Land ownership: it’s not all black and white

In most western societies land ownership is considered a form of security or an expression of status.  Most non- Aboriginal Australians aspire to own a piece of real estate, and to meet that dream they work, save, borrow and mortgage their lives away.  Land ownership is confirmed with a Title Deed which is identified with a Volume, and Folio and sub-section number on which the land dimensions and boundaries are clearly marked.  On this land the owner may build a dwelling, grow or raise produce for income, or rent out the land for profit.

In rural Australia most land is used for growling cereal crops or raising live-stock.  This is done within the boundaries of the owner’s land.  These ventures are filled with risk:  Dramatic seasonal changes; fluctuating market prices for the produce; diseases; cash flow problems; farming on unsuitable land (poor land management) and a host of other variables could force ownership to be relinquished.

Traditionally, Aboriginal people do not own land.  Instead they are a part of the land and this link was formed during the Dreaming.  In the Dreaming, people were created from the land and this is the land they still inhabit. It is on this basis that Aboriginal people are claiming legal title to land, supported by the belief that the spiritual ancestors who shaped the land still inhabit it; the land still embodies the sacredness of the Dreaming events.  Traditional ownership was validated if your Dreaming Ancestors inhabited a particular area of land.  Traditional ownership certainly does not shield Aborigines from some of the dangers that face western land owners.  However their land management techniques and their attitudes to the environment make the land more sustainable.


As Aborigines are not land owners they feel that they have a responsibility to the environment.  The environment, the land, and even the sky were created in one- as were the people – and all are related.  With this attitude (belief) is it any surprise that the Aboriginal people never took anything from nature?  Aborigines are the original conservationists and their use of land management promoted ecological health.

An example of this is fire stick farming:  The burning of undergrowth in wooded areas that would promote the germination of new plants, and thus attract the animals that were an important part of an Aborigine’s diet.  This burning was carried out before the dry season and was done carefully and systematically.  No more was burned than necessary.  Burning was also more than just sound land management; it was evidence that the land was healthy and being fully utilised.  There was also a religious significance to burning:  As the Ancestral spirits of the Dreaming still inhabit the land, the burnings provided these spiritual inhabitants with lands on which they could hunt.

Conservation was also extended to all practices of hunting and gathering.  No more food was taken than required and no food source was over exploited.  In some societies prohibitions were placed on the taking of immature plants or animals.  In times of crisis, such as drought or flood, land ownership need never be relinquished.  The resources have been preserved.

The western attitude to the land did not encourage sound management or preservation techniques.  Whereas the Aborigines were careful in their exploitation of resources, the westerners unwittingly created vast tracts of land devastation.  For instance, the over grazing of stock has rendered many areas infertile.  The senseless chopping down of forests has destroyed delicate eco-systems.  The salinity of the waterways is largely due to pollution.  It is evident that no consideration had been given to the protection of natural resources.  How little are the changes of attitudes since 1788?  Land exploitation was used to advance British colonisation and became the rationale for European land ownership.  It is ironic that most European-Australians view Aboriginal lands as inhospitable, barren or unforsaken, when it could be argued that the reverse could apply.

34 comments on “Land ownership: it’s not all black and white

  1. It’s a completely different attitude, maybe due to the ‘foreignness’ of Australia. In their own home countries the people who were our pioneers knew and respected the land treating it accordingly yet once they came to Australia they tried to make the land conform to their ‘ideal’. It took decades for white Australia to be able to see the beauty of the bush instead of seeing it as just ‘scrub’.

  2. Burke and Wills perished in outback Australia. No food. No water.

    Legend has it that the year they died was considered a bumper year for food by the Aborigines. Legend also has it that Burke and Wills refused food that was offered by Aborigines.

  3. Nice post Miglo.
    Min, I think that’s it. The settlers could only see scrub which looked completely foreign to them and in urgent need of changing.

  4. It may have something to do with how harsh and unforgiving Australia can be so the Aboriginals had to be respectful of this land.

    Aboriginals are by no means the only natives to respect and venerate the land they lived in, only taking what was needed and putting back as much as possible, but there are many natives, and indeed primitive humans, that did the opposite and especially when the land was abundant, which led to over consumption and wholesale destruction of habitats. You need look no further than Europe, but the UK is a better example. Whole massive forests were felled by early UK natives to the point where the treeless hills and lands are considered to be the norm and animals like mammoths were hunted to extinction.

    The best example of them all is Easter Island. There is a study in the wholesale destruction of an environment natives who have no respect or veneration for their land can do.

    Another example is the Aztecs.

  5. Adrian, very interesting. So it would seem that for those peoples who do not respect the land the result is destruction and possible extinction of their kind. This does not forbode well for today’s dominant cultures.

    This is one thing that the black fella knows and that many white fellas refuse to acknowledge.

  6. Isn’t 27 the meaning of lies?

    Happy Birfday, mate!

    Migs, as whatsisname said – I shall return to read you essay later – as good as previous offerings I’m positive!

  7. Migs @9.36am on a similar line, also I think that it wasn’t until the 50’s or 60’s that scientists were able to convince pastoralists that native grasses were just as nutritious as European grasses were for fodder plus that they were far far superior at controlling soil erosion.

    It seems that for a long time Australians were unable to appreciate the benefits of anything ‘native’.

    This poses the question of why…other countries seem to have a far greater appreciation of their native peoples than do the majority of Australians for example the US and Maori NZ. Most Americans know the names of their native tribes, something of their cultures and history and the Maori and Maori culture is given prominence in NZ society – why not similar in Australia? This is present day, historic treatment of these native peoples is of course a different matter entirely.

