Meaning of land to Aboriginal people

Land means different things to non-Indigenous and Aboriginal people. The latter have a spiritual, physical, social and cultural connection. Land management and care are vital for Aboriginal health and provide jobs. Many Aboriginal artworks tell about the connection between people and their land.

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What does land mean to Aboriginal people?

Key take-away: The land owns Aboriginal people and every aspect of their lives is connected to it.

Non-Indigenous people and land owners might consider land as something they own, a commodity to be bought and sold, an asset to make profit from, but also a means to make a living off it or simply 'home'. They 'develop' land, as if it was unfinished or raw.

For Aboriginal people the relationship is much deeper. Palyku woman Ambelin Kwaymullina explains:

"For Aboriginal peoples, country is much more than a place. Rock, tree, river, hill, animal, human – all were formed of the same substance by the Ancestors who continue to live in land, water, sky. Country is filled with relations speaking language and following Law, no matter whether the shape of that relation is human, rock, crow, wattle. Country is loved, needed, and cared for, and country loves, needs, and cares for her peoples in turn. Country is family, culture, identity. Country is self."

They have a profound spiritual connection to land. Aboriginal law and spirituality are intertwined with the land, the people and creation, and this forms their culture and sovereignty.

The health of land and water is central to their culture. Land is their mother, is steeped in their culture, but also gives them the responsibility to care for it. They "feel the pain of the shapes of life in country as pain to the self".

Aboriginal languages described intimately the land and the culture of the people who spoke them. That is why the removal of Aboriginal people from their ancestral lands has been so disastrous because the loss of country leads to loss of that language and culture.

Living in a city has its own challenges. "I often wonder how to connect with my country when I'm in the city," wonders Aboriginal dancer and choreographer Francis Rings. "For many Indigenous people it's a visceral connection; you look beyond the buildings and concrete and feel a sense of belonging," she says.

We cultivated our land, but in a way different from the white man. We endeavour to live with the land; they seemed to live off it.

— Tom Dystra, Aboriginal elder

Story: The Lost Girl

The girl had lost her way. She had wandered far from the Mothers, the Aunties and the Grandmothers, from the Fathers and the Uncles and the Grandfathers. She had hidden in the shadow of a rock, and fallen asleep while she waited for her brothers and sisters to find her. Now it was night, and no one answered when she called, and she could not find her way back to camp.

The girl wandered, alone. She grew thirsty, so she stopped by a waterhole to drink, and then hungry, so she picked some berries from a bush. Then the night grew colder, so she huddled beneath an overhanging rock, pressing herself into a hollow that had trapped the warm air of the day. Finally she saw a crow flying in the moonlight, flapping from tree to tree and calling ‘Kaw! Kaw! Kaw!’. The girl followed the crow. She followed him through the trees and over the rocks and up the hills, until at last she saw the glow of her people’s campfires in the distance.

The people laughed and cried at once to see that the girl was safe. They growled at her for her foolishness, and cuddled her, and gave her a place by the fire. Her little brother asked her if she had been afraid; but the girl said – ‘How could I be frightened? I was with my Mother. When I was thirsty, she gave me water; when I was hungry, she fed me; when I was cold, she warmed me. And when I was lost, she showed me the way home.’

This story is available as a children's book of the same name.

"The land owns us"

Most texts use 'custodians' or 'owners' when referring to Aboriginal peoples' relationship to their lands. Aboriginal peoples' preference can be very personal – some reject being an owner, others accept the term.

It is tricky to find appropriate words to express their intimate relationship, as John Christophersen, deputy chair of the Northern Land Council, knows all too well.

"We're not custodians, we're not caretakers," he says. "We weren't looking after [the land] for somebody else to come and take [it] away. We were the owners. And occupiers. And custodians. And caretakers."

An Elder explains

Bob Randall, a Yankunytjatjara elder and traditional custodian of Uluru (Ayer's Rock), explains his connectedness to the land and how every living thing is connected to every other living thing.

3 different views of land

You wouldn't believe that these three quotes all refer to the same site at James Price Point on Western Australia's Kimberley coast:

Unremarkable beach.

