First Nations people are intimately connected to the natural world. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people refer to ‘Country’ - the lands, waters, skies, animals, plants and natural phenomena. Country goes beyond the physical too, and includes things that cannot be seen or touched. Animals are part of this relationship with Country. They play an important role in First Nations communities and are a foundation of economies, identity and sustainability.
This relationship with animals is evident throughout First Nations knowledge systems. Animals are woven into the Dreaming, Songlines and stories that have been handed down from our ancestors. They teach us lessons and illustrate connections between the natural environment and Country.
In Songlines and Dreaming stories we see examples of how ancestral beings - sometimes presented in the characters of animals - created the world we live in. These ancestral beings established First Nations ways of being by creating a moral code and showing ways to live on Country. As they moved across Country they created and interacted with sacred sites.
In these stories, ancestral beings often changed gender and form. Their transformation leaves tangible evidence of their continual presence on earth. An example of this would be an ancestral being that was in the form of a koala, that is now in the world associated with koalas today - their spirit continues to be connected and living with us today.
Dreaming stories explain the unique relationships animals have to the rest of the world. They tell us how to understand the animals, and how to maintain balance with them and their habitats. Dreaming stories are both complex belief systems and methods for carrying deep knowledge. The knowledge within them has practical applications and has been vital to the survival of First Nations communities and the continued balance between people and the natural environment.
First Nations people often consider animals to be equally as important as humans. In First Nations kinship systems, individual people can be linked to specific animals through their totems. Each person has a totem. Totems can be animals, but can also be lands, waters, or geographic features.
Totems create a network of physical and spiritual connections between people and the world. First Nations people learn more about their totems as they go through life. An individual is accountable to their totems and must ensure they are protected for future generations.
First Nations people who have an animal totem have a responsibility to look after that animal. For example, if someone has a kangaroo totem, they have a unique connection to kangaroos and have a responsibility to look after them and maintain that connection. The way that an individual does things like ceremony and hunting would be defined by their totem; a totem may prescribe a responsibility to learn particular songs, dances and stories.
Through totems, First Nations people keep a strong connection between animals, people and Country.
For tens of thousands of years, First Nations people have managed the land and its inhabitants to ensure environmental harmony and sustainability.
Keeping balance in the environment is central to First Nations ways of thinking and being. People should only take what is needed, so natural resources are not depleted. And, when something is taken from the environment, something must be added elsewhere. This equilibrium is shown in many First Nations practices like ceremony, agriculture and land management. Deep knowledge about animals and how to sustain and manage them is passed from one generation to the next. For example, if someone holds a perentie (a type of lizard) Dreaming, they wouldn’t hunt perentie, they would work to protect it, and would consume other animals instead. In the same way, holding a Dreaming for a particular plant would lend itself to someone maintaining and supporting the ecosystem that ensure that plant survives.
For First Nations communities, the relationship between animals and people is diverse and changes between communities and nations. But it is always important. As part of Country and the complex natural world, animals are respected and valued. Each First Nations individual has a unique and spiritual relationship with animals on their Country, and holds storylines that ensure they live sustainably with the environment.
Our friends Koala are supporting Common Ground to amplify First Nations voices, and spread awareness about the Australian environment and its wildlife.