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Aboriginal Government and the Lore

Photo from the Thomas Dick collection.

By Steve Trotter

Posted on 20th August 2023

Ever wonder why there were no big wars between the British and the Aboriginal people when the British colonised Australia? Read on to learn why.

When Aboriginal people arrived in Australia tens of thousands of years ago, the probably faced similar problems as we do today. Battles over territory and resources. The difference is, at some point, their mobs got sick of war and decided there had to be a better way forward.

Thousands of years ago, Leaders must have come together to agree and decided that fighting was pointless. They talked and decided that all fighting stemmed from three simple things: people fighting over territory, people fighting over girls and people stealing stuff. So, decisions were made and the Lore was created: don’t steal, don’t be greedy and don’t kill. Three simple rules. Break them and you could expect to be severely punished.

The first step to stop the wars was to create fixed territorial boundaries. It was decided that the people who lived inland, who had less food per capita, were granted larger territories than those who lived on the coast. The coast was teeming with fish plus they had other animals on the land to eat. The boundaries were then enshrined in sacred landmarks and embedded in each tribe’s belief system which would be reinforced constantly through songs, dance, art and storytelling. These practices ensured that the Dreaming was kept alive and didn’t disappear into the past. Every dance, every song, every painting and story reminded every Aboriginal person that they were just a link in a chain of ancestors that stretched thousands of years before them and would hopefully stretch thousands of years ahead of them, with their children.

The next step was to create protocols (and punishments) for people who trespassed, stole or were greedy. You could trespass IF you stuck to the rules, you could borrow stuff but NOT keep it and you could occasionally pig out but you couldn’t be wasteful. Using this system of governance, the Aboriginal people improved their people’s lives from one generation to the next creating the perfect balance between their needs and wants, something modern society hasn’t been able to do and seems to be drifting further and further away from.

Aboriginal society ensured that everyone had a home and had access to shelter and food. They ensured that their people had access to the beautiful natural world, they had nurtured, and gave them systems (farming practices) that ensured the land was cared for, which in turn made their food supplies sustainable and their footprint small.

They communicated regularly with other clans and established songlines for travel routes across each other’s lands to meet up and share knowledge, and to arrange marriages and to trade. They created a system for their relationships with each other that crisscrossed the country binding the clans together to further keep the peace.

The Aboriginal people learnt from their mistakes and decided not to repeat history. They learnt that war, greed, and murder could destroy them, as a people, so they mitigated, and eliminated them.

Who was chosen to lead them?

Who else, but their Elders. The Aboriginal people did not technically live in tribes led by a chief, like many other Indigenous people. They lived in family units, more like clans. The older, more experienced people, who had lived the longest led the family groups. They lived through many life experiences and knew of the hardships that their ancestors lived through: the floods, the fires, and the famines. They were the knowledge holders and safe-keepers of the history of the tribes. They had lived their lives and sought only to ensure that their children and grandchildren had the same opportunities they had. They did not take from the younger generations, they gave back. The Elders lacked the burning ambition of their 20–40-year-old children, who sometimes coveted material things, like beautiful girls, good land or fine weapons; they were not hot-tempered like their children either. They had been taught by mentors to master their emotions; they did not anger easily, which meant they did not make rash decisions that might impact the whole group now and into the future. They were very, very diplomatic. The Elders were not interested in power, they were interested in peace.

Did you automatically become an Elder when you reached a certain age?

No. As people aged, they inherited their leadership roles when their Elders deemed they were ready to accept more responsibility to look after the welfare of the clan. Some people were ready earlier than others. To become ready, they had to demonstrate they were ready and then they had to pass through the initiation ceremony for that particular stage of their life. With each new ceremony, the Elders would pass on a little more knowledge to the person, until they were ready to take their place in the circle. Their position to lead the tribe was not based on how much money they had or on how well they understood the way the system worked. They were taught to lead by dedicated mentors until they earned the right to lead.

The Aboriginal system of governance was based on earning the right to rule by acquiring wisdom through experience. It was not based on someone’s ability to read complex legalese. Unlike our legal system, which was created by a ruling elite, Aboriginal Lore was taught to everyone. Anyone who was wise enough to lead was given the opportunity to lead. And unlike Australia’s political system that benefits some more than others, Aboriginal governance involved a talking circle in which decisions benefited everyone, not just a group representing a group with a vested interest. The decisions did not favour some people in the tribe more than others; they ensured the peace, health, and happiness of the people. And that meant keeping everyone housed, fed and content while keeping the land beautiful and productive for future generations to come.

No war? No greed? No prisons? Who wouldn’t want that?

Want to Know More About Aboriginal Culture?

If you or your children would like to know more about Aboriginal history and culture, check out Magpie Publishers’ bookstore. There you will find stories that celebrate our First Nations’ People and detail the impact of colonization on Aboriginal people, their culture and the environment.

We acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of Australia and honour the Elders past and present.

© Steve Trotter 2023

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