A well known characteristic of Aboriginal culture is the unique religious beliefs commonly referred to as 'The Dreaming'. These beliefs permeate almost every aspect of traditional Aboriginal life, especially those involving close interactions with the environment. This connection between the Dreaming and the environment ultimately resulted in the development of intrinsic environmental management practices. This knowledge is still applicable to the contemporary field of environmental management; however, there has been a great reduction in the transference of this traditional ecological knowledge to younger generations since the assimilation of Aborigines into western society. In parts of Australia that are still managed by indigenous communities, this traditional knowledge forms the foundations of resource management practices. It should be a fundamental goal of anyone anywhere in Australia that is attempting to develop an environmental management program, to incorporate the ecological knowledge and practices of indigenous groups local to the target area.
Most people define Dreamtime stories as the way in which Aboriginal people explain the origin of life, including the coming into being of not only humans, but plants, animals, and the natural landscape. Each indigenous group from each region has their own collection of Dreamtime stories, many of which have been lost since the assimilation of Aborigines into European culture. These stories often recounted the journeys of Spirit Ancestors, which included humans and native animals, whose actions shaped the present landscape (Rudder, 1999). It is these ancestors who caused the sky to be raised high enough for spirits to become physical beings without being crushed, who carved the mountains and valleys from the ground, and who are the moon and the stars (Rudder, 1999).
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Each Dreaming story has multiple meanings (Dalmau, & Kelly, 1992). Some of the generic and obvious meanings are allowed into the public arena, however, due to the sacred nature of the Dreaming, the true knowledge and wisdom contained within the stories is only shared with indigenous Australians (Dalmau, & Kelly, 1992). Even within indigenous Australians, in order to be granted access to the true meaning of these stories, an individual must belong to the right tribe and be of the right gender, as information was often segregated between men and women (Dalmau, & Kelly, 1992). It is this system that gives indigenous Australians their identity.
The education of children in Aboriginal communities regarding the Dreaming was not only done through word of mouth, but also through symbolic mediums such as song, dance, and painting (Charlesworth, Morphy, Bell, & Maddock, 1989). Painting is one of the most well known mediums for Aboriginal storytelling. Traditional paintings of the Dreaming offer knowledge and spiritual insight to those who can interpret them (Dalmau, & Kelly, 1992). Dreamtime paintings tell stories from a birds-eye-view, often about the journeys of sacred spirits or creatures (Dalmau, & Kelly, 1992). Sacred sites, waterholes, or campsites are often depicted as circles in these paintings (Dalmau, & Kelly, 1992).
It is important to note that 'The Dreaming' is a European term, and hence, cannot truly translate Aboriginal words and concepts. The indigenous people of the Arnhem Land region use the word "Madayin" when referring to the connection of spiritual and physical aspects of their identity, their stories, their songs, their sacred objects, their special places, or their traditional ceremonies (Rudder, 1999).
In truth, traditional Aboriginal beliefs view life as a journey between plains of existence (Rudder, 1999). Individuals transition from the spiritual realm, which has always been, into a physical existence within their mother at conception (Rudder, 1999). They then pass through the physical world on a one way journey until they die, at which point they transition back into the spiritual dimension (Rudder, 1999). This spiritual transitioning is not confined to humans, it is applicable to all animals, plants and objects, as all have a spirit (Rudder, 1999). Therefore, 'The Dreaming' should not be used to describing the creation of beings, as this implies that the beings did not previously exist. Rather, 'The Dreaming' should refer to the first transitioning of beings from the spiritual dimension to the physical one (Rudder, 1999).
An aspect of the Dreaming which is often overlooked in its translation and interpretation is the significance of time. Concepts of time do not apply to the Dreaming, as time is viewed as a continuous 'whole' where past, present, and future merge. The knowledge contained within the Dreamtime stories is not just about the past, but about the present and future as well (Dalmau, & Kelly, 1992). This body of wisdom is timeless, in that it often describes sacred sites, ceremonies, practices, and duties that have always been, and will always be, important to indigenous Australians.
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The natural world is key in the link between Aborigines and the spiritual Dreaming. The natural world is an integral component of the healthy psyche of traditional Aboriginal people (Rudder, 1999). The perceptions of intimacy Aboriginal people have with the land is culminated in their relationships with their conception and ancestral totems. The conception totem charges individuals with protecting the land, including plants and animals, in which they were conceived (Dalmau, & Kelly, 1992). Ancestral totems differ in that they link individuals to the sacred Dreaming beings, reminding the individual of the beings actions, which have left tangible marks on the earth (Dalmau, & Kelly, 1992).
The messages of the Dreaming are established in all aspect of life because they provide the framework within which Aborigines conduct themselves (Charlesworth et al., 1989). It is this element that allows the Dreaming to permeate song, dance, storytelling, painting, crafting, hunting and gathering, as well as the development of kinship and social networks (Charlesworth et al., 1989).
There is a generalist view that Aboriginal religion is static and resistant to change (Charlesworth et al., 1989). This is true to a degree; however, it is also true for most other religions. Claims have been made that the rigid bonds of tradition stifle the creative impulses of the younger generation (Charlesworth et al., 1989). These are not true, as the younger generation are free to interpret the Dreaming for themselves. New stories can even be introduced into a community and old ones amended (Charlesworth et al., 1989).
