"Aboriginal spirituality is defined as at the core of Aboriginal being, their very identity. It gives meaning to all aspects of life including relationships with one another and the environment. All objects are living and share the same soul and spirit as Aboriginals. There is a kinship with the environment. Aboriginal spirituality can be expressed visually, musically and ceremonially." (Grant, 2004)
Part of the Australians Together journey of listening, learning and living in respectful relationship with one another involves seeking to understand Indigenous spirituality, which is fundamental to many Indigenous people’s identity and worldview.
Someone with extensive knowledge of this topic is Indigenous elder, Graham Paulson. Graham is the first ordained Indigenous Baptist pastor in Australia, and now has over 50 years of ministry experience in remote, rural and urban contexts. Drawing on his experience and his deep knowledge of Indigenous Australian cultures, Graham Paulson explains several core aspects of Indigenous spirituality.
1. Aboriginal Spirituality is Animistic
In an animistic world every thing is interconnected, people, plants and animals, landforms and celestial bodies are part of a larger reality. In this world, nothing is inanimate, everything is alive; animals, plants, and natural forces, all are energised by a spirit. As such, humans are on an equal footing with nature; are part of nature and are morally obligated to treat animals, plants and landforms with respect. In this world, the invisible and the visible pulse with the same life and the sacred is not separated from the secular, they are interconnected and interactive.
But also in this world, the unseen spiritual forces are stronger and hold sway over all nature. A healthy respect for the power of spirit forces is learned from early childhood, particularly in relation to religious or social taboos. These spiritual forces are believed to have the power to make rain, foster natural growth, assist in hunting and food gathering and even to the finding of spouses or partners. It is also believed that they have the power to act against the wishes of people if the correct ceremonies and/or rituals are not practised or observed. And it is believed that crossing the boundaries of social taboos will also incur their wrath.
2. Aboriginal Spirituality is a Cosmogony
Cosmogony is a theory or story of the origin of the universe. Aboriginal cosmogony begins at the ‘Dreamtime’. This is the time before the world was shaped the way we know it to be now. Hidden in the sky, in the sea and under the surface of the earth are dreamtime heroes, also called creation ancestors, who are part human, in terms of their emotions and intellect, part animal bird or reptile, in terms of their physical shape, and part super-human in terms of their power and their creative ability. At some point in the dreaming they emerged from their hidden worlds and as a result of their actions and inter-actions they shaped the world as we have it today.
3. Aboriginal Spirituality is Earthly
Vicki Grieves (2009) explains: “These ancestors created order out of chaos, form out of formlessness, life out of lifelessness, and, as they did so, they established the ways in which all things should live in interconnectedness so as to maintain order and sustainability. The creation ancestors thus laid down not only the foundations of all life, but also what people had to do to maintain their part of this interdependence—the Law. The Law ensures that each person knows his or her connectedness and responsibilities for other people (their kin), for country (including watercourses, landforms, the species and the universe), and for their ongoing relationship with the ancestor spirits themselves.”
4. Aboriginal Spirituality is Totemic
A totem is a natural object, plant or animal that is inherited by members of a clan or family as their spiritual emblem. Totems define peoples' roles and responsibilities, and their relationships with each other and creation. Totems are believed to be the descendants of the Dreamtime heroes, or totemic beings.
Dreamtime heroes are linked to space and place. The places from which they emerged and travelled, and inter-acted with other spirit-beings, all become associated with the particular hero or heroes and are valued according to the importance of that part of creation to the local tribal group.
Each clan family belonging to the group is responsible for the stewardship of their totem: the flora and fauna of their area as well as the stewardship of the sacred sites attached to their area. This stewardship consists not only of the management of the physical resources ensuring that they are not plundered to the point of extinction, but also the spiritual management of all the ceremonies necessary to ensure adequate rain and food resources at the change of each season.
A typical boy’s story might begin before he is even born. As his mother becomes conscious of his first movement in the womb she immediately has to take note of the area so that the infant will become identified with the spirit of the particular area in which she is located. This is based on the belief that the spirit of that area has energised the infant in the womb and the child becomes inextricably linked with the spirit associated with the dominant creation of that place, as his conception totem.
5. Aboriginal Spirituality is Oral
At the point of birth the child has allocated to him the appropriate birth totem. He automatically receives a skin totem and a clan totem. His spiritual responsibility in life will be to learn the songs and dances, and how to perform the ceremonies, that are associated with those totems so as to energise the relevant spirit within those parts of creation. As each clan family walks their country the law of averages ensures that different people become associated with different parts and the whole area will ultimately be cared for.
6. Aboriginal Spirituality is Hierarchical
This aspect of Aboriginality is not very well understood by many people in traditional communities today let alone urban communities. The gaining of power by the acquiring of traditional and ceremonial knowledge is an experience only reserved for the initiated whose personality and character satisfy their traditional elders.
Author: Graham Paulson
Want to know more?
Watch the Sharing Our Story series to learn more about our shared history.
The complete Sharing Our Story series is available here.
Grant, E. K. 2004, Unseen, Unheard, Unspoken: Exploring the Relationship Between Aboriginal Spirituality & Community Development, Thesis, University of South Australia.
Grieves, V. 2009, Aboriginal Spirituality: Aboriginal Philosophy, The Basis of Aboriginal Social andEmotional Wellbeing, Discussion Paper No. 9, Cooperative Research Centre for Aboriginal Health, Darwin.