Australian Aboriginal history from over forty thousand years to modern day has been passed down orally, making it a personal spirituality rather than a manuscript as in the western tradition. Tribes were fragmented throughout the regions of this vast continent. The colonization of the continent by white settlers in the 1800's wiped away many of the tribes, forcing them to create alliances. The romanticism of Dreamtime, as well as its negation by western missionaries, elevated this complex tradition. Indeed it was very complex. It provided knowledge of the land and awareness of spirituality that lead to consideration of the time before all was incarnated. This work highlights four spectrums of non-human animals - in environmental interactions, food sources, medicinal uses and totemic structures.
Aboriginal Dreamtime is more of a spiritual state with a mythological story telling tradition, than a mainstream religion. There are approximately five hundred tribes scattered all over Australia, each passing down their stories of creation. These five hundred are then broadly categorized into two divisions - inland or coastline. The division is based on environmental considerations as well as in differences of how life and death are viewed.
Dreamtime describes the landscapes, stars and galaxies, plants animals and humans before their carnal fruition. The four main precepts of dreamtime are: the origin of all things, the spiritual influence of ancestors, the inevitable cycle of birth and death and the power source of life. Dreamtime myths explain why native animals have their specific characteristics, such as how the kookaburras got its laugh, why frogs croak, why some birds lay their eggs in the sand and how the Kangaroo got its tail.
"Coming from widely divergent sources, it is natural that there should be inconsistencies and contradictory elements. This is the case in the Creation myths and the folklore concerning animals when the land was still in the Dreamtime. From some legends we learn that animals and insects were brought to life at the touch of Yhi, the sun Goddess, and that Man, the final creation, was made in the bodily and mental form of Baiame, the Great Spirit (Reed, 1994)."
Even though there is such a naturalistic beauty in this spirituality it is vital to remember the violent history to which the natives and their land have been subjected. The indigenous tribes had passed down stories and explored the land ever since Australia split from Gondwana, reiterating the forty thousand plus years. This nominal forty thousand years is in accordance with orated history but current anthropological consensus suggests it is more around the sixty-five thousand year mark.
To understand the Aboriginal perspective on animals it is important to understand their human and tribal history. It is not simply an anthropocentric perspective. It is to contrast the consistent discrediting of indigenous culture with the superiority of the white man towards the unknown. This allows us to observe the resultant effects upon the humanity of the indigenous and their environment. Their forty thousand years of experiencing the land and passing down expectations to progeny of how to live off the land is beneficial for the environment and there is little evidence of resource exploitation. On the other hand, the convicts who arrived from the United Kingdom to New South Wales, Australia on January 26th 1788 had minimal resources from the First Fleet, but they did have an expansive exploitative mentality from Mother England.
According to a well-known naturalist named Carl Lumholtz, “It is a well-known fact that the Australian natives are almost wholly devoid of religious susceptibilities.” This value judgment, coming from the mid-nineteen hundreds, shows the formalities of the western world and places a positive spin on missionary failures. This statement also underscores the lack of spiritual knowledge of the western world while simultaneously negating the value of indigenous practices.
Spiritual totems guide the Aboriginal tribes, manifesting themselves in animal bodies or retaining their soul form as in the Dreamtime. This spiritual knowledge could aid the future generations incarnating with their tribulations and assist in "white man" and indigenous coexistence.
"We also believed that this would lead to non-aboriginal people developing a better understanding of our Ngarrindjeri traditions and our relationships to the land, water, trees, plants, and animals (Grim 2001)."
In order to try to combat this culture difference, certain tribes have created cultural centers. Sharing traditions through song, dance and other forms is a fairly recent innovation. Preservation of oral traditions - stories of the time before becoming carnal beings -from generation to generation for tens of thousands of years to teach those who will listen. A lot of these culture centers are funded by state governments. It must be noted that the national government of Australia apologized to the tribes as a whole of the malevolent historical events that took place and the countless "stolen generations" decimating tribe populations.
"We do all these things, sharing our culture to develop better understanding, to help overcome false interpretations and racism toward Ngarrindjeri people, and to help correct stereotyped history about the European settlement of the land (Grim 2001)."
Whether it is the Ngarrindjeri people or the Kakadu people, it is important, from an outsider perspective, to observe the similarities and differences of each tribe rather than lump Indigenous Australian Dreamtime into one category. One must also take into account the romanticized perspective perpetuated by scholars who do not fully explore the balance through careful multi-dimensional analysis.
