It is important to recognize there are different views on the meaning of the words and terms listed below, which are arranged in recommended reading order. The aim is to assist students to develop an understanding about the complex cultural life of Indigenous Australians and to learn to appreciate and respect their beliefs, artworks and relationships with their country.


The Dreaming is basis of Indigenous Australian belief systems and spirituality. The term Dreaming was first used by a white male anthropologist and is an inadequate word to describe the complex stories that account for the creation of the universe. Each language group has their own term that relates to ancestor creation, spirituality and life in the particular area, for example Wangarri in Arnhem Land, Tjukurrpa in Central Australia and Ngarrangkarni in East Kimberley.

During this time creator ancestors or spirit ancestors and supernatural beings emerged from the sky, the earth and water and through their journeys across the sky, the earth and water formed the land, geographical features and living things. Rivers, mountains, deserts, trees, plants, animals and humans were created during this time. These creator ancestors also established the laws that govern how different Aboriginal communities live together. To guide humans in their interaction with each other and their environment, complex social roles and responsibilities were developed and totems were given to each child by either parent. Totems were and still are an important part of the spiritual relationship Aboriginal peoples have with the land, animals and plants in the area of their birth, their family and community. Totems are often plants or animals and it is against the lore to harm, eat or destroy your totem.

Artists often refer to their Dreamings in their paintings and may include representations of food such as yams, wild potatoes, emu, wallaby and kangaroo. Reference is made to journeys across time, space, distance and country undertaken by spirit ancestors. Dreamings also refer to your place of conception, country of birth, and Mothers and Fathers Country. The Dreaming is not finished or static and continues to influence everyday living.


Country is a term used to describe the area of land you are born in and includes people, language, plants, animals, the seasons, geographical features and their Dreaming stories. Indigenous Australians have very strong relationships with their land and believe they belong to the land. The country your mother was born in and the Dreamings from this country are usually passed to the female descendants of this person.

The country your father was born in and the Dreamings from this country are usually passed to the male descendants of this person. Refer to the Indigenous Australian map to note the general location of large language groups of people. These boundary lines may not be exact and this map is not suitable for native title and land claims.


Songlines are like the boundaries of your country and enable Indigenous Australians to navigate across great distances by singing their songs in sequence. These songs identify major landmarks, such as rivers, rocks, hills, the sky and stars and in particular recognize spiritual and ancestoral sites of significance. Young people learn these from their elders and must “sing” the land to keep the Dreaming of their ancestors alive and to guide them throughout life. Song cycles can cover hundreds of kilometers and cross over the land of different language groups so it is only those who speak multiple languages who can fully understand the entire song.


Indigenous peoples observe the laws of the land that were established during the Dreaming. These laws prescribe the roles and responsibilities according to age, gender and ritual. Custodial responsibility is very important within an Indigenous community. Custodians are senior elders, elders and are fully initiated men or women who demonstrate cultural respect and a profound ability to retain knowledge.

They reaffirm, maintain and transfer knowledge through intergenerational practice. This knowledge relates to the sky, land, water and all living things, sacred and secret business and daily life on their land. This knowledge is communicated through dance, stories, songlines, ceremony and by using art forms including, stencils, bark paintings, sand drawings, rock engravings, carvings and more recently painting on canvas, printmaking, drawing on paper, ceramics, video and films. Young people learn about these laws through observation of rituals and ceremonies from an early age. They build on this knowledge through participation and experience until they are ready and qualified to become a custodian as a mature adult. It is against the lore for any person without specific cultural responsibility to copy art works or reproduce this knowledge without permission from the custodian.

Cultural practice

Cultural practice covers many aspects of Aboriginal life. Many indigenous artists share their cultural knowledge and practice by singing the stories they own during the creation of their art works. Children and young people learn about life from these artworks and songs. They also learn about their culture through observation, preparation and participation in rituals and ceremonies. Through repetition and experience young people learn to apply body paint and use symbols to represent their Dreaming stories. This is done with the permission of the elders for cultural and ceremonial purposes.


The symbols in Indigenous art works are in copyright. These symbols are sacred or religious and belong to specific places and particular groups of people. Therefore it is against Australian copyright law for students or anyone, Aboriginal and non Aboriginal to copy symbols or stories that do not belong to them. It is totally inappropriate for students to reproduce Aboriginal art works. Students are encouraged to learn about Aboriginal art and culture and understand the importance of land and country. Students express their ideas and create their own symbols to communicate their sense of place.


Teachers are encouraged to contact local Indigenous groups to learn about the correct use of protocols in the use of Indigenous resources, ie, plants, orchres, bark and sacred sites. Where possible teachers are encouraged to invite local Indigenous communities to present information and conduct appropriate activities with students. Useful web sites and organisations.