— Colin Barnett, Premier, Western Australia

'Major' heritage site.

— WA Department of Aboriginal Sites ('major' is the Department's highest category)

Secret Aboriginal men's business site.

— Goolarabooloo Aboriginal people
Land: Rainy forest in the Royal National Park, NSW
Land of the ancestors. Aboriginal people are born into the responsibility to care for their land, today and with future generations.

Land sustains Aboriginal lives in every aspect, spiritually, physically, socially and culturally. The notion of landscape as a second skin is central to every Aboriginal art form, whether it be theatre, dance, music or painting.

Without their connection to land Aboriginal artists cannot create. "Living and working or creating in the land of their birth is vital for an artist's connection to country," says Edwina Circuitt, manager of the Warakurna Art Centre in Western Australia. Maintaining this connection is vital to pass on important stories to younger generations.

When walking on country, Aboriginal woman Melissa Lucashenko sees another dimension beyond the obvious. "We see the world that white people see but we are also seeing a mythic landscape at the same time, and an historic landscape," she says. "White people see Rotary parks and headlands; we see sacred sites. And we are looking at bush food." Aboriginal law and life originates in and is governed by the land. The connection to land gives Aboriginal people their identity and a sense of belonging. Ambelin Kwaymullina explains how law is the basis to everything we see today:

"The Ancestors taught the peoples the ways of living in country, and these ways were called Law. It was Law that sustained the web of relationships established by the Ancestors, and the web of relationships established by the Ancestors formed the pattern that was life itself. This pattern − being life – is everywhere; it exists in a single grain of sand, and is formed again by millions of grains coming together to make desert; it is in spinifex and crow and rock and human and every other shape of life; and is created anew when these shapes come together to form country; and when all country comes together to form a continent." Country was, and still is to many, a place of learning. "We know everything there; the trees, animals, plants," explains Djawa Timmy Burarrwanga, an Aboriginal Elder from Arnhem Land. "It's like a bush library for us, and often a bush university too. It's there that we study and understand, and have learnt about the land and the care of that land over thousands of years. We can read it like a GPS. It's been handed down by our ancestors."

But if we don't sustain the land, when we only take and not give back, we are destroying this library:

"It’s just like a big book to us. This whole land. Now, over the years, people been taking – like tearing pages out of our book so there’s bits and pieces getting lost... You know, if we take out the centre part of our country, you know we’ve taken out a whole guts of our book, we’re tearing it right out... It would be hard for teaching to carry on after that point."

In the learning borne of country is the light that nourishes the world.

— Ambelin Kwaymullina, Aboriginal lawyer

The land is my backbone... I only stand straight, happy, proud and not ashamed about my colour because I still have land... I think of land as the history of my nation.

— Galarrwuy Yunipingu, Aboriginal musician

In white society, a person's home is a structure made of bricks or timber, but to our people our home was the land that we hunted and gathered on and held ceremony and gatherings.

— Nala Mansell-McKenna, Youth Worker, Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre

Story: "Money don't mean nothing to me"

Jeffrey Lee could have become a millionaire. But he decided not to.

Jeffrey is a senior custodian of the land know as Koongarra. The French energy company Areva was seeking to activate its mineral lease to extract 14,000 tonnes of uranium from the site.

Instead of accepting millions in mining royalties Mr Lee approached the federal government with an offer to incorporate the land into the Kakadu National Park.

"When you dig 'em hole in that country, you're killing me," he told reporters. "Money don't mean nothing to me. Country is very important to me." For him it was more important to protect the sacred sites and burial sites in the country he is responsible for.

Jeffrey works as a ranger in the park and hopes the extension will bring more visitors to the area and create further employment for Aboriginal people.

"Traditional owners will be doing stuff on country," he said, adding that it was important to preserve land for future generations so non-Indigenous Australians could learn about Aboriginal culture.

The Koongarra deposit is only 3 kilometres from Nourlangie Rock, one of the most visited attractions in Kakadu.

Not all Aboriginal people oppose land development

With their intimate connection to land Aboriginal people could be perceived as strongly opposed to any land development.

