Aboriginals’ language, knowledge, ritual, and faith live on in homelands after 50,000 years: Remembering an age known as the Dreamtime – Australia

First Australians

Aboriginals had the continent to themselves for 50,000 years. Today they make up less than 3 percent of the population, and their traditional lifestyle is disappearing. Almost. In the homelands the ancient ways live on. […]

For 49,800 of those years they had the continent to themselves. There were once about 250 distinct Aboriginal languages, hundreds more dialects, and many more clans and subgroups. But there is deep spiritual and cultural overlap among them, and indigenous Australians I spoke with said it was not insulting to combine everyone together under the general title of Aboriginal. They call themselves Aboriginals. They lived for a couple of thousand generations in small, nomadic bands, as befits a hunter-gatherer existence, moving in their own rhythms about the vast expanse of Australia. Then on April 29, 1770, British explorer James Cook landed his ship, the Endeavour, on the southeastern shore. The next two centuries were a horror show of cultural obliteration—massacres, disease, alcoholism, forced integration, surrender.

More than a half million Aboriginals currently live in Australia, less than 3 percent of the population. Few have learned to perform an Aboriginal dance or hunt with a spear. Many anthropologists credit Aboriginals with possessing the world’s longest enduring religion as well as the longest continuing art forms—the cross-hatched and dot-patterned painting styles once inscribed in caves and rock shelters. They are one of the most durable societies the planet has ever known. But the traditional Aboriginal way of life is now, by any real measure, almost extinct.

Almost. There remain a few places. Foremost is a region known as Arnhem Land, where Matamata is located, along with a couple dozen other communities, all connected by rough dirt roads passable only in dry weather.

Arnhem Land is not fully insulated from the modern world. It has solar electricity, satellite phones, aluminum boats, and flat-screen televisions hooked to DVD players. But it is impenetrable enough, rife with thorns and snakes and bugs and crocs. If the new generation chooses the supermarket over the spear, then the end will have truly arrived. I wondered what the likelihood of survival was.  […]

Batumbil was born in 1956 in a community run by Methodist missionaries on Elcho Island, just off the northern coast of Arnhem Land. Her father had eight wives. Soon after birth, she was promised to a man, in traditional Yolngu fashion, and at age 15 was married. Her husband was more than 20 years older. He died in 2000.

In 1976 the Aboriginal Land Rights Act for the Northern Territory returned Arnhem Land, more than 35,000 square miles, to its traditional owners. Similar legislation repatriated tracts of territory elsewhere in Australia, though few as untrammeled as Arnhem Land. Some Aboriginal communities by this time were devastated by alcoholism and other ills. They still are. A hallmark of a hunter-gatherer lifestyle is immediate consumption; as soon as food is procured, it’s promptly shared and devoured. This makes complete sense in the bush, where leftover food swiftly spoils.

Most of the world had 10,000 years to gradually adapt to the cadence of a sedentary, agricultural society, one in which patience, planning, and preserving are key to survival. Aboriginals were expected, impossibly, to convert virtually overnight. Untempered consumption plus unlimited supply of a product like alcohol equals disaster. Same with processed sugars; obesity and diabetes are prevalent among Aboriginals. Also tobacco. Gasoline sniffing got so bad that a special brand of low-aromatic, nonaddictive fuel called Opal is all that’s sold in some Aboriginal areas. […]

No alcohol is permitted in Matamata. This is, foremost, Batumbil’s rule. It is also the law. The Northern Territory Emergency Response of 2007, better known as “the intervention,” was billed chiefly as a reaction to the alleged number of child-abuse cases in Aboriginal communities. […]

Some Aboriginals I spoke with reluctantly admitted that it has alleviated aspects of the crisis, though many Australians vehemently oppose it, saying the new rules infringe too greatly on personal freedoms. […]

According to Aboriginal lore, all the Earth’s surface was once a featureless expanse of mud or clay. Then ancestral beings emerged from beneath the surface or from the sky, assumed the form of an animal or plant or human, and journeyed across the land, performing great deeds of creation, shaping the mud into rivers, hills, islands, caves. This took place in an age known as the Dreamtime. And the path each of these beings took, the countryside they molded before burrowing back into the ground, is called a Songline.

The ancestral beings also gave birth to all living things, including humans. They bestowed language, knowledge, ritual, and faith. Every Aboriginal has a Dreaming—the ancestor that gave rise to him or her, be it snake or turtle or yam. One of Batumbil’s family’s Dreamings is the dingo, the wild dog of Australia, which is why she loves to be surrounded by dogs. It’s essential, Batumbil says, to know the Songline of your Dreaming, to be able to follow the route of your particular ancestral being, to speak its language, to learn its music.

This all-encompassing spirituality is not expressed overtly. People in Matamata don’t go around constantly praying or singing. In daily life, in fact, there seems to be no obvious ritual at all, though there are superstitions. […]

Each dance, mimicking an animal or a natural event, is short and intense. There’s the white seagull dance, the octopus dance, the north wind dance, the cockatoo dance. Some are performed only by women. The dances last all day, and another, and another—the funeral carries on for ten days—as people stream in from communities across the bush to pay respect, to dance some more, to set the soul on its journey with the grandest possible send-off. I ask a couple of people for a description of the afterlife, and their answers are similar. “We don’t know what happens when you die,” they reply. […]

It takes 30 to 40 years for a Yolngu to absorb the full breadth of Aboriginal knowledge—to become, as Batumbil describes it, a “living encyclopedia.” Batumbil fears there may soon be no more Yolngu encyclopedias; many Aboriginal groups throughout Australia have already buried their final one. Hunting with boomerangs, used by some tribes for 10,000 years—though never by the Yolngu—hardly exists. “I worry about the next generation,” says Batumbil. […]

Source: Aboriginal Australians by by Michael Finkel © 2013 National Geographic Society
Address : http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2013/06/aboriginal-australians/finkel-text
Date Visited: Thu Jun 13 2013 12:42:14 GMT+0200 (CEST)

Watch “The Good Ancestor – The Legacies We Leave” (3 min.): An animation that explores the legacies we might leave for future generations >>

Links to some of the most important organisations, thinkers and doers that are leading the way and that have inspired the book The Good Ancestor by Roman Krznaric >>

See also

CBC Unreserved (Canada) radio space for indigenous community, culture, and conversation

Eco tourism | Tourism

eJournals, eBooks & reports

eLearning: Center for World Indigenous Studies

Gandhian social movement

Indigenous people are at the forefront of the struggle to save the planet

Internet Archive | Archive.org

Journalism | Media portrayal

NGO | Organizations

People’s Archive of Rural India (PARI) | RuralIndiaOnline.org

Storytelling | Success stories

Tribal/indigenous culture worldwide

Video resources – external