Australian Indigenous peoples are strongly connected to particular lands and waters, or Country, through lines of descent, as well as clan and language groups. With colonisation, many groups were forcibly removed from their lands so that Europeans could exploit the lands’ wealth and resources.
Country is defined by spiritual as well as physical links. Landforms may have deep meaning, recorded in art, stories, songs and dance. The connection to Country is one of belonging, and indicates a responsibility to care for the land, rather than ownership or possession.1
When we talk about traditional ‘country’… we mean something beyond the dictionary definition of the word…we might mean homeland, or tribal or clan area and we might mean more than just a place on the map. For us, country is a word for all the values, places, resources, stories and cultural obligations associated with that area and its features. It describes the entirety of our ancestral domains. Mick Dodson 1
All areas of Australia have traditional owners, even places where there are now large cities. Even though people may not live in a traditional way on the land, they are still bound to it. The importance of being connected to Country can be particularly strong for Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander people who are approaching the end of life. This is explored in further detail in Section 6.
Dreaming is an English word that attempts to describe a deep, timeless concept in Aboriginal cultures and Torres Strait Islander cultures.
Dreaming is more than a mythical past; it prescribes our connection as people with the spiritual essence of everything around us and beyond us. Dreaming stories are not in the past, they are outside of time – always present and giving meaning to all aspects of life. The Dreaming is passed from generation to generation through stories, song, dance and art. This knowledge gives us special responsibility and is seen as a great honour. Mick Dodson 1
The cultural belief that life is a continuum – Life-Death-Life – is common among Australian Indigenous peoples. The underlying belief that all living things – people, animals, plants – have a spirit and those spirits are the continuum that connects the living to the past, present and future. At the time of death, the spirit leaves the body and returns to the Ancestors’ Country. Family responsibilities continue after death to ensure a safe passage of the spirit into the Dreaming and returning the body to Country.2
Many Australian Indigenous peoples hold strong spiritual and cultural beliefs about the cause of serious illness, which may conflict with the medical explanation. By demonstrating respect for diversity (through listening without judgement) to the person and family’s cultural and spiritual beliefs, a relationship of trust and rapport can be built.2
Australian Indigenous peoples’ spirituality has adapted over time due to the influence of other religions and changes in lifestyle. Christianity was first introduced to Australian Indigenous peoples by missionaries who often forced Biblical teachings on people. Many people continue to embrace Christian spirituality today, with over half reporting a Christian affiliation.3
In some communities, spiritual beliefs can be fused with traditional beliefs and values. Every year, Torres Strait Islanders celebrate ‘The Coming of the Light’ on 1 July, recognising the adoption of Christianity throughout Island communities during the late nineteenth century. Christian principles were seen to be somewhat compatible with the traditional Islander religion and the Christian missionaries were able to provide practical support to the Islanders in negotiating with outsiders regarding the maritime industry.4
Key Video Resource – PCC4U/IPEPA Yarn: Cultures, beliefs and the end-of-life journey (5:34)
This video excerpt provides a perspective on the diversity of cultures and beliefs around the end-of-life journey for Australian Indigenous peoples.5
Check the thinking points below for some questions to consider with regard to this video.
- Consider the strengths of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander culture and identify how these strengths would be of benefit for those affected by life-limiting illness?
- Watch the video resource ‘Cultures, beliefs and the end-of-life journey’ and reflect on some of the beliefs that Australian Indigenous peoples might have with regard to health and wellbeing, and the end-of-life journey.
- Reconciliation Australia. Share Our Pride. 2013; Available from: http://www.shareourpride.org.au/sections/our-culture/index.html.
- PEPA Project Team, Cultural Considerations: Providing end-of-life care for Aboriginal peoples and Torres Strait Islander peoples. 2020, Program of Experience in the Palliative Approach.
- Australian Bureau of Statistics, Religion in Australia: 2016. 2017: Canberra.
- Queensland Museum, Coming of the Light – Torres Strait Islands. 2021.
- Palliative Care Curriculum for Undergraduates. PCC4U / IPEPA Yarning about palliative care for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples (Playlist). 2021; Available from: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLnpkhbKx-6fWV1GrOi0bpHENJcnaG4S1D.