The Relationship to the Land for Aboriginal Australians
By Sandra Cutts

This article is an excert from an essay which demonstrates quite remarkably how spiritually advanced the Australian Aboriginal culture has been fore eons of time. When compared with our Western understanding of spirituality, their inner perception clearly offers an understanding of the essence of the 'God Within' that is only now finding a path into broader acceptance in our society through the fundamental changes being brought about in this emerging new Aquarian Age.

For Aboriginal Australians, the land is a living entity, and the relationship with the land and nature encompasses all that exists for living in this world. The whole earth is sacred and nature is the source of teaching all that is needed to be known about living.


In the Beginning

According to Aboriginal belief, all life as it is known today, human, animal, bird or fish, is part of an unchanging interconnected system, one vast network of relationships which can be traced to the great Ancestor Spirits of Dreaming. Alcheringa or Tjukurpa. These ancestors gave rise to living forms, each founding a line of descendants comprising a living species and their human counterparts, linked as a "Dreaming".
They gave the Law the Aboriginal people still follow today, and the stories and legends of these times are accepted as the absolute truth, providing an answer to the universal questions and problems of man throughout the ages: the origins of the universe, the spirit world, the laws of nature, relations between the sexes, family life, death and life after death.
They gave to each living form its own law, fixed for all time and written on the landscape. Some of these ancestral beings were cultural heroes who taught humans how to hunt, to make fire and utensils, to perform ceremony and all that was important for survival.
Before the Tjukurpa, the Earth was a flat, desolate plain; there were no hills, no desert trees or grasses, no waterholes and no animals, birds, insects or living creatures.
Life did not exist above the surface. But in the depths of the Earth great beings dwelt, and emerged one by one, pushing the earth up as they came.
These were the great Ancestor Spirits and gradually as the ages passed, they began their journeys across the land. Although legends give them the appearance of creatures and plants, they behaved in the same manner as human beings. They made camps, made fire and cooked food, dug for water, performed ceremonies, made love and gave birth to children. They differ in that wherever they stopped, wherever any event took place in their lives, they left behind them features of the landscape which remain today!

The Ancestor Spirits are not Gods; it is the land - creeks, hills, rockholes, mountains and other natural features - that is the sacred reality, and that has the primary place in Aboriginal religion as the medium of spiritual power.

This spirituality was brought to Earth by the Ancestor Spirits and given also to all people who were born into that Dreaming, also called a totem, which identifies a person with a particular area of land.As the Ancestor Spirits travelled the land, they taught the Law. Everything that is part of life today has a myth or story associated with it, and teachings occur as these stories are re-enacted through ceremonial stories, song, and dance.Where the Ancestor Spirits stood and taught, and then moved on, something was left behind, such as a rock, a rockhole, a mountain, a valley, or a tree. The existing sacred object or sacred site contains the Ancestor Spirit's spirituality: that is why it is sacred.

The following extract of an explanation of The Dreaming by Mussolini Harvey was written to help non-Aboriginal Australians have some understanding of the Aboriginal Dreaming
"...The Dreamings made our Law. This Law is the way we live, our rules. This Law is our ceremonies, our songs, our stories; all of these things came from the Dreaming. ... our Law cannot change, we did not make it. ... The Dreamings named all of the country and the sea they travelled; they named everything that they saw. The Dreamings gave us our songs. These songs are sacred ... are like maps, they tell us about the country, they are maps we carry in our heads. ...

 In our ceremonies we wear marks on our bodies; they come from the Dreaming too. We carry the design that the Dreamings gave to us. When we wear that Dreaming mark we are carrying the country, we are keeping the Dreaming held up, we are keeping the country and the Dreaming alive. That is the most important thing; we have to keep up the country, the Dreamings, our Law, our people. It can't change. Our Law has been handed on from generation to generation and it is our job to keep it going, to keep it safe."

Man and nature were seen as co-equal partners. The role of mankind in the drama of life was to re-create through ritual and ceremony the eternal moment of the Dreaming by calling upon the assistance of all nature, whether living and organic or geophysical.
Tribal land then became a living entity insofar as it contributed to the overall sustenance of life. The land needed the active cooperation of man in order to fulfil itself as a cosmic principle, in the same way man needed the land to realize his own cosmogonic self.

