2. Our culture

Culture represents the ways of living that are built up by groups and transmitted from one generation to another.

Culture isn’t static. People adapt to changing climate, new inventions and influences from other people and other cultures.

This chapter will consider what culture means to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and how their connection to culture continues today.

Understanding culture

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures have adapted dramatically to accommodate all that has been introduced into Australia since 1788.

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You sometimes hear people say that ‘real’ Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures no longer exist because we no longer live like our ancestors, using traditional hunting implements and the like. This makes about as much sense as saying that English culture no longer exists because English people don’t live as they did before the industrial revolution.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures have adapted dramatically to accommodate all that has been introduced into Australia since 1788. First Australians have proved to be rich and resilient. It is a strong part of who we are and it is a strong part of the Australian identity.

It is important for all Australians to understand the essential features of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures, including our special connection to the land and our commitment to family and community—so we can walk on this land together as friends and equals, so you can share our pride.

Understanding and respecting our cultures also gives you a better sense of the impact on our communities when life-sustaining structures are ignored or broken, as they have been and continue to be.


Elements of traditional Indigenous culture, with spirit at the centre, creating deep connection with land and sea, sustained by a range of human practices. ©Kim Bridge

Australia has always been a multicultural continent.

Before the arrival of Europeans, there were around 270 different language groups and many different cultural ways.

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Just as Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas have always been made up of many cultures, so too has Australia.

This map indicates only the general location of larger groupings of people which may include smaller groups such as clans, dialects or individual languages in a group. Boundaries are not intended to be exact.

The views expressed in this publication are those of the author and not those of AIATSIS. For more information about the groups of people in a particular region contact the relevant land councils. NOT SUITABLE FOR USE IN NATIVE TITLE AND OTHER LAND CLAIMS. David R Horton, creator, © Aboriginal Studies Press, AIATSIS and Auslig/Sinclair, Knight, Merz, 1996


‘Dreaming’ or ‘Dreamtime’ are English words that describe a rich Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander concept. In reality, it is impossible to find words that adequately capture this core element of who we are but it’s something you feel when you sit with us on our country and hear our stories with an open mind and heart.

Dreaming is more than a mythical past; it prescribes our connection as Aboriginal people with the spiritual essence of everything around us and beyond us. Dreaming stories are not in the past, they are outside of time – always present and giving meaning to all aspects of life.

Across Australia, we have different words for this concept, including Tjukurpa in central Australia, Bugari in Broome, and Wongar in north-east Arnhem Land. Many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people prefer the use of the word Dreaming over Dreamtime.

The Dreaming is passed from generation to generation through stories, song, dance and art. This knowledge gives us special responsibility and is seen as a great honour.

For example, when we are taught a story or song about the travels of ancient creation spirits and ancestors from water-hole to water-hole, we become the holder of this essential knowledge.

The concept of Aboriginal Dreaming has been described as:

  • The veil separating physical life from existence outside of physical life is far less distinct and far more permeable than that experienced by non-Indigenous peoples.
  • The collective knowledge and wisdom of the grandparents and great-grandparents in their living state are absorbed into the collective ‘resource bank’ when they pass on into death.

Preserving language

English translation:

Hello everyone, how are you? My name is Djapirri Mununggirritj. The language I speak is Gumatj and I am from Arnhem Land. With this language our law is strong and our foundation is strong. And with this foundation we move forward and with our language of who we are as Yolngu people it makes us strong so that when we take our culture to the unknown world. We still stay strong and with that we can share our culture with the non-Yolngu culture and do the things together as we come from a background that is very different to yours, but at the same time we are sharing the culture to the non-Yolngu. This is the reason why as Yolngu, we want to start on the journey so we can enable ourselves to walk with non-Yolngu and share culture. We hope for better things to happen in Australia if we work together hand in hand.

Our language

Language identifies who we are and where we come from. We use the languages we speak to express all that we feel and know. When we lose a language, we lose the unique knowledge and perspectives of the people that speak it. For tens of thousands of years, hundreds of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages have been spoken across Australia. These languages hold a unique and rich part of our heritage.