This work will only skim the surface of this subtradition's perspective on animals by toeing through the tribe's innate survival techniques in the environment and practicalities as well as a woven theme of totemic structures.
Animals in Medicine
When non-aboriginals settled on the island continent of Australia, they brought with them diseases unknown to the natives. Smallpox was one of the more prevalent diseases and as a result many individuals passed away because of unknown treatment. Another devastating aspect was the introduction of invasive species that have destroyed native fauna. These invasive species (a whole different debate) both flora and fauna also encompassed humans. These humans would have had a lot of sick individuals from the voyage to this new world and affected their native counterparts. This potent combination of non-indigenous humans, flora and fauna would have had a deleterious impact on potential food sources. This problem would have affected the health of both the indigenous and convict immigrants.
It must be noted that according to a study in 2007, indigenous health reports comparing North America, Australia and New Zealand, Australia rated the lowest.
"Much of the disease among Indigenous Australians is preventable being the result of poverty, overcrowding, poor sanitation, low levels of education, poor nutrition and poor access to accurate diagnosis and treatment (Mackay 2007)."
The average age of Indigenous Australians is seventeen years less than non-Aboriginals based on literacy rates and lack of western medicinal care. Several charities have focused on supplying children with literacy backpacks and other educational tools to help their life expectancy. Staying true to tradition and tribal methods, the tribe makes sure that their children are taught their way and not become too westernized. Of course this is a heavy generalization as there are some of the five hundred tribes that do implement a literacy structure in order for survival of their clans. As in many human endeavors, there are purists who sacrifice the common good at the altar of belief.
The particular regional tribe covered in this paper is located near Kakadu National Park.
Kakadu is a western mispronunciation of Gagadju, a former language found in this region of the Northern Territory. Rock formations and wetlands in the Kakadu National Park are said to be caused by the Rainbow serpent, a spirit of the Dreamtime who came at the beginning of time in the form of a snake and flooded the lands only to be sent up back to the sky. As a result, prismatic crystals are found in this region and are used by the medicine-man, known as Margi, of the clan.
"Prismatic crystals, in the form of granite, are honored by Aboriginals as sacred and powerful stones. Allowing for increased protection and abundance, granite has been used to strengthen the hair and relieve ailments associated with the face and head. It is important to note that the Rainbow Serpent of the Dreamtime laid her eggs of granite. This myth further extends the inextricable link between the animal of creation, the animals and clans of the present environment to their medicinal wellness (Clarke, 2008)."
Another example of animals in medicine is the calling of totemic structures (more on this subject later) to heal the body ailments and addiction problems. One of the most prevalent problems facing the entire Australian Aboriginal community is alcoholism. Alcohol, before the settlers, was a weak potion made from plants in the local area such as Pandanus plant (prominent in Northern Territory, what the Kakadu tribe would drink), honey (from either honey pot ants or from bees, depending on geographic range), coconut (north-eastern) and certain types of eucalyptus gum trees (southern Australian states and Tasmania). The introduction of white settlers introduced stronger forms of alcohol and, essentially indentured servitude in return.
"Many Aboriginal labourers were paid in alcohol or tobacco (if their wages were not stolen). In the early 1800s a favourite spectator sport of white people in Sydney was to ply Aboriginal men with alcohol and encourage them to fight each other, often to the death (Korf 2014)."
Recent statistics of this problem- seventeen percent of the indigenous population binge drink and forty-eight percent of mothers drink while pregnant. Some tribes are more susceptible to alcoholism whereas others are finding ways to mend this insidious disorder. Even though alcoholism is often portrayed as a prevalence in indigenous communities (even in Native North American cultures), it is actually a misconception. Most corroboree dances, song circles, cane toad races and other Aboriginal events are alcohol-free events, much unlike non-aboriginal events. The unfortunate twist to this misconception is that even though many Aborigines do not drink, those that do drink excessively. In this case, excess is upward of 12 drinks in one sitting, multiple times per week. Therefore those that do drink excessively need intervention before an alcohol-related death occurs. Intervention through spiritual totemic structures is an example of the reliance of humans on nonhuman animals beyond sustenance.
