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Aboriginal Culture & Spirituality

The environment and the culture of Aboriginal people have changed dramatically since 1788 (with the arrival of the First Fleet). Aboriginal people, land, plants and animals are all entwined physically and spiritually. The ceremonies, language, songs and dances reflect the knowledge of the Aboriginal people within a district. Many Aborigines are multi-lingual, thus they understand the neighboring dialects and it is this interaction that aids in the expansion of knowledge.

The totem, Dreaming and skin-classification of each individual is associated with the plants, animals, land and waters and bonds with land-features and various water locations. This is mirrored in the Aboriginal people’s spirituality and culture.


The animal, plant, spirit or site location associated with a tribally oriented Aboriginal is the individual’s totem and it encourages the restriction of eating the totem or avoiding the site of significance. Often an Aboriginal will have one totem but in some tribal groups and districts a person may have a few. Totems are “found” in various ways, perhaps by a clever-man/healer/sorcerer who has seen it in a vision or dream or a spirit has indulged the information to him upon insistence from the parents of the child. Sometimes the totem finds a father while he has been out hunting and after his child is born he may see a distinguishing mark on the baby’s body and exclaim “oh that is where my spear hit that very large kangaroo” or something similar to that affect.

Sometimes a child is born in a locality where sources of child spirits are known to inhabit, such as a water-hole or rock-hole or distinguishing sacred land feature like a hill or tree or boulder. It is often believed that if an individual eats one’s totem then that person will fall ill and die. The result of partaking of one’s totem deliberately may be tribal punishment such as spearing in the thighs or even death by the tribal Elders.


The Dreaming includes the totem and ancient ancestral beings that laid down the Law that instructs the tribal Aborigines daily life, manners, customs and cultural obligations. Often a person will say “I must smoke myself because we are near the site of my Dreaming” or when meeting another Aboriginal they may ask, “hey what your Dreaming mate,” and with that the individual will relate to a site and their skin-name; this is their identity. The Dreaming includes the songs and dances of a song-line in which an ancestor during the creation period, travelled the land teaching the people the Laws and customs that must be observed to hold a society together.


With the skin-classification it is the category into which part of the tribe you are included in. A tribe is first divided into two sections either Mullerra or Wudtherra or something similar as it differs in each tribal group and this is what distinguishes a tribal group from another group as they differ slightly regionally. The two main groups of skin-classification are then broken down further into four, eight or even twelve skin-groupings. The main two groups have customary obligations to each other such as the division of foods and resources, marriage and ceremonial activities. A man of the Mullerra cannot marry a woman of Mullerra as it is classified as incestuous and the same restrictions are observed with Wudtherra skin. It is similar to the English terms and restrictions whereas a man is encouraged not to marry his niece or a woman is not to marry her son and the Law relating to eloping or affairs of this nature do result in banishment or even death by the Elders of an Aboriginal community either by sorcery or spearing.

Within the Wulguru tribe of Townsville, there were four “skin groups”. Marriages could take place only between specific pairs of skins. The skin groups of the Wulguru were guburu, gurgila, banbari and wun-gu. Children resulting from a marriage between members of two skins belonged to a third skin, and had to marry someone from the fourth skin group eg if a guburu man married a gurgila woman, their children would be banbari, and they would have to marry a wun-gu person. Their children would then be guburu. This complex system prevented ritually incorrect marriages.[1]


During ceremonial trade and exchange a strict observance of customs is abided by and each individual will interact according to the skin, Dreaming and totem that they are born with. During ceremonies of this nature and during initiations of young boys and girls into adulthood, the adults who participate in these ceremonies of dancing and singing will refer to a youth’s skin immensely as it will be Wudtherra who has an obligation to initiate Mullerra youths and likewise; they are basically in-laws to each other. It will be during these ceremonies that quite often an arranged marriage takes place, as each person has an obligation to provide a wife or husband to the youths they are teaching the laws of the land and customs that adults are required to attend to and observe. It is also during these interactions of various tribal groups that the Law requires each group to arrange their camp-sites according to the location of their skin and tribal territories. It is the father in laws obligation to pass down the song-line at initiation. It is the youth’s responsibility to learn the songs and dances of their totem and also of the region and their own tribe’s totem. They are also responsible for maintaining the preservation and protection of sacred sites.

Traditional trade and exchange occurred during contact between local family groups and regional gatherings such as ceremonial occasions and at such times involved the gathering of raw material from the local environment and manufacturing into tools. These tools that were selected after production were to be included in the exchange and can be traded to other people both local and regional. There are also gifts that are given to fulfill the traditional obligation to “skin or countrymen” and these were often the best items developed in the region. Hardwood timber from the Iron-Bark tree was preferred for hooks, spears, spear-heads, shields, boomerangs and spear-throwers. The beach-hibiscus tree is the ideal plant used to manufacture twine, fire drills and fishing spears. The wait-awhile thorny vine is used by Aborigines to hook fish in local streams.

Some items made locally included:

Fish-hooks vary both in shape and material of construction and were traditionally made of bone, shell, timber or vines.

Nets of varying fibers were made of local twine of grass and inner bark strings and these were used for fishing and carrying equipment and food.

Pearl-plate is another item made in the region by the Aboriginal families. This plate is shaped like a teardrop (۵) or oval and has native adhesive at its extremity which has a string knotted to form the necklace or personal private covering.

Spears made of hardwood such as bauhinia, blood-wood; wattle, beach-Hibiscus, and mangrove were used for fishing and hunting game inland and coastal areas in water and on land. Spear barbs were made from the quills of echidna and the bones of stingray, emu, kangaroo and wallaby.

Shields were made locally from the buttresses of cluster figs and would be shaped whilst still on the tree before being cut free.

The knowledge of healers is transparent in their understanding and appreciation of their local environment. Thus the knowledge of the healers/sorcerers is respected and feared by many who do not understand and appreciate environmental changes and the many plants healing properties. It is this relationship, bond and obligation that ties Aborigines and land to each other. The obligations to country ensure that all are cared for and that resources are shared and distributed equally.



1. Crossland, J. I. (1995). Yamani Storyline. Townsville, Queensland: Museum of Tropical Queensland, p.10.

Further Information follow on these links:

Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies -

The Little Red Yellow Black website -

Local Places to Visit:

Townsville Cultural Centre -

Mungalla Aboriginal Tours -


Article by Lance Sullivan, May 2013.


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