Land that Dreamt of Life
As a child turning
the pages of my Alphabet picture book, I remember seeing the picture of a
strange animal called K for Kangaroo. I'd seen many of the other
animals in that book for real, like D for Dog and C for
Cat and even E for Elephant. But never K for
Kangaroo. I was told that this particular creature was found only on
a far-away continent called Australia. I thought that Australia must be a
really special place to have the sole right to house K for
As I grew older,
I learnt more fascinating things in Geography class. Like the fact that they
have summer down there when its winter here and vice versa, and that
water spiraled down the sink in the opposite direction than water up here
in the Northern Hemisphere. Plus there were more strange creatures there
that you couldnt find anywhere else in the world. I wondered what kind
of people lived in
this topsy-turvy world. Were they like us
or did they hang upside down? Did any humans live there at all? If so, what
were they like and how did they get to this magical place?
Then one day I
saw a programme on television about the natives of Australia. The Aborigines
looked as out-of-this-world as the land they inhabited. They looked like
golden-haired Africans to my fascinated eyes. That day I developed a curiosity
to know more about these people. Who are they and how did they come to be
what they are? What do they believe? What do they hold dear? What is their
Internet, including the website of the Australian Museum, answered some of
my questions, and here is some of what I learnt:
they and how did they get there?
Since there was
no primate stock in Australia, human beings must have migrated there. Nobody
knows for sure when human beings first landed on Australia. Some researchers
think the Aborigines first stepped on Australian soil some 40,000 years ago,
while other data suggests people lived there as long as 60,000 years ago.
In any case, they appear to be the first human beings who dared to move out
of sight of land in their quest for a new home.
Toward the end
of the ice age, the oceans were shallower than they are today, and hence,
Australia extended farther than it currently does and was joined to Tasmania
and New Guinea. The distance between Australia and the Asian landmass was
as small as 80 miles. This is why some conclude that it may have been possible
for people to spot the Australian brush fires from Borneo. Guessing that
there must be land in that direction, they probably sailed to Australia.
Eventually, the population spread along the coastline to South Australia
and from there on to Tasmania.
With the passage
of time, a steady flow of migrants spread throughout Australia and diversified
into culturally varied groups. During the late 18th century, there were 500-600
distinct groups of Aborigines speaking about 200 different languages or dialects
(at least 50 of which are now extinct). Despite their cultural diversity,
these groups were not political and economic entities and lacked class
hierarchies and chiefs. They were mainly hunter-gatherers who indulged in
extensive inter-group trade throughout the continent. Despite this diversity,
there remain some common elements, like the Dreaming.
do they believe?
The basis of Aboriginal
spirituality is the Dreaming, which refers primarily to the Aboriginal creation
story but also carries through into subsequent stories and beliefs about
the living sacredness of all of nature, including humans. The Aborigines
believe that at the beginning of time, there was only a shapeless mass of
nothing. This mass of nothing was transformed into the world that exists
today by mythic beings known as the Ancestors. The Ancestors took a variety
of shapes and forms as they went around the
world forming the landscape and creating life. The Rainbow Serpent, for instance,
pushed the land into mountains and created rivers as it writhed. Every important
landscape in Australia has a Dreamtime story associated with it, explaining
its formation. The Ancestors represent various themes like the sky or water
and even some constellations. The Aborigines believe that they are constantly
living the Dreaming.
beliefs of other ancient cultures, these Dreamtime stories help the people
make sense of the world around them, and the space beyond them. The
Story of the Seven Sisters and the Faithful Lovers is an interesting
legend about the Pleiades star cluster, and the Aborigines also have their
own version of a Great Flood, summarized as A Legend of the Great
Flood in a collection of Aboriginal stories published in 1923. You
can find these stories
also stories that served as a means of passing on much-needed skills for
survival in the harsh environment of Australia. One of those is the story
Bees and Honey at this link.
These stories are sacred to the Aborigines.
