Cosmology: Australian Indigenous Cosmology

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In 1788, when Captain Arthur Phillip raised the Union Jack on the eastern coast of Australia, he did not know that he had just entered a land that had at least 250 distinct languages. Potentially this meant that there were 250 unique ways to view the land and sea that indigenous Australians called home. Sadly many of these languages are now extinct, and many are in perilous condition with only a few speakers. Each language reflects its own cosmology, its own way of understanding the land to which it belongs. It is, therefore, dangerous to generalize about anything in indigenous Australia. Thus, in this description of indigenous Australian cosmology I will draw on two regional examples, one from the Yolngu-speaking people of northeast Arnhem Land and the other from the Yanyuwa people of the southwest Gulf of Carpentaria.

Indigenous people in many parts of Australia all use the term dreaming to refer to the relationship between people and their environment and the laws that set out the realm of Aboriginal experience; the same term can also be used to describe cosmological processes. It is the law that embodies their beliefs, and the law is said to be derived from "the dreamtime" or "the dreaming." The term is misleading because it carries connotations of an imaginary or unreal time. Despite its popular currency among both indigenous and nonindigenous people, the terms dreaming and dreamtime carry a series of ideological and political connotations stemming from colonial discourses of conquest and dispossession. These issues are discussed and highlighted by Wolfe (1991).

While indigenous people still continue to use the word dreaming, it is important, while we need to keep the word, to move beyond the word and explore what is really meant by it. In a more detailed rendering the dreaming and its law refer to a body of moral, jural, and social rules and correct practices that are believed to derive from the cosmogonic actions by which ancestral beingswith the ability to change from animal and phenomenal forms into humansshaped and named the land, sea, and waterways, transforming parts of their bodies into landscape features, natural phenomena, and plants. Along their journeys they also gave life to people at particular places, bestowed these places upon them, and taught each group the correct manner of doing things: from hunting and foraging, processing of food, and the making of tools to the performance of paintings, songs, and dances. These actions thus constitute the knowledge associated with a place, a knowledge that is respected and observed by being followed in everyday practices as well as reenacted in ritual.

The life worlds of indigenous people in Australia are replete with images of relatedness that are used in many idiomatic expressions; the sea, for example is used as a powerful symbol for establishing identity and notions of strength and in some instances of separateness from the mainland. For example, the Yanyuwa people of the southwest Gulf of Carpentaria call themselves li-Anthawirriyarra, "a people whose spiritual origins are derived from the sea" (Bradley, 1997), while for the Yolngu people of the Galiwin'ku area the Arafua Sea itself is seen to provide ways for the Dhuwa and Yirritja moieties to relate to each other. The Yolngu of this area speak of two distinct bodies of salt water: gapu dhulway, a body of shallow inshore water that belongs to the Yirritja moiety and associated clans, and gapu marmaba, a body of open sea water belonging to the Dhuwa moiety and associated clans. These two distinct bodies of salt water are known by the terms Mambuynga and Rulyapa; they "play" with one another as they join together, become separate, and then come together again (Sharp, 2002; see also Bagshaw, 1998).

The actions of creator beings demand a different way of doing things; in some communities they demand a different way of speaking, cooking, or eating (Memmot, 1982; Bradley, 1997). The law of the sea, for example, while similar to that of the mainland, is not the same as that of the mainland. However, despite cultural differences and languages and differing nuances about the law of the land and sea for indigenous people, they all provide an overpowering sense of connectedness and images of the "journey" and "transformation." Ancestral beings first traveled the land and sea, some in the image of species such as kangaroos, eagles, snakes, sharks, marine turtles, dugong, and sea birds, for example. Others are humanlike in form, such as the Djang'kawu sisters of northeast Arnhem Land, the Kilyiringkilyiring women in the Numbulawar and Roper Rivers areas, and the li-Maramaranja, dugong hunters of the southwest Gulf of Carpentaria. These are among the numerous beings that made journeys, all of which founded groups of people who are their direct descendants today. As these beings traveled, they transformed their bodies, or moved their bodies in certain ways, creating hills, trees, sand ridges, rivers, reefs, sandbars, the tides, and tidal currents. It is images such as these that dominate the cosmogonies and cosmologies of indigenous people throughout Australia. These images are in fact central in illustrating how relatedness is at the basis of the law. A critical aspect of this law is that it provides an understanding of how names and naming are crucial to its activation, transference, and negotiation. People carry names from their country, they know the names of the different parts of their land and sea, they know the names of the hills, ridges, creeks, rivers, sand dunes, reefs and sandbars, the channels and beaches, and they have names for the winds, rain, the waves, and the calm sea. It is an environment full of a particular vocabulary and other ways of thinking and knowing.

