Custodianship and Country: Some Australian Aboriginal Beliefs About the Environment

Recently I shared with you a “Love Letter to Mother Earth” from the Buddhist monk and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh. I have been thinking about spiritual matters in general recently, and in particular those relating to the Earth and environment. It seems to me that – apart from the perspectives of the technocrats, the scientists, the politicians, the businessmen/women – the spiritual aspects of our relationship with the planet are completely ignored.

So, here is my own small overview of approaches to the environment, expressed by Australian aborigines over thousands of years. I have included some quotes from representatives of various aboriginal peoples and I am indebted to my Australian relatives for pointing me in some interesting directions. I also want to point out that aboriginal nations and their beliefs and cultures are numerous and diverse. Before the arrival of the British in 1788, there were (according to the Australian Government website) more than 500 clans or nations, with their own languages, beliefs and customs. So, it is impossible to lump all of them together.

On a Sunday afternoon picnic at Telegraph Station in Alice Springs, Wyonna Palmer looks at her phone as her 6-year-old daughter, Lakayla, and her sister, Anna Maria, look on. Credit:Matt Rogers/The World

Aboriginal peoples have lived in Australia for over 50,000 years. They include Torres Strait Islanders, descended from the inhabitants of those islands that are now part of Queensland. As we know and should be aware, many thousands were subjugated, decimated by disease, and died in conflicts with the British on their arrival. In the first half of the twentieth century, between 10 and 30 per cent of aboriginal children were forcibly removed from their homes as part of the government’s “assimilation” policy. The struggle for a treaty, embracing land rights as well as a recognition of the aboriginal peoples’ history and status (including the numerous past injustices), continues but is still not resolved. Australia is the only Commonwealth country not to have signed such a treaty with their First Nation peoples.

A luta continua,” as the saying goes.

This fact is especially painful and sad because most Australian aboriginals do believe that the land and people were created by “ancestor” or spirit beings, who continue to protect the land – and that includes rivers and trees, plants and animals, air and water, cliffs and rocks, the coastal salt waters. Just as their ancestor spirits cared for the land, their descendants are obliged to be custodians of this land – guardians, if you will.

Jamie Gulpilil in the film “Ten Canoes.”

Acquiring and passing on this knowledge of the land is, therefore, very important. If you don’t understand the environment, in every detail, you cannot take care of it. There is a vast repository of ancient knowledge of the land, the water and everything in it, which must be handed down to future generations so that they can continue this guardianship. I realized this when watching Ten Canoes – a 2006 film, the story of a young aboriginal warrior played by Jamie Gulpilil and narrated by his father David and set in Australia’s Northern Territory. It can be watched on YouTube (prepare for jokes and humor!)

So there is a connection to what is called “Country.” For Australian aborigines, this is not only the landscape, but home; and not in the “western” sense of ownership of the land, but a respectful relationship, where the land will sustain you if you care for it. For aboriginal peoples in Australia, if you become disconnected with Country, you will suffer. You can read more about this concept of interdependence between humans and environment here. Each language group or clan has a specific Country.

Here is a wonderful quote about Country, from Palyku woman Ambelin Kwaymullina:

“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.”

Many of the aboriginal clans became nomadic. Australia’s environment is often unforgiving, and staying in one place might mean exhausting natural resources pretty quickly. Aboriginal peoples always knew how to use nature’s offerings wisely, never taking more than they needed. They understood what the word “sustainability” truly means, it seems to me. They knew how to harvest food sources only when in season – and awareness of the seasons was a key factor in their way of life.

Otto Campion lighting fires the traditional way in the Arafura Swamp. Photo: Claire Thompson.

Another example of sustainability is the use of controlled fire. Uncontrolled, major fires are becoming a serious threat to the Australian environment, with climate change, although there has always been a “fire season.” Small fires, carefully set at the right time of year, can however improve the land’s productivity; for example, allowing fresh kangaroo grass to produce seeds. That is another example of the importance of indigenous knowledge and skills, handed down.

As important as fire is the other element, water. Here are some amazing comments from Aboriginal people, who participated in a fascinating study I found online here:

Once you start taking water, which is the life giving, it affects everything in this Country, your trees, your grass, your animals, they need that water just like we do, so if you start taking that thing away you are going to start to see that these things deteriorate, your trees and your grass and all those things they start to die back, and the River starts to wither and they’ll start to fall away too, you know. I have seen that happening before, and it’s not good. 

“Indigenous environmental values as human values”:

The river] is like the blood in my veins! That’s my food, everything comes from there, my life … that water, it’s me! When you start messing things around you then start messing with us! And we start feeling sick and one wonder ‘What’s going on?’, and this is where [it] all starts, but you know … that is like the blood in my veins! It’s very, very important to me and my people. 

Seed Mob is campaigning against fracking in the Northern Territory, producing a short film.

Just as in Jamaica and elsewhere, the extractive industries are a major environmental issue. Young activist Aborigines are campaigning against mining and a great organization called Seed Mob (Australia’s first Indigenous youth climate network) launched a petition to “Protect Country,” declaring:

“We are calling on Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to rule out any Federal Government investment, subsidies or royalty-free periods for any new coal or gas projects.

We are the caretakers, protection of country is at the very core of our culture and connection to the land and sea. It is the teaching of the Dreaming.

Seed Mob is Australia’s indigenous youth climate network.

I know there is so much more to say, and I am just scraping the surface, but I hope this will give you an insight into the fundamental beliefs and respect for the environment of the Aboriginal peoples of Australia.

Aboriginal spiritual values also seem to encompass the idea of “We are the environment. It is us.” Land is not there to be owned, bought and sold, developed, mined. Land – our environment – cannot be separated from us humans and those who lived before us. It provides everything we need, for our health and wellbeing. And we are all connected.

To me, handed down over all those thousands of years (and never destroyed by a particularly brutal colonialism) these beliefs are more relevant than ever.

We are all the guardians of our environment. Or we should be.



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