Aboriginal belief systems and spirituality

BikiCrumbs: Aboriginal bel…nd spirituality

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The nature of Aboriginal spirituality:


  • Capital "D" in Dreaming
  • "Aboriginal people" not "Aborigines"

The Dreaming as being fundamental to Aboriginal cultures and societies

The Dreaming is the spiritual concept of purpose, time, connections and spirit.

  • Encompassed spiritual knowledge, past, present and future
  • Explains all life, the connections between people, land and spirit, and is expressed as a continuing journey of growth and learning. There are always more secrets, special knowledge to gain as one grows older.
  • The Dreaming carries responsibility to protect and preserve the spirit of the country and the life forms that are part of it.
  • The Dreaming influences codes of behaviour, law, family structure, sacred duties and responsibilities.
  • Contains different meaning for different Aboriginal people.
  • Dreaming is better translated to ‘Law’; ‘Eternality’; ‘Tradition’.
  • Aboriginal people have no sacred text but it is really all in the ‘Dreaming’.
  • The Dreaming is the beginning of all things, when everything was formed, more correctly referred to events and places rather than time (western).
  • Aboriginal sacred stories
  • The Dreaming is the unseen world, is not obscene and in the pass, it gives life and reality to the visible world.
  • Experienced in songs, stories, rituals and symbols
  • Can be personal or communal, ‘my’ Dreaming or ‘the’ Dreaming

The Dreaming is a complex concept of fundamental importance to Aboriginal culture; it embraces the creative era long past (when ancestral beings roamed the instituted Aboriginal society) as well as the present and the future. It is the centre of their "religion" and life, a concept of how the world works.

Aboriginal spirituality and its inextricable connection to the land

  • Transcendent: ultimate reality is beyond the limits of the physical earth
  • Immanent: reality resides in the sacred places and the stores of ‘my country’
  • Nearly all Aboriginal art is about ‘My Country’
  • The Aboriginal education system is largely based on teaching people about their relationship with the land. People learn and express this connection in all aspects of themselves.

In an Aboriginal way of being, everything is connected; land, people and spirit. ‘Country’ is a word used to describe an area of land in which a number of Aboriginal families live:

  • Aboriginal people belong to their own country
  • People are taught about their country from a very early age, through stories, dance, music, song and work
  • The identification with ‘my country’ occurs on many levels: from social interaction, to the deeply spiritual.
  • Aboriginal spirituality is grounded in direct links to one’s country
  • As people grow in wisdom and understanding so does their sense of ‘country’

The Dreaming is reflected by the whole environment. Humans are unified with the environment.

The Aboriginal people are part of the land and it is part of them.

Aboriginal people regard land as sacred, formed during the Dreaming as the journeys of the Ancestor beings

Different groups have different beliefs but they all share in the common belief that their ancestors created the environment around them and ascended into the stars.

To Aboriginal people, the land is alive with the power of Ancestors who live in it. As long as the land lives, so do the Ancestors, for indigenous Australian the land is the core of all spirituality.

Ownership of land means responsibility to care and nurture the land.

Land is regarded as a sacred trust, preserve life in a timeless cycle.

There is an economic use and ritual association when it comes to land use.

Ritual Estate: land where a group has responsibility over. (aka "my country") Ritual Estate contains sites of spiritual or sacred sites

Ownership of land is based upon the division and distribution of ritual responsibility for land, rather than the rights to use and occupy the land. Kinship extends to the land and all the life it supports – everyone is related.

The diversity of expression of Aboriginal belief systems and spirituality today

Aboriginal culture and history covers a vast amount of time and space. Aboriginal people take great pride in their personal and group identity. They recognise each other as "one people".

Aboriginal people have been in Australia for at least 40 000 years (some sources date occupation at over 68.00 years- http://cogweb.ucla.edu/ep/Mungo_Man.html) and have developed their way of life in this land.

Before European colonisation they had contact with Muslim Indonesians (approx. 230 years ago). Their way of life is best described as nomadic or semi-nomadic, surviving through hunting and gathering and using stone tools. Because of this, they were culturally uniform and they had no attachment to the land and made little use of it (from a European sense). Therefore James Cook stated that the continent is ‘terra nullius’ but when he landed, he faced spears and fire.

The Aboriginal nations had several hundred distinct languages (2/3 of which are now extinct) along with songs, stories, dances, ceremonies and painting which are all different depending on their complex law (which is intrinsically linked to the Dreaming.) But even though they are so different, they share cultures which are highly developed, deeply religious and closely associated with nature and the land.


