The Land

Connection to Country

The relationship Aboriginal people have to their country is a deep spiritual connection that is different from the relationship held by other Australians.9

Several texts articulate the spiritual feeling of country for Aboriginal people—for example:

Paddy Roe in Reading the country,10
Sunfly Tjuperla in Two men dreaming,11
David Mowaljarlai in Yorro Yorro: Everything standing up alive 12 and
Bill Neidjie in Story about feeling.13

These texts capture the relationship with country in different ways. This could be described as a spiritual, bodily connectedness. As Neidjie puts it:

Listen carefully, careful and this spirit e [he] come in your feeling and you Will feel it … anyone that, I feel it … my body same as you. I am telling you this because the land for us never change round. Places for us, Earth for us, star, moon, tree, animal. No-matter what sort of animal, Bird snake … all that animal like us. Our friend that.13(p182)

Aboriginal social, cultural and historical contexts

The Land

The Indigenous people have occupied Australia for at least 60 000 years and have evolved with the changing environments within the landscapes. To them the land is their mother, the giver of life who provides them with everything they need.

The land is a spiritual part of the Aboriginal people and you can not separate one from the other. According to the Aboriginal people, Aboriginal lore was developed by spirit ancestors during the dreamtime to look after the land and its people.

Song, dance and ceremonies according to lore were carried out throughout the landscapes to have an ecological balance between mother-nature, the land and those who dwell on the land.

Today Aboriginal people, no matter where they live, will always go back home to country to renew family obligations and spiritual ties.

With the coming of Europeans, we see the dispossession of land. With the dispossession of land we see the destruction of cultures and with the destruction of cultures, we see the loss of languages, ceremonies and songs and disrespect for traditional lore and elders.

Once dispossessed of land, lore and culture (everything), you lose dignity, you lose pride, and you have low self esteem.




Occupying the land

Indigenous people have occupied Australia for at least 60 000 years and have evolved with the land - changing it and changing with it. The land was not just soil or rocks or minerals, but a whole environment that sustains and is sustained by people and culture.
Source: Australian Museum

Core of spirituality

For Indigenous Australians the land is the core of all spirituality and this relationship has been deeply misunderstood over the past 200 years or so. This relationship is central to all issues that are important to Indigenous people today.
Source: Australian Museum

Particular groups of Aboriginal people claimed identifiable areas of land as their own. Complex social systems were expressed through this attachment to the land. The ‘Clan’ or local descent group became the basic land-holding unit. This descent group was larger than a family but it was based on family links through a common ancestry, usually male. The connection between a clan and its land involves both rights and duties including the right to use the land and its products and duties to tend the land through the performance of ceremonies. In addition to group responsibilities for land, individuals to particular places. For example the place where a person was born may involve the individual in rights and duties towards these sites. Failure to adhere to the laws of the land and interference with its spiritual places will have consequences not only for the land but also for the people charged with its maintenance. The Torres Strait has its own particular systems of land tenure.
ATSIC (1998) As a Matter of Fact. Office of Public Affairs, ASTSIC; Canberra.

Living off the land

Aboriginal people developed a deep knowledge of the land, which supported an affluent life. They satisfied their basic needs easily. Yams and root vegetables were gathered, possum and other small game were plentiful, as were ells, freshwater mussels and other fish. Ducks and birds were snared, stunned in flight, or trapped in nets, while elusive kangaroo, scrub turkey and emus were hunted cooperatively. The women gathered tubers and staple ground foods and men hunted game. Both collected their food daily. Individual families owned particular food sources.

Misunderstood by European colonisers

When European colonisers first arrived in Australia they encountered an unfamiliar land occupied by people they didn't understand. Because they didn't understand the peoples' society and their land 'ownership' system, Australia was deemed to be 'terra nullius' and the land was claimed by the British. But Indigenous people fought, and are still fighting, for their land and their lives. The history of these battles is not often told but they involved hundreds of incidents and thousands of people. These stories form a part of the untold history of Australia.
Source: Australian Museum

The Development of Native Title

Although the British common law failed to recognize Aboriginal land rights, many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples maintained their claim and connection to the land. In the 1992 Mabo decision, the High Court of Australia recognized that the Meriam People of Torres Strait held native title over their traditional lands. This decision paved the way for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to have their native title recognized under Australian law.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who, through their law and custom, have maintained a continuing connection with their land may hold native title. They have to prove that the traditional laws and customs that they get their native title from are acknowledged and observed today and have continued since the time of European settlement. There have been six landmark decisions on Native Title at the High Court of Australia.
National Native Title Tribunal (2006), About National Title, Commonwealth of Australia.
Document available on the

Land today

The last 200 years has resulted in significant changes to Aboriginal culture and land-holding patterns. Land may now be viewed in a variety ways including as an economic resource and a base for development and enterprises.

Today, some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities may still be attached to reserves and mission that retain a hold on the descendents of people they once accommodated. Unfortunately it is difficult to produce a successful claim or seek compensation because of the limiting factors that the Court has laid down whereby Native Title can be extinguished. Many groups and individuals may have lost the rights over their land over the past 200 years because they have left their land either voluntarily or forcibly and lost their connection as defined by their laws and customs.

Regardless of where Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples chose to live they may still retain the fundamental elements of their spiritual association to the land. This is a declaration of their Aboriginality.

ATSIC (1998) As a Matter of Fact. Office of Public Affairs, ASTSIC; Canberra.



X. Walking with us Extract 2: Land (41 sec)