All aspects of Aboriginal life revolve around the Laws of these Ancestor Spirits. There is nothing that happens in everyday life that is not decreed by them. How spears are made, how various animals will be cooked, how seed will be ground, the marriage laws, the burial sites - everything pertaining to a place in the world,.


Living the Dreaming 'NOW'.

Aboriginal people do not look back to the Dreaming; it is now. The Dreaming has never stopped, it is here and now, going on all around us. The most sacred time is now, being present, and not thinking about yesterday or tomorrow. A memory is brought into the present now, as is a vision of tomorrow. This compares with 'white man's religion' which celebrates something that happened 2,000 years ago.

Living in the "NOW", or a sense of being in the present moment, is something many people, particularly those focused on a spiritual path, aspire to achieve. This can be sought through meditation and other means, such as being fully aware of focusing only on the senses, and being in the stillness of the moment. For the traditional Aboriginal Australians living the Dreaming is living in the "NOW".

The Dreaming, or tjukurpa, as it is known to Central Australian Aboriginals, is eternal and is existence itself, in the past, present and future. It is also the explanation of existence, and it is the law which governs behaviour. The Tjukurpa refers to the time of creation of all things, and it is still unfolding alongside present events and is being recreated and celebrated today.

Concepts of Space and Time are integral to the understanding of the Dreaming. Aboriginal and Western thought share an interdependency of time and space, but our deep yearning and spiritual search for the elusive "present moment" and "eternal life" seems of no consequence to the Aborigine. For the Aborigines, the present moment and eternity have been physicalized as place. One is alive in the moment by being utterly grounded and centred in space.

Aborigines do not perceive space as distance. Space for them is consciousness. All satial relationships in the Dreaming are primarily symbolic. Meaning and information are not transported across distances and time; they are not transported across distances and time; they are an integral part of consciousness expressing itself as spatial order and form. To the Aborigines, the spatial landscape is a perfect symbolic description of the psychic content of humans and of the ancestral forces that created the world. To disturb the earth in any way is to obscure the meaning and history of humanity and reality. Knowledge is shared through resonance in space and time. Meaning, not space and time, connects all things.

The Dreaming stories contain, in addition to moral, spiritual and psychic understanding, all kinds of practical information. A story may direct a hunting band to places where the lilies bloom, where turtle eggs hatch, or where wild yams ripen. The clan follows the stories from place to place without a calendar. The Aborigines move through space, and we move through time.
Aboriginal stories, be they about life or the Dreaming, focus on place descriptions and spatial directions rather than designations such as when, before or after.

Bush food also has significant meaning for the Aboriginal. They believe that each food was created by the Ancestor Spirits, and each food has meaning. The animal and plant kingdoms are One with people and are linked totemically as relatives. Laws govern rites and observances about food.

Some animals that may not be killed by one group may be quite legitimate for another group. Some foods are not eaten at certain times of the year; others are carefully prepared to remove toxins. Plants also provide a rich resource of herbal medicines.

Landscape Within as Without

In the Dreaming there is no external space separate from the internal. There are no objects or events - be they stars, spaceships, or molecules - separate from the feelings, desires, projections, activities and images of consciousness. 13 The exploration of the vast universe and a knowledge of meaning of creation was experienced through the internal and external knowledge of self.

Every land formation and creature, by its very shape and behaviour, implied a hidden meaning; the form of a thing was itself an imprint of the metaphysical or ancestral consciousness that created it, as well as the universal energies that brought about its material manifestation. These aspects of the Dreaming creation myth imply a world in which the metaphysical and physical are held in symbolic integration. The visible and invisible worlds cannot be considered separately.

Land as Source of Identity

In the Western world people derive their individuality from combinations of collective identities: sex, race, social class, vocation, nationality, or religion. In contrast, the Aboriginal sense of personal identity is derived from only one context, the idea of place. Ngurra, sense of place, is a word of great importance that contains both physical and metaphysical connotations. Unravelling these apparent contradictions reveals a distance dimension of the Aboriginal world view and sense of identity. The entire earthly environment is ngurraI, or "country", "camp", or "place", as made by the Ancestor Spirits.