They have been passed down the generations through the oral tradition to
teach young Aborigines about their culture and heritage and to impress upon
them the importance of their relationship with their land. These stories
are the invisible strings that have tied the hearts of the Aborigines to
the land that their ancestors walked upon. These strings still pull on the
peoples hearts when they move away from the old way of life and become
part of modern society, and the stories have been responsible
for bringing many of them back to the ways of their forebears, urging them
to keep in touch with their roots. You can read more of these stories
and ceremonial life has inspired a wide array of art forms, like body painting,
personal ornamentation, ground
sculpture, rock painting and engraving, bark
painting and wood carving. Many of these art forms, especially paintings,
are expressions of the artists dreaming. The Aboriginal art forms,
stories, and elaborate dance and song rituals are looked upon as a manifestation
of the original creative power of the Ancestors. Each generation has the
responsibility to pass this body of knowledge and beliefs on to future
of the community are influential decision-makers in this regard. Each sex
has specific religious functions and knowledge that is restricted only to
that particular gender. Each individual has a set of rights and responsibilities
towards others in the society. Yet, despite this social control, a lot of
emphasis is placed on individual autonomy.
do they hold dear?
an Aboriginal leader who serves as custodian of the values of the Swan Valley
Nyoongar Community, discussed the empathy with nature that is central to
Aboriginal beliefs in an interview published online. The Land ... we
look at the Land ... we say, That Lands human. And we feel
for it, he said. When we see a hill being cut away we feel sorry
for it. And when we see an old tree going to be chopped down we say, No,
no ... thats our Old Man or thats our Old Woman ... we must leave
em alone. Read the interview here.
For the Aborigines,
everything around them is alive. Nature is sacred and an important part of
their beliefs. The mountains and rivers and trees and rocks are manifestations
of the Ancestors. They feel a kinship with all of nature and hence respect
it. For centuries their lives revolved around nature.
believe that the human personality is a combination of the mortal and the
spiritual, thus existing in both the physical and the spiritual realms at
once. They do not have the concept of a soul. They believe that when a person
dies, his mortal half disintegrates while the spiritual half returns to the
land - where it came from. Here it creates a child spirit that may be received
by a woman. This is their idea of conception.
clan has a totem - a plant, animal or other natural object that the group
relies upon for strength or help. They refrain from harming or eating this
particular plant, animal or natural object.
knew how to maintain natures balance. If the population of a group
in a certain area increased beyond the capacity of the land to support the
people, the group would divide and move on to another suitable piece of land.
with nature was seriously disturbed by the arrival of the Europeans. The
land that was so dear to the natives was snatched away. They were discriminated
against and considered
worse than animals. Their natural way of
life disrupted, they tried to adapt to the lifestyles of the colonialists,
which resulted in widespread poverty, disease and malnourishment due to an
unsuitable diet. Many groups died out. Others survived by holding onto their
roots while doing menial labour for the foreigners. They had very limited
rights and were not treated like other citizens. Their beliefs were ridiculed
and their way of life looked down upon.
It was only in
recent decades that the Australian government took steps to make up for the
years of injustice faced by the Aborigines. They finally won the right to
vote. Legislation was passed to return land to them. Grants were given to
organizations run by Aboriginal groups that provide them legal and medical
Yet, many natives
of Australia, like the spiritual leader Bropho, continue to feel saddened
by the exploitation of their dear land by the white man.
the Land itself could talk it would say, Don't hurt me. If the
trees, the running water and all the Sacredness (could talk), they would
be all saying the same thing, Bropho said. Leave nature as it
is. And if youre going to start moving along and progressing and trying
to trample on Sacredness here and there ... we say now that the waters was
once clear and clean and cold and it run freely, we say now the water is
mucky ... and its groaning and moaning to run
freely because its been polluted ...
crying because their mothers and fathers have been cut down, that means the
old trees. The roots in the ground are saying, Please dont cut
Land itself, where the hills are ... the beautifying scenery is saying,
Please dont mine here. If youre going to mine, mine
properly. If youre going to progress, progress properly but dont
become over-greedy. Dont just destroy everything. Just take enough
in a balanced way, as we move forth from today onwards into the future, which
we say, the Aboriginal people, moving in the hopes of tomorrow. The Sacredness,
it can never be divided from us because if you take the Sacredness from us
its like taking the blood from us and if theres no blood your
heart will stop, the whole of your body will stop functioning.
coming from a people who were once thought primitive and uncivilized, provides
a timely message, not just for the white man in Australia but
also for all human beings everywhere. In my humble opinion, the Aborigines
(or Kooris, as some of them prefer to be called) deserve more admiration
for their relationship with nature than do all of the advanced civilizations
that forgot to be civil to the web of life, of which they are a part.