Australia’s First Peoples speak of sea and sky Country as being connected to each other and to the earth. There is no division. First Peoples’ stories written in the songlines across the land are also written in the sky and reflected in the waterways. First Peoples use the constellations like star maps to navigate their way across land and sea, and as seasonal calendars for survival. As above, so below — telling them when to plant, when to harvest and when to travel and have ceremony. This knowledge has enabled First Peoples to sustain life on this continent for millennia.
One of First Peoples’ major stories linking land, water and sky is that of the Rainbow Serpent known by different names in different parts of the country. The lightning its tongue, the thunder its voice and the rain its spittle. It has shaped the land, including mountains, rivers and waterholes, and continues to live under the earth’s surface as its eternal protector. When angered by destructive assaults on the land, such as mining and other threats to cultural practice, it takes revenge by wreaking havoc through such cataclysmic weather events as cyclones, floods, wildfires and pestilence.
These stories are written into art and ceremony as seen in artist Rover Thomas’ paintings of Cyclone Tracy believed to be caused by the wrath of the Rainbow Serpent which gave rise to a new set of ceremonies and song cycles practised today called the Kuril Kuril. Other well-known Creation Spirits that inhabit land sea and sky associated with rain and seasonal regeneration of the land are the Wandjinas from north-west Kimberley. They bring the cyclonic wet season rain, lightning and thunder which is depicted in the imagery encircling the head of the Wandjina. There are other stories of Wandjinas who live in the Milky Way, and others who created all life on Earth.
Different cultural groups from across the continent have rain Dreaming stories which are told and performed in ceremony to unleash giant storms from sky Country to fill the waterways. The drier the country, such as deserts, the bigger the rain stories and ceremonies. Water is necessary for survival as well as for spiritual purposes, highlighted by the identification as freshwater people or saltwater people. Langani Marika from coastal north-east Arnhem land says “our kinship connects us to whatever lies in the sea. It holds our family. And everything in the ocean is related”. A freshwater man John ‘Dudu’ Nangkiriyn from La Grange Sub-Basin, ground water country says “water is life for us all. If that water go away, everything will die … Pukarrikarra (the Dreaming) put ’em all together” (meaning the land, sea and sky).
The following information is written by Margo Ngawa Neale.
Country is central to everything for Australia’s First Peoples. The concept of Country is more than a surface view of the land; it represents a worldview where everything is seen as living and connected. There is no separation between people, animals, plants, rocks, earth, water, stars, air and everything else.
First Peoples’ history is said to be written in the land. The actions of the ancestral beings who created the land are visible in the scars, grooves, notches and other natural features such as escarpments, mountain ranges, boulders, waterholes and saltpans. They act as memory aids that tell the story of creation and transmit cultural values about how to live and care for Country and each other. In this way, the concept of Country as a guide to life can be loosely likened to the law of the Bible or the Quran.
Country holds knowledge. It is First Peoples’ archive that includes ecology, science, medicine, engineering, geology astronomy, the law and much more. Taught through ceremony and art, First Peoples’ worldview across the various disciplines is not compartmentalised as in the West but is an integrated knowledge system. And, unlike the Western view of land ownership, the land is the First Peoples’ ancestry and next of kin. First Peoples view the world as a living being and are born of Mother Earth. First Peoples feel for Country as one does for a family member, remembering those who have gone before and those who will come after. First Peoples worry for Country, grieve for Country, yearn for Country and sing for Country. Country needs people, to continue to nourish and animate it through ceremony and song.
Prolonged absences from Country can cause it to lose its life force and die, so going back to Country and ‘singing it up’ is essential for the health of land and people alike. The expression ‘caring for Country’ comes from this strong personal attachment and sense of responsibility. It is a deeply felt belief that if you truly care for Country, it will care for you.
This continent we now call Australia comprises some 300 different Aboriginal Countries. Each Country is occupied by different languages groups, each with their distinctive customs, laws and traditions, not unlike Europe with its many regions, local histories and languages. First Peoples’ different cultures developed in response to the varying environments each group inhabited: coastal, desert, bush or stone country. In this spectacular immersive experience, you will be drawn into Country. Your senses will be stimulated by a cinematic experience of epic proportions as artworks come to life with projections that expand your vision and sounds that touch your soul. It is here that you will sense the power of Country and the power of art to speak for Country.