Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders


Australia has two indigenous peoples – Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders. It is not possible to speak of one Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander religion, as there are many. There are, however, shared cultural traits, economic and ceremonial dealings, and a customary system of land-tenure law.

It is misleading to try to separate Australian indigenous religious experience from other aspects of their life, culture and history. It is also difficult to speak of origins, because an indigenous conception of time connects past actions and people with present and future generations. Time is circular, not linear, as each generation relives the Dreaming activities.

Australia’s indigenous peoples arrived about 40,000 years ago, when Asia and Australia were still connected by a land bridge. As the land masses separated, the population adapted itself to the various environmental and climatic conditions of this continent. Aborigines were nomadic, moving through the land in cycles, sometimes meeting with and sharing stories with other clan-groups. Torres Strait Islanders, who are Melanesian by ethnic origin, were seafaring and trading peoples based on the islands between far North Queensland and Papua New Guinea, and their spirituality and customs reflected their dependence on the sea.

Although indigenous beliefs and cultural practices vary according to region, all groups share in a common world-view that the land and other natural phenomena possess living souls. The collection of stories of these powerful beings and the repository of knowledge represented in these stories shapes Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander law, both its history and future.

The Dreaming or Dreamtime is the English name given to the intimately connected but distinct strands of Aboriginal belief; they refer not to historical past but a fusion of identity and spiritual connection with the timeless present. A similar concept with other names stands at the heart of Torres Strait Islander spirituality.

Australian History

When the first Europeans settled in Australia in 1788 there were, perhaps, a million Aborigines in Australia and over 200 different spoken languages. This population was significantly and quickly depleted through a combination of warfare, disease and dispossession of lands. One reason for the cultural acceptability of colonial violence was the mistaken belief that Aborigines had no religion. The continuous Christian missionary presence in Aboriginal communities since 1821 has seen many Aborigines convert to Christianity. Indigenous communities across Australia’s Top End had contact with the Muslim Macassan traders for many centuries before white settlement. In the 2006 Australian census, 5,374 respondents indicated that they followed a traditional Aboriginal religion.

Organisational Structure

Each clan-grouping has an important religious specialist who will initiate and foster contact with spirits and divinities. Specific elders may also be keepers of specific stories or rituals. Sometimes this knowledge is segregated according to gender – there is men’s business and women’s business.

Key Beliefs

  • The earth is eternal, and so are the many ancestral figures / beings who inhabit it.
  • These beings are often associated with particular animals, for example Kangaroo-men, Emu-men or Bowerbird-women.
  • As they journeyed across the face of the Earth these powerful beings created human, plant and animal life; and they left traces of their journeys in the natural features of the land.
  • They also connected particular groups of people with particular regions and languages.
  • Some groups held belief in a supreme being.
  • The Dreaming continues to control the natural world.

Key Festivals

  • Ritual ceremonies involving special sacred sites, song cycles accompanied by dance, and body painting, and even sports, invoke these mythic and living beings and continue to provide the means to access the spiritual powers of The Dreaming.
  • At important stages of men and women’s lives, ceremonies are held to seek the assistance of spiritual beings. This makes them direct participants in the continuing process of the Dreaming.
  • Other ceremonies are known as increase rites, in which the willingness of ancestral beings to release the land’s fertility depends upon humans continuing to perform certain rituals.
  • Recent years have seen major indigenous festivals emerge, including Stompin’ Ground, Yeperenye Dreaming, Barunga Festival, Laura Festival, NARLA Knock Out, Survival, Coming of the Light, CROC Eisteddfod, NAIDOC and Reconciliation Week.

Source: Indigenous Traditions – Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders is reproduced by permission of ABC Religion & Ethics Online . © ABC 2004. All rights reserved. Article source

Theme: Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders – Cultural diversity and multiculturalism.