Aboriginal land and land rights

Explore what land means to Aboriginal people, the many threats to this close relationship and what happens if it is broken.

List of articles

The tide of history can never take away our connection to land, because it is a spiritual connection and at a higher level. [...] Our law and spirituality is intertwined with the land, the people and creation and this forms our culture and our sovereignty.

— Wadjularbinna, Gungalidda Elder (Gulf of Carpentaria)

Why are there so many 'Boundary Roads' throughout larger cities, such as Brisbane?


Boundary roads get their name from the landmarks Indigenous people could not cross at night.

Meaning of water

Phil Duncan, chair of the First Peoples' Water Engagement Council, explains Aboriginal connections with water.

"We have this relationship, this invisible connection to water, with spirit, culture, songlines, our dreaming,” he said. “Rivers form tribal boundaries, are travel highways and provide food. Fish have different totemic value for different peoples, for example the eastern cod has great significance for the Ballina, Tabulam and Baryulgil mobs, and so does the turtle."

Researching this invisible connection is hard, Duncan says, as there is little understanding in the wider community and Aboriginal people are telling their story, songline and connection to others.

Some Aboriginal people believe that the first rain after a long drought "washes the sickness away" and it is unsafe to swim in that water. Only after the "second rain" is safe to go to the water hole.


In 2018, only 0.01% of water rights were under Aboriginal control. Water rights help communities with cultural, environmental and economic activities.

What good is all that land if we don’t have a say in the way the river is managed?

— Badger Bates, Barkandji elder, Darling river region

The biggest mistake ever was when we separated water from the land.

— Paul Maytom, Mayor of Leeton, Riverina region, NSW

What is "cultural water"?

Aboriginal people know stand-alone or "cultural water". Cultural water recognises the river's "sacred importance" to Aboriginal people and an important factor to understand culture.

Cultural water is water associated with ceremony, protecting cultural heritage sites that require wetting, initiation sites in wetlands or near rivers, men's business and women's business and birthing sites.

This water needs to stand alone, meaning aside from other interests in water such as looking after healthy rivers, healthy native fish stocks and keeping sheep and cattle out of rivers.

Often ignored, the concept of cultural water finds its way into policies more and more. It is about time, when Aboriginal people's native title claims cover about a third of Australia's land mass, but only 0.01% of its water diversions.

What are 'cultural flows'?

Cultural Flows are 'water entitlements that are legally and beneficially owned by Indigenous Nations of a sufficient and adequate quantity and quality, to improve the spiritual, cultural, environmental, social and economic conditions of those Indigenous Nations'.

Cultural flows is a concept that says Aboriginal people have a right to water for spiritual, economic and environmental purposes. By securing water allocations, Aboriginal communities along a river can take part in the management of that river system.

Cultural flows are not the same as environmental flows. The latter might help flush a wetland, but not necessarily align with Aboriginal ideas of keeping a river healthy.

For more information, go to the National Cultural Flows Research Project.

How can a community be so successful?

The remote Aboriginal community of Utopia, 110 kms north of Alice Springs, left researchers and bureaucrats ask: Why is this community doing so well?

  • The death rate is "strikingly low" compared with other Aboriginal populations in the NT.
  • The average mortality rate is nearly half that of the general NT population (which has an Aboriginal proportion of more than 30%).
  • There is no increase in diabetes or obesity over the past 20 years.
  • Death rates from cardiovascular diseases are about half those of the Territory's Aboriginal population.

Such results are unique because they are outside national trends, even though residents in Utopia had the same levels of housing, income and employment as other remote Aboriginal communities.

Researchers attributed the community's success to a pro-active health service, and the decentralised layout of the community, which provided access to traditional lands for hunting and gathering.

"Mastery and control over life circumstances is a fundamental determinant of good health," concludes Prof Ian Anderson, from the Co-operative Research Centre for Aboriginal Health. "People in Utopia have designed their own community, have freehold title to their land and control over the way health services are delivered."

There is also a great sense of pride in the community's achievements and in the strong cultural practices that continue in Utopia.

This study gives hard evidence that community outstations and a community lifestyle do actually work if the primary healthcare is delivered properly.