The opposite is true. A national survey of Aboriginal land owners found in 2007 that although custodial responsibilities and land care were their first priority, nearly all land owners strongly supported economic development.

Their goal is ultimately self-sustainability, but a lack of financial support and the ability to access it prevent many to reach this goal.

Arguments in favour of development

  • Development brings benefits. When properly negotiated many development deals can bring benefits packages worth millions for Aboriginal people.
  • Grab an opportunity. Resource developers only have that much patience. If a development proposal is not approved within a certain time, they take their dollars elsewhere.
  • Get some whitefella money. Aboriginal people working on pastoral properties were often paid in food and clothes, or not at all. This experience is still fresh in their memory, so the prospect of getting some money "back" from the white man is tempting.
  • Develop Aboriginal future. Land development agreements can play a vital role in helping Aboriginal people determine the course of their future.

Arguments against development

  • Government, not land should provide for needs. No other Australians but Aboriginal people seem to have to give up their assets to receive bare essentials like housing, health, education.
  • Protect the land. Many developments impact the environment, pollute it or leave behind a mess of waste and destruction. Protecting the land and its sacred sites is more important than developing it.

Case study: The biggest native title deal in Australian history

In May 2011 traditional owners in Western Australia voted overwhelmingly to allow a gas plant be built at James Price Point, 60 kms north of Broome, in exchange for projects and benefits worth 1.5 billion.

The Goolarabooloo and Jabirr Jabirr people relinquished 1.5% of their native title interests in what WA Premier Colin Barnett described as "the most significant act of self-determination by Aboriginal people in the country".

The settlement then was the largest single native title settlement in Australia's history.

The package included cash, employment and housing benefits, education, training initiatives, support for rangers and contracting opportunities.

However, prior to the decision the Premier had started moves to compulsorily acquire the land if no compromise was found.

Spiritual connections

Their spiritual and cultural connection to the land obliges Aboriginal people to look after cultural sites which are 'living museums' of their ancestors and include

  • Dreaming sites,
  • archaeological sites,
  • water holes,
  • burial grounds.

Ceremonial activities help them renew or rebuild their spiritual connection to the land and the sacred sites they look after.

Today access to traditional lands can be gained when native title is recognised, but gaining this title is a lengthy, costly and complex process.

Non-Indigenous people have problems understanding the close relationship with land. When Aboriginal people try to educate about what the land means to them they often are "hit with this hurtful phrase 'the land doesn't belong to you Aboriginal people, it belongs to all of us." It is one of the "most hurtful comments" that they have to endure.

"Aboriginal cultural heritage places are an essential part of our library," explains Tasmanian Aboriginal activist Jim Everett. "[They hold] not only material evidence of our ancestors' lifestyles, influenced by ice ages, isolation, climate changes and eventually colonisation, but also a spiritual connection to country and the identity of place and spiritual belonging."

"Destruction is like ripping pages from our library books, it is like cutting the hearts of our people, cutting our identity and our cultural philosophy that sustains our spiritual connectedness to country."

Many Aboriginal people's connection to the land has been severed during the time of the Stolen Generations. They have lost their traditional connection. Aboriginal author and academic Stephen Hagan estimates that about 70% of the people he has spoken to do not have "the faintest idea" of their connection to country.

It's like the love for your mum and dad.

— Natasha Neidje, grand-daughter of Bill Neidje, about the love for the land, Kakadu National Park

If you belong there your country will find a way to call you back. Country needs to be remembered, needs to be listened to, needs to know that we can still speak its language.

— Aboriginal elder in TV series Double Trouble

Story: "He and the sea were one"

Jan Brown remembers her cousin, Edward 'Ted' Beresford Buchanan, and his relationship to the sea.

"He was the only man I knew who could go fishing with no bait. He would just pick up a crab, crack it open and throw it on his line and come home with a bag full of fish.

It was as if he and the sea were one. He could tell me where the fish were travelling. He could tell the tides by the moon, and he could tell when there was bad weather coming and warn all the fishing mates not to take their boats out because the storm was going to hit at, say, exactly 5.30pm."