There are three primary ways in which traditional Dreaming stories can be changed or new stories introduced. The first way is through the sharing of rituals, songs, and objects between groups during tribal meetings (Charlesworth et al., 1989). Technology has had strong influences on this aspect of Aboriginal culture. It is now possible to transfer practices, stories, and objects between groups in a matter of days, hours, and in some cases, minutes (Charlesworth et al., 1989). Technology also enables hundreds of people to attend multiple gatherings which would have originally been spaced months, even years, apart (Charlesworth et al., 1989).
The second way in which Dreaming stories may be changed is through dream-spirit journeys (Charlesworth et al., 1989). In dreams, rituals may be revealed to individuals, both men and women, by the powers of the Dreaming spirits, who always remain present, active, and concerned with human affairs (Charlesworth et al., 1989). Finally, changes in the understanding of the Dreaming can be caused through the discovery of sacred objects left by Dreaming beings (Charlesworth et al., 1989). This form of change is often associated with dreams in which a spirit has described the location of the object to an individual (Charlesworth et al., 1989).
It is a combination of these factors which has lead to the mosaic of traditional Aboriginal beliefs across Australia. These differences in beliefs have played a large part in the development of different environmental management practices between Australian Aboriginal groups. Adaptive management has also played an important role in the formation of these practices, as different habitats require different management schemes (Berkes, 1999).
Despite differences in the Dreaming beliefs between indigenous groups, all Aboriginal people consider themselves a part of their country, and understand intimate relationships between flora, fauna, and landscapes (Povinelli, 1993). This connection to the land carries special responsibilities that influence the survival and continuity of the natural world (Povinelli, 1993). Each person is viewed as a custodian with obligations to care for the spirit of the land and the beings that depend on it (Povinelli, 1993). Nowadays, this is achieved primarily through conservation practices which employ the use of traditional ecological knowledge.
Indigenous groups often offer traditional knowledge and perspectives, which have been developed from local practices of resource use, for use in the field of environmental management (Fikret, Colding, & Folke, 2000). Due to the expanse of Aboriginal culture across Australia, there is a diversity of traditional practices for ecosystem management, including species management, resource rotation, succession management, and landscape patchiness management (Fikret et al., 2000). Traditional ecological knowledge is also used to interpret environmental signals which give direction to resource management (Fikret et al., 2000). This feedback learning is a form of adaptive management.
The use of traditional ecological knowledge for scientific research, impact assessments, and managing ecosystem functions and processes is promoted by many academics (Huntington, 2000). Established scientific practices are still often favoured for environmental management due to the difficulty in accessing traditional ecological knowledge and its lack of definition in western scientific terms (Huntington, 2000). Traditional ecological knowledge is also rarely recorded, making it difficult to incorporate into environmental projects (Huntington, 2000). Despite these difficulties, traditional ecological knowledge has been successfully applied to scientific and management studies involving bowhead whales, beluga whales, and herring (Huntington, 2000).
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Indigenous Australians involved in contemporary environmental management often work closely with, or are members of, indigenous communities which still strive to maintain traditional cultural beliefs and values (Palmer, 2007). This has resulted in these individuals incorporating these value systems into their environmental management practices. In parts of Australia, such as Cape York Peninsula, the Northern Territory, and in the Kimberley, systems have been developed to coordinate the participation of indigenous groups in land use planning (Palmer, 2007).
Dreaming stories can strongly influence how contemporary indigenous groups utilise their conservation resources. Young and old generations of the Wunambal tribe go to great lengths to ensure the protection of Punamii-unpuu (Mitchell Falls region) from tourist and the government, so that it can remain as a safe haven for the Wunggurr creator snakes that inhabit the deep pools (Horstman, & Wightman, 2001).
It is important to note that many Aboriginals nowadays live completely western lifestyles, which has resulted in a loss of traditional ecological knowledge and many aspects of Aboriginal culture in general (Stockton, & Weeks, 1995). Many of these Aboriginals have lost contact with the environment and do not continue any form of traditional culture. The assimilation of Aborigines into the western lifestyle has also lead to a level of synchronism between the Dreaming and other religions. For example, a definitive characteristic of traditional Dreaming stories is the absence of a creator, a God (Stockton, & Weeks, 1995). The contemporary belief is that there was a God that originally created the universe, however, the rest of the Dreamtime stories remain the same (Stockton, & Weeks, 1995). This shows synchronism between the Dreaming and Catholicism.
Despite the vast loss of Aboriginal culture, the few indigenous groups that remain still carry on ecological knowledge of their land, born from thousands of generations of experience. It is important to seek out and incorporate this invaluable source of knowledge when undertaking any form of environmental project in an area with a surviving traditional Aboriginal community. Unfortunately, while this understanding of an ecosystem may be extremely useful, the intimate details are often kept secret by the indigenous groups who guard them as cultural treasures. This becomes an insurmountable obstacle when attempting to universally apply traditional ecological knowledge in a scientific or practical management sense. It is this factor which must be overcome if Aboriginal groups wish to increase their impact on contemporary environmental management practices for the good of the environment, rather than keeping the knowledge within their own cultural groups.