Australia: The Land Where Time Began

A biography of the Australian continent 

Country in Aboriginal Australia

In pre-contact Australia the boundaries of countries were not fixed and impermeable. Where a particular person could go was prescribed by the wanderings of spirits or totems from the Dreamtime, though according to the author1 almost everyone had rights and interests in other countries. Each family at New Norcia, Western Australia, had its own district, though nearby families that are on friendly terms with the family from the district were allowed to use it freely. There was a core territory amongst zones that were open to kin, people from the same totem, clan, neighbours, trading partner or occasion. A particular member of a family might have right of access that were not accorded to other members of that person's family, though when needed help was given by neighbours. Permission was required to cross a tribal boundary, though if the tribal area of a group was devastated by drought or flood it was normal for that group to be allowed to use part of the tribal country of a neighbouring group. When people were escaping from war they would be helped by their neighbours, as well as when children were to be initiated, and projects that were bigger than the usual day to day activities, such as fish and game drives or clean-up fires. At the times of some harvests, such as bogong moths, cycad seeds, bunya nuts and eel harvesting people came from hundreds of kilometres around to join in the activities, and at this time there were also associated ceremonies that visitors took part in with the locals. It was by these means that rights to country were shared, though they were never reduced.

The group who had traditionally lived in a country were the ones who could decide who entered that country. James Dawson wrote of a country in western Victoria in 1881 'No individual of any neighbouring tribe or family can hunt or walk over the property of another without permission of the head of the family owning the land. A stranger found trespassing can legally be put to death'.

The use of another's land by a tribe required the invitation of the tribe occupying the land, in northwest Australia. These tribal districts are subdivided into portions of the tribal land that is each occupied by a family group of that tribe. The children of a family group inherit equally, both boys and girls, possession of part of the property .

According to John Browne, among the Albany people it is difficult to determine what the rights of ownership included, as members of the tribe apparently hunt indiscriminately on land possessed by each other. If someone from an enemy group or another tribe intentionally hunted on the land of the occupying group it could lead to acts of violence and retaliation between the tribes.

In 1841-1843 around Bunbury, Western Australia, each family occupied a country of its own that was defined, more or less, that was a kind of heritage and the rights of that family over their country was respected, and any infringements on those rights by outsiders were regarded as trespassing. Browne said that if an individual from a different family, though of the same tribe, needed to cross the country he would take only enough food he found to keep him going, leaving the rest for the occupying family, or he may choose not to take any food from their country. Browne was amazed at how each person knew exactly what was on his/her land. He also said they were never selfish with the resources of their land, noting that whenever there was a superabundance of any food item, whether it was plants, game or fish, as in a particular season, the occupying family invited their neighbours to come and feast.

Eyre said that the tribe occupying a particular region were regarded as the owners of that land, and the tribal members alone had the right to hunt on that land, and it was subdivided among the men of the tribe, each man knowing exactly the boundaries of his country. Fathers subdivide their land among their sons, in an almost hereditary fashion of succession. Each tribe needed to get permission, or be invited, to enter the land of another tribe. Those abiding by these rules are welcomed and treated well.

In the southeast, especially, neighbouring groups were named with the words for yes and no to indicate if that group was permitted or denied accessed to the owner's country. Eora (Sydney) is suggested by the author1 to possibly have derived from eor meaning 'yes'. This was used only after 1788, but in western New South Wales and northern Victoria there were at least 15 groups, with at least 6 in New England, as well as some in southern Queensland were named from the word for 'no' that were suggested by the author1 to have probably been named by neighbours. There was a strict rule, even for kin who were sure of receiving permission, whereby they needed to ask to enter the country of a group. In 1841 a squatter in New South Wales wrote that their wars generally started because of infringements of this rule.

George Moore east of Perth wrote that the ground is parceled out to individuals in a form of inheritance. He gave as an example the country of Midgegoroo that passed to his son Yagan, and at the time he was writing it belonged to 2 young brothers and a son of Yagan. Some trespassers hunted wallabies and lit a fire in this country without asking permission, and during a big meeting of the Aboriginal People tempers flared and an argument led to fighting in which 15 people were wounded with spears.

According to the author1 the people thought of their country as if it was alive to the point where it could 'talk, listen, suffer, be refreshed, rejoice,' the people on the country were there because it knew them. Their spirit stayed in the country and they expected to die there. People never had such an association with any other country. Robinson said of the people he was dispossessing from the country the natives of VDL 'are patriots, staunch lovers of their country.' Elders who were unable to travel, who believed death might not be too far off, stayed at a favourite place in their country and taught the country to a few wives and warriors.

