our societies

our-societies_gallery_1.html our-societies_gallery_2.html our-societies_gallery_3.html our-societies_gallery_4.html our-societies_gallery_5.html

Our Worldview

‘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.

Island communities

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.


When anthropologist Alfred Haddon visited our islands, he noted that stone fish traps lined the shores of ‘practically every island’ of the Torres Strait. During high tide the walls of the fish traps are completely submerged. As the tide falls, exposing the walls, the fish are confined within the traps. As the tide drops even further the fish can be easily captured by net or spear, or occasionally poison.

Recently the people on Erub have had to compete with feral dogs on the island stealing fish from the traps. Introduced species such as cats, dogs, pigs, rats and deer have had a tremendous impact on the island ecosystems of the Torres Strait.

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.

an elder with his family

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.

We honour and respect the role of our elders, who look after the land in accordance with the directions of our ancestors. Drugs and alcohol abuse have undermined the authority of elders in many communities, but we know from experience that when a community returns to good health, good education and lasting jobs, the voices of our elders are also reinstated.

icon to read more READ MORE

The Myth of Widul and Marte and their brother Umai.

The Dreaming.

Collecting Bush Tucker.

icon to watch a video WATCH

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.

The Dreaming has different meanings for different Aboriginal groups. The Dreaming can be seen as the embodiment of Aboriginal creation which gives meaning to everything: the essence of Aboriginal belief about creation, spiritual and physical existence. It establishes the rules governing relations between the people, the land and all things for Aboriginal people.

Aboriginal Nations Australia was established in the nineties and is an independent animation company whose objective was to employ and train Aboriginal animators to work on the production of a series of Dreaming stories selected from different parts of Australia.

The stories from The Dreaming were sourced from many Aboriginal communities, and the permission to tell them and for them to be animated by Aboriginal Nations was obtained from community elders and community councils.

A team of Aboriginal artists were trained in the techniques of traditional and computer assisted animation. Each story was researched in-depth so that the animators could accurately portray the content of each story. One important consideration was to look at the art produced from the area and to use this art as a basis to develop the style and the uniqueness of each story. Royalties are paid from sales to the storytellers and their communities.


Kylie Sambo’s song ‘Muckaty’ protests against the proposed nuclear waste site at Muckaty Station. Song and video © Kylie Sambo.

Since its nomination as a potential nuclear waste site in 2007, the traditional owners of Muckaty Station in the Northern Territory have been actively fighting to protect and ensure their connection to country legally is recognised.

The station was approved as a potential site to store low- and medium-level nuclear waste by the federal government after it was nominated by the Northern Land Council on behalf of a family it recognised as the legal land owners (something that is currently being contested).

Kylie Sambo, a hip hop artist, and one of the traditional owners of Muckaty has written and released a song in protest against the waste dump. When talking about her resistance to the dump, Kylie says ‘…it’s our land and it’s going to ruin it for future generations. Everyone knows that we’re connected to our land. It’s the only thing that keeps our culture strong.’

our-societies_gallery_6.html our-societies_gallery_7.html

Family ties

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.



Bush tucker is the food we lived on before colonisation and many of us in regional and remote areas still collect and eat bush tucker as an important part of our diet. It includes edible plants, nuts, tubers, fruits, seafood and game. We know the best time for harvesting in our country and we select edible, palatable, or tasty foods. Harvesting and preparation methods have been passed down by word-of-mouth to the successive generations.

Matutjara woman, Jessie Lennon, born near Kingoonya in the Western Desert, South Australia, in the 1920s, describes many bush foods in I’m the One that Know this Country!: malu (kangaroo), kalaya (emu), bird eggs, ngintaka (perentie lizard), maku (witchetty grub), tjala (sweet ant honey), quandongs, wild tomatoes, wild banana and wakati (flour made from bush seeds). When hunting for malu near Lake Pirinya (Philipson) south east of Coober Pedy, she recalls:

‘Old People say, “Don’t you fellas [children] make too much noise!” They wait for emu too. A lot of sweet tucker they want. Kalaya to the water and BANG! — kill two or three so a big mob of people can eat.’

In contrast, Jessie remembers food from Ooldea Mission: ‘Mai wiya nyangatja kulini! Hey, this isn’t food! Mai tjulpuku! — This is wheat for chooks!’


Mussolini Harvey, a Yanyuwa man from the Gulf of Carpentaria, tells it this way:

'In our language, Yanyuwa, we call the Dreaming Yijan. The Dreamings made our Law or narnu-Yuwa. This Law is the way we live, our rules. This Law is our ceremonies, our songs, our stories; all of these things came from the Dreaming. One thing that I can tell you though is that our Law is not like European law which is always changing — new government, new laws; but our Law cannot change, we did not make it. The Law was made by the Dreamings many, many years ago and given to our ancestors and they gave it to us.

The Dreamings are our ancestors, no matter if they are fish, birds, men, women, animals, wind or rain. It was these Dreamings that made our Law. All things in our country have Law, they have ceremony and song, and they have people who are related to them.

The Dreamings named all of the country and the sea as they travelled, they named everything that they saw. As the Dreamings travelled they put spirit children over the country, we call these spirit children ardirri. It is because of these spirit children that we are born, the spirit children are on the country, and we are born from the country. In our ceremonies we wear marks on our bodies, they come from the Dreaming too, we carry the design that the Dreamings gave to us.'

Nganyintja Ilyatjari, a Pitjantjatjara woman from the country around Mount Davies, describes it this way:

'Our country, the country out there near Mount Davies, is full of sacred places. The Kangaroo Dreaming has been there since the beginning, the Wild Fig Dreaming has been there since the beginning, many other women’s Dreamings are also there. In other places men and women’s Dreamings were together from a long time ago.'

Source: DB Rose, 1996, Nourishing Terrains: Australian Aboriginal views of landscape and wilderness, ©Australian Heritage Commission, Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts, ACT.


Mussolini Harvey, a Yanyuwa man from the Gulf of Carpentaria, tells it this way:

'Once upon a time, two sisters, Widul and Marte, lived with their brother Umai at the north-west end of Mabuiag Island. Widul had a daughter named Sarabar, and Marte had a daughter named Iadi.

'One day Widul and Marte quarrelled. Widul threw a spear at Marte, which split her down the middle, at the same instant as Marte threw several spears at Widul. Marte’s spears split the top of Widul’s skull and struck into it.

'Umai put a stop to the fight between the two sisters — as their brother, he had the right, and duty to do it — by moving them far apart from each other and sending them to places of his choosing on the reef which surrounds Mabuiag.

'The sisters and their daughters became islands. Umai turned to stone and has ever since stood guard over them at the edge of the passage through the reef between Marte and another island, Aipus. He can be seen at low tide. Widul stays south of Umai and keeps her small daughter, Sarabar, behind her. Marte’s place is north of him, and she also keeps her daughter, Iadi, behind her. For a long time, pandanus trees grew at the top of Marte — they were the spears that were thrown at her by her sister, Widul.'

Source: M Lawrie, 'Widul and Marte and their brother Umai', Myth and Legends of Torres Strait, University of Queensland Press, QLD.