Understanding sea country
Most people are aware today of the special link between Indigenous peoples and their land or `country'. This link is associated with spiritual beliefs, use and management of resources, maintaining cultural practices and fulfilling kinship obligations. It can be difficult for non-Indigenous peoples to understand the relationship between Indigenous peoples and their country. It may be even more difficult, given non-Indigenous peoples' practice of drawing conceptual boundaries between land and sea, to understand that this relationship does not end at the coast. The concept of `sea country' may incorporate `remembered' features of a landscape that was drowned by rising sea levels or it may reflect peoples close association with the sea and use of its resources.
In referring to `country', the following extract incorporates both land and sea country.
What is `country'?
`Country' refers to a clan or tribal area and means place of origin, literally, culturally, spiritually. It includes not just the geographical area but is a shorthand for all the values places, resources, stories and cultural obligations associated with that geographical area. For coastal peoples, country includes land and sea areas which are regarded as inseparable from each other.
In the beginning
For many Indigenous peoples, the significance of land and sea is intimately bound to the spirituality surrounding the origins of landscapes and seascapes and the animals plants and peoples that inhabit them. Creation beliefs vary from region to region but generally describe the journeys of ancestral beings, often giant animals or people, over what began as a featureless domain. Mountains, rivers, waterholes, animals and plant species and other natural and cultural resources came into being as a result of events that took place in these Dreamtime journeys. These features today are seen by many Indigenous peoples as confirmation of their creation beliefs. The creation stories explain the origins of the natural world and form the basis of Indigenous peoples' customary laws and the relationship between people and their environment.
Animals and plants are integral part of ancient spirituality and contemporary kinship systems. Most animals and plants are totems to one tribe or another, conferred on clan groups by the spiritual beings. Totems are seen as kin and these kin relationships mean that people must respect and care for their environment.
The special relationship between Indigenous people and their traditional country continues whether the people live contemporary or traditional lifestyles. The very features of the country are reminders of their spiritual association with the country even in the absence of detailed cultural information.
Sacred sites and Dreaming tracks
Some special sites are referred to as sacred sites. Either on land or in the sea, these sites are areas of special importance, possibly the site where an important event took place in the Dreaming or an `increase centre' where special ceremonies are conducted to ensure the well-being of a particular species. Other places are poison grounds or danger places.
Sacred sites are linked together in a web of Dreaming tracks, the routes taken by creator beings in their Dreamtime journeys. Dreaming tracks can run for hundreds of kilometres. Stories and songs relate the creation events that took place along the way and may be shared by peoples in countries through which the tracks pass.
Sacred sites and Dreaming tracks form an important function in defining Aboriginal countries. Clan estates and larger tribal or language areas are defined not by rigid boundaries but by the location and significance of sacred sites, Dreaming tracks and other special places. Sacred sites represent the cultural core of Indigenous countries and much knowledge about these places has survived today. Their significance continues.
Owning and caring for country
Systems of ownership to, access to, and responsibility for traditional clan estates differ from place to place but there are some common elements which indicate the importance of particular areas to particular people. Membership of a particular clan and association with clan country is given at birth. Clan membership is usually patrilineal, passed from father to child. Clan membership provides access rights to the hunting, fishing and gathering resources of the clan estates, and often also some rights to resources on other related clan estates.
Clan members are responsible for carrying out ceremonies, observing taboos and physically managing the estates resources. Laws and customs relate to the use and management of resources such as restrictions on who can eat and prepare certain foods, time and place of fishing and how the resources are harvested and used.
This intimate association with particular country provided Indigenous peoples with their identity. The severing of that connection to a particular country, as happened across much of Australia during the colonial period and into recent times, denied Indigenous peoples a place in their kinship system, access to resources and the basis of their spiritual beliefs. The importance of maintaining connection with traditional country continues to be of fundamental importance in Indigenous peoples' identity and well-being across much of Australia today.
Torres Strait Islanders sea interests
Torres Strait Islander peoples are the Indigenous peoples of the Torres Strait. Non-Indigenous peoples tend to consider Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as one and the same. Just as Aboriginal peoples differ from each other, Torres Strait Islander cultures are also different from Aboriginal cultures. Some aspects of their connection to the sea are discussed in the following extract.
Torres Strait Islander peoples' land and sea interests
The islands of Torres Strait were annexed to Australia in 1879 and, on many islands, the people were never displaced or removed. As a result, Torres Strait Islanders have retained a strong cultural identity and continuous association with their traditional islands and seas from pre-colonial times to the present. It was this continuous association and the maintenance of customary laws relating to land ownership and use that enabled the recognition of native title on Mer (Murray Island).
Torres Strait Islanders' cultures and interests in land and sea are not uniform across the Strait. There are several distinct languages and the islands' geography and resources vary considerably.
The volcanic islands in the east are surrounded by fringing reefs on which stone fish traps have supplied Islanders with food for generations. For people on the central islands (coral cays surrounded by fringing reefs) and the western islands (high continental islands), dugong and turtle hunting is an important source of food. The northern islands are low lying mud islands close to New Guinea.
Most of the Torres Strait traditionally was divided among owned marine estates associated with each island. Those marine estates, like the islands themselves, may have been subdivided into family territories. In much of Torres Strait, these systems of customary land and sea tenure continue to exist but with the exception of Mer these tenure systems are not formally recognised by governments.
