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Indigenous peoples depended on the land for their survival. They lived in groups within a territory and survived by fishing, hunting, and gathering plants, and using other resources that the land had to offer. Most groups were semi-nomadic, meaning they moved around within the territory to find food. The land not only provided food and resources, but also formed the basis for their spiritual life, as well as the family and social structure. This is why the land is so significant in Indigenous culture; and why the arrival of the Europeans caused so many problems for traditional Indigenous society.

Indigenous spiritual life and the land

The Indigenous peoples' relationship to the land was very different to the way Europeans viewed the land. Individuals within Indigenous society did not own the land as the Europeans did; rather, Indigenous people viewed the land as owning them. The land was handed down to them from the previous generations and it was their duty to care for it.

The land is the spiritual home of the Indigenous ancestors, and the ancestral spirits are still part of the land - in its rocks, plants and animals. The ancestors, who travelled across Australia at the beginning of time, established the land boundaries between different Indigenous groups and the sacred sites. Refer Image 1

Each clan's land has sites that are sacred, or of spiritual significance. Groups or individuals are responsible for these places and must care for them and keep them free from unauthorised visitors. Even today, as in the past, Indigenous clans hold deep spiritual links with their lands which were formed in the Dreaming.

Indigenous social structures

Indigenous groups lived in territories with other groups that spoke a common language and shared similar customs and beliefs. Before the arrival of the Europeans, there could have been up to 600 different language groups within Australia.

The basic social unit in Indigenous society is the family. Small groups of families lived together and formed a ';band'. Some bands would consist of several families living and hunting together. The size of a band would ultimately depend on how much food was available within the territory. This would vary at different times of the year depending on factors such as the season or rainfall.

Clans

In a band there are different clans. Clans are groups of people related by descent from a common ancestor, sometimes human, sometimes non-human. They could be descended from the Possum ancestor or Kangaroo ancestor or any other ancestral being from the Dreaming. Clans are the major political unit in Indigenous society and guard their spirit homes, including their sacred sites and their rituals, totems and songs.

People cannot marry members of the same clan. Because bands comprise married people with families, their members represent a number of different clans. This means that in a band there may be Possum people married to Kangaroo people, or Magpie people married to Snake people.

A whole clan would come together at different times of the year; when there was plenty of food to share, to carry out ceremonial rituals, to arrange marriages and to settle inter-clan disputes. If there was a major ceremony a number of clans would meet together.

Land and survival

Indigenous peoples used the land and its resources to survive. How easy it was for them to survive depended on the environment they were living in. Indigenous peoples living in the desert in central Australia would have found it harder to survive than those living by large rivers or on the coast.

The type of food gathered also depended on the type of environment the group was living in. Sometimes there were an abundance of kangaroos and other game but at other times the band had to survive by eating plants and smaller animals and insects. In general, Indigenous bands just gathered enough food for immediate use; they did not usually store or grow food. Refer Image 2

The Indigenous peoples also used the land to provide the material with which they used to hunt and gather the food. They made canoes from bark; spears, boomerangs and digging sticks from wood; baskets from grasses and knives and other blades from rocks. Refer Image 3

Indigenous people did not practice agriculture as Europeans did but there is evidence that they made use of firestick farming and other methods to obtain food. Firestick farming was when the land was burnt so that it cleared out the undergrowth and produced new growth. The new growth after the fire attracted more other to the area which made it easier for hunting. Some Indigenous bands also made traps to catch eels and fish and most groups traded items such as food, shells, and plants when they travelled across other territories.

Land was vitally important for Indigenous survival and spiritual life, but it also was an important factor in Indigenous laws and rules. Indigenous law is discussed in the next chapter.


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1. What is the term given to a small group of Aboriginal families living together?

A family

A tribe

A band

A clan

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