  • Expression of belief and sacred representation of the creation and workings of the universe
  • Rock paintings thousands of years old are believed to be left by ancestor beings
  • Paintings connect Aboriginal artists with the dreaming
  • Most is a form of a map of ‘my country’, being abstract, mythological symbols (circles, lines) convey different meanings require deep inside knowledge


  • There is no written literature, but a vast store of oral stories passed from generation to generation with various versions of stories e.g. to amuse children but also to teach them, women have their own stories, males grow up and are told stories which are sacred and powerful.
  • Certain sites can only be visited by groups/women/elders for initiation.
  • Stores tell the travels and activities of Dreaming Ancestors, showing their actions in shaping the land and knowing the stories allow them to know the area such as waterholes.
  • The rainbow serpent is a major symbol for water from sky giving life.


  • Used to trace ancestral tracks. Each song-cycle has verses recalling actions of one being at a particular site. An integral part of rituals as it accompanies dancing, those who know gains respect and status.


  • Incised stone (left by Ancestral beings), carved boards are guarded and only brought out to reinforce oral teachings.


  • Two types, those occasioned by physical transitions (rites of passage)
  • Periodic ceremonies unconnected with the life cycle and performed at various intervals for a variety of reasons.

INITIATION- most important event for boys and girls in traditional Aboriginal life. It is a special time when groups gather and celebrate Dreaming events, where sacred rituals symbolise death of a child and birth of adult.

DEATH and BURIAL- believe that spirits of the dead return to the Dreaming Places they had come from, a part of the transition of the life force of Dreaming. Often possessions of the dead are destroyed, shelters burned, whole camps moved, even names of the dead are not spoken. The dead are buried in their own country and their spirits sung to rest.

The integration of Christianity and Aboriginal belief systems by many Aboriginal people

Syncretism: the attempted reconciliation or union of different or opposing principles or practices

  • There are now Aboriginal Christian Church movements, (mainly) Protestant Aboriginal churches and many churches have begun to bring together traditional Aboriginal cultural practices to different aspects of the life of the church, in ceremonies and ritual life.
  • There are also Aboriginal ministries.
  • Even Pope John Paul II, in Alice Springs 1986 said that everyone including Aboriginal people should have the opportunity in sharing the happiness of God.
  • Many Aboriginal people today have connected Christianity into their existing Aboriginal beliefs.

For example an Aboriginal Lutheran pastor George Rosendale from Cooktown, by learning about his own culture, he discovered meaning in the stories of his own people that revitalised his Christian belief.

  • Other’s remodel their tradition.

But this issue has caused some serious debates amongst different groups of people.

  • In Jan and Dec 1967 Queensland and Western Australia formed the Aboriginal Evangelical Fellowship (AEF) which merged in 1970. The AEF was established to promote Aboriginal people's proclamation of the gospel to Aboriginal people's but did not follow or show any Aboriginal traditions.

The differences between Aboriginal beliefs and spirituality and non-Aboriginal religious beliefs and practices

The impact of European colonisation on Aboriginal belief systems and society

  • Before European arrival, Australia inhabited over 500 distinct groupings of Aboriginal people.
  • Cultures and languages have been devastated by white colonisation, warfare, disease, religion, education, economic exploitation.
  • By 1850, there were many groups on point of extinction e.g. in the Port Philip area, pre-colonisation population 10,000 reduced to 2,000 in 18 years (government records). All caused by disease, malnutrition and white violence.
  • Although it was impossible to fight disease and ecological change (feral and domestic animals), there was resistance with settlers who tended flocks and herds.
  • Farmers formed vigilantes groups, killing off Aboriginal women and children, even native mounted police killed.
  • As the settlers and Aboriginal people both wanted good source of water, shelter and access to fish, the Aboriginal people were killed. As colonist's decided to stay, they cleared trees, built fences and moved Aboriginal people (killed). They were forced to fringes of new European community.
  • Some were willing to join settlement as kin were there and they were lured by stories of free food and tobacco, clothing and goods.
  • Some were forced by police into missions or government settlements.
  • Some went to cattle stations, worked for rations and clothing.
  • Camps destroyed Aboriginal culture – ceremonies not performed, kin from outside no not allowed, forced to dress European clothing and give manual work to do, children isolated from parents in dormitories.
  • Extinction of whole populations and destroyed clans – as they culture, self-esteem, complex religious practices were difficult to maintain.
  • Land was lost to more powerful (violent) white settles.
  • Black deaths in custody have occurred following imprisonment for minor offences, this lead to royal commission 1987 which concluded with 339 recommendations to government (largely ignored).
  • From 1980-98 suicide rose by 240% and 1987 saw 15 deaths in custody and 1996 – 1 death.
  • 1950s – 1970s government policy took 100 000 children into government/church run institutions, adopted children into white families or fostering children into white families.

