Aboriginal culture dates back more than 65,000 years. It existed long before Stonehenge, predates the Pyramids and is older than the Acropolis. As a result, Australian Aboriginal people are the world’s oldest living culture, and their unique identity and spirit continue to exist in every corner of the country.
Culture is about a people’s way of life – their knowledge, beliefs, values, characteristics of social behaviour, and customs all make the culture of a group’s way of life. Culture includes things like how we do weddings and funerals, the food we like to eat, the way we dress and the music we like. Culture is passed down from generation to generation, and while cultural practices and beliefs change and evolve, many of the fundamental aspects remain the same.
While we may have a different political or religious belief to our parents or grandparents, there are elements in what we value or do that we can trace back to them. These cultural elements influence who we are, how we think about the world, and how we operate in society.
For example, the events we celebrate, our food, clothing, and how we approach births, deaths, and marriages are similar to or different from other cultures.
Australian Indigenous culture has a unique view of the world. They see the world through the five interconnected elements of land, family, law, ceremony, and language. The people and the land merge – they are part of each other connected through the kinship system. This connection comes with specific roles and responsibilities enshrined in the law and observed through the ceremony.
Land - Connection to Country
Every part of Australia is considered Aboriginal land. The idea of “being on country” is central to the Aboriginal worldview. Spiritual links and obligations of care and custodianship to community, family, tradition and country bind people to a particular land territory. The land is not just soil or rocks, or minerals. It’s a living environment that sustains and is sustained by people and culture.
The land (or country) defines Aboriginal people, so diversity is a significant part of Aboriginal Australia. For example, aboriginal people from the coast describe themselves as “saltwater people”, those from river areas are “freshwater people”, and those from central arid regions are “desert people”. The difference is because Aboriginal people believe their ancestral spirits emerged from the earth and the sky. These ancestral beings are their hero-creators, and it’s through their journeys, Aboriginal people believe all living things are created. These creation forces are constantly present, hence the strong cultural connection between Aboriginal people, the land and place.
This deep relationship between people and the land is often described as ‘connection to Country’.
In Victoria, the Kulin nations are the five language groups traditionally lived in the Port Phillip region. These language groups were connected through shared moieties – the Bunjil (wedge-tailed eagle) and Waa (crow). Within each language group, members of the community identified with one or the other of these moieties. It was their moiety that determined the pattern for marriage between individuals, clans and tribes. Community members had to find spouses from another language group of the opposite moiety, either within or outside their own wurrung (language group).
The five language groups of the Kulin are:
* Boon Wurrung
* Dja Dja Wurrung
The Wadawurrung lived around today’s Torquay district and beyond. They ranged over a wide area according to seasonal food sources, ceremonial obligations, and trading relationships. The people conscientiously managed their land by building substantial houses, cultivating root vegetables, and promoting grasslands by using controlled winter fire to encourage the best conditions for plants and game while eliminating the risk of wildfire in summer. In Wadawurrung culture, certain animals were symbolic. Examples include: the turtle symbolised love, the goanna for a journey, platypus for wisdom and the barramundi for freedom.
In Kulin mythology, Bunjil, the eagle or eagle-hawk, is the creator deity, culture hero and ancestral being. Waa, in contrast, is a trickster character but also an ancestral being. The Kulin people believed that during the Dreamtime, Bunjil took shelter in a cave located in Gariwerd, now known as the Black Range Scenic Reserve. Bunjil’s Shelter is a popular tourist attraction and one of the region’s most significant Aboriginal rock art sites.
Watch these videos to understand the importance of land. Indigenous people from Victoria, Queensland and the Northern Territory share how they understand and relate to the land. They help us understand why land is important to them and how it’s relevant to all people living in Australia today.
- Land Rights
- Native Title
- The fight for Land Rights
- Terra nullius
- Indigenous Land Use
- Australia’s Untold Stories
Kinship systems define where a person fits into the community, binding people together in relationships of sharing and obligation. These systems may vary across communities, but they serve similar functions across all social groupings. Kinship defines roles and responsibilities for raising and educating children and moral and financial support structures within the community.
In traditional societies, languages were linked directly to their country, and there was no common language across the hundreds of the First Nations. People might have had some understanding of their neighbours’ languages, but generally, it was a person’s own mother tongue that expressed identity within their own country. In particular, caring for country through ceremony required the maintenance of the local language.
This map attempts to represent the language, social or nation groups of Aboriginal Victoria. It shows only the general locations of larger groupings of people, including clans, dialects, or individual languages.
Aboriginal people feel a great sense of loss that the many languages once spoken are now endangered due to the impact of colonisation despite many language revival programs across Australia.
Traditional law applies across every area of life, governing relationships, ceremony, seasons of the year, flora and fauna, as well as punishments when the law is breached. Caring for country and caring for family are all covered by the law, and everything flourishes when the law is kept correctly.
At the time of colonisation, there were over 350 distinct Australian social groups and a similar number of languages. While there were no fences or visible boundaries, the groups had clear boundaries separating their country from other groups. Aboriginal protocol dictates that people are welcomed upon entering a new country. This ‘Welcome to Country’ could be a verbal welcome, song or walking through a smoke offering, which gives the visitor safe passage and protection. Today, a ‘Welcome to Country’ is becoming a regular part of mainstream Australian life and is a sign of respect for the enduring connection of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to their land and the land now known as Australia.
There are many different kinds of ceremonies in traditional cultures, such as gender-specific initiations, caring for country through the performance of sacred songs and practices, communal celebration, protection of sacred things in secret rites, and reconciliation ceremonies. These activities bind people together in various ways, reinforcing the networks of responsibility within the community. However, when ceremonies aren’t carefully maintained, the country suffers, and its people become disorientated.
Its forms and practices have been profoundly influenced by the impact of colonialism, both past and present.
Some Indigenous Australians share the religious beliefs and values of religions introduced into Australia from other cultures worldwide, mainly Europe. But for most people, religious beliefs are derived from a sense of belonging to the land, sea, other people, and culture.
The form and expression of spirituality differs between Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders. For example, aboriginal spirituality mainly derives from the stories of the Dreaming, while Torres Strait Islander spirituality draws upon the stories of the Tagai.
* The Missions
* The Dreaming
* Dreaming Stories