‘The Dreaming’ is a phrase that most Australians are familiar with. The Dreaming is a spiritual or religious concept that refers to creation events of the past, but that also embraces the present and the future. For Aboriginal people, the Dreaming refers to period (a time beyond human memory or even before humans existed) when ancestral beings are said to have spread across the continent, creating landscapes and geographic features, as well as human society and its rules for living, language and customs. Tired by all their endeavours, these beings eventually ‘died’ as bodies, but their spiritual essence remains, in the landscape, the sky, and the waters.
Many of us retain this essential religious outlook. We believe that the life-giving and life sustaining powers of ancestral beings exist at important sites to this day. Both as individuals and as members of social groups, we have a great many different connections to particular ‘Dreamings’, such as plants, animals and other elements of nature. The Dreaming is an enduring life-force, even though individuals come and go, and lives change.
Torres Strait Islanders believe in, and are connected to one another, as are the people of southern New Guinea and northern Queensland, by cult heroes. These heroes gave us laws to live by, and laws that taught respect for each other, the earth and the sea. The ancestors travelled through water, earth, oil, sea and air. We, too, are intimately connected to the land and sea, which is reinforced through our contemporary land management, our gardens, fishing, turtle and dugong hunting.
Our connections to our land
We often use the English word ‘country’ to describe our land, and it is a fundamental element of our culture and identity. Our connection to country is central to our spirituality as well as our cultural and physical needs. Many communities are working to re-establish the sense of belonging to country that the forces of colonisation have damaged, through land councils, community and caring for country programs.
Our connections to particular sites and our homelands is undeniable. We have ownership that comes with obligations and responsibilities for particular areas of land. There are recognised mental and physical health benefits from involvement in caring for country.
Despite its size, the Australian continent lacked plants and animals that could be domesticated and so our traditional mode of social and economic organisation was hunting and gathering. Hunting and gathering depends on mobility so as not to exhaust resources at any one place, and to take advantage of a range of ecotypes.
Our rights to land were recognised by the High Court’s Mabo decision in 1992, which said that, according to Australian law, Indigenous people have rights to land; rights that existed before colonisation and endure today.
Prior to the mid-nineteenth century Torres Strait Islanders’ economic systems, worldview, and social processes were autonomous and quite separate from the mainland. Islander life loosely formed a very broad culture that was linked by trade and ceremony, however each island group maintained their own cultural and linguistic idiosyncrasies, distinct from their neighbours.
Traditional Torres Strait culture was regulated by senior men and organised through totemic clan membership. It was based on kinship and reciprocal obligation. Each community was traditionally divided into a number of descent (or clan) groups that traced descent through the father’s line (similar to southern Papua) and wives were drawn from groups other than one’s own.
Islanders lived in established communities and village life revolved around hunting, fishing, gardening, and trading relationships, with emphases varying according to local conditions. Rivalry was fierce between some Islanders, some of it more a matter of fighting for show than actual fighting, but fear of sorcery was real. Despite this, the Islanders often came together to trade, for rituals (including dancing), to enhance social relationships and for enjoyment.
Life was to change with the Coming of the Light. Christian missionaries arrived in 1871 and put an end to some of the old ways of life, the warfare and the old cults. By 1879 all the islands of the Torres Strait were legally annexed to the Colony of Queensland by 1879. At that point, the Islanders became British subjects and their islands became Crown lands.
Today, Christianity remains strong in Torres Strait Islander communities, and a major ceremony celebrates the Coming of the Light. Recreating the arrival of the first missionaries on Erub (Darnley Island), this ritual is performed by Islanders each year when they come together, whether in the Islands or on the mainland.
Living off the land and sea
We used, and continue to use, the resources of both the land and sea. Traditionally, some of us travelled widely, using our extensive knowledge of the seasons and weather to work out when the best time was to move to a different location. All groups knew the movements of others and larger groups gathered for ceremonies or to feast on particular foods that were plentiful at certain times of year. Because we were frequently on the move, our toolkits were lightweight and multipurpose. Hunters used carved wooden hunting tools like spears, clubs and boomerangs. Women carried digging sticks and wooden containers or baskets.
We still catch or gather many of the traditional foods today: turtle, dugong, shellfish, magpie geese, grain, fruits, tubers, file snakes, oysters, mussels, duck, kangaroo, echidna, murnong (yam daisy), eels, salmon, whiting, abalone, mullet and shark. Some foods, like dugong and turtle, are found only in the north while others, like abalone and eels, are more common in the south of the country.
We have vast stores of knowledge about how to live on this continent, and part of this is revealed in the diaries of the non-Indigenous explorers, which in some cases offer detailed descriptions of hunting and gathering activities, like firestick farming.
Aboriginal traditional owner and elder of Nyikina country, John Watson, shows his grandchildren his special lands in Western Australia’s Kimberley area. © Photo, Lyndon Mechielsen, 10368874, Newspix / News Ltd / 3rd Party Managed Reproduction & Supply Rights.
The Myth of Widul and Marte and their brother Umai.
Collecting Bush Tucker.
The Story of Wanka Manapulpa Minyma (The Trapdoor Spider Woman) as told by Pantjiti (Mary McLean), from the Western Desert of Central Australia. Reproduced under licence from The Dreaming Series produced by Aboriginal Nations Australia. The story is based on one of Pantjitis paintings. Pantjitis' language is Ngaatitatjarra. © Aboriginal Nations Australia 2012. For more information on The Dreaming stories go to www.thedreamingstories.com.au.
Kylie Sambo’s song ‘Muckaty’ protests against the proposed nuclear waste site at Muckaty Station. Song and video © Kylie Sambo.
Many of us in regional and remote areas have complex social and familial kinship systems that structure people's relationships, obligations and behaviour towards each other. In other areas, communities affected by removal from parents, institutionalisation and other factors have been far more dislocated. Government policies of forced removal have left many of us not knowing where we came from or who our families are, bringing issues of identity and belonging into question.
For those of us who were removed from our homes and families, organisations dedicated to reuniting families have been able to assist people in finding lost relatives, both a challenging and rewarding experience. The Link-up program provides a national network of offices that help people to trace their family history and potentially reunite with their families. The Family History Unit at AIATSIS trains Link-up workers.