"The men also talk about their spirit totems, animals like turtles, fish and wallabies. One goal of the Healing Program is to help Aboriginals find their personal spirit totem. Calling on animal spirits is definitely out of vogue in Western culture. As the writer notes, 'That does not translate easily to a Western mindset focused on client outcomes and objectives (Fitzgerald 2011)."
There is another example in the book Secrets of Aboriginal Healing: A Physicist's Journey with a Remote Australian tribe which explains an outsider named Gary Holz receiving a diagnosis of Multiple Sclerosis. He was told that there was no cure and decided to engage with the Aboriginal community. In this book, co-written by his wife Robin, explores using Aboriginal dreamtime by ways of spiritual totems and reprogramming the subconscious. They explore the practices of going on a walkabout and participating in spiritual events. In this manner they engage the thought patterns of why illnesses happen, and how this relates to the subconscious. This is an example of externalizing ancient medicine through animal spirits and reprogramming the psyche to cure trials and tribulations.
Animals in the Environment and Symbolism
An important part of Aboriginal culture is going on a walkabout, learning about oneself and being present in one’s role in the environment. This is similar to various North American Indian tribes in their Vision Quests. Much of the walkabout is focused on observation of animals, learning familiarity with surroundings, communicating with the creator and one’s predecessors who may be either spirit or non-human animal in form. This knowledge is used to understand one’s role and expected behaviors in the clan. The outcomes enable one to hunt animals for sustenance, ensuring that those animals are not ancestors (more in "food sources and uses"). The duration of the walkabout is varied and the legends become a guide for the individual to survive and expand their understanding of their environment.
"When you go on the walkabout as a young Aboriginal child, you mimic the trajectories of the primordial ancestors in walking the Songlines. When you walk those trajectories, those sacred itineraries of the time when the primordial Ancestors walked and sang, and the song sang the world into existence, you were involved both in an act of remembrance but also in an act of creation. Because the world at your feet both exists and yet, by definition, is waiting to be born. We tried to describe this other universe as the Dreaming or Dreamtime, but that turns out to be a very crude and misguided simile. That universe is not an abstraction. It’s literally another world (Davis 2004)."
The interior Australian continent is arid. Much of the weather patterns were explained by animal manifested spirits being slighted or the natural predator-prey relationship. Also explained by nonhuman animal spiritual relationships are natural environment features. Natural features such as Ayers Rock or Uluru are analogous to sacred temples. These elements were formed by spirits and therefore, any spectator must revere this work simply by observance. Disturbing an already fragmented spirituality and environment is just as irreverent as was the conversion process in the beginning of Australia's formation. A mythological example of specific features is "a distinctive patch of ochre on a hillside in the Flinders Range was all that remained of an emu hounded to its death by a pack of Dreamtime dogs (Allan 2009)."
Many, if not all, Aborigines orally pass down generational stories of their totem animal's origins and the earthly patterns. These are often as a result of the ritualistic dreamtime walkabout.
Celestial stories also indicate animal involvement. In the particular story of Why Kookaburra Laughs At Dawn, the sun, moon and stars are being formed but need an indicator when the sun’s revolutions occur. Upon creation, the beings on earth needed an alarm clock to wake up from their dreaming. The creator spirits Punjel and Baiame heard a kookaburra (translated from gogobera which means "the laughing jackass") laugh and asked the bird to announce the start of each new day to which he happily obliged.
"Baiame had begun his acts of creation, but had not yet determined what form his people would take. These animals he had made were his first experiments... Baiame preferred to remain in his home in the Milky Way which he shares with another powerful spirit, whose name was Punjel...The huge animals of the darkness have had their day. Now it is time to people this world of mine with little animals, small birds and reptiles, even tiny insects that we can scarcely see, and to put silvery fish into the rivers and lakes...kookaburra, before the sky fire is lit each morning Baiame will hang a star in the eastern sky (Reed 1994)."
One of the ways aborigines pay homage to the environment is by painting the land and the animals they have encountered. Western paintings of the landscape describe the individual components comprising the segment of land and give the spectator a snapshot moment. Aboriginal paintings
"contain stories rooted in Dreamtime mythology. On others, they are stylized navigational aids to food sources, or spiritual maps pertaining to sacred sites, and sometimes even dispense moral guidance and entertainment. Always, they express the imprint of the land on the native psyche (Bachman 1994)."
There is a deeply profound connection between the surroundings and other living beings. As a result, this gives a big picture effect rather than a candid glimmer into someone's life. In the indigenous worldview, the environment is an inclusive, self-regulating entity that responds according to the emotions and spirituality projected upon it.
