the presence of certain socially determined relatives it is taboo to use everyday language; instead a special language must be used. Children are respectful of their parents’ generation but are more relaxed with grandparents and their peers, where a great deal of joking, teasing and innuendo are enjoyed.

The rules of politeness can be achieved by treating older people with respect and reserve. It is important to be aware that reserve from younger people does not necessarily mean a cool reception. It is best to introduce yourself from a little distance; for example ‘Can I introduce myself?’

There are also commonly used speech taboos during extended periods of mourning or ceremony that have led to the development of a large number of Aboriginal sign languages. For example, the names of people recently deceased are avoided for a period of time. In general the overuse of personal names is avoided. People address each other by a kin, nick name or the community word for no-name.16

Aboriginal people do not, as a rule, interrogate each other as English speakers tend to do, but rely on each other to be co-operative in communicating information. Direct questions may be interpreted as rudeness and can be more politely phrased as statements of knowledge; for example, ‘I am trying to find my way to the office’. If you want to find out something it is helpful to give something in return. For example, spend time developing rapport and a relationship with people before asking questions. Aboriginal people tolerate more silence in communication than the average Western person. It is important to not feel compelled to fill the silence, but to be content to wait and listen.A visitor attempting to use Aboriginal English may run the risk of being seen as patronising and insulting. When speaking to people who don’t speak English as a first language it is helpful to speak slowly and clearly, avoiding pidgin or baby talk and not speaking louder than normal.

TSI Languages

Three main languages are spoken across the Torres Strait. Kala Lagaw Ya and Meriam Mir are the traditional languages of the Torres Strait and are still spoken, but the English-based creole Yumpla Tok has become the most commonly used language. Kala Lagaw Ya is believed to be related to mainland Aboriginal Languages, has four dialects and is spoken in the western and central Islands of the Torres Strait and parts of Cape York Peninsula. Meriam Mir is spoken in the eastern islands and is linked to languages on the Papuan coast.17

The Dreaming

The Dreaming encompasses all that is known and understood about life. It is the way Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people explain the beginning of life, through the actions of their Spiritual Ancestors who created all the animals and plants, as well as the geographical features of the land and sea including the mountains, the rivers, trees, rocks and stars. As the Ancestors journeyed through the land and sea, they performed deeds and set down the laws that shape the values, beliefs and attitudes of the people. The Dreaming underpins the relationships Aboriginal people have with the land and sea, with each other and with the whole living environment. Music, dance and story telling play an integral part in the handing down of knowledge, beliefs and values associated with local areas.

Aboriginal people understand that the Dreaming is a continuing time; the Dreaming is in the past, the present and the future.18 The Dreaming stories of the Ancestors criss-cross every part of this country. There is no hierarchy in which humanity is at the pinnacle. Humanity is just one part of the overall cycle of life, living with the seasons. The earth is a sacred relative in a relationship based on nurturing, caring and sharing. From birth, Aboriginal people learn of the sacredness of all living things. Every aspect of the natural world is honoured and respected. The spirit of creation is in all things, for all life forms are related. This philosophy of respect for all living things is central to Aboriginal spirituality and is what kept the land in pristine condition.19

The land is sacred because the essence of Aboriginal spirituality lies in the earth; the spirit guides are resting in the mountains, in the rocks, in the rivers, the sea and everywhere in the land. If these spirits are disturbed, so too are the natural order and cycles of life. Where sacred sites are destroyed, the people believe the Ancestors are disturbed and will no longer protect or provide for them. By neglecting their spiritual and cultural obligations the people bring disharmony to the country and the community.20

The land is known intimately; every rock, every beach and every river has its name and is remembered in the Dreaming and today. The land is both nurturer and teacher from which all life forms grow; all life is inseparably linked. The Aboriginal relationship to the land carries with it both obligations and rights as traditional custodians. Some of these responsibilities are made known to the members of Aboriginal community through songs and ceremony; for example explaining what can or cannot be taken. When traditional custodians approach their country they will talk to the spirit Ancestor of the place seeking permission for the action required.