James dredge said in 1837 that the occupiers of a country had a sense of security and pleasure when they were in their country that they didn't feel anywhere else. The ashes of their ancestors were in their country, the same one that those ancestors had hunted in and travelled across. Writing about Puntitjarpa Rock Shelter, a very difficult desert area south of Warburton, Western Australia, occupied for the last 10,000 years, Richard Gould wrote of the resourcefulness of the Aboriginal People who established this 'dignified way of life' under what was possibly the most difficult environmental conditions ever encountered by prehistoric hunters and gatherers. The author1 says country was heart, mind and soul.

Illustrating that country was not seen as property, being seen more like it owned the people living on it, John Wedge observed in 1835 near St. Leonards, Victoria, that though the head of a family might speak of a country as his, it was because the management of the country was his right and duty. He didn't own it and couldn't dispose of it, and those who inherited it were decreed by law.

At the Cowpastures near Sydney, when a man named Bundal was ordered off government land he was reported to have said that calling it government land was joke as it was his land and his father's before him, and going back through his ancestors.

In Adelaide Clamor Schurmann reported that all adult natives owned a portion that he called his country that he inherited from his father.

Among the colonists some thought the land was owned by families, such as Henry Chapman in southwest Australia, who wrote that comparatively small portions of land were allocated to different families for them to collect the food to sustain the family. He said that the boundaries are defined distinctly and different families kept within their boundaries when gathering food. He concluded that personal ownership of the soil was indicated by these practices. Others concluded that the it implied the land was owned by the clan as they could re-allocate land when necessary. Some thought it was the tribe that owned the land as it could redistribute groups.

Writing in Victoria, Robert Smyth said that each tribe had its own territory the boundaries of which were known to other tribes. This territory was subdivided, each portion being allocated to a family. He said that at the time older men could point out the land they inherited from their fathers, land that prior to colonisation was their own.

It has been concluded that there are no words in English that can adequately describe the links an Aboriginal group felt for its homeland (Bill Stanner, 1969). He says the word 'home' in English is far from the Aboriginal words that can mean 'camp', 'Hearth', 'country', 'everlasting home', 'totem place', 'life source' and 'spirit centre', as well as other similar meanings. In a similar way our word 'land' is also very inadequate to describe what an Aboriginal would think of when he spoke of 'earth' 'and use the word in a richly symbolic way to mean his 'shoulder' or his 'side'. Stanner said that when the Aboriginal people were removed from their traditional land it is thought they were simply being moved from one area of land to another area of land, as it is in white culture. To the dispossessed Aboriginals it was much different, it also took 'hearth, home, the source of locus and life, and the everlasting spirit'. Stanner also says that each local group were left without 'an essential constant that made their plan and code of living intelligible.'

He said that each homeland, a particular piece of territory, 'formed part of a set of constants without which no affiliation of any person to any other person, no link in the whole network of relationships, no part of the complex of social groups any longer had all its coordinates ... the Aboriginal People faced a kind of vertigo in living. They had no stable base of life; every personal affiliation was lamed; every group structure was put out of kilter; no social network had a point of fixture left'.

There are many more quotes from the early colonists and explorers in the book.

According to the Berndts2 it is necessary to appreciate the attitude of Aboriginal people towards their land and the resources in it to understand their relationship with it. The kinds of social group that were undoubtedly formed to safeguard and exploit the land reflect the traditional attitude of the aboriginal people. The relationship of Aboriginal People to the land, and their concern with sacred and traditional sites that are the focus of emotional and religious attitudes, are discussed by a number of available sources.

The Berndts2 discuss a modern issue in regard to Aboriginal attitudes to land, the Gove Dispute, in which they say the putting forward of differing views among anthropologists of the Aboriginal associations with the land was used in support of a negative judgment. The Berndts2 claim that the argument was based on a misinterpretation. They say that among anthropologists there is common agreement on the form of the Aboriginal relationship to land, the ways in which that relationship is manifested, and what it means to individual Aboriginals, as well as its social significance. Anthropologists agree on the empirical material which is not questioned. The controversy that was used to discredit the anthropological evidence was concerned with ways of conceptualising the data for theoretical purposes and the way in which the ideas of Aboriginals should be translated and expressed in that context. The Berndts2 have said that it is 'quite misleading' to claim that there is disagreement among anthropologists as to the land-holding of Aboriginal People.

Traditional Aboriginals of the present, as well as all Aboriginals from the past had, according to the Berndts2, a special view of the natural environment around them, being familiar intimately with every part of it, this detailed knowledge being essential to carry on their way of life. According to their beliefs they shared the same life essence with all natural species and elements in the environment. The natural world was included in their social world, and they humanised their natural world, including the land as such, as viewed in the Dreaming.

Sources & Further reading

  1. Gammage, Bill, 2011, The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aboriginal People made Australia, Allen & Unwin
  2. Berndt, R. M & C. H. , 1964, The World of the First Australians, Ure Smith Pty Ltd.


Author: M. H. Monroe
Last Updated 01/03/2012 


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