As a young man who is an Aboriginal and a Torres Strait Islander, I have a rich cultural and social history as part of my identity as a person. My parents and grandparents have taught me a great deal in this respect, and my personal development has been decisively influenced by this teaching. This speech will discuss some of the most significant elements in this cultural and social history, as well as indicating why it is that they are so important to me as an individual.
The history of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders goes back in history a long while. Some have maintained that their cultural history is 65,000 years old, but it is generally agreed that the figure is at least 50,000 years. It would not, of course, have been possible for these people and cultures to persist for so long if they did not have a remarkable ability to adapt to changing circumstances—including social and political changes, environmental changes, and economic changes. This adaptability is one key element in the identity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture. The phenomenon at issue here is well summarized in the following passage from an Australian Government website:
In Australia, Indigenous communities keep their cultural heritage alive by passing their knowledge, arts, rituals and performances from one generation to another, speaking and teaching languages, protecting cultural materials, sacred and significant sites, and objects (AG 2016).
This same source identifies five key elements in the cultural history of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. (A) Land; (B) Diversity of both location and language; (C) Adaptation of tools and technologies; (D) Sacred sites and dreaming stories; and (E) Performance—including music, dance, ceremony, and visual arts. Each of these elements will be briefly described, and then I will comment upon my own relation to them, and the associated relation of my family to the same cultural elements. (Rose (2000) and Tantiprasut (2003) contain an insightful summary of Australian Aboriginal culture.)
The Torres Strait Islands are located north of Australia and south of Papua New Guinea. Island life has important differences with life on large continents, especially life in central geographical parts of such continents. The life of an Islander is largely the life of a seafarer, and this fact is reflected in various aspects of the relevant cultural history and traditions. Agricultural was supplemented by hunting and gathering, especially that related to fishing and other use made of the rich resources of the sea. The close association between these peoples and their land is accentuated by their self-sufficiency in terms of food and other important resources. Well-known Aboriginal Tom Dystra describes the intimate relation between his people and their land, as well as differences between Aboriginals and white imperialists: “We cultivated our land, but in a way different from the white man. We endeavored to live with the land; they seemed to live off it. I was taught to preserve, never to destroy” (AG 2016).
The diversity of the Aboriginal culture is well-reflected in both location and languages spoken. As many as 600 different clans (also called ‘nations’) were to be found on the Australian continent when European ‘settlers’ first arrived. Groups of these clans differed in significant ways from one another, including speaking different languages, which numbered in the hundreds (many more if differing dialects are taken into account). The skills they developed were of course dependent upon the geographical location inhabited. Despite the important differences between them, however, there was an impressive degree of cooperation and relatively little aggression between clans or nations. Land was obviously important to the Torres Strait islanders as well, though they had a much greater reliance on the sea than most of the continent-inhabiting Aboriginals. (For discussion of the Torres Strait Islanders see Shnukal (2001) and Beckett (1990).)
The tools and technologies developed by the various relevant groups were of course produced largely as a function of the geography of the region. Thus coastal Aboriginal tribes, as well as Torres Strait Islanders, made extensive use of fishbone tips for spears used for hunting; while Aboriginals were among the first people anywhere in the world to make use of stone technology, which they used for many different purposes, including obtaining and preparing food, and chopping wood for fire or structure. English ‘colonists’ introduced further technologies to the Aboriginals, including use of metals.
Sacred sites are important to the Aboriginals, as they of course are to most people. While there is not perfect uniformity concerning which objects are considered sacred, it is common for trees, rocks, and stars to be imbued with special significance. The sacred sites are closely related to what are called ‘Dreaming stories’. A Dreaming story is similar to creation myths that play a special role in many other world religions. The stories tell how ‘Ancestor spirits’ long ago came to the earth in human form. As the spirits roamed the earth, in human form, they created many objects that were later considered sacred, including rocks and animals, as well as geographical phenomena (AG 2016). The most famous sacred Aboriginal site may be Uluru, which is a rock formation in Australia’s Northern Territory. Some believe that the rock was created during the formation of the world out of water and mud; others relate Uluru to serpent beings similar to dragons. (See also Carmichael et. al. (2013).)
The final component of the Aboriginal cultural identity to be discussed here is the performance of music and dance, together with related ceremonies; including certain forms of visual arts. To some ceremonial performances are the most important part of Aboriginal cultural identity. These performances include not merely music and dance, but also body decoration, painting and sculpture. Dances are passed down from generation to generation, and are in addition ways for clan or nation rights to be communicated and demonstrated. They are also, finally, ways for family members and other close social bonds to be preserved and demonstrated.
All of these cultural elements are important to me and my family. Some of my earliest memories as a child are of being taken to some of the sacred sites, and of dance and music associated with our culture. My grandfather, especially, used to talk for hours about Creation and the early Aboriginals—and he liked to trace his own ancestry far back into the past. Even though my parents later told me that my grandfather tended to embellish the stories to some extent, I think that that was and is perfectly natural. Stories get told over time, and they inevitably come to include certain personal elements that one adds to them in the telling of the stories. In this way each generation is connected to succeeding generations, and part of each Aboriginal has part of him- or herself embedded in the stories that will be told later to other members of the clan or nation.
For all of these reasons and more traditional ways of life are important to me; especially the traditional ways associated with my ancestry as a young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander. These are part of my family identity and indeed my own personal identity. They are part of who I am.
- AG (2016). Australian Indigenous cultural heritage. Australian Government website. Online. www.australia.gov.au/about-australia/australian-story/austn-indigenous-cultural-heritage.
- Beckett, J. (1990). Torres Strait Islanders: custom and colonialism. Cambridge University Press.
- Carmichael, D. L., Hubert, J., Reeves, B., & Schanche, A. (2013). Sacred sites, sacred places (Vol. 23). Routledge.
- Rose, D. B. (2000). Dingo makes us human: Life and land in an Australian Aboriginal culture. CUP Archive.
- Shnukal, A. (2001). Torres Strait Islanders. Multicultural Queensland, 100, 21-35.
- Tantiprasut, L. (2003). Australian Aboriginal Culture. RIC Publications.