TSI Dreaming

Torres Strait Islanders have many creation stories to explain the origins of their islands, reefs, sea and all the animals and plants important to them. As in Aboriginal Australia, many geographical features visible today provide reminders of the creation journeys of ancestral beings.

The people throughout the Torres Strait are united by their connection to the Tagai. The Tagai consists of stories which are the cornerstone of Torres Strait Islanders' spiritual beliefs. These stories focus on the stars and identify Torres Strait Islanders as sea people who share a common way of life. The instructions of the Tagai provide order in the world, ensuring that everything has a place.21

These creation stories explain the origins of the natural world, and form the basis of Torres Strait Islander peoples' customary laws. They also form the basis of relations between people, and between people and their environment. 22


The first Australians built a rich and diverse culture. Their laws, spiritual life, religion, relationships between people and relationships to the land and sea, plants and animals form the lore, which is based in the Dreaming, an oral tradition about the creation. The lore gives guidelines for all aspects of life. For example, many geographical features visible today are seen by Aboriginal people as sacred areas that must be respected as confirmation of their creation beliefs.

Each language group had their own stories that connected the people spiritually to the Dreaming. The movements of the ancestral beings clearly defined group boundaries. The people had no reason to seek possession of land and sea outside of these boundaries because of their spiritual ties. The Dreaming laid down the lore: laws of life, the roles of men and women, personal conduct, relationships and marriage.

Aboriginal people generally lived in small groups comprising several families. Complex social and kinship structures were strictly maintained and observed. The Ancestors gave humans a moiety, or skin classification, a system that provided Aboriginal people with a means of organising appropriate marriage partners. Men and women had clearly defined roles and some members of the group had more responsibility than others through ceremonial rites. They ensured that appropriate knowledge was maintained by passing it on to certain younger members. Knowledge was not automatically passed down to younger members of the group but only those who were intended to gain knowledge received it. Emphasis was placed on social and spiritual relationships rather than the acquisition of material possessions. Work was undertaken to meet the immediate needs of the group, rather than to accumulate assets. Occasionally all the people of a particular community would come together with other groups for social and ceremonial purposes.

Ceremonies are an integration of song, dance, art and mime which regenerate Aboriginal communities’ understanding of expected behaviour, set down in the law by the Ancestors. The ceremonies are Aboriginal life in action, involving the serious business of maintaining the law. They provide a forum for the settling of disputes over land, marriages, hunting and gathering rights and a whole range of community conflicts. They are a process of teaching cultural knowledge and spirituality and passing it on to the next generation. They provide information about environmental factors and reminders about taboos for families and children.23 The hunting and gathering lifestyle practised by Aboriginal people was a self-supporting economy to which all members of the group contributed. Knowledge of the land and sea, particularly its flora and fauna and the seasons was vital in locating food, medicine, and materials for technological purposes used in everyday life.

The spiritual significance of ceremonies lies in their respect for the land. A ceremony is a collective act of the people honouring and celebrating the ancestors and the Dreaming. As well as reaffirmation, ceremonies are a celebration for the renewal of life and the changing of the seasons. Songs are sung of the creation, the people’s relationship to the Dreaming and their place in the land. Songs can be like a map of the country and are able to record details in the landscape. Songs are also considered medicine which can heal. Some of these songs record the original instructions from the Dreaming. The law is sung in song and spoken in stories, sung by the ancestors and passed on through kinship. The laws and spiritual beliefs were not written down; the knowledge is passed on from one generation to the next in dances, songs, stories, dreams and paintings. The songs are a record of Aboriginal culture, history and laws.24

Aboriginal law and spirituality is a layered system of knowledge. Some knowledge is for the public to know, while other layers of knowledge are secret and sacred, and are kept by those instructed in ceremonies and those who have had knowledge passed directly onto them. Aspects of Aboriginal law are veiled in secrecy. Some of the men’s ceremonial business is never revealed to women, and also some of the sacred ceremonial business of the women’s law is never conveyed to men, or the public at large. Secrecy provides a means of protecting and maintaining knowledge of the law and spirituality in a way that is ‘proper’ and in accordance with Aboriginal protocols.25

