What is (or is not) “Dreaming”?

Too Obvious to See: Aboriginal Spirituality and Cosmology

Penny Tripcony, Manager (at the time of the speech), Oodgeroo Unit, Queensland University of Technology)
(Paper initially presented at the National Conference of the Australian Association of Religious Education, September, 1996.)
from – QUT Oodgeroo Unit

“It is not a word that Aboriginal groups have used; it is a non-Aboriginal anthropological term which does not acknowledge the diversity amongst Aboriginal groups.”

“The term has become debased. It has gained currency amongst non-Indigenous Australia and is being used in contexts which have no relationship to the complexity of Aboriginal spirituality. The Dreaming is not the product of human dreams (is not referred to in Aboriginal languages for dreams or the act of dreaming. The use of the English word ‘dreaming’ is more of a matter of analogy than translation.)”


In accordance with Aboriginal protocols, I wish to acknowledge the people of the Brisbane area – the Jagera people – those who continue to live here, and those of other times and places; and to introduce myself to you so that through an awareness of my background and upbringing, you will recognise that I am appropriately qualified to speak to you on the topic of Aboriginal spirituality in an education context.

I was raised by my aunts to be proud of my Aboriginality, and I promised that I would always be so. Although my family line began on Mulgumpin (Moreton Island), both my grandmother and my mother were born at Myora, Minjerribah (Stradbroke Island). As was the practice at the time, the girls in my mothers family were taken from their parents and trained for domestic service.

My mother died when I was three years of age, and I was raised in Brisbane by one of her sisters. That aunt, as well as some of her sisters and other older women from the Quandamooka (Moreton Bay) community have continued to teach me a great deal about their lives and the old ways.

In Brisbane, I attended school until joining the workforce at sixteen; subsequently returning to full time study when my two children were at school and preschool, and emerging with a Bachelor of Arts and a Diploma of Education. Thus, in possession of a combination of some ‘old’ and ‘new’ knowledges, my work as a professional educator began….


It has been asserted….that no country has been discovered where some traces of religion was not to be found. From every observation and inquiry that could be made among these people, they appear to be an exception to this opinion. (Collins, 1798)
The official record keepers saw all, recorded all, and rarely knew well or at all the people they wrote about. (Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, National Report)

These quotations, although separated in time by around two hundred years, reflect the notion of terra nullius (meaning “empty land, or land inhabited by ‘barbarians’”) underlying the possession and colonisation of this land by the British. The colonisers neither saw nor recognised the complex social organisation of Indigenous Australians, including laws and spiritual beliefs.

Within this presentation, I will attempt to outline Aboriginal spirituality both before and since the introduction of British-European Christianity. I hope that, in so doing, it will become clear to you that spirituality, in the past and in the present, permeates all aspects of Aboriginal life.

Before European contact

Aborigines have occupied this continent for at least 50,000 years. Indeed, relatively recent archaeological findings indicate that Aboriginal occupation dates back approximately 170,000 years. Aboriginal people, however, say We have always been here.

Edwards (1994:65) refers to this long term biological isolation which has meant that Aborigines are neither racially nor culturally closely related to other people. He writes that

The roots of contemporary Aboriginal spirituality lie in a variety of traditions and experiences. First and foremost are the various stories, ceremonies, values and structures which sustained Aboriginal peoples throughout their long period of relatively unchallenged occupation of the continent.

It is important here to acknowledge that at the time of contact it is estimated that the Aboriginal population was approximately 250,000 to 300,000, separated into around 250 language groups each with its own sub-groups and specific dialects (around 600 different language groups overall). Because of the dynamic nature of Aboriginal cultures, there were and continue to be, differences between the groups. There are, however, shared cultural traits, economic and ceremonial dealings, and a customary system of land-tenure law.

Land was and is central to spiritual/religious life, as is clearly demonstrated within the concept of The Dreaming. Land is also the primary basis of economic survival.

The Dreaming

The concept which encompasses Aboriginal spirituality is what has become known as The Dreaming by which all components of the Australian landscape is significant, and through which the spiritual and political identities of groups and individuals are formed.

The Dreaming is most readily described as:

the organising logic of so much of the symbolism of Aboriginal life and (in the Western sense) art;

There is no one word in any Aboriginal language for the term ‘art’. Art forms are viewed as an integral part of life and the celebration of life. The ongoing nature of The Dreaming is thus demonstrated by Sutton (1988) who refers to Aboriginal art, dance, music and ceremony (including ceremonial paraphernalia) as manifestations of the Dreaming, related to

the wider symbolism of daily life and belief. Together these symbolisms constitute a complex code of interaction that continually remodels, and at the same time reflects, Aboriginal cosmology, sociality, and notions of the person. Reproducing the culture, in this sense, is also in Aboriginal eyes, reproducing or ‘following up’ the Dreaming…(page 14).

the Law, which encompasses all things in the environment, including land, seas, waterways, flora, fauna, humans, sun, moon, constellations, etc. The realm of Spiritual existence is not divorced from the material world, but embedded in it. People and nature are one, whereas in Western thought these are separated.

the generative principle of the present, the logical prior dimension of the now; although it is sometimes described as the beginning of the world, it is all things past, present and future; therefore ever-present and ongoing.

