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Can Aboriginal Culture save us from Ourselves?

Pink, Olive 1934 , Olive Pink Collection. Photograph taken by Olive Pink of aboriginal children playing in a waterhