The Land

Dreaming and the land

Indigenous people have occupied Australia for at least 60 000 years and have evolved with the land - changing it and changing with it. The land was not just soil or rocks or minerals, but a whole environment that sustains and is sustained by people and culture.
For Indigenous Australians the land is the core of all spirituality and this relationship has been deeply misunderstood over the past 200 years or so. This relationship is central to all issues that are important to Indigenous people today.


The land underpins kinship and community identity.
The land defines community groups and language groups.
Language groups are an expression of community identity.
Aboriginal people do not own the land they are custodians of it.



Implications for service providers

All staff working with Aboriginal clients need to have a general understanding of the meaning of the land for Aboriginal people an understanding of the spiritual relationship that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have to the land as a source of their identity and how this impacts on Aboriginal people in the day to day.

The following practical tips and suggestions are starting points for exploring the implications. It may be useful to have a dialogue with the local Aboriginal community about these issues.

1. Service providers need to develop an understanding of the spiritual relationship that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have to the land as a source of their identity. Aboriginal concepts and systems of land tenure differ significantly from a Western perception and this may impact on an Indigenous family’s living situation when accessing non Aboriginal Services. Service providers need to know who the local community(ies) is/are and what area their land covered. In the Upper Hunter this is the Wanaruah and Kamilaroi peoples. Your Local Aboriginal Lands Council will be able to provide you with this information.

2. Aboriginal beliefs are based on creation stories of ‘The Dreaming’. These stories describe the way Ancestors left their mark on the land. Particular stories are linked to particular landscapes and different land-holding groups are custodians of different stories. It is important to understand that ‘sacred sites’ are an essential part of Aboriginal people’s beliefs. Your Local Aboriginal Lands Council will be able to provide you with this information. The NSW National Parks and Wildlife website provides useful information on Aboriginal people, their culture and significant areas.

3. When working with your Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander community a standard of respect and acknowledgment is essential. By demonstrating your respect to the Indigenous community you will be able to establish trusting relationships and enable communications to take place effectively.
In order to establish a working relationship you need to determine who are the Traditional Owners or the Recognised Elders of your community. The Traditional Owners are the original people of the area in which you live. They are the clan or groups of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander peoples who have a traditional connection to the land and / or waters relating to that area. Traditional Owners differ throughout Australia with diversity of languages, cultural practices and spiritual beliefs. Be mindful that due to colonisation Traditional Owners may not exist in your community and it may be more appropriate to ask the Local Aboriginal groups if there are Recognised Elders. These are people who are respected by the Aboriginal community as Elders but have not necessarily undergone traditional initiation ceremonies.
Your Local Aboriginal Lands Council will be able to provide you with the information you need to acknowledge the Traditional Owners of your area during major events and ceremonies. This practise expresses respect for the Aboriginal culture and history and should be done in accordance with local tradition. It should be done as the first duty of any meeting, event opening or speech.

  • Traditional Welcome or Welcome to Country – This is a traditional welcome speech that is usually done by an Elder or senior representative of your local Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander community. It welcomes people to visit and meet on the traditional area.
  • Acknowledgment of Country – This is a welcome speech that is made in acknowledgment of the local Indigenous people of your area. It is done when an Elder or appropriate member of the Aboriginal community is not available to give a Traditional Welcome or during less formal gatherings. An example is provided;

    “I would like to respectfully acknowledge the Local Aboriginal people who are the Traditional Owners and custodians of the land on which this meeting takes place.”

Whenever you invite an Aboriginal person to provide a cultural service such as a ‘Welcome to Country’ or an artistic performance they are using their intellectual property. As such it is important to acknowledge these services with appropriate remuneration. The Department of Aboriginal Affairs provides a fee for service schedule.

4. European settlement has resulted in considerable changes to the Aboriginal culture and land-holding patterns over the past 200 years. It has resulted in a conflict between two systems of law and culture. The concept of ‘terra nullius’ lead to the dispossession of land for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and with this, a loss of economic base including natural and cultural resources. It is important to recognise that this period of Australian history continues to impact on Indigenous peoples today. Clients accessing your Service may have lost the connection to their traditional land and culture and have nowhere to belong. This can create social and financial disadvantage for the family. It is important to recognise the effects of this loss of connectedness and offer support and referral where appropriate.
‘Link-Up is an Aboriginal organisation that works with Aboriginal adults who were separated from their families and homes when they were children. They provide counselling and support to connect with one’s family, home and culture.

5. As a Worker you may be confronted with wider community views regarding Native Title and the land rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples that are not accurate. The Mabo decision of 1992 and the Wik decision of 1996 have lead to some misconceptions about the ownership of land by Indigenous peoples. It is important to have a general understanding of Native Title and land rights in order to address these myths. It will also help you to develop a better understanding of some of the difficulties that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples experience in accessing and trusting non-Aboriginal Services.

6. The limitations of the Native Title Act 1993 indicate that any Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander group seeking a native title claim must demonstrate a continuous traditional connection to their land. If the people have left their land either voluntarily or forcibly and lost their connection as defined by their laws and customs, then the title is lost. This will be the case for many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders that access your Service. This may have implications for the Indigenous community you are working with.

7. The effects of dispossession of land and culture and subsequent impact of the Stolen Generation mean that some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples know very little about their families, heritage and culture. As a Worker you may find yourself supporting an individual who has just learned of their Aboriginality. It is important to remember that ONLY Aboriginal people can determine who is Aboriginal and who is not. Their heritage is something that is very personal and they do not need a ‘letter of confirmation’ to identify them as an Indigenous person. However there may be circumstances when they do need verification of their Indigenous heritage, for example; applying for Indigenous specific grants, loans, University courses, Centrelink and Housing assistance, employment and school programs. The official formal criteria used by the Australian Government and most State Governments developed in consultation with Aboriginal peoples include;

  • Must be of Aboriginal descent
  • Must identify as an Aboriginal
  • Must be accepted as an Aboriginal by the community in which they live

In this case, the Indigenous person will need to link with their local Aboriginal community organization for assistance. A ‘letter of confirmation’ is usually obtained from this organization and stamped with their common seal. You may need to help them gather as much information about their family history as they can, as they will need to explain their heritage to a committee. It is important to maintain strong networks with Aboriginal Workers within Government and non-government services in your area to support your client with this process and connecting them with their traditional land.
The AIATSIS Family History Unit is able to assist you with the family history research that you may need to undertake to demonstrate your Indigenous heritage and/or the area that your family is from. See the website for more information.

8 The issues associated with dispossession of land and movement to reserves and missions extend further than the loss of connection with traditional lands. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are more likely to have a history of insecure housing and tenancy than non-Indigenous peoples. A lack of secure housing for parents can have a negative impact on their children. Parents who have inadequate accommodation have difficulty in providing a safe family environment. Some clients accessing your Service may have spent part of their life on a mission or living in over-crowded, poorly equipped housing. There is a major concern regarding the lack of role-modelling that is available when the parents have lived in these types of circumstances. It is important to be aware of the sensitive issues that have arisen in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities as a result of forced removal from their traditional lands onto missions and reserves and offer support and referral where appropriate.