  8. Aplogies, sreb, its 33 the meaning of LIFE!

    Lawn edging duties call … “Yes, dear …” 😉

  9. 6×9 in base 13 is the meaning of life the universe and everything.

    The question of life the universe and everything is what is six times nine?

  10. To preserve the emu population only initiated people were allowed to dine on this delicacy and only at certain times of the year. In the far north of SA they were told by the stars when the time was right. The positioning of a certain group of stars looked like an emu running for six months of the year and for the remainder they looked like an emu resting (breeding season). The emu could be hunted when the stars showed the emu in flight.

  11. Migs,

    Finally got around to reading your thread and as usual found it really interesting information. Reinforcing much of the knowledge I’ve gained in far north and central Queensland in places like Weipa …

    Having said that, and appreciating the “exploitation” of the land by “western” techniques … are you suggesting that the Aboriginal approach (while being sustainable) would be able to produce as much or more than the present process … ?

    … salination as I undertand it is a direct result of clearing land as my, Briton-Roman-Angle-Saxon-Jute-Celt-Scot (probably)-Norse-Norman heritage used to do … it don’t work here!

    Why don’t we have a free enterprise business set up by someone (preferably Aboriginal) and staffed by Aboriginal Land Consultants? There a a few Aboriginal entreprenours about (albeit chasing a Western dollar) … but I’m sure local and state (maybe Federal) governments, farmers and mining companies would love to be able to get advice from the Keepers of Our Land …

    … our first people should be employed in what they are expert in – advising our nation on the best way to preserve and use this lucky country of ours …

    Interestingly a parallel society in PNG values the ownership of land as the west does – but its owned by females … they too burn off … Port Moresby is covered in smoke during the burn off period (November if I recall – happy to be corrected) …

    … and although land was cleared in England – when I grew up in Yorkshire as a lad (in the 1950’s) we would go “tadging” – burning the dead grass in farmers field … grab a wad of grass … light it and ignite any grass in sight!

    The farmers encouraged it!

    So burning off, is not a uniquely Aboriginal pastime …

  12. No, TB, I’m not suggesting that at all. They only produced enough for the sustainable population. Resources then, as now, were limited.

  13. Great blog Miglo, it flows on well from the Dreaming blog. A pity Western society can’t learn a thing or two from traditional Aboriginal ways.

  14. “A pity Western society can’t learn a thing or two from traditional Aboriginal ways.”

    It can, and increasingly it does. Among many people and organisations there is a newfound respect for indigenous culture.

    Respect for art and literature is increasing. There are role models that aren’t only footballers these days.

    As well as appreciation of Aboriginal art, the sense of oneness and consideration of community is respected. Various companies use indigenous allegories and experience in parts of management development.

    Many people with an indigenous heritage are now seeking to reconnect with this, to get a better sense of their own culture and heritage.

    Personally, I’m hopeful that attitudes are starting to move.

  15. ToM, I agree. The progress has been slow but I think gaining momentum especially with the inclusion of customs such a Welcome to Country on official occasions. Aboriginal Australia is no longer as ‘invisible’ as it once was and helps overcome the shanty town stereotypes.

  16. Hi JanS. I hadn’t noticed that the post flows on from the Dreaming blog, but now I recognise that there is indeed a nice easy flow.

    I agree with Tom’s response to your plight that Western society needs to learn a thing or two about our Indigenous brothers and sisters. Things are happening, albeit slowly. However I have noticed that the progress is a bit faster than it is in rural Australia, where the attitudes have hardly changed from 1960.

    I also agree with Tom that Aboriginal art has helped bring around this change. I would hope, however, that the Western lovers of Aboriginal art would recognis ethat each piece of work tells a story and is not just a pretty picture.

  17. Perhaps this is something that should be encouraged especially via the Aboriginal art co-operatives. There is a brilliant shop on The Esplanade in Cairns and although each artist’s name is provided there is no story to go with individual pieces.

  18. And from the above link, this is the respectful way to go about things.

    The museum said discussions would continue on how responsibility for the remains would be transferred and how they would be cared for and accessed for future study on their return.

    The museum has offered for an islander to go to learn scientific and museum skills and help advise on indigenous matters.

  19. Min, that’s great news. Some people have been battling museums for decades to repatriate ancestral remains. Traditionally the British have been the hardest to negotiate with.

    Did I say negotiate? Wrong word. How can you negotiate with someone when they slam the door in your face?

  20. Miglo, did you hear the comment on one of the news, that the bodies should remain for research.

    The person was quite uppity, in saying they have been in the country for over one hundred years and it was only political that the bodies were being returned.

    I do not know the name of the young woman who made the statement. She obviously does not see the bones as once being human beings who have descendants, who happen to care.

  21. Cu, unfortunately not all cultures respect the dead to the same proud extent that Indigenous Australians do.

    The only times I have seen an outpouring of emotion over a deceased Australian us during my many visits to the War Memorial. You cannot stare at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier without feeling a lump in the throat. Yet this is how Aborigines feel about all their dead.

  22. Migs, I’ve been thinking about this and the phrase ‘the way we were’ comes to mind. White Australia once also had a feeling of belonging to the land as anyone with a close connection to farming families would know and this belonging to the land also brought with it close communities, which in turn brings with it strong community feeling at the loss of part of that community. To my way of thinking the Aboriginal people in the majority have been able to retain this belonging whereas white society has replaced community with wealth, other trappings and the cult of individualism.

  23. Pingback: Living on traditional land is not a lifestyle choice – it is an obligation | olddogthoughts

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