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Meaning of Land to Aboriginal People

To Aboriginal Australians, land means considerably more than dirt, rocks, and minerals. The land is a living ecosystem that supports and is supported by people and their way of life.

Before colonisation, indigenous people’s connection to the land influenced all other aspects of their lives. Even today, many indigenous people’s identity and way of life are still shaped by their affinity with the land. The land has spiritual, physical, social, and cultural significance for Aboriginal people. Aboriginal health and employment are dependent on land management and care. This is why many Aboriginal artists depict the relationship between indigenous communities and their land. 

Aboriginal connection to country

So, what does country mean to Aboriginals? The country is much more than just a place for Aboriginal people to be at or go home to. The ancestors, who continue to roam the earth, water, and sky, created rocks, trees, rivers, hills, animals, and human beings out of the same matter. The country is full of connections that speak a common language and follow the law, whether they are human, rock, crow, or something else entirely.

The country is adored, required, and cared for; in turn, it adores, requires, and cares for its people. Connection to one’s country is about identity, culture, and family — in short, the self is one with the country. 

Indigenous people’s deep spiritual connection to the land, Aboriginal law and spirituality are inextricably linked to the people and their creations or artefacts, forming their culture and concept of sovereignty. Each community member is entrusted with the knowledge and responsibility to care for their land, meaning it’s directly tied to their purpose and sense of belonging. This deep spiritual connection to the country is reflected in their language, with many concepts and words having no English equivalent. 

Their culture revolves around the preservation of Aboriginal land and water. They consider the land as their mother. This concept is ingrained in their culture and entails responsibility for its (indigenous land) preservation.

In a way, any issues with the land or country are a source of personal pain.

Indigenous connection to the land and the importance of this relationship 

The relationship of indigenous people with the land is a sacred thing. Aboriginal languages depict the land as a living, breathing entity that deserves respect, love, and care. That is why removing Aboriginal people from their ancestral lands has been so destructive, as losing land means losing their identity, language, and culture.

Living in a city also comes with its own set of challenges for Aboriginal people. They feel a disconnect from the grey buildings, concrete pavement, and shiny new construction work.

When referring to Aboriginal people’s relationships to their land, some use the terms ‘custodians’ or ‘owners’. However, Aboriginal people’s preferences vary greatly; some reject the term ‘owner’, while others embrace it. 

Finding the appropriate words to explain indigenous people’s deep relationship with the land is difficult. Most agree they were the owners, occupiers, custodians, and caretakers of the land when it was taken away from them, while others find it hard to explain or express the depth of that relationship.

Different perspectives

Non-indigenous people see valuable real estate, development, and construction work when they see vast tracts of land. But in the eyes of an Aboriginal person, they see a legendary and historic landscape, sacred locations, and sources of bush food.

As Aboriginal people, they derive their identity and sense of belonging from their connection to the land. The ancestors taught the people how to live in the country, which they also referred to as the law. 

The countryside was and still is the first school for Aboriginals. It is where they come to know everything, including the trees, animals, and vegetation. It is their bush library and bush university, as it’s there that they study and understand what their ancestors have taught them through several thousands of years: all about the land and how to care for it. 

So, if they do not maintain the land, if they simply take and do not return, the library of life will be ultimately destroyed. When bits and pieces of the land are taken out and lost, the lessons it used to impart will be gone forever, leading to a loss of land and culture.

Land development — two opposing sides

Indigenous people are typically viewed as adamantly opposed to any land development because of their Aboriginal connection to the land. However, even as Aboriginal landowners are concerned with custodial obligations and land care, most also strongly support economic growth. Their primary goal is to become self-sustaining, but many are unable to achieve it due to a lack of financial resources and access.

Arguments in support of growth

There are certain arguments that favour land development.

  • Development has advantages — Many development agreements, when correctly handled, can result in benefit packages worth millions of dollars for Aboriginal people.
  • There’s a need to seize the opportunity — The patience of resource developers is limited. They will divert their funds if a development application is not authorised within a particular time frame. Therefore, Aborigines often need to cooperate to benefit from the planned development of indigenous land
  • Get paid in cash — Working on pastoral lands, Aboriginal people were frequently paid in food and clothing, if at all. The possibility of getting some money ‘back’ from the white man is appealing given their previous exploitation is still fresh in the mind of Aboriginal people.
  • Develop the future of the Aboriginal people Land development agreements can be quite useful in assisting Aboriginal people in making decisions about their future.

Objections to development

On the other hand, there remains opposition to development — and understandably so. A loss of land and culture has a great impact on aboriginals

  • Needs must be provided by the government, not by land — In the eyes of the indigenous people, no other Australians appear to be forced to give up their assets in order to get basic necessities, such as housing, healthcare, and education. 
  • There’s a need to keep the land safe — Many development projects have an impact on the environment, either by polluting it or by leaving a mess of garbage and damage behind. It is more vital to protect the sanctity of the land than to develop it. After all, for over 50 000 years, land has been a life source for indigenous people and directly impacts every facet of their culture, religious beliefs, traditions and way of life. That’s why displacement from this land and subsequent developments (or other high-impact activities) can cause grief and alter their overarching connection to the country. While improvements may be necessary, cultural heritage management plans have been employed across Australia to protect Aboriginal culture. 

A spiritual relationship

Given the loss of land and culture impacts aboriginals due to their spiritual ties to the country, Aboriginal people feel obligated to care for cultural sites that function as living museums of their ancestors. Places of significance include Dreaming and archaeological sites, water sources, and burial grounds. 

Ceremonial rites assist them in renewing or rebuilding their spiritual relationship to the land and the sacred locations they protect.

Today, with a native title, people can gain access to traditional lands. However, obtaining this title is a lengthy, expensive, and complicated procedure.

Aboriginal cultural heritage sites are an important part of the Aboriginal culture not only because they provide material evidence of the lifestyles of their ancestors but because of their spiritual connection to land and country. Across the board, their lifestyle and religious traditions are inextricably linked to land preservation — that’s why uproar is heard when insensitive development plans are formally announced. 

Aboriginal art depicting the life before at OzBid

While the development of sacred ancestral lands remains an issue, memories of life in Bush and the countryside will forever be preserved in Aboriginal art — like the ones you’ll find at OzBid. By bidding for Aboriginal art pieces, you’ll be helping to preserve Aboriginal culture and heritage whilst also acquiring authentic artworks at a fraction of their market price. Many of the premium artworks available at OzBid highlight what the country means to aboriginals and explains through artform the devastating impact loss of land and culture has on their communities. 

If you’d like to learn more about indigenous peoples’ connection to land and country, get in touch with us today. Our team would be more than happy to provide you with additional information or help you find an exquisite piece of art that expresses the importance of culture, heritage, and community.