Each cosmogonic action of the ancestral beings establishes a relationship among an ancestral being, a place, and a group of people who identify with the land and own it. The image of the journey is held to be the mechanism that orders, distributes, and differentiates groups' rights to and ownership of particular tracts of land or countries. These are important issues; the images of journey cross many hundreds of kilometers. For example, the Groper Ancestor, who began her travels in northwest Queensland at a place called Ngurdurri in Ganggalida country, close to the old Dommadgee mission, traveled looking for country and found it on South West Island in Yanyuwa country. She then traveled northwest and came to a place near Numbulwar before going south and traveling up the Roper River and finishing her travels among the Marra and Wandarrang people at a place called Nyamarranguru. Thus, while there may be no known links of blood kinship among these people, the people who share the Groper as an ancestral being are seen to share a substance derived from the common ancestor. They are kin; there is a regional network established by such actions that daily transform themselves into duties of regional obligation and sharing of ritual.

Similarly, in northeast Arnhem Land the Shark Ancestor is said to have come from Umbukamba on Groote Island and then traveled to Dhurrputjpi and Wandawuy of the Djapu clans; from there to Rorruwuy of the Datiwuy clan; then to Garratha of the Djambarrpuyngu clan; and then to Ngangalala of the Djinang Murrungun clan (Tamisari, 1995, 1998). Thus, all of these clans share in the common essence of the shark, and because of this they are kin; they share in the wealth of the shark, and they come together to celebrate and demonstrate this during times of ritual. What is important in both of the above examples is the ways in which ancestral actions of transformations and of the journey are pervasive images that convey different levels of relatedness among ancestral events, a group owning a given place, and the places that constitute the trajectory of any ancestral journey.

The law that Shark or Groper, for example, put down establishes a series of overlapping local and spatio-temporal connections: first of all between places that they shaped and named along their journeysa stretch of sea, an area of the coast shaped by hitting the ground with their heads, and further on, a depression they imprinted with their tails. Second, these bodily transformations at each place also connect the plants, animals, and phenomena with which they have interacted. The plants that grow there, like the place itself, are imbued with their power. Third, by bestowing these places upon different groups of people, they related the groups that are positioned at different stages of the journey. These groups identify with Shark and Groper; they are Shark and Groper people, yet they are associated with and are responsible for different aspects of the practical teaching and esoteric knowledge given to them.

These journeys do more than establish kinship links between humans; they also provide a basis by which kinship is established to place for land living and "nonliving" things. In this way a place or an animal is one's mother because it belongs to one's mother's group. Similarly, a dugong is kin to the particular sea grass species, and sea birds are kin to fish. In other words, animals and plants are considered to be kin and to be related to their environment and other animals rather than having a particular behavior and inhabiting a biological habitat. It is indicative that, as coastal indigenous people would say, the law of an animal refers not only to its biological and behavioral characteristics such as diet, size, coloring, and habitat but also to what is perceived to be its temperament, moral orientation, and intentionality or "cleverness." The nature of relatedness established between place, ancestral events, and people goes beyond what is usually characterized as observable biological phenomena. Because of contemporary issues associated with maritime and coastal management, it needs to be stressed that "putting down the law" encompasses the classification of animals according to both their biological characteristics and their potential to be cultural, moral, and social beings who indeed created humanity. We are dealing here with a non-human-centered moral ecology premised on attributions of intentionality, obligation, responsibility, and reciprocity (cf. Rose, 1992; Bradley, 2001; Yanyuwa families et al., 2003). It is only by understanding this that it is possible to even come close to understanding how indigenous people may frame their concerns. These are issues, as stated above, of cross-cultural communication that cannot be taken for granted. Thus, land and sea are ancestors in themselves; they are sentient, they watch, and if provoked by wrongful action by indigenous kin or nonindigenous people they will release their wrath, hold back desired food, and create tempestuous seas that no boat can cross. Entities living on the land will cause people to become blind so that they will not find the place they are looking for.

All indigenous people see the land and sea they call home as being distinctive, as having a specialness rooted in the actions of ancestral beings and in the actions of their human ancestors. Different groups of indigenous people see themselves as distinctive; their own perception and other people's perceptions of them are as a people apart. Sea people are people who hunt dugong, sea turtle, and fish and who are ecologically, economically, technologically, and ancestrally distinct, while for land-based people it will be the particular species that inhabit their country. There are still great contrasts between the life of people who call the sea home and those that do not.

Amid all of the important discussion that people have had, and continue to have, about their land, there are also the less intimate but no less important relationships of people, creatures, and environment. As senior Yanyuwa woman Annie Karrakayn has commented concerning sea birds, in particular the white-bellied sea eagle, "They make me think about my country, my island, my sea, my mother, poor things." What is being demonstrated in such a statement is the deep and enduring emotional links between people and their country, highlighting an evocative and emotional attachment of "things" to people. The indigenous people of Australia stand within an ecological system dominated by thoughts of their country, their land, and the sea, which has as a part of its integral components human and nonhuman kin, ancestral beings, special knowledge, and power.


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John J. Bradley (2005)

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Cosmology: Australian Indigenous Cosmology

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