Animals as food sources and uses
Anthropologists argue that the first human, non-human animal interaction on the still forming continent of Australia was probably negative. Predecessors to Kangaroos, known as the Sthenurinae, around the Pleistocene era, were larger than modern day fauna. Aboriginal ancestors most likely viewed these giants as a threat (likewise from the non‑human's awareness), thus it was "either I kill him or he kills me" mentality.
“…the coexistence of Aborigines and the megafauna is indicated in late Pleistocene deposits. Since the impact of Aboriginal hunting and habitat alteration have been implicated in the demise of this fauna, the first relationship between people and kangaroos was probably negative from the animal’s perspective (Croft 1991).”
Prior to colonization, the Kakadu Aborigines predominantly ate whatever they could find. There were, like the Abrahamic traditions, exceptions of what not to eat, especially if it pertained to the animals that represented their tribes.
“A wide range of plants and animals were eaten, and insect foods included certain ants, grubs and beetles, while streams provided fish and eels. Many birds were eaten, including waterfowl, scrub fowl, the Cassowary and the Jabiru. The yellow fat of the goanna (a large Australian lizard) was considered a delicacy (Welch 2014).”
Another factor to take into consideration is their perspective on introduced animals. There is little recollection of the first time Indigenous Australians encountered livestock and other animals that the colonists brought with them. However based on the diet structure of native fauna versus introduced, it would be quite on par and therefore resource competition would have been prevalent. Farmsteads set up near billabongs and other watering holes encroached on native territory, displacing individuals who would have walked straight through the land. Habitat fragmentation would have also called for crop and livestock protection and any intruder seen on the premises. This would have depleted an otherwise bountiful fauna and impacted food resources for indigenous Australians. The quality of diet would have been (and still continues to be) dismal in comparison to pre‑colonial days.
In an attempt to adjust to western ways Aborigines set up cattle ranches. Implementing the new settler’s way of life into the indigenous lifestyle, they capitalized on the cattle trade. Understanding the environment and learning about the animals ensured a consistent food supply for both indigenous and white Australians. It changed the relationship of both aborigines and white man by creating an economy and co-dependence. Unfortunately, this sometimes manifested itself in an exploitative way. Nevertheless, Aborigines could keep their dreamtime traditions and learn some modern skills to survive in this newly industrializing continent.
Animals were not just used for food, but hides for clothes and vessels, bones for ritualistic adornments and weaponry, and suchlike. Ensuring that whatever animal was slaughtered, parts could be salvaged, therefore utilizing the whole animal rather than simply just the meat and letting all the rest return to the soil or be wasted. Ochre paints were used mark the body in tribal adornments for ritualistic dances and song ceremonies. Emu fat now replaced by vegetable fats or even butter primed skin for these paints.
“People climbed trees to catch animals and reach native beehives for honey. Wax from the beehives was used to seal water containers, and as a resin when making weapons and for decoration. Throughout much of Australia, a small hatchet with a stone head was used to cut toe holds into trees to assist in climbing.... strong jungle vines are used like ropes to assist climbing trees in search of both animals and native bee hives’ wax and honey (Welch 2014).”
"Winjarning Brothers and the Evil One" provides an example of animal equality from kangaroos to "...a dingo, a Goanna, a snake, a frilled lizard, a crow, a magpie, and a wombat... A centipede darted out, and met the same fate. A moth fluttered upwards and was caught with difficulty (Reed, 1994)."
The story tells of an evil spirit who beguiles and kills a woman. Her brothers and husband's brothers seek out the evil spirit in human form and eventually destroy him after the spirit has taken many animal forms.
The clan’s totem highlights another aspect of relationships between animals and Aboriginals. In the Kakadu, lizards, insects and birds typically represent clans. These animals are lower in the food chain hierarchy but are the respected essence of the clan. Animals that are ritually important also have separate names.
"For instance two lizards that look quite similar - Gould's Goanna Varanis gouldii and Sand Goanna V. panoptes are respectively Djani and Garawan. The first is food for anyone, but the second is only for those who pass 'ceremony tests'. Animals that have no important stories or are not food items are often lumped together. For instance small brown wading birds are collectively called 'Kolarawikwik' and medium-sized white or grey birds are all 'Marouk' (Goodfellow, 2014)."