This notion relates to Aboriginal concepts of cyclic time governed by seasons and phases of the moon, sun and stars; rather than the Western notion of linear time. In an attempt to convey this, Stanner (1987:225) wrote One cannot ‘fix’ The Dreaming in time: it was and is everywhen.

The Dreaming does not assume the creation of the world from nothing; however, landscape is conceived of as having been formed from and through the activities of Spirit Beings. (Edwards, 1994:68).

The animate beings of The Dreaming are Ancestral Beings or are born, sometimes die, but are eternally present. Their spirits are passed on to their descendants, e.g. Shark, Kangaroo, Honey Ant, Snake, Yam…and hundreds of others which have become totems within the diverse groups across the continent. More recently, things which have impacted upon Aboriginal cultural and social frameworks have been incorporated into The Dreaming, so that in some parts of the country there are Dreamings which are named ‘Cough’ (after the introduction of diseases such as tuberculosis, the common cold, influenza and whooping cough); ‘Itchiness’ (from smallpox, chicken pox, etc); ‘Diarrhea’; ‘Toyota’ (these four-wheel drive vehicles altered ways of life and contact with places and other groups); etc.

Ancestral Beings…

came before, and continue to inhere in, the living generations;
exhibit all the faces of human virtue, vice, pleasure and suffering;
sometimes broke/break the Law;
The role of Dreaming stories that are now often published in the form of colourful children’s books, was to teach about norms, behaviours, social rules, etc. founded religious ceremonies, marriage rules, food taboos, and other laws of human society, particularly the most important law of reciprocity;
Within Aboriginal societies it was considered impolite to ask directly for something. Those who have something are taught their obligation to share with others and to ‘read’ when another person wishes to avail themselves of that – whether it be a tool, a utensil, accommodation, food, car, boat, etc. This obligation, of course, has implications (many of which are perceived by others to be negative) for Aboriginal people living within mainstream society. What belongs to one, belongs to all (particularly with reference to members of extended families). By sharing what I have today means that I will receive something from someone else on another occasion, and vice versa. That is the Law. Aboriginal languages therefore do not have equivalent words for ‘please’ and ‘thank you’. are claimed by groups of Aboriginal people as Ancestral Beings or totems;

hence the terms ‘animism’ and ‘totemism’ used by anthropologists. ‘Animism’ because of the attribution of possession of spirit to a wide range of inanimate objects; and ‘totemism’ to describe the association between a local descent group of people and the animal or plant species with which descent is shared. provide much of the spiritual underpinning of traditional communal title to land. The concept of the Dreaming, therefore, represents not only spirituality, but cosmology in that it defines the nature and structure of the universe, and the place of beings within the cosmos.
It includes the continued existence of Ancestral Beings, evidenced in Aboriginal concerns about disturbing particular sites, for example mining at Noonkanbah and Coronation Hill (Kakadu); or development at places such as Hindmarsh Island.

Sacred sites are not monuments to a bygone era, they are an integral part of life…(Bell, 1983:290).

In communities throughout Australia, whether these are in remote, rural or urban locations, many Aboriginal people continue to acknowledge the presence of Ancestral Beings by ‘calling out’ or by throwing a stone into lakes or rivers, etc. In tradition-oriented communities, of course, more complex rituals and ceremonies continue to take place.

Problems associated with the term The Dreaming.

The term The Dreaming has come to mean the religion/spirituality of Aboriginal groups. Problems associated with this term are:

It is not a word that Aboriginal groups have used; it is a non-Aboriginal anthropological term which does not acknowledge the diversity amongst Aboriginal groups.

Local groups may have different corresponding terms and concepts, for example: Ungud Ngarinyin people, north-Western Australia

Aldjerinya Arrernte people, central Australia

Tjukurpa Pitjantjatjara people, north-western South Australia

Wongar North eastern Arnhem Land

Bugari Broome, north-Western Australia

(Edwards, 1994:67)

To confine the term The Dreaming to ‘religion’ in the Western sense diminishes its complexity and the fact that The Dreaming permeates every aspect of Aboriginal cultures and societies.

Western concentration on the Dream events has diverted attention from the significance of place.