Law travels across the country and communication of it is a complex process of negotiation between custodians who hold the law as it crosses their traditional country. It is not simply a process of telling a story; there are protocols which apply. The traditional custodian for a story or song may decide to sanction or not to sanction the teaching of it, in accordance with custom and tradition. The maintenance of the oral tradition is strengthened by passing songs and stories through the ‘right line’ and relationships, and not leaving them open for appropriation or misinterpretation in the public domain.26

TSI Lore

Torres Strait Islanders have always been deeply religious. Prior to European contact, a number of ‘culture heroes’ or religious figures were worshipped including Kuiam, a part Aboriginal/Torres Strait Islander; and the Malo-Bomai Cult, four brothers from Irian Jaya. Other secretive religions existed such as the Waiet on Waier Island.

The spirituality of the Islanders was given form through the creation of ritual objects, in particular ceremonial masks which were used in dances. These were used in various mortuary, increase (abundance), initiation and cult practices associated with the numerous Islander gods. Composite effigies, or ritual objects, were used in increase ceremonies. Social interaction also played an important role in Torres Strait Islander traditions where feasting and dancing was a popular pastime.

Traditional law varied from island to island and local elders maintained respect for traditional codes of behaviour and religious events. Sacred places were protected and rights of passage observed with people restricted from entry to certain places.

In 1871, Missionaries arrived at Erub (Darnley Island) and commenced evangelising the Torres Strait Islanders. This event known as ‘The Coming of the Light’ marks the official introduction of Christianity to the islands. The influence of the missionaries was profound, changing value systems, suppressing traditional religious practices and how Torres Strait Islanders expressed their culture. Dance has emerged as the pre-eminent cultural practice around which secular activities revolve.27


Australian Broadcasting Corporation 2006, Island life: Torres Strait, viewed 21 April 2006, .

Australian Museum Online 2004, Indigenous Australia: Spirituality, viewed 21 April 2006, .

Cahill, Rosemary 1999, Solid English, Education Department of Western Australia, Perth.

Cairns Regional Gallery, Far North Queensland 1998, Ilan Pasin: Torres Strait art, viewed 21 April 2006, .

Malcolm, Ian 1999, Two-way English, Education Department of Western Australia, Perth.

Parliament of Australia, Senate 2004, Additional estimates 2002-2003 (February 2003): Immigration and multicultural and indigenous affairs portfolio: Answers to questions on notice: Nos. 141-146, viewed 31 March 2006, .

Peters, Eddie 2006, Interview, March, Interactive Ochre Steering Committee, Australia.

Singh, Sarina et al. 2001, We can do it!, The needs of urban dwelling Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, Commonwealth of Australia.

Smyth, Dermot & Sutherland, Johanna 1994, Understanding country: The importance of land and sea in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander societies, viewed 31 March 2006, .

Wikipedia contributors 2006a, 'Australian Aboriginal languages', Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, viewed 20 April 2006, .

Wikipedia contributors 2006b, 'Indigenous Australians', Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, viewed 20 April 2006, .

1 Singh 2001, p. 100.

2 Singh 2001, p. 100.

3 Singh 2001, p. 101.

4 Singh 2001, p. 335.

5 Singh 2001, p. 95.

6 ABC 2006.

7 Singh 2001, p. 336.

8 Singh 2001, p. 337.

9 Peters 2006, interview.

10 Singh 2001, p. 16.

11 Wikipedia 2006a.

12 Singh 2001, p. 113.

13 Singh 2001, p. 114.

14 Singh 2001, p. 115.

15 Malcolm 1999, p. 3.

Malcolm 1999, pp. 32 & 33.

Singh 2001, p. 115.

16 Singh 2001, p. 116.

Singh 2001, p. 116.

17 Parliament of Australia, Senate 2004.

18 Singh 2001, p. 106.

19 Singh 2001, p. 107.

20 Singh 2001, p. 107.

21 Australian Museum Online 2004.

22 Smyth & Sutherland 1994.

23 Singh 2001, p. 110.

24 Singh 2001, p. 110.

25 Singh 2001, p. 111.

26 Singh 2001, p. 111.

27 Cairns Regional Gallery 1998.

Part of the Australian Flexible Learning Framework Interactive Ochre

© Commonwealth of Australia 2006 Traditional Perspectives

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