There are specific animals that represent a clan within the particular tribe. If you were to say someone is "scorpion dreaming" or "taipan dreaming" it is their particular spiritual energy manifested in that particular animal. These animals have symbolic significance because of observed powers and characteristics. Take for instance the snake. One can readily understand injecting venom bringing death to its victim or the act of constricting symbolizing the impulse nature of creation.
"The Aborigines used the word djang to describe the spiritual energy that attached to spots hallowed by their connections with the legendary past, seeking to tap it through rituals and dances that linked the living to their remote ancestors (Allan 2009)."
Dreamtime totems are classified into the following categories-individual, gender, sectional and sub-sectional, clan, local, moiety, conception, birth, death and combination or multiple. The individual totem is usually manifested through walkabout as an initiation rite of passage. An animal spirit resonates with the individual in tune with the environment and becomes a part of that human. Genders are usually represented with an emblem of a non‑human animal signifying the difference of the genders and their solidarity with one another. Sectional and sub-sectional totems are based on categorization of lineages. Tribes are divided by up to eight sections, based on matrilineal descents. The sectional and sub‑sectional totems formed on kinship adopt a certain mutual ritual to represent the bond based on the particular animal emblem. Examples are mainly birds such as wedge-tailed eagles and ibis, whereas the more southern clans in the Kakadu tribes have macropods such as wallabies.
Birth and death are one of the four major bullet points, if you will, of Dreamtime. Conception and pregnancy is a time allocated before the child is implanted in the womb. The prospective mother calls upon her totem to envision her child's destiny and future before conception.
"The child may appear in conjunction with a natural phenomenon, often one connected with the father, with his country, or his social unit. This is the child's conception totem (Monroe 2011)."
The birth totem is often associated with the Rainbow Serpent as he or she, depending on region, is the symbol of fertility and children. Death, on the other hand, begs for the totem to be removed from the individual's carnal bondage. Any ancestral name must not be spoken of again after a passing but simply the ancestor's totem can remain with the clan.
Many aboriginals have a profound respect for their surroundings. They intimately understand what it means to be a part of the environment and that animals have an important place upon this earth. This is something upon which many western anthropologists have commented. Furthermore, they have noted their inability to practice or have the knowledge to implement into their own lives. The tradition of Dreamtime has surpassed its violent history and remained steadfastly true to ancestral traditions versus converting to western traditions embodies by the settlers of the early 1800's. There have even been recent (in the past one hundred years or so) cross-cultural alliances, in economizing livestock production and improving the lives of the rural indigenous communities.
The Kakadu tribe believes that their ancestors take the form of an animal in the next Dreamtime. Their animal totems essentially dictate diet, in order to not eat a particular ancestor, as well as how to overcome sicknesses such as a chronic disorder as alcoholism. Certain totems of clans emulate the characteristics present in tribal members to which they manifest in song and dance. The connection between deceased family members and their spirits as manifested in animals underscores the depth of connection between Aborigines and the wildlife of the Northern Territory.
"The Margi, or medicine men, of the Kakadu tribe, tell the latter that the bird is a relative of theirs and that when they hear it twittering the Yalmuru, or Iwaiyu, of someone, such as their father or father's brother, is close at hand and will show them where there is game to be captured. The Margi says, You will not see anything but you will feel it, that is the Iwaiyu, inside you (Spencer, 1914)."
The natural environment features, according to Dreamtime, is because of spirits and non‑human animals laying dormant in the time before our time. Imagery of preceding gargantuan megafauna underneath the layers of earth carving mountains and cliffs into this vast continent.
"According to Aboriginal mythology, much of the Australian landscape is populated by huge hibernating beasts, and etched by the marks of their passing (Bachman 1994)."
Whilst this paper only covered certain elements of the Aboriginal Dreamtime, particularly in the Northern Territory, there are many other facets and perspectives that warrant deeper discussions. Generalizations of tribes and romanticizing ideologies suppresses the core essences of these clans and the individuals comprising them. Lumping the five hundred odd tribes into one, despite some degree of overlap in mythology, limits the tradition.
Stories get lost in the flames of ignorance and true history never makes its way into textbooks or public awareness. Clearing up misconceptions about the indigenous being heavy alcoholics because of their oppression is another factor to be considered. This, by no means is discrediting of western culture, but rather diagramming indigenous perspectives on animals by way of their history.
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