The effect of missions and missionary activity on Aboriginal belief systems from the original contact period through to more recent times.

  • In 1838, the policy of Protection was introduced and it was to rescue indigenous people from their mistreatment by Europeans, which was in placed by the Christian missions. It was more of isolation from white communities so that land can be taken, but also spread dangerous diseases.

Assimilation policies, change operations of the missions and tried to assimilate mixed-raced children into white society. The 1937 Commonwealth conference saw that Aboriginal people were placed into categories, mixed blood children taken and family forced off reserves to ‘make it’ with white society.

  • Self-Determination, brought forth by decolonisation of former colonies in Africa and the second Vatican Council. Decolonisation changed, allowing Aboriginals to run the missions and allow them to invite churches to help setting up their own councils and groups.
  • Report by Dr William Ullathorne on an Aboriginal Mission: from a whites point of view, he expected some form of God or idol and found it strange about their culture. Found it hard to communicate with them about their religion. Dr Ullathrone talks about missionary activities and how he sees ‘a better states of things’, in the future- through Christian belief and practices. Talks about how evangelisation of the people failed.
  • A kind of ‘spiritual terra nullius’ described by Christian missionaries.
  • The first missionary, Reverend William Walker found that they were like a curse and wanted to settle them.
  • 1820 government/ churches open reserves and mission stations
  • By 2nd half of 19th century, eastern colonises rounded up to Christian missionaries: ideal for evangelising, civilising and protect from white negative society.
  • They were unsuccessful and even counter-productive, as they fail to appreciate the historical context and neglected their original culture, spirituality and well-being which are the relationship with the land.
  • Ayres Palmer (lived on Mission) thank the religious leaders for their help but angry for being led. “We had our own minds to make our own decisions”.

Positives and Negatives of Mission life

(-) The missions were undermining towards traditional spirituality and cultural tradition.

(+) Allow people (very few) to co-exist with whites with mutual gain.

  • Missions offered refuge from violence but at a price of cultural oppression (language, ceremonies). But also allowed for Aboriginals to congregate, hence preserving cultural unintentionally.
  • The Aboriginal Legal Service of WA inquiry showed that 85% of removed children came from missions.

Aboriginal Peoples Europeans
Land ownership based on
  • shared custody of ritual estate
  • depended on for continuity
  • ‘ownership’ since the Dreaming
  • contract between two parties, usually involving a written document
  • purchasing for money
Significance of the lore to land
  • Land is shared property
  • contains story of land oral tradition
  • spirit of ancestors responsible for formation of the land
  • land is a place to raise a family
  • one can move, is not tied to the land
Beliefs about land rights
  • land given by ancestors
  • religious custody
  • natural symbol of spirituality
  • give identity to people
  • spiritual life of people is not generally connected to certain land because belief that god is universal
  • land can be purchased, not spiritual rights
Sense of identity
  • part of a community
  • Christian identity is tied to belief in God
  • Christianity is universal
Effect of movement from the land
  • claim land rights
  • try to combine 2 cultures
  • damage of sites
  • loss of identity
  • spiritual belief also take as it is linked clash between economic and spiritual

Recognise historical misconceptions about Aboriginal belief systems.


  • Aboriginal history is not Australian history


  • Over recent decades, historians have been revising Australia’s history to include an account of the ‘frontier’ and struggle for land between Aboriginal groups and Europeans over 150 years.


  • There’s too much money thrown at indigenous affairs


  • Many specifically Indigenous programs are substitute for programs to rest of community
  • Government placed responsibility to commonwealth specialist indigenous affairs agency.
  • Indigenous are diseconomies and remote areas
  • All communities have needs


  • Aboriginal people get special treatment from governments


  • Many groups within society get assistance for special needs. Since 1967, the government accepted a moral imperative to ensure Aboriginal People and Torres Strait Islanders participate fully and equally in the national life


  • Nothing has gotten better. Why throw good money after bad?


  • There has been great progress since 1967.
  • Complexities of national effort to raise indigenous living standards have been underestimated and not meet the needs.


  • Indigenous people shouldn’t be able to get special home loans


  • Indigenous home ownership rate is only 30%, compared to 70% in general Australian community. This is because family income is low, and prejudice against Indigenous people.


  • Sacred sites are made up


  • Sacred sites within the landscape are an essential part of Aboriginal people’s very different kind of religious beliefs.

