For many Indigenous people in Australia, land is much more than soil, rocks or minerals. It’s a living environment that sustains, and is sustained by, people and culture. [1] Before colonisation, the reciprocal relationship between people and the land underpinned all other aspects of life for Indigenous people. Today, this relationship with the land remains fundamental to the identity and way of life of many Indigenous people. 

Connection to Country

For many Indigenous people, land relates to all aspects of existence - culture, spirituality, language, law, family and identity. Rather than owning land, each person belongs to a piece of land which they’re related to through the kinship system. That person is entrusted with the knowledge and responsibility to care for their land, providing a deep sense of identity, purpose and belonging. This intimate knowledge of the land and ways of relating to it are also reflected in language, including many words and concepts that have no English equivalent. This deep relationship between people and the land is often described as ‘connection to Country’.

“The land and the people are one, ‘cause the land is also related,” explains Dhanggal Gurruwiwi, a Galpu Elder from Nhulunbuy in the Northern Territory. “In our kinship system, as a custodian I’m the child of that land,” she says.

 

The way we treat land matters

The relationship between many Indigenous people and the land is one of reciprocity and respect - the land sustains and provides for the people, and the people sustain and manage the land through culture and ceremony. Because of this close connection, when the land is disrespected, damaged or destroyed, this can have real impact on the wellbeing of Indigenous people.

“(The land) is our life”, says Andrew Johnson, a community member from Lajamanu in the Northern Territory. “If they come and destroy our land and our sacred site, that takes away our life too.” Djapirri Muninggirrity, from Nhulunbuy in the Northern Territory, says simply, “Without the land, we are nothing.”

Honouring the sacred relationship with land is just as important for Aunty (Rev) Janet Turpie-Johnston, a community leader in Melbourne, Victoria. She asks all of us, “How are we ultimately going to honour this relationship with the very thing, the very earth, the very waters, the very air, the very sky, that gives us life and existence?”

 

Disconnection from Country

When non-Indigenous people begin to understand the importance of land for Indigenous people, we can begin to understand why dislocation from land has had such devastating effects on many Indigenous people and cultures; for many Indigenous people, colonisation did more than steal their land, it stole their very identity. Despite this history, today, many Indigenous people today maintain a close connection to their Country.

 

Living together on this land

Warlpiri Elder, Jerry Jangala, explains that unlike the western attitude towards land which sees it as something to be privately owned, many Indigenous people believe that land is for everybody. The land welcomes all people and offers us its provision. However, we’re required to respect the land in return. Honouring this reciprocal relationship with the land is central to Indigenous culture and is a concept important for all people living in Australia today.