Studies show that there were about 250 Aboriginal languages in Australia at the time Europeans arrived. These distinct languages had extensive vocabularies and complex grammars. Today, 145 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages are still spoken in Australia, however only 18 remain strong, meaning they are spoken by people of all ages.

As much of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history has been passed down orally it is important to the nation that these languages are preserved.

Source: National Indigenous Languages Survey 2005


“When you on Country, you walk with a spring in your step, you walk with your head high, you not afraid of anything. In order to find yourself you have to get lost. Best place to get lost is Country.”
William Watson,
Yiriman Cultural Boss

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are connected to country through lines of descent (paternal and maternal), as well as clan and language groups.

Although in the past (and sometimes into the present) there have been conflicts between different tribal groups, these were rarely over land. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have such a strong sense of belonging to country; they have no desire to own the land of others.

Territory is defined by spiritual as well as physical links. Landforms have deep meaning, recorded in art, stories, songs and dance. Songlines or Dreaming Tracks as well as [Kinship structures] link Indigenous peoples to the territories of other groups. In the past, these links were also used for trade.

“When we say country we might mean homeland, or tribal or clan area and in saying so we may mean something more than just a place; somewhere on the map. We are not necessarily referring to place in a geographical sense. But we are talking about the whole of the landscape, not just the places on it.
Professor Mick Dodson AM,
United Nations International Expert Group Meeting on Indigenous Peoples and Protection of the Environment, Khabarovsk, Russian Federation, August 2007

The environment

Australians of today are deeply concerned about environment issues like global warming. Surviving on this land for more than 60,000 years, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders established effective ways to use and sustain resources.  One important aspect is the right of certain people to control the use of resources in a particular area. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people don’t see themselves as ‘owning’ land, animals, plants or nature, but rather belonging with these things as equal parts of creation.

“I am an Aboriginal woman who has been brought up in a European world. I am Aboriginal in body, heart, soul and spirit. I cherish the culture that is passed on to me by my elders, particularly my mother, aunties and uncles. I have been brought up to believe that we have a special connection to the land. We belong to the land. The land does not belong to us.” 
Cassandra Lawton
Gungarri woman (SW Qld)

The rights of different groups to live in and manage certain areas of land are clear and recorded through art, stories, songs and dance.

Deep cultural and spiritual values like totemism have also played an important part in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander resource management. Totemism is a belief and value system that connects human beings to other animals, plants and aspects of nature. Groups and individuals are assigned a particular animal that they are related to and have to care for. This gives them a profound sense of connection to and responsibility for the natural world.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders people have a wide range of traditional methods for gathering food – including fish traps, subsistence agriculture, hunting and harvesting a wide range of natural fruits and vegetables. Some groups of people would stay in one place, while others moved around the land according to the seasons, to ensure sustainable and rich food supplies, and to fulfil their spiritual and cultural obligations.

Customary law

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities have complex codes of conduct to guide people’s behaviour. Today, every Australian is answerable to Australia’s laws. Traditional or customary law in no way substitutes for Australian law but it can coexist and guide a community on how to behave according to traditional beliefs and practices.

In the same way, Jewish people in Australia follow particular religious laws around diet, ceremony and behaviour while they also abide by our nation’s laws.

In Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, codes of conduct cover behaviour around:

  • Leadership and etiquette
  • Property
  • Laws around special events like marriage, coming of age and death
  • Sacred knowledge


Even before 1788 there were complex relationships for long distance trade between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities especially for coastal shells and stone hatchets. When people from different groups met socially to share resources, for ceremonies or to settle disputes, they brought items to exchange. Items included stones for axes, kangaroo skins, timber for spears, ochre or clay for paint and marine shells for decoration. In Queensland, a major trade item was a narcotic known as pituri, which was a hunger and pain suppressant.

The exchange of objects was not motivated by a desire for wealth accumulation but a social system to build connection between people and groups.

Communities in northern parts of Australia traded with people from Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. For example, Macassans collected beche-de-mer (trepang) and trochus through trade with mainland Aboriginal people. Torres Strait Islanders had trading relationships with the people of both mainland Australia and Papua New Guinea. The latter was crucial as a source of heavy timber for sailing canoes.

Source: Carbon Media

Video – Family and kinship

Learn more about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander kinship structures.

Further reading
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