The term has become debased. It has gained currency amongst non-Indigenous Australia and is being used in contexts which have no relationship to the complexity of Aboriginal spirituality. The Dreaming is not the product of human dreams (is not referred to in Aboriginal languages for dreams or the act of dreaming. The use of the English word ‘dreaming’ is more of a matter of analogy than translation.)

The imposition of Christianity

Into this environment where all aspects of life were enveloped in a specific spirituality, came Europeans with certain ideas about religion, based on their understanding of religion, God, the church and ministers or priests.

Aboriginal people were perceived to be ‘primitive’, atheistic, pagan, immoral – ‘wretches’ who required ‘saving’. The first school in the colony of New South Wales was established for the purpose of ‘civilising and Christianising’ Aborigines. This objective was later instituted by the establishment of missions of various denominations.

Towards the latter part of the nineteenth century, in compliance with British imperial directions, the various states/colonies legislated for the ‘protection’ of Aboriginal people within their jurisdiction. (Within Queensland, for example, The Aborigines Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act 1897 was introduced.) These acts directed that Aboriginal people be moved to certain areas of land, or reserves, with managers to oversee their conversion to English lifestyles and values systems.

On the reserves and missions, Aborigines from various areas were forced to leave their own country, and to live in close proximity with a number of groups. Neither the practice of traditional ceremonies nor the use of traditional languages was permitted. The only explanation for the inappropriateness of these official actions is that they were based on the perception that all Aborigines comprised one homogeneous group; the ceremonies were pagan rituals; and that traditional languages were not ‘legitimate’ forms of communication. The importance of ‘country’ or specific areas of land was not taken into consideration.

Overall, because of the ethnocentric notions of the colonisers, social and cultural structures were ignored. Aboriginal people, their rich cultures, and the wealth of knowledge about survival in this land, were not valued.

Historical texts, whether books, reports, or other documents – usually by non-Aboriginal authors – provide accounts of practices on the missions and reserves. To gain Aboriginal perspectives to these events, reference can be made to the increasing number of autobiographical works available.

With the practice of traditional customs and ceremonies forbidden, a void was created which the introduction of Christian beliefs readily filled. Although, in retrospect, it has become obvious that in many instances the old beliefs fused with the new, in a process known to anthropologists as ‘syncretism’, whereby…the merging of elements from different, even seemingly irreconcilable, world views, is a feature of all religious systems as they seek to adapt to their environments. (Edwards, 1994:77).

Cultural survival and revival.

Following the ‘protectionist’ era of the late nineteenth to mid-twentieth centuries, and the ensuing ‘assimilationist’ era, government policies concerning Aborigines began to change. There had been several movements initiated by both non-Aboriginal and Aboriginal people since the 1920s which had drawn attention to Aborigines’ lack of rights and privileges. These, together with the post-World War II international focus on the United Nations’ Declaration on Human Rights, no doubt influenced the drafting of the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1962, which bestowed federal voting rights on Aborigines. Then in 1967 a federal referendum enabled Aborigines to be included in the national census. A new government direction of self-determination for Aborigines was introduced in the early 1970s.

The self-determination policy paved the way for Aborigines to assert their rights, identities and cultures. It brought certain freedoms and expressions of rights to traditional lands; both of which strengthened the revival and survival of cultures and languages.

Gradually it became evident that despite the imposition of Christian doctrines, and despite the bans placed on customary practices and use of traditional languages, much of the ‘old ways’ had been preserved. Aboriginal spirituality – that is, the concept of The Dreaming incorporating Ancestral Beings – did not disappear completely. During the last twenty years or so, Aboriginal people have been free to openly demonstrate and discuss aspects of spirituality.

Some examples of surviving Aboriginal spirituality, taken from autobiographical and biographical works, are:

Glenyse Ward (1991) in Wandering Girl learns of the spiritual beings in the caves near Wandering mission and she and the other girls know that they risk being taken if they venture out at night.

Alice Nannup (When the pelican laughed, 1992), after being away for many years, returns to make peace with her country and with the snake who lives in the waterhole at Mallina by performing a water based rituals.

Ruby Langford (Don’t take your love to town, 1988) describes receiving a sign of bad news when late at night there are three knocks at her door, but no one is in sight. Next day she learns of a death.

Ella Simon (Through my eyes, 1987) tells of the stories given to her by her grandmother which were ‘to make us keep the law or just be better people’. (p.106) The story of the Muckarung (lizard) was once a young Aboriginal woman who disobeyed the law by going near the men’s bora ground. She was punished by being turned into the muckarung which sits on a log waving its front legs as if to signal ‘go back, go back’….also, the goi-on, which was something like a ghost was used to stop Aboriginal children from wandering off and getting lost.

