Cultural Background

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'This land is me'

'This land is mine' – most white people in Australia would say, when speaking about their country. One could add quite provocatively: even if this is not true.

Background: Although Aboriginal Peoples had been living there for more than 50,000 years, the English declared Australia to be Terra Nullius, because they found no houses, no fences and no other visible signs of cultivation. The land was annexed for the British Crown. The Indigenous Peoples did not receive citizens’ rights in their own land until 1967. Since there had been neither a capitulation subjection nor a treaty, the Terra Nullius Declaration has been always of questionable legality and was refuted for the first time in the legendary Mabo Court Case in 1992 by the High Court of Australia. This lead to a spate of land right claims by Aboriginal Peoples and in 1994 resulted in the Native Title Act.

The Aboriginal Peoples would say – and it is more than merely a finely-tuned phrase – 'THIS LAND IS ME', what means that the identity of Australia´s Indigenous people is defined by the land and its creation story.


The Aboriginal Peopoles’ deep identification with 'their' homeland originates in their story of creation, which in the Central Desert (in the language of the Warlpiri) is called Tjukurrpa, in English the Dreaming. In German the confusing term 'Traumzeit' ('Dreamtime') is often used, confusing because it has nothing to do with dreaming nor with a specific point in time. For Aboriginal Peoples the Tjukurrpa is very real and ongoing, everywhere and all the time.

The creation stories vary from region to region, however they are always based in some way on the idea that ancestral beings emerged from the land. These creative beings shaped the earth in its present form, created sacred sites and waterholes and gave the humans their songs, ceremonies and law before they found their manifestation again in the land in some form or the other.

Aboriginal Peoples consider themselves direct descendants of these mythological beings. That explains their deep relationship to certain characteristics of the landscape and to certain plants or animals. The land is their mother, to whom they will return after their death. The Tjukurrpa or The Law is their 'inner homeland' that defines their spirituality.

Thus the Tjukurrpa is an ongoing process, evolving from the past and reaching far into the future, but where today there are invariably conflicts with the white man and his world.


Thus it is no wonder that the government’s policy of assimilation between 1940 and 1960 caused this peoples some of its most traumatic experiences, for it lead to the forced resettlement of Aboriginal clans from their homelands to remote reservations and to mixed-blood children being taken away from their parents and given to white families and orphanages far away from their own lands (the so-called Stolen Generation). This resulted in a large number of Indigenous Peoples losing their identity and often their dignity. In many cases the political freedoms granted Aboriginal peoples in the early 1970’s lead to an immediate movement back to their country, the so-called Homeland Movement.
Even for Indigenous peoples who spent many years on mission stations that provided protection and food supplies – but at the same time alienated them from their own culture by superimposing a Christian religion – 'back to country' trips are very important experiences.

The knowledge of the Tjukurrpa and the power and the energy of the ancestors is preserved and passed down from generation to generation by means of singing, dancing and painting. So Aboriginal art is something quite practical ̶ to be understood as a substitute for writing.

Photos (from left to right):
Judy Watson Napangardi (centre) with stick and traditional body paint in Mina Mina © Warlukurlangu Artists
Wandjina rock painting from the Kimberley © ARTKELCH
Old Walter Tjampitjinpa and Old Mick Wallankari Tjakamarra preparing a sand painting for Geoff Bardon’s Film A Calendar of Dreaming in: Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University, Benjamin, R. (Ed.): Icons of the Desert. Early Aboriginal Paintings From Papunya, New York, 2009, page 33