— Ricky Tilmouth, Urapuntja Health Service, Utopia

Sustainable hunting and gathering

Aboriginal people were acutely aware of the delicate relationship they had with the land. When they hunted and gathered food they had to do so sustainably in order to preserve the resource for the next cycle.

Ngarrindgeri man Tom Trevorrow explains a few gathering and hunting methods and how his people made sure the sources were not depleted:

  • Fruits and berries. Aboriginal people gathered evenly from the land and never picked everything from one area, otherwise it would take a long time to return again.
  • Birds eggs. They only took about half the eggs from a nest, and only the fresh ones. To avoid birds abandoning their nest because of human smell, Aboriginal people splashed the nest with water or rubbed their hands in the surrounding grasses, trees and sand.
  • Fish. Only the fish required to feed the family were caught. If they caught more fish, the extra fish were kept alive and fresh for another day in fish traps.
  • Animals. When hunting kangaroos or emus the ones with joeys or chicks were not taken.

Now I realise that this was, and is, the Ngarrindjeri way of farming the land and this is how my ancestors survived in this country for so long.

— Tom Trevorrow, Ngarrindjeri man

Bush tucker: Collecting bush onions

The following video shows a group of Aboriginal students from Wangkatjungka School, led by teachers of the Department of Education, driving out into the bush to search for bush onions, or jurnta (pronounced 'yurnda'). Bush onions are an important source of protein.

The students themselves shot and comment this video. The Wangkatjungka community is located about 120 kms south-east of Fitzroy Crossing in the Kimberley region of Western Australia.

Aboriginal weather knowledge

Aboriginal people distinguish between more than just four seasons, for example, the Dharawal people of NSW distinguish six seasons: 'hot and dry', 'wet becoming cooler', 'cold, frosty, short days', 'cold and windy', 'cool, getting warmer', and 'warm and wet'.

The Australian Bureau of Meteorology has published a calendar showing Indigenous Weather Knowledge for each of their seasons. It currently has many entries for the NT, but also for WA and NSW.

Story: Wind totems

Torres Strait Islander people have different names for wind to describe a cold breeze or a tropical storm. Elma Kris, from the Bangarra Dance Theatre, explains the winds of her home country, the Torres Strait.

"They use [different names] to describe the winds: Naigai, Zei, Sager and Kuki, and how they merge in a climate way, in a weather way.

"In white man world, you gotta use the compass and the direction, where it comes from and have the name for it: 'ok, the wind comes from the south' or 'the wind comes from the west'.

"In our culture, we have a language for it and it is also our totem. So we have wind totem. We have Zei, the cold breeze wind and then we have Kuki like a cyclone wind and Naigai is the calmness, where the water goes still but you have the glittering and shimmering on the water. Sager is the south-east trade winds. Many boats used this wind; it helps their sailing mast to sail that journey."


View article sources (0)

[1] Koori Mail 390 (6/12/2006) p.26
[2] 'Kerrianne Cox', ABC "Defining Moments" series, Message Sticks Film Festival 2013
[3] 'Interview with Elma Kris, Choreographer and Dancer', Bangarra newsletter, 5/2011
[4] 'Franklin battle remembered', Koori Mail 430, p.4
[5] 'No justice for Palm Island', NIT 30/10/2008 p.19
[6] 'Hunting and Gathering... a Sustainable Method', Environment South Australia newsletter Nov/Dec 1994 p.7
[7] 'Utopia by name... Utopia by nature', Koori Mail 421 p.6
[8] 'Discussion flows at water summit', Koori Mail 524 p.28
[9] ''It's our lifeblood': the Murray-Darling and the fight for Indigenous water rights', The Guardian 10/4/2018
[10] www.culturalflows.com.au, accessed 10/4/2018
[11] ''Cultural water': Indigenous water claims finally on Darling agenda', SMH 20/1/2019
[12] ''On their knees': Drought and nuts blamed for 'decimating' food sector', SMH 25/10/2019

Harvard citation

Korff, J 2020, Aboriginal land and land rights, <https://creativespirits.info/aboriginalculture/land>, retrieved 26 January 2021

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