Sally Morgan (My place, 1988) tells us that her grandmother and mother hear the corroboree in the swamp when Sally’s father is ill, and understand this as the spirit’s recognition of the fathers mental turmoil. The corroboree is no longer heard after his death. When Daisy Corunna dies it is the call of the bird which tells Sally about the end of her grandmother’s life. The writing of Sally Morgan, who relates that she was neither informed nor aware of her Aboriginality until she was adult, is permeated with elements of Aboriginal spirituality, no doubt passed on to her by her mother. This is also evident in the title of book, My place, alludes to place with family, community, and relationship with country.

These and many other Aboriginal authors – most of whom were removed from their country, their communities, their families; and most of whom were not permitted to speak their own languages or to practice the customs of their people – demonstrate that the old stories and beliefs remain, thus Aboriginal people accommodated Christian teachings within our own spirituality.

…….The concept of The Dreaming – that which cannot be destroyed, and has always been there….. has resurfaced.


Edwards, W. (1994) ‘Living the Dreaming’, Chapter 5, in Bourke, C. Bourke, E. & Edwards, W. (Eds) Aboriginal Australia. Brisbane: University of Queensland Press.

Collins, David (1798) ‘An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales’. Christchurch: Whitcombe & Tombs. (1910:301).

Rose, Deborah Bird (1992) Dingo Makes Us Human. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Sutton, Peter (Ed) (1988) Dreamings: The art of Aboriginal Australia. Australia: Penguin Books.


Placing this within a personal context: two recent incidents.

An Aboriginal way of teaching is the use of personal stories to demonstrate particular points. I want to share with you two recent incidents that relate directly to me. It is not my place to use another person’s stories without permission to do so.

I am an urban Aboriginal woman. As indicated in the preamble to this presentation, I have been educated, and continue to work, within mainstream institutions. In my daily work and in formal mainstream settings, the spiritual aspects of my nature are rarely obvious to those who do not know me.

I believe these two anecdotes demonstrate that Aboriginal spirituality continues and is evident in many things. We have only to know where and how to see it.

Anecdote 1.
I recently participated in a project which included a series of four guest lectures for teachers during July and August this year. The third of those lectures was to be presented by an eminent Aboriginal woman. I arrived at the venue fifteen minutes prior to the 6.30 pm start, only to be asked if I was ‘feeling eloquent’, because at the last moment, the guest lecturer had been unable to attend. (Fortunately, it was on a topic that I had researched earlier this year.)

I gave the lecture, and was presented with a gift which, on opening, revealed itself to be a small original oil painting by a woman from the Central Desert. The next morning I secured the painting with picture wire and hooks to my lounge room wall, where there were already two paintings by another Aboriginal woman.

The house was locked, and all windows closed, all day while I was at work, but on returning home that evening, all of the paintings on that wall were very crooked. “Alright”, I said to the ‘new’ painting, “You’re a desert painting. You don’t like to be hanging with those two paintings by a sea person. I’m sorry.” I removed the desert painting to another wall, beside another desert painting.

The following Saturday, in The Weekend Australian, there appeared an obituary for the desert painter, together with an article about the particular community being closed while funeral ceremonies were being prepared.

Anecdote 2.
Earlier this year, a world conference on the protection of wetlands, was to be hosted by the Australian government and conducted at the Brisbane Convention Centre. Moreton Bay was one of the focus areas for the conference. Members of the Quandamooka (Moreton Bay) community managed to obtain a fifteen-minute slot on the agenda for the presentation of a paper, and asked me to prepare and present that paper on their behalf.

I followed their directions concerning the need to emphasise that land and seas, to Indigenous people, means more than a ‘pretty’ environment; that there is a spiritual connection to the land, seas, air, flora and fauna; that the entire environment needs to be protected; and that one site cannot be protected in isolation from its surroundings. I prepared some draft outlines and invited comments from community members before the paper which I had titled You Call it ‘wilderness’: we call it ‘home’, was finalised. I also included an introduction/welcome and conclusion by an elder, and some accompanying filmed material.

The day of the presentation arrived and I was very nervous. The main theatre of the Convention Centre is very large. For my presentation, a group of Quandamooka people had travelled to Brisbane from Stradbroke Island.

For me, the reward for that presentation was not the applause of the audience, nor the delegates who came up to me with questions and comments, but the eyes of my community members as we left the convention centre theatre together. An even greater reward, however, came later that evening when I received a telephone call from Stradbroke Island. On their return journey to the Island, the group were waiting for the water taxi at the Cleveland jetty. One of them exclaimed and pointed to the Island, and there, in a perfect arch from the south to the north of the Island, was a rainbow. The young person said, “That’s for Penny”, and they all nodded.


One response to “What is (or is not) “Dreaming”?

  1. Pingback: Is God a European? Discussion – Thursday Oct 17 | unlearning the problem

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