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This Singing Land

Indigenous Peoples

new internationalist
issue 177 - November 1987

This singing land

'I want you to imagine you are black, an aboriginal Australian. The time is the present. I want you also to imagine that the white invasion is just about to occur.

'How would you be living your life?

'About three days every week would be devoted to gathering your food. a bit less in places plenty, a bit more in the hard country. The rest of you time would be spent socializing or in religious observances of different kinds. As to your knowledge of the land, your country, you would know every tree, every rock, because in the dreamtime the great ancestors came this way and they are still here.

'You would husband the land. You would burn the grasses to promote new growth and to make sure that the delicate balance of nature that has been created is preserved.

'Into this world comes the white invader. You have difficulty in understanding how the whites could make such a preposterous claim to ownership. And only you can sing in your country and only you can dance in your country and only you can call the land "Father".'


'Aborigines have occupied Australia for at least 40,000 years, possibly almost 120,000 years. We perhaps have been in continuous occupation for a longer period than any other people on earth..

'For our land is "Mother". We are nourished through our relationship to it. To wound the earth is to wound oneself. If others wound the earth, they are wounding us.

'The aboriginal says simply and without qualification, "I am the land". A Pitjantjatjara woman has heard to remark about a certain mining venture, "They're tearing me apart", and her hands backed her words with a gesture of clawing her face.'


'Our land, together with people, flora and fauna, is a complete organic whole. Our people and the land are one in a single expression of song, and the people give the land a voice to sing. Land is kinship, family and clan. It is the basis of life, identity and spirituality. It is a concrete record of creative events. Land is home.

'Our initiation ceremonies are linked to clan territory through some places, sometimes called dreaming sites or sacred sites. A story place is part of the landscape which was formed through the creative acts of totemic ancestor.

'Our totems are not gods and where these are represented in art, they are not idols but symbols of the cultural heritage of our people. In the dreamtime, totem songs sing the world into existence. Our ancestors, when travelling our land, scattered a train of words and music along the line of their footprints. These are the dreaming tracks. Our land lives because of them.

These territories or totems belong to a group as a whole, to a territory group as well as an individual clan whose land is the story place. Ownership of traditional lands is passed down through the father, and today's owners become guardians of the story places. These are little different from the story places of other peoples, such as the Hebrews, who had places of special meaning like Hebron and Bethel.

For most non-aboriginal Australians the land is harsh and demanding. It holds no sacred places, no areas or sanctuary. But for the powerful ones it means great wealth. In 1985, the mining industry campaigned against aboriginal land rights, saying that our communities should not be allowed to prohibit mining and exploration on our own land. To compete for a failing market, the industry attempted to reduce all costs, including those imposed on it by the aboriginal community through our efforts to secure land rights. Most mining companies - and unions - see land as a resource to be exploited for maximum return, to feed the already bloated society which is blind to so many non-material values.

Some of our tribal elders take the line that money from mining is bad money. Bad for whites and bad for blacks. It corrupts Australia and gives us false values. And so it is that many of my people no longer live on tribal land., no longer live as identifiable communities. They are the ones who have suffered most through dispossession.

This destroys us. For us as Aborigines, land is living. It is not bound by geographic boundaries marked by a white surveyor. Land is the generation point of our existence.

Land is Mother, Father, genesis. Land is a living place made up of sky, clouds, rivers, of wind, sand and the spirit who creates both these things and me.

It is a living entity. It belongs to us. And we belong to the land. Land provides my physical needs and my spiritual nurture. It is a regeneration of stories. New stories are sung from contemplation of the land. Stories are handed from parent to child, and are phrased in the language of the sacred place. When we lose a sacred place, we lose our past, our ancestry, our memory. In a very real , almost final sense, we lose ourselves.'


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New Internationalist issue 177 magazine cover This article is from the November 1987 issue of New Internationalist.
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