Contrasting Cultures

Contrasting Cultures

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From day one the colonial enterprise displaced Australia’s First Peoples and it has been trying to civilize, exterminate, absorb and assimilate Australia’s First Peoples ever since.  A key element of this has been to try to destroy Aboriginal culture and cultural practises. However, various native title decisions (such as Wilcox in 2006) have determined the Aboriginal culture have survived.  What the dominant paradigm has failed to grasp and realize is that Aboriginal culture is important, and it is different.  The table below, developed in consultation with First Peoples leaders is an attempt to articulate some of the key differences.


Contrasting Cultures: There are five key themes which are commonly understood to be the foundational principles of Aboriginal culture: family, land, law, language, and ceremony.  In some ways it is difficult to separate these principles, since each of them is related to all the others.  But we will focus on each element one at a time, showing how they are inter‐related.  In the table below we will briefly outline how these themes contrast with the themes of the dominant paradigm of Australian culture.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture Dominant Australian culture
Family: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups have strong family values that extend well beyond the loyalties within a nuclear family.  For example, people often use kinship terms that give every member of a society a ‘skin’ name so that everyone can relate to others as their ‘mother’, ‘grandfather’, ‘sister’, ‘nephew’, and so on, regardless of whether people belong to their immediate family or not.

Sometimes, even non‐Aboriginal people will be given these kinship names as an invitation to join in the life of the community, and this invitation brings with it a clearly defined set of relationships.  First cousins are also regarded as siblings, the siblings of parents are often also regarded as ‘mother’ and ‘father’ and similarly, the siblings of grandparents are often also regarded as ‘grandfather’ and ‘grandmother’.

Family: We find that the primary focus of family identity in Anglo culture is the nuclear family.  This was not always the case in Western history, but the loss of intergenerational depth seems to have been one of the consequences of the industrial revolution and the movement of populations into cities.  The mobility required by modern economies has also undermined wider family commitments.  The values and wisdom of the older generations tend to be given less respect than they were in the past.
Land: Traditional groups are strongly connected to particular lands and waters, which provide the foundations of identity, with the law of the group recognising estate holdings over which people have specific responsibilities as set out in law and custom.  Within the boundaries of this traditional country there will also be particular sites that have been rendered sacred by events in the ancestral past.  ‘Country’ in this particular Aboriginal sense includes the animals and plants, along with lands and waters, all of which must be cared for by their traditional owners, in fact fauna is often regarded as a type of kin toward which people have responsibilities and obligations.

In Aboriginal societies, caring for country includes environmental practices, such as burning off, but more importantly there are special kinds of ceremonial law that needs to be maintained in order to ensure the wellbeing of the land and to reinforce the values of and obligations towards country.

Indigenous people can maintain their dependence and obligations in relation to their traditional country even if they do not live there all the time.  These connections are still extremely significant for people whose grandparents and great‐grandparents were forcibly moved from their country by governments in the past.  If individuals lose connection with country, this can be a great source of grief and disorientation.

Land: The value of land in the dominant culture tends to be evaluated in terms of markets.  Land has monetary value, whether through its commercial uses above the ground or through the mineral resources below it.  In urban contexts, the closest analogy with ‘caring for country’ would perhaps be caring for the family home.  The analogy is weak in that we often struggle to connect this narrow urban practice of land use with wider concerns for the environment (the challenges are more pressing for farmers).  With the advent of climate change, however, there is now a new urgency to listen more to the needs of the earth and find new ways to live in tune with the laws of nature.  National parks and conservation reserves are increasingly important, but they are set apart from most people’s everyday lives.
Law: Traditional law applies across every area of life, governing relationships, ceremony, seasons of the year, flora and fauna, as well as punishments when the law is breached.  Caring for country and caring for family are all covered by the law, and everything flourishes when the law is properly kept. Law: Legislation tends to be seen as a matter for the parliaments that come and go as the democratic majority sees fit.  Legal frameworks provide punishment for bad behaviour at the edges of society, mainly so that people can find as much individual freedom as possible within the sphere of legally acceptable activities.  A thin conception of the law like this is in danger of neglecting the responsibilities and core values that make for the common good.
Language: In traditional societies, languages were linked directly to their country, and there was no common language across the hundreds of the First Nations.  People might have had some understanding of their neighbours’ languages, but generally it was a person’s own mother tongue that expressed identity within their own country.  In particular, caring for country through ceremony required the maintenance of the local language.

When the English language arrived in Australia, Aboriginal people adapted it in various ways for talking amongst themselves, and in some areas this mixture became its own language.  When engaging with the wider Australian society, English is commonly used, but for many people in the remote communities the traditional language remains closest to their heart.  Identity arises from this heart language, and when it is lost, people experience a kind of grief.

Today, communities are stronger when education in conducted in both the local language and in English.  This ‘two‐way’ approach maintains identity while giving people the skills to engage with the wider world.

Language: Mainstream Australia rewards people with a command of English, especially through higher levels of education.  The heart languages of minority groups do not greatly interest the democratic and commercial majorities, and so they are not given any priority in most educational institutions.

Assimilation to the dominant language can, however, be a painful social process that brings frustration.

Culture: Family, land, law and language are all interconnected and intrinsically linked in culture.

There are a range of obligations within culture, which link back to family and land.

These activities bind people together in a range of different ways, reinforcing the networks of responsibility within the community.

There a many different kinds of ceremonies within Aboriginal culture, relating for example to gender‐specific initiations, caring for country through the performance of sacred songs and practices, communal celebration, protection of sacred things in secret rites, and reconciliation ceremonies.

Culture is a way of life.

Culture:  There are very few public ceremonies that bind the whole of the Australian nation together.  ANZAC day is a notable exception, and its growing importance might be attributed to the lack of inspiring alternatives, such as a declaration of national independence.  Australia Day rubs salt into Aboriginal wounds, since it marks the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788.

Secular ceremonies celebrate individual achievements in sport, education and other walks of life, but although these rituals do provide notable social occasions in the life of particular clubs and institutions, they generally do not act as the means to affirm a complex network of responsibilities that give life to a society in its wider environment.

Perhaps the opening of the federal parliament is one of the exceptions here, and it is striking that this is now accompanied by a ‘welcome to country’ along with the Lord’s Prayer.  Perhaps these elements provide hints of transcendence and point beyond the shifting politics of parliaments.


Finally: The dominant culture in Australia today is still a culture, even when its principles are simply assumed and not thought about critically.  In re‐thinking our understanding of culture, we need to take up the challenge to do justice and walk humbly.

Stephen Hall
Stephen Hall
Lives in Perth, Western Australia.

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