The Aborigines' daily activity of making camp re-enacts the same processes by which the landscape was formed in the Dreaming. by making camp, they believe that they again cause the place and surrounding country to come into being. Thus ngurra describes both the physical place where they return to share food, dance and sleep, and the metaphysical act of "dreaming" the country into existence. Stories about the acts that resulted in the formation of the hills, rocks, water holes, and local animal species are reborn in the swaying, earth-stomping movements, as they are sung and danced at night by the campfire.

The question of identity, of who I am, is resolved in the Aboriginal consciousness by knowing the full implications of where I am.  The sites associated with the travels of the Ancestor Spirits relate to one or several Dreamings that pass through or are resident there. The sites and the Dreamings are linked with individuals and groups, and more than one group usually has rights in any given site.

 People acquire their rights and knowledge about their territory and dreamings from a variety of sources, such as inheritance and place of conception, birth and residence. Through participation in ceremonies, people learn about their Dreaming Stories and associated ritual designs, songs, and dances. They are taught how designs and ceremonies should properly represent and re-enact the mythical actions of the ancestors.

A man knew, always and forever, his exact place in society and in his physical and spiritual world. As he grew from infancy into adolescence, and passed through maturity into old age, he knew he would advance through the hierarchy of his tribe, with rights which no one questioned and obligations to be automatically fulfilled. He also knew if he transgressed any of the laws of his community, punishment was inevitable.

 Ritual and Ceremonies play an important role in maintaining the identity to the land, and continuing the existence of the spiritual qualities of the Ancestor Spirits. Human beings can only access the powers of these Ancestor Spirits through ritual power.

Living men and women can have access to these powers through ritual means, for example, by simulating actual events and incidents in which those spirits were physically involved. The Dreaming characters themselves are bounded by a kind of circularity, by what has been called sacred time; a cyclical, constantly recurring, essentially repetitive process which ensures their survival through time.

A National Healing is slowly taking place as Aboriginal Australians are reclaiming and reconnecting with their culture and gradually sharing some of their wisdom with us, and we are beginning to understand their unique relationships with the land and with each other.

Wandjuk Marika, OBE, says:

"We want to tell you our story, not the inner secrets of our deepest beliefs - these we keep sacred for our generations to come so that our culture can remain whole - but the story as we tell it to our young people before they become initiated into the sacred Law."

David Tracey, in his book "Edge of Sacred" states that a spiritual reactivation and regeneration of nature is taking place, bringing a new awareness of the "living, dynamic relatedness between humanity, nature and spirit". "A new dreaming'... as the natural world is mysteriously animated by the incarnational spirit which brings a new ecological cosmology into being."

Western and Aboriginal beliefs raise the same universal questions: Where do we come from? Why are we here? and Where are we going? We are each, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians, on our journey of understanding our Australian culture.

We can learn by listening to each other, and 'listening to the land', and by being consciously AWAKE and AWARE, of where' we are each waking moment. The common truth that we share is the Land, or "Mother Earth".

I would like to conclude this essay with quotes from a paper titled "Dadirri" written by Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr. I feel here words eloquently express the major themes I have attempted to convey in this essay.

Miriam-Rose defines dadirri as 'an inner deep listening and quite still awareness'. The following are some of her words:

"Many Australians understand that Aboriginal people have a special respect for Nature. The identity we have with the land is sacred and unique. Many people are beginning to understand this more. Also there are many Australians who appreciate that Aboriginal people have a very strong sense of community.

All persons matter. All of us belong. And there are many more Australians now, who understand that we are a people who celebrate together.

What I want to talk about is another special quality of my people. I believe it is the most important. It is our most unique gift. It is perhaps the greatest gift we can give to our fellow Australians. In our language this quality is called Dadirri.

It is inner, deep listening and quiet, still awareness. Dadirri recognises the deep spring that is inside us. We call on it and it calls to us. This is the gift that Australia is thirsting for. It is something like what you call 'contemplation'.