Before Bed

Most nights before bed
I retreat outside
to savour the beauty
that soothes my mind.

Stars stain the sky
scattered all around
I peer into the darkness
observing every sound.

The call of an owl
the distant croak of a frog
the squeaking of a bandicoot
as it scurries past a log.

The symphony of insects
whose song fills the air
the whisper of a westerly
that flows through my hair.

A mother and her joey
briskly bound away
these sounds hold more meaning
than what words can ever say.

Moonshine protrudes
the sparse shifting cloud
a river of lilac
streams to the ground.

I bathe in this brilliance
a smile on my face
grateful to the spirits
for maintaining this place.

By Jonathan Hill, Old Erowal Bay, NSW. Read Aboriginal poems.


The Wood Wide Web

Trees communicate with each other through the air and via an underground trading system of roots, bacteria and fungal threads. This is known as the Wood Wide Web. Trees also care for other trees, notifying each other of threats or feeding sugars to an injured fellow tree.

An estimated 15 billion trees have been cleared in the Murray-Darling Basin alone since European settlement.

Homework: Lessons we need to learn

Experts say that Australia has not looked after its environment well enough since invasion and instead prioritised commerce.

  • What do you think is the number one cause of extinction? Is it habitat destruction or pollution?
  • Find statistics that support the claim that Australia is a leader in mammal extinctions.
  • Research Australian environmental legislation and find evidence that it only assesses a single development at one place at one time.

Views are slowly changing. One expert, Professor Lesley Hughes, a climate scientist working at Macquarie University, concludes:

"We need to stop seeing humans, jobs and the economy as separate from the environment. Without a healthy environment, we can't exist. It's our life support system."

  • Compare this view with Aboriginal peoples' view of land. Are there similarities?
  • What is still missing from this view?
  • If you had the power to tell the government what it needs to do, what would you tell them?


View article sources (22)

[1] [1a] 'Caring for culture, caring for country', NIT 10/7/2008 p.16
[2] [2a] [2b] [2c] [2d] 'Seeing the Light: Aboriginal Law, Learning and Sustainable Living in Country', Ambelin Kwaymullina, Indigenous Law Bulletin May/June 2005, Volume 6, Issue 11
[3] [3a] 'For kin and country', SMH Spectrum 14/7/2012 p.10
[4] TimeOut Sydney 21-27/5/2008 p.7
[5] 'Words are easy', SMH, Spectrum, 21/7/2018
[6] 'Secret men's business threatens $30 billion gas bonanza', SMH 5/12/2011
[7] 'WA Desert mob form an alliance', Koori Mail 393 p.36
[8] 'The longing for belonging', SMH 9/3/2013
[9] 'Australian outback holidays: Why the outback needs to be on your bucket list', SMH 25/1/2017
[10] George Trevorrow in Diane Bell, 'Ngarrindjeri Wurruwarrin: A World that is, Was, and Will Be' 1998, p.397, cited in 'Seeing the Light...'
[11] 'Tassie Heritage claim ignored', readers letter, Koori Mail 490 p.24
[12] 'Rich-in-culture traditional owner turns down millions', Koori Mail 483 p.9
[13] 'On our terms', Koori Mail 403 p.5
[14] '$1.5b native title deal kick-starts gas plant', SMH 7/5/2011
[15] 'A word that identifies us', readers letter, Koori Mail 488 p.25
[16] 'Land is linked to well-being', Koori Mail 496 p.35
[17] 'Tassie bypass fight goes on', Koori Mail 484 p.7
[18] 'Tell your story', Koori Mail 400 p.21
[19] 'Vale 'Big Gun Fisherman'', Koori Mail 449 p.26
[20] 'Before Bed', Koori Mail 490 p.24
[21] 'Trunk call', SMH Good Weekend 30/5/2020
[22] 'The fight to save our environment', Special report for World Environment Day, SMH 5/6/2021

Cite this page

Korff, J 2021, Meaning of land to Aboriginal people, <>, retrieved 20 July 2024

Creative Spirits is a starting point for everyone to learn about Aboriginal culture. Please use primary sources for academic work.

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