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Australian Aborigines - A Nature-Oriented Religion
The Australian Aboriginal Religion: a Nature Oriented Religion?
This is an original draft by David Mayes. Not meant for citation.
The definition of a ‘nature-oriented religion’ is pretty self-explanatory. A nature-oriented religion ‘refers to forms of religious practice which are based on a celebration or worship of ‘nature’ and/or those which are aimed at bringing their practitioners in closer alignment with ‘nature’ and with the rhythms, seasons, forces, and/or divinities of the ‘earth’ (Ivakhiv 1999, 1). It is important to know this definition before categorizing the Australian Aboriginal religious traditions as nature-oriented. With this definition it is clear that the Australian Aborigine religion is nature-oriented because of the great importance that is placed on nature and how the aborigines celebrate nature constantly.
The Australian Aborigines do not only believe that nature is important, they believe that there are different people and ancient animals in many different places across Australia. They may see a rock formation and remember a different piece of a story or song. An outsider may see a pile of rocks perfect for a quarry but the Aborigines see baby bandicoots, hudled under an outcropping cliff, from the story of Akuka, the Bandicoot Man (Chatwin 1987, 115-116). Since there are stories behind nearly every stretch of land, the Aborigines find themselves drawn to the land. They may take a walk and visit their land. They walk along a specific path, at a specific pace, and sing a specific song. The song can be understood by all the different tribes, even though the languages are different. This is because the different ways that parts of the song are sung, whether it is tone fluctuations or a certain beat. This makes the songs even more amazing, simply because they can be easily heard and understood by two completely different groups of Aborigines, even when there is a difference in languages.
This song has been passed down for generations and tells different stories of different ancestors. Each one of these ancient paths is called a songline. A songline, also called a dreaming track, is a certain path that crosses a specific area in Australia, each one different, that tells the story of creation or story of how the land came to be (Berndt 1977, 68-70). So to say that the land is important is an understatement. The land is not simply a sacred place; it is sacred people and animals.
Being close to the land is important to the Aborigines. That is why many of the practitioners will go ‘out bush’ to visit the different tracks or to check on certain places, making sure the dreamings are still as they are supposed to be. Many of the Aborigines will do their rituals to connect with the Dreamtime, the time that all things were created by the ancestors. The rituals done are not only walks through the wilderness. There are also paintings on tree bark, dances, chanting, and sand drawings.
These type of ritual practices show how in tune the Australian Aborigines are with the country around them. The importance of the land to the Aborigines is shown through these rituals. If a person were to deface a piece of the land, they may be destroying an ancestor. In Bruce Chatwin’s novel, The Songlines, a company is attempting to construct a railroad across Australia. The construction group agrees to not destroy any ‘important or sacred sites,’ but what they do not understand is that the entire country is important to the Aborigines (Chatwin 1987, 4). For an Aborigine to allow such scarification and destruction to happen to the land would be to fail at their duty to protect the land. Every piece of land is said to have a kirda. The kirda is called the landowner or boss of the land. It is the kirda’s job or duty to perform the necessary upkeep of their land and to protect it from any harm (Chatwin 1987, 98). For a person to allow the destruction brought by a railroad would be to fail in protecting their dreamings.
It is for all these reasons and the bond shown between Aborigine and nature that demonstrates the reason for classification as a nature-oriented religion. Without such a classification the Aborigines would go from a kirda to an outdoor janitor and from a person honoring and celebrating their Dreamtime heroes to a silly group of people dancing, painting wood, and drawing pictures in the sand. The classification may seem condescending but it actually brings justification to their practices. This classification takes a secret society and makes them religious, which was impossible for people of the past to see.
As a religion, the Australian Aborigines believe that their life as a man is directly linked to the land (Moore 1977, 46). This connection again shows why this religion is oriented towards nature. The fact that the Aborigines believe that their Dreamtime heroes are still among them brings about another reason why the classification is justified. The Aborigines do not believe that their gods came and left and remain only in an invisible ghostly form. They believe that the people and animals in their story still lay amongst them. They could be a rock or a ghost gum tree now, but they are there all the same.
The distinction as a nature-oriented religion allows outside people to understand that nature is the most important object for these people. Not only is the nature important to them, they believe that nature is the central reason to their existence. The people will identify with different groups decided by where they kick their mothers belly for the first time, linking them to a certain dreaming and Dreamtime hero for the rest of their life (Chatwin 1987, 60). His distinctive life comes from these ancestors who provide each child with a second, immortal, soul during its mother’s pregnancy (Moore 1977, 46).
A more in-depth understanding of the Aborigine religion allows a person to see that these people do not worship rocks. They do not worship trees or plants. They do not praise rivers, streams or lakes. They honor their Dreamtime ancestors. Not every rock has its own story but it may be part of a dreaming track simply because it lies along the way. It is difficult for an outsider to understand the thoughts of an Aborigine because to an Aborigine they are not worshiping a worm shaped rock group, they are protecting a character from their Dreamtime, even if he is a caterpillar (Chatwin 1987, 95).
It is because of the distinction as a religion that the Australian Aboriginal ritual practices are looked upon differently. Many of the problems early in anthropology, and still today, is a sense of ‘othering’ or looking at people through an ethnocentric lens (Scupin 2000 , 11). If a person is able to delve deeper into their practices it is clear that the different rituals they practice make sense to them. Instead many outsiders remain ignorant due to their own beliefs. Researchers may not realize how strange their own beliefs may seem to one of these Aborigines. To prove their ignorance many outsiders have attempted to destroy the land that is important to these people.
To get around such problems it is important to try different techniques. These techniques must not criticize and attempt to prove the Aborigines wrong. Instead, the researchers should be understanding of the fact that everyone is different and so, too, are their beliefs. Instead of watching from the exterior, one should join in as much as possible. For the researcher to get the best understanding they may even live with these people for years and years. This is not only to get a better understanding but also to gain the real knowledge of the people. With the actual knowledge of the people, a person’s eyes can be opened to how another group may view nature.
The best way to look at the Australian Aboriginal religion is through their eyes. That is to say: when the Aborigines see nature, they see the stories of their pasts and pieces of their ancestors. Nature is not just important to them, it is a part of them.