When I experience dadirri, I am made whole again. I can sit on the river bank or walk through the trees; even if someone close to me has passed away, I can find my peace in this silent awareness. There is no need of words. A big part of dadirri is listening. Through the years, we have listened to our stories. They are told and sung, over and over, as the seasons go by. Today we still gather around the camp fires and together around the camp fires and together we hear the sacred stories.

As we grow older, we ourselves become the storytellers. We pass on to the young ones all they must know...

The contemplative way of dadirri spreads over our whole life. It renews us and brings us peace. It makes us feel whole again...

In our Aboriginal way, we learn to listen from our earliest days. We could not live good and useful lives unless we listened. This was the normal way for us to learn - not by asking questions. We learnt by watching and listening, waiting and then acting. Our people have passed on this way of listening for over 40,000 years...

Quiet listening and stillness - dadirri - renews us and makes us whole. There is no need to reflect too much and to do a lot of thinking. It is just being aware.

My people are not threatened by silence. They are completely at home in it. They have lived for thousands of years with Nature's quietness. My people today recognize and experience in this quietness the great Life-Giving Spirit, the Father if us all.

It is easy for me to experience God's presence. When I am out hunting, when I am in the bush, among the trees, on a hill or by a billabong; these are the times when I can simply be in god's presence. My people have been so aware of nature. It is natural that we will feel close to the Creator....

We all have to try to listen - to the god within us - to our country - and to one another.

Our Aboriginal culture has taught us to be still and to wait. We do not try to hurry things up. We let them follow their natural course - like the seasons. We watch the moon in each of its phases.

We wait for the rain to fill our rivers and water the thirsty earth...When twilight comes, we prepare for the night. At dawn we rise with the sun.

We watch the bush foods and wait for them to ripen before we gather them. We wait for our young people as they grow, stage by stage, through their initiation ceremonies...We wait for the right time for our ceremonies and our meetings. The right people must be present. Everything must be done in the proper way. Careful preparations must be made. We don't mind waiting, because we want things to be done with care... We don't like to hurry. There is nothing more important than what we are attending to. There is nothing more urgent that we must hurry away for.

We wait on God, too. His time is the right time. We wait for him to make his Word clear to us. We don't worry. We know that in time, and in the spirit of dadirri (that deep listening and quiet stillness) his way will be clear.

We are River people. We cannot hurry the river. We have to move with its current and understand its ways.

We hope that the people of Australia will wait. Not so much waiting for us - to catch up - but waiting with us, as we find our own pace in this world.

There is much pain and struggle as we wait... My people are used to the struggle, and the long waiting.

We still wait for the white people to understand us better. We ourselves had to spend many years learning about the white man's ways. Some of the learning was forced; but in many cases people tried hard, over a long time, to learn the new ways.

We have learned to speak the white man's language. We have listened to what he had to say. This learning and listening should go both ways. We would like people in Australia to take time to listen to us. We keep on longing for the things that we have always hoped for - respect and understanding....

To be still brings peace - and it brings understanding. When we are really still in the bush, we concentrate. We are aware of the ant hills and the turtles and the water lilies. Our culture is different. We are asking our fellow Australians to take time to know us; to be still and to listen to us...

I believe it is not just twice as hard, but four times as hard for an Aboriginal person to acheive anything in our country. Life is very hard for many of my people. Good and bad things came with the years of contact - and with the years following. People often absorbed the bad things and not the good. It was easier to do the bad things than to try a bit harder to achieve what we really hoped for.

I think it is something like a whirlwind. We might get caught in it, but after, we come out - all 'fluffed up'. We think: 'I got through! I made it!.

But some people get caught and stuck. They might feel trapped; or they may drop out. They may suicide. In a way, my people are going through this whirlwind all the time.

So we are asking that our fellow country men will come and learn, and listen and wait with us. This will encourage us and lighten our burdens.

 And we know that our brothers and sisters in this land, themselves carry their own particular burdens. We believe that if they let us come to them if they open up their hearts and minds to us we may lighten their burdens.

There is a struggle for us: but I believe we have not lost our spirit of dadirri. It is the way that we strengthen and renew our inner selves. If our culture is alive and strong and respected, it will grow. It will not die. And our spirit will not die. And I believe the spirit of dadirri that we have to offer will blossom and grow, not just within themselves, but in our whole nation.