Aboriginal ceremonies reflect the diversity and complexity of the cultural and spiritual practices that exist within Aboriginal communities across Australia. They demonstrate the continuing survival of Dreaming.
By Dreaming, we mean the spiritual, cultural and religious beliefs, practices and lore of Aboriginal Australians. Though the ‘Dreaming’ is often used to describe Aboriginal cultural, spiritual and religious beliefs, practices and lore to non-Indigenous Australians, each group has a specific name for their own Dreaming.
Reasons for ceremonies
There are many reasons for ceremonies in Aboriginal society, and a key one is passing on knowledge. Ceremonies have a firm place in the spiritual beliefs and cultural practices of Aboriginal communities.
The beliefs, stories and lore of Dreaming are individually owned and kept secure by specific members of a language group. Some individuals and families protect knowledge such as specific dances, while other people protect knowledge such as body design or symbolism.
These members of the language group had, and have always had, the responsibility of ensuring that their stories and the knowledge encoded in them are correctly remembered and passed on, and that rituals and ceremonies are correctly performed to do this.
Ceremonies may also involve people from different Aboriginal language groups. After feasting and shared dance ceremonies, elders and lore people of the respective language groups would discuss lore and consequences for breaches. Others would bring gifts and trade items such as food, raw materials or special objects.
Roles in ceremonies
Roles in Aboriginal ceremonies vary considerably, depending on why the ceremony is being held. Men and women undertake different roles in ceremonies, and these roles vary between language groups throughout Australia.
In many areas, men and women have roles as guardians of special spiritual sites (sacred sites) where specific ceremonies should be performed. Guardians and traditional custodians care for the site so that spirits may continue to live there, and the stories associated with that country are protected and maintained. Most of these sites are restricted to one gender only. Sites are generally marked by carved trees, artefacts, stone carvings, significant landforms or artworks. These markers differ from region to region.
Most sacred sites are restricted to one gender only; similarly, some ceremonies and dances are for men only and others for women only, with each group having their own spiritual and sacred objects. Sometimes this is known as ‘men’s business’ and ‘women’s business’.
Neither men nor women possess greater spiritual needs or responsibilities: they co-exist in different ways to ensure that sacred elements of Dreaming are practised and passed on. Although men are often on record as being the conductors of ceremonial practices within Aboriginal societies, this is partly because researchers have tended to be male. Women are also guardians of special knowledge, holding great religious and spiritual power within language groups, and conducting ceremonies accordingly.
Participation in ceremonies may also be limited by age. Children may be involved in some ceremonies, while other ceremonies are restricted to adolescents and adults. Certain ceremonies are specifically for older community members.
Ceremonies take many different forms. Some are very private, involving only certain families within a language group, while others involve all people belonging to the language group, even children. Some ceremonies are open to members of other language groups, while others are open to any community that can participate.
One well-documented ceremony for Queensland is the Bunya feast, which was held in the hinterland of the Sunshine Coast. Traditionally, at this feast, representatives from many different language groups from across southern Queensland and northern New South Wales met to discuss important issues relating to the environment, politics, social relationships and the lore of Dreaming.
During the feast, the finest foods, bush animals, plants and berries were prepared and eaten. The Bunya tree, or ‘Bonyi’ in the local Kabi Kabi language, produces large seed pods and highly nutritious nuts full of protein. As the feast was held during the nut season, many Bunya nuts were consumed. Discussions within and between peoples helped to ensure the survival of Dreaming and ultimately the survival of Aboriginal people. Many conflicts between language groups were resolved at this feast and at similar ceremonies and festivals across Australia. Aboriginal people today continue to meet socially and for ceremony at contemporary events such as the Laura festival of northern Queensland and the Dreaming festival of southern Queensland. These create opportunities for sharing songs and dances across language groups, celebrating daily activities and significant events within and across communities, conducting ceremonies and resolving disputes.