Whether you’ve heard of the Dreamtime, or have listened to a ‘Welcome to Country’ at your local community event, it’s fair to say that most Australians have a brief understanding of the true meaning of Aboriginal spirituality. We often hear the terms ‘connected to land’, or ‘belonging to country’, but most of the time our knowledge of what this actually means is only skin-deep. So, what really is Aboriginal spirituality?

Aboriginal spirituality is deeply animistic; everything has a spirit.

Animism is the belief that everything, all objects, places, living creatures and non-living items, possess a distinct spiritual essence. From waterfalls to rocks, to people or the wind in the trees, all of these things are animated and alive with spirit for Aboriginal people. Animism is intrinsic to Aboriginal people, from the time before they are born until their knowledge is passed down to generations, the belief of spirit in every being is always present. And it is because of this that they view themselves as equals- no human is greater than nature, each animal is to be treated with respect, any being is regarded as important and with purpose. All things on this earth are interconnected and interactive. That is the essence of Aboriginal spirituality.

Spirituality is embedded within them from their very beginnings.

Aboriginal people belong to the oldest living culture on earth. With hundreds of thousands of years of knowledge transversing generations, spirituality is second nature to them. From a child’s first days, they are taught about their spirituality and connection to land through language and song. Learning about their country they live on and greater spiritual forces that affect their living, be it in the form of rain, or assisting in hunting, these are all considered part of the greater doings of their ancestral spirits. As such with spirituality, comes laws and social taboos. For example, a clan may recognise a kangaroo as a symbolic and spiritual being, so hunting or eating it is considered bad, and as a result the spirits will be angry. These social taboos and unspoken do’s and don’ts are all key information that is deep embedded within First Nations communities.

Cosmogony plays a big part in the bigger picture.

Most Australians have heard of the Dreamtime, but what really is it? Cosmogony is the a theory of the story or beginnings of the universe, and to our First Nations communities, the Dreamtime was the period when all things were created. It is their beginning. Creation ancestors are the heroes of the Dreamtime, said to have been living on earth, under water and in the skies. It’s these creation ancestors that formed what we see today, with many stories about the ancestors emerging from their hidden worlds to create life and land. The creation ancestors are part human and part animal in their appearance, be it in the form of reptile, fish, mammal or bird. We can trace these creation ancestors back to rock art which depicts the local legends according to each tribe who left behind markings. Everything we see, do, touch and experience today is all because of the Dreamtime, a period before time and the world as we know it existed.

Each person has a defining totem.

A totem is a natural object that defines a person, their roles and responsibilities, and their relationships with each other and their spirituality. These totems are believed to be the descendants of ancestral heroes and are inherited by members of a clan, determined by their location or family emblem. For example, tribes who lived by the ocean are considered Salt Water People, and their totems may be a dolphin, whale, turtle or sea grass. Totems are highly regarded within Indigenous cultures, with all elements of their living being connected to these totems, including flora, fauna and ceremonial rituals.

A totem can even be determined before birth- as soon as a woman notices she is carrying a child, the land she is standing on will play an important role in deciding her baby’s totem. This is based on the belief that the spirit of that area has energised the infant in the womb and the child becomes inextricably linked with this spirit. At the point of birth the child is allocated the appropriate birth totem. They then automatically receive a skin totem (which is personal) and a clan totem (which represents the clan they belong to). Their spiritual responsibility in life will be to learn songs, dances and ceremonies that are associated with their specific totems to bring life to their relevant sprit, which in return will take care of the land, resources and its peoples. As every clan member has a different personal totem, all aspects of living and nature are looked after accordingly.

These Indigenous cultures have preserved their land and totems since their very beginnings. It’s important that totems are remembered and are celebrated within our community, because they are part of the very reason that our First Nations peoples have survived, cared for the land and thrived in times of extreme difficulty and challenge.

Language, family relationships and Elders all play a pivotal role in continuing the knowledge of spirituality and culture.

Each story, totem, ceremony and law is passed from generation to generation through language and dance. Aboriginal spirituality and culture is deeply oral, relying on the passing of information through community members to continue on traditions, and ultimately to keep their culture alive. In determining who should become an Elder, this part of Aboriginality is still somewhat unknown and not well understood amongst both traditional and urban communities today. Ultimately, it is up to the existing elders to determine whose personality and character satisfies them in acquiring traditional and ceremonial knowledge. However, the hierarchy of Elders plays an important role in continuing their culture as they are deeply committed to sharing their knowledge, providing guidance, and teaching others to respect the natural world. All of these complex relationships begin to make up songlines and connections that transverse the country, connecting tribe to tribe, and story to story, and although intangible, this knowledge is what has lead our First Nations community to still be present today. Their understanding of land, life and language is far more complex than we could ever understand, and we are the lucky country to be able to acknowledge, recognise and respect that the oldest living and continuing culture on earth belongs here.

With many thanks to Graham Paulson, Rhoda Roberts AO and Nicola Penn for their knowledge in making this blog post possible.
With thanks to Make Imagine Photography for the hero image.
Yakkazoo honours, acknowledges  and pays deep respect to the traditional Gadigal custodians whose country we work on.  We are committed to treasuring and nurturing  the world’s oldest adapting culture and our first peoples connection to land, sea and sky.