Understanding and celebrating ‘the unique belief systems that connect people physically and spiritually to Country/Place’ is one of the key concepts of the cross-curriculum priority: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Histories and Cultures. Embedding this concept into teaching and learning adds depth and richness to student learning across the Australian Curriculum learning areas.
It is important to recognise the diverse range of Torres Strait Islander peoples throughout Australia and that each language group has their own unique spiritualties and beliefs. The examples here are specific to certain language groups around Queensland and try to capture a range of Torres Strait Islander people’s spiritual beliefs.
The Torres Strait is part of the state of Queensland and lies between the tip of Australia’s Cape York Peninsula and Papua New Guinea. Of the more than 100 islands in the Strait, seventeen are inhabited and two communities, Bamaga and Seisia, located on the tip of Cape York, are also classified as part of the Torres Strait.
The Torres Strait is home to a strong, vibrant, living culture that is thousands of years old. Until the mid-1800s, Torres Strait Islanders’ economic systems, worldview, and social processes were autonomous and quite separate from the mainland. Islander life formed a very broad culture that was linked by trade and ceremony, however each island group maintained their own cultural and linguistic characteristics, distinct from their neighbours.
Rivalry has been fierce between some Islanders, some of it more a matter of fighting for show than actual fighting. Despite this, the Islanders often came together. Rituals, which almost always included dancing, enhanced social relationships and provided enjoyment, as they continue to do today.
Torres Strait Islanders are united by their connection to the Tagai . The Tagai consists of stories that are the cornerstone of Torres Strait Islanders' spiritual beliefs. These stories focus on the stars and identify Torres Strait Islanders as sea people who share a common way of life. The instructions of the Tagai provide order in the world, ensuring that everything has a place.
One Tagai story depicts the Tagai as a man standing in a canoe. In his left hand, he holds a fishing spear, representing the Southern Cross. In his right hand, he holds a sorbi (a red fruit). In this story, the Tagai and his crew of 12 were preparing for a journey, but before the journey began, the crew consumed all the food and drink they planned to take. So the Tagai strung the crew together in two groups of six and cast them into the sea, where their images became star patterns in the sky. These patterns can be seen in the star constellations of Pleiades and Orion.
Connection to Place
Many Torres Strait Islanders do not regard land and sea as separate spheres. The marine environment is very important, both practically and spiritually. Marine life such as turtles, fish, dugongs, sharks, seabirds and saltwater crocodiles are considered to be totemic beings, and feature significantly in the art created in the region.
For the people of Mabuiag, the westernmost island in Torres Strait, heaven is not straight up; it lies on Kibu, an island to the northwest. It is believed that to reach Kibu the spirit will sail from Mabuiag at sundown with the prevailing winds.
Life changed with the Coming of the Light . Christian missionaries arrived in 1871 and put an end to some of the old ways of life and the inter-island warfare. By 1879 all the islands of the Torres Strait were legally annexed to the Colony of Queensland by 1879. At that point, the Islanders became British subjects and their islands became Crown lands.
Today, Christianity remains strong in Torres Strait Islander communities, and a major ceremony celebrates the Coming of the Light. Recreating the arrival of the first missionaries is a ritual that is performed by Islanders each year when they come together, whether in the Islands or on the mainland.
These resources are relevant to Torres Strait Islander and Aboriginal spirituality and religion.
- Ailan Kastom: The culture of the Torres Strait documentary, on Torres Strait Islander spirituality and its rituals, won Best Documentary at the 2014 Queensland Multimedia Awards. This link takes you to the trailer on YouTube; the full 90-minute documentary is available from a range of sources.
- The Little Red Yellow Black Website is an AIATSIS resource that introduces ‘Indigenous Australia’.
- Australian Museum, Indigenous Australia Spirituality webpage gives some specific examples from various cultural groups.