The Aboriginal Land Rights Movement

By Max Charlesworth | Go to book overview

The territory belonging to a particular Aboriginal group is believed by them to have been shaped and formed by the mythic ancestor spirits of the Dreaming. The ancestor spirits wandered over the land and established particular sites of importance which their spiritual descendants--the members of the Aboriginal group--must venerate and care for through rituals and ceremonies. The doings of the ancestor spirits are detailed in the myths of the particular groups; these myths being, as it were, the charter or title to the land. The actions of the ancestor heroes are also reflected in the ceremonies which are performed at the sacred sites. The ultimate reason for one group occupying and using this territory rather than that, is that its members believe that the land in question was given to them by ancestor heroes of the Dreaming and that they have spiritual responsibility for it. A particular Aboriginal group is, therefore, in a sense tied to a specific piece of the land and it cannot--as white settlers might do--normally occupy other parts of the country and claim ownership of them. Equally, a group cannot normally sell or exchange or surrender its land to another group. Thus, as A.P. Elkin writes: 'From one point of view, the members who belong to the local group by birth own their subdivision of the tribal territory. But it is truer to say that the country owns them and that they cannot remain away from it indefinitely and still live.' Again, Kenneth Maddock argues that:

A. P. Elkin, The Australian Aborigine, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1970, p. 79

Aborigines regard land as a religious phenomenon. . . The tie between men and land is taken back to the Dreaming . . . The Aboriginal theory is thus that rights to the land have to do with the design of the world, not with alienable legal title . . . It would be as correct to speak of the land possessing men as of men possessing the land.

Another anthropologist Nancy Munn, speaking of the Walbiri people in Central Australia, makes very much the same point:

Walbiri men may justify claims to ownership by reference to the fact that an ancestor has left his marks there, thus establishing a claim to the place. For example, in one instance, the rights of a particular patrilineal group to certain sites were explained by pointing out that the ancestors of the present owners had travelled there singing as they went. To sing one's way from place to place implies that marks and names are being 'put' at each place--that is, that the site is being claimed. Thus group claims are based ultimately upon ancestral claims made through the marks of personal identification with which the ancestor imprints a place.

Munn concludes as follows:

At death the living relinquish their claims to a country, and it is their patrilineal descendants who must care for it and guard the ancestral relics . . . Because of the nature of this

-27-

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The Aboriginal Land Rights Movement
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page 1
  • Contents 3
  • Introduction 4
  • The Land Rights Movement 6
  • Who Owns Australia? the Legal Basis 12
  • Aboriginal and European Relations in Australia 16
  • A History of the Land Rights Movement 20
  • Traditional Owners 27
  • Land Rights: the Present Situation 41
  • Conclusion 45
  • Resource Materials 49
  • Select Bibliography 51
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