Relations with Papua New Guinea
Torres Strait Islanders have a long history of interaction with the people of the coast of Papua. They have some common creation stories and languages and all share the use of marine resources. Under the Torres Strait treaty, Australia and New Guinea have agreed to manage the resources of the Strait so as to protect the traditional fishing and lifestyles of all the inhabitants. Under these arrangements, Torres Strait islanders and Papuans can continue to make traditional visits across the international border subject to quarantine and customs controls.
Torres Strait Islanders on mainland Australia
Since the 1960s, Torres Strait Islanders have been migrating to Australia in search of employment while maintaining contact with their home islands. Settling mainly in coastal Queensland, Northern Territory and Western Australia, they have transferred their traditional interests in dugong and turtle hunting and fishing to their new environments. This has presented new challenges for accommodation of Torres Strait Islanders' traditional interests in areas where Aboriginal people already live. Allocation of traditional marine resources so that cultural and subsistence demands can be met while ensuring that dugong, turtle and other resources are harvested at a sustainable level is an issue that is currently being addressed.
Commercial utilisation of Torres Strait marine resources
During the last century and throughout most of this century, Torres Strait Islanders have been involved in commercial exploitation of pearl shell, trochus shell and beche de mer. Initially, Islanders worked as low paid or unpaid divers for Japanese and European merchants, but Badu Island and some other islands have a long tradition of local ownership and management of fisheries enterprises. Island divers still supply pearl shell to the cultured pearl industry and still harvest and export trochus shells for the manufacture of buttons. More recently, many Torres Strait Islanders have become involved in harvesting crayfish which can be undertaken by independent divers operating from small dinghies.
As the preceding extract has illustrated, Torres Strait Islanders' face the considerable challenge of continuing traditional practices in contemporary times, competing with commercial operations and sometimes other Indigenous peoples for traditional marine resources whilst ensuring sustainable use of those resources. They are moving towards gaining substantial control over their traditional islands, reefs and sea. There is a strong and growing recognition of the urgent need for management and conservation of marine resources in order to maintain sustainable traditional lifestyles.
Caption: Banner at Torres Strait Cultural Festival 1998 celebrating the International Year of the Ocean.
Not passing through
Since 1788, the newcomers to our country have often assumed that Indigenous peoples cultures and societies were worthless because their efforts to understand us were too superficial. The impressions they gained of us were those of tourists passing through, not of neighbours.
Who are we - Aboriginal and Islander peoples
We are the Indigenous people of Australia. Sometimes non-Indigenous people get confused by the great range and variety of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples from the traditional hunter to the Doctor of Philosophy; from the dark-skinned to the very fair; from the speaker of traditional languages to the radio announcer who speaks the Queens' English. The lesson to be learnt from this is that we should not stereotype people; that people are different regardless of race.
Basically, an Aboriginal person is one who is a descendant of an Indigenous inhabitant of Australia, identifies as Aboriginal and is recognised as an Aboriginal by members of the community in which he or she lives.
Our land is our life
Our rights are hereditary and are shaped by complex social processes based in traditional principles of descent kinship and marriage. `Countries' are held corporately by a group of Aboriginal people (Traditional Owners) who have certain rights and responsibilities in relation to the land/sea. They enjoy the right to live off the resources of the land/sea and to deny or grant permission to other people to enter and use the country.
The Traditional Owners have the collective responsibility to look after the country by keeping out intruders, maintaining sacred sites and performing ceremonies to ensure the country's continuing identity and fertility.
Senior knowledgeable members of the group (Elders) share the leadership in exercising these responsibilities. The members of each group regard each other as family and are descended from a common ancestor or ancestors. The ancestors are the characters celebrated in the religious ceremonies whose exploits created the natural and social features of the world.
Our land tenure system differs by region; on the mainland the system is patrilineal however the Tiwi Islands have matrilineal system (rights are passed from mother to children). One is born with these rights but the responsibilities which accompany these rights increase with age and experience.
Using the land, rivers and sea
Men women and children shared in the collection of food and hunting before the European invasion. Food was distributed amongst extended families according to the rules of the particular society. In times of seasonal abundance, many groups would gather together and be assured of enough food for everybody. It has been estimated that our people had to work little more than 20 hours per week to support themselves during traditional times. Families and clans travelled the land during the year, harvesting the resources of the land, rivers and sea when the opportunity was available and looking after special sites for which they had responsibility. Men and women separately facilitated the reproduction of resources through ritual nurturing.
The decline in food resources for many Indigenous local groups due to loss of land led towards dependence of European food. In areas where we still have access to food resources of the land, rivers and sea, we may supplement European foodstuffs with `bush tucker'. This not only has nutritional advantages but serves to maintain the important social function of bringing people together and linking them with the land. Women have always had the responsibility for providing staple food for our families. However because of the low socio-economic status of many Indigenous peoples and the obligation to share scarce resources among kin, their job can be more difficult and stressful today than it was in the past.
Today, Aboriginal people are involved in many aspects of the wider Australian economy. In those parts of Australia where land rights has returned traditional lands to its owners, our people have been able to use their land base to develop economic activities such as tourism, primary industry, mining and aquaculture.
Cultural history of coastal Australia