Australian Indigenous Cultures
While visiting Australia, you may hear someone say at the beginning of a speech or a meeting, “we acknowledge the Traditional Owners of this land”.
This is called and Acknowledgement of Country and it’s a way of showing respect to the people who have lived in Australia for 50,000 years. They are one of the oldest living populations in the world.
Many international students visiting Australia are incredibly curious about Indigenous peoples and their culture but find it difficult to learn more about them.
Here’s a few facts to get you started.
THERE ARE MANY DIFFERENT INDIGENOUS CULTURES
Australia has two Indigenous peoples. They are Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islander people. Aboriginal Peoples inhabited the whole of Australia, and Torres Strait Islanders lived in the islands between Australia and Papua New Guinea.
Once there were over 500 different Aboriginal Nations – so there’s no single ‘Aboriginal culture,’ there are many.
Their cultures do have some common themes, though, such as the Dreaming and a deep connection to the land.
This is the Aboriginal Flag, adopted in 1972. The red symbolises the red earth and ochre used by Aboriginal people in ceremonies. The yellow symbolises the sun and the black symbolises the Aboriginal people.
This is the Torres Strait Islander flag adopted in 1992. The green panels represent the land, the blue symbolises the waters of the Torres Strait, the white object in the middle is a dancer’s headdress (called a dhari) and symbolises the Torres Strait Islander people. The star is a symbol for navigation.
THEY ALSO HAVE MANY DIFFERENT LANGUAGES
It’s estimated that there were around 250 different languages spoken in Australia before the British arrived in 1788.
Up until the 1970’s, policies implemented by the Australian Government prohibited or discouraged Indigenous Australians from speaking their own languages. Because Indigenous Australian’s dominant form of record keeping was by passing down their traditions and language through word of mouth, these policies resulted in the loss of many Indigenous languages and cultural history.
The National Indigenous Languages Survey Report 2005 found that only about 145 Indigenous languages are still spoken and that many of those were also in danger of disappearing.
In 2016 the Australian National Dictionary listed around 500 words which were in common usage coming from 100 different Aboriginal languages. Many of them are the names of plants, animals and places, so you probably already know a few like:
Canberra (which means meeting place)
THEIR SPIRITUALITY IS HIGHLY COMPLEX
The Dreaming or, the Dreamtime, is a similarity that runs through different Indigenous belief systems and is a concept that is often not easily understood by non-Indigenous people. The phrases Dreaming and The Dreamtime are English translations that don’t capture the true meaning.
There is no afterlife in Indigenous Australian religions, no heaven or hell, which sets them apart from many other world religions. The Dreaming is the source of life philosophy and morality and while it’s intertwined with Indigenous stories of creation, is also a constant state where both the past and the present exist together. In attempting to explain the Dreaming, anthropologist W.E.H. Stanner used the term ‘everywhen’.
THERE ARE MANY PLACES YOU CAN VISIT TO LEARN MORE ABOUT INDIGENOUS CULTURE.
There are still many places in Australian where you can get in touch with Indigenous culture. Some of them are hard to get to but well worth the visit.
Probably the most well-known place is Uluru or Ayers Rock. The ancient monolith is sacred to the Yankunytjatjara and Pitjantjatjara people. It’s visited by thousands of people every year.
The Flinders Ranges in South Australia have ancient rock paintings that are accessible to the public, as does Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park in NSW and The Grampians National Park in Victoria.