The Land Rights movement:

Aboriginal spirituality and its inextricable connection to the land, eg the Mabo and Wik judgements and other current issues

Land Rights

  • When Aboriginal people were driven off their land, they were deprived of independence, culture and spiritual world.
  • 1888: boycotted Australia Centenary (no one noticed)
  • 1938: A day of Mourning protest and Aboriginal conference on the sesquicentenary (150th anniversary). Five days after a delegation met the prime minister and gave 10-point program for Aboriginal equality - asked commonwealth government to take over Aboriginal affairs and give help in education, housing, working conditions, social welfare and land purchases.
  • 1963 a movement by the Yirrkala people on a bark petition for land.
  • 1966 Gurindji people went on strike at the Wave Hill pastoral station NT and gave momentum
  • 1967 referendum with overwhelming ‘yes’ votes that Aboriginal people counted in census, equal pay and voting rights.
  • 1970 bicentenary of Captain Cook landing and Aboriginal staged ceremony of mourning ‘Land Rights-Nationally-Now’
  • 1972 Aboriginal Tent Embassy, Aboriginal flag became a symbol, gained nation support.

Native Title

  • Mabo Decision overthrew the legal fiction of terra nullius
  • The high Court saw that there was existence pre 1788 of Aborigines
  • It made sure that it does not take into account of ‘freehold’ land so that homes were not at risk
  • Native Title Act (1993):
    • National Native Title Tribunal (NNTT) help sort claims
    • Establishment of an indigenous Land Find, assist those whose native title is extinguished
    • Right to negotiate; set procedures to protect native title holders, contacted if mining companies want the land and negotiate.
  • 1998 (NNTT) showed in 5 years 1200 agreements made

Wik Decision

  • Dec 1996 determined that native title could co-exist with other rights on land held under pastoral lease (99 year rent of land).
  • John Howard put out ten-point plan to put Wik ruling into practice, proposal for drastic limitation of the rights of indigenous people to negotiate.
  • Oct 1998, Native title amendment Act passed and allowed each sate and Territory to legislate their own native title regimes

Eddie Mabo

  • By insisting that the law recognise his traditional ownership of a few garden plots, he help secure land rights for indigenous Australia, and changed the way the nation sees its past.
  • Mabo and others verse the state of Queensland in the high court of Australia has changed the view of Australians towards the land which they live on for over 20 generations.
  • Mabo simply challenged the government for his rights to own he’s family’s land on Murray Island, in Torres Strait.
  • Mabo and his co-litigates, James Rice and David Passey fought for their rights to the land which generations of their family has been living on, but by 6 to 1, the high court favoured Mabo and this judgement set a legal revolution, recognising native title.
  • The judges applied their judgement to the entire continent of Australia all this from a few garden plots on a small island in the far northeast corner of Torres Strait.
  • Eddie Mabo although lived in mainland Australia for many years of his life, yet he did not diminish his pride for his island home, culture and heritage.
  • He was an active Christian but still had a strong Aboriginal belief for his people.
  • The High Courts findings about ‘Terra Nullius’ as a legal fiction, paved the way for Aboriginal people all across Australia to claim back the land which once upon a time their ancestors walked upon.
  • Decision in 1992 by high court and 1993 Native title was passed in the senate.


  • The Wik and Thayorre peoples come from the remote, resource-rich lands of western Cape York.
  • Could possible have had the earliest contact with Europeans, but resisted and fought them away.
  • Decision made on Dec 1996 and allowed Wik people of Cape York to claim an area of land occupied by a pastoral lease, but had been occupied by Wik people on a continuos basis.
  • The high court ruled that pastoralists could not claim exclusive title to land and that native title and pastoral lease could co-exist, paving the way for Indigenous people to access pastoral land for purposes of visiting sacred sites and ceremonies.
  • Pastoralists angered, demanded federal government act to extinguish native title completely but Howard made 10-point plan to settle things.

Other current tissues

  • Mining issues
    • Kakadu National park and the uranium mines back in 1997-98.
  • Reconciliation
    • Corroboree year 2000
    • walk across the Sydney Harbour Bridge 26th May 2000
    • Paul Keating speech at Redfern 10th Dec 1992
    • Rabbit Proof Fence 2002
  • Linda Burney first Aboriginal woman to be elected into NSW parliament
  • The Stolen Generations

The ways in which Aboriginal spirituality has influenced some Christian denominations

  • Rainbow Spirit Theology: help rest of Australia tap into Aboriginal theology to offer a new understanding of Christianity for Aboriginal and non-*Aboriginal people. Helps bring together Aboriginal world views and Christian theology.
  • Aboriginal Christian Church (ACC)
  • Aboriginal Message Stick is now enshrined in St Patrick´s Cathedral, Melbourne. It is a powerful symbol of the richness that Aboriginal culture offers to the liturgy.
  • 1985, Australia’s first Aboriginal Bishop, Arthur Malcolm was consecrated
  • 1996 Australia’s first Aboriginal female priest
  • Recognition of link between the gospel and Dreaming Stories

Further Links

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