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Storytelling in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures

Oral traditions substantiate Aboriginal perspectives and Torres Strait Islander perspectives about the past, present and the future.

Speaking is the primary form of communication in Aboriginal cultures and Torres Strait Islander cultures. Concepts and beliefs have been passed on from generation to generation through specific cultural practices, traditions, languages, laws and family relationships. The oral traditions of instruction include storytelling, song, dance, and art- and craft-making.

Important communications and histories have been carried across history via various mediums such as message sticks, rock and sand art, body painting, song, dance and carvings. Nowadays, more contemporary histories and events are often expressed through the visual and performing arts, songs, multimedia and literary expositions including prose, poetry, plays and other scriptwriting.

Though there are many different types of stories they fall into four broad categories: collective histories, spiritual narratives, cultural practices and life histories. There are also some stories by Aboriginal peoples and Torres Strait Islander peoples that do not fit into any of these categories, such as fiction stories.

Below are some examples of various types of stories and the mediums used to tell them.

Torres Strait Islander examples

Aboriginal examples

  • Patyegarang: This dance theatre production by Bangarra tells a historical story of first contact in the Sydney area. Teachers’ notes, the program and a sample of the soundtrack are available online; the full show and soundtrack are available to buy.
  • Big Yam Dreaming: Kwementyay Kngwarreye’s art work tells the story of the finger yam in the Alhalkere Country sacred to the artist.
  • Putuparri and the Rainmakers: This universal story about the sacred relationship between people and place is told in an award-winning documentary film focusing on the traditional custodians of Australia's Great Sandy Desert and their twenty-year struggle for Native Title of Kurtal, their traditional Country. A trailer is free to view online and the film can be purchased on DVD; a study guide is also available.
    Note: This documentary is rated M: some parts of the film are not suitable for young audiences. Teachers should watch first and choose the most relevant parts to show their students.
  • Ngambri youth illustrate stories of generations past: Rob Williams talks about writing and illustrating stories from the Canberra plains, Ngambri and Ngunnawal country, of which his family are traditional custodians.
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