We all have it
No matter who you are, we all have culture. Each person’s culture is important; it’s part of what makes us who we are.
So what’s culture?
Essentially, culture refers to a people’s way of life - their ideas, values, customs and social behaviour. Culture includes things like the way we celebrate weddings and conduct funerals, the food we like to eat, the way we dress and the music we like. Culture is passed down from generation to generation, and while cultural practices and beliefs change and evolve, many of the basic aspects remain the same. Even though we may dress differently from our grandparents and hold different religious or political beliefs, it’s likely there are elements of the way you live that can be traced back to them. These cultural elements have a strong influence on who we are, how we think about the world and how we operate in society.
For some people, the idea that everyone has culture could be new. This is particularly true for people who are part of mainstream society. In this case, trying to identify your culture may be challenging at first because it’s so natural and normal it’s virtually invisible to us. Sometimes it becomes clearer when you think about your culture in light of someone else’s. For example, consider how the holidays you celebrate, the types of food you eat, the clothing you wear and the way you approach events such as births, deaths and marriages are similar to, or different from, another culture.
What does this have to do with Indigenous culture?
Many Indigenous people in Australia have a unique view of the world that’s distinct from the mainstream. Land, family, law, ceremony and language are five key interconnected elements of Indigenous culture. For example, families are connected to the land through the kinship system, and this connection to land comes with specific roles and responsibilities which are enshrined in the law and observed through ceremony. In this way, the five elements combine to create a way of seeing and being in the world that’s distinctly Indigenous. Understanding how intricately interconnected these elements are, helps us understand the damage done when colonisation occurred. Being disconnected from culture can have a profound impact on a person‘s sense of identity and belonging. Identity and belonging gives meaning and purpose to people’s lives. Understanding this will help us find appropriate ways to respond to the pain caused by colonisation.
5 interconnecting elements to having one’s culture
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups have strong family values that extend well beyond the loyalties within a nuclear family. For example, people often use kinship terms that give every member of a society a ‘skin’ name so that everyone can relate to others as their ‘mother’, ‘grandfather’, ‘sister’, ‘nephew’, and so on, regardless of whether people belong to their immediate family or not.
Traditional groups are strongly connected to particular lands and waters, which provide the foundations of identity. Within the boundaries of this traditional country there will also be particular sites that have been rendered sacred by events in the ancestral past. ‘Country’ in this particular Aboriginal sense includes the animals and plants, along with lands and waters, all of which must be cared for by their traditional owners.
Traditional law applies across every area of life, governing relationships, ceremony, seasons of the year, flora and fauna, as well as punishments when the law is breached. Caring for country and caring for family are all covered by the law, and everything flourishes when the law is properly kept.
In traditional societies, languages were linked directly to their country, and there was no common language across the hundreds of the First Nations. People might have had some understanding of their neighbours’ languages, but generally it was a person’s own mother tongue that expressed identity within their own country. In particular, caring for country through ceremony required the maintenance of the local language.
There are many different kinds of ceremonies in traditional culture, relating for example to gender-specific initiations, caring for country through the performance of sacred songs and practices, communal celebration, protection of sacred things in secret rites, and reconciliation ceremonies. These activities bind people together in a range of different ways, reinforcing the networks of responsibility within the community. When ceremonies aren’t carefully maintained, the country suffers and its people become disorientated
Watch Bob's story
Difference and similarity
Although there’s diversity amongst Indigenous and non-Indigenous cultures, land, family, law, ceremony and language actually play a crucial role in shaping all our lives, regardless of our culture or heritage. Identifying what this looks like in our own life can help us develop empathy with others. For example, consider how your life is shaped by the language you speak, your own family traditions, the area where you live and how you approach significant life events such as weddings and funerals. As we grow in empathy and understanding, we begin to relate better to one another.
How will empathy and understanding make a difference?
To truly relate to another person, it’s useful to understand some things about their culture. This means that for Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians to come together for a better future, it’s important for all Australians to learn about Indigenous culture, as well as becoming more aware of our own. Learning about Indigenous culture, valuing and celebrating it in our mainstream society, is one way we can begin to address the challenges we see today. As we learn about Indigenous culture, we can begin to relate to each other better, recognise the cultural history of this land and value the ongoing, rich cultural legacy of this place we call home.
> As a nation, our identity and character can be strengthened by a respectful appreciation of the various expressions of Indigenous culture. As we celebrate, value and take pride in Indigenous culture, we’ll be supporting and strengthening Indigenous peoples’ sense of value in the process.
> Genuinely seeking to understand Indigenous culture can help dispel stereotypes and myths about Indigenous people that result from misunderstanding, which serves to perpetuate disadvantage and discrimination.
> As individuals, there‘s much we can learn from each other‘s culture. For example, if we open ourselves to humbly learning about a different worldview, we can grow in our understanding of ourselves and be enriched by another way of thinking about the world.
Watch Mark's story
Learn more about culture
> Listen to Indigenous people from across the continent share about the importance of land Watch
> Find out about kinship systems and their continued importance for many Indigenous people Read article
> Understand Welcome to Country and Acknowledgement of Country and why these practices are so important Read article
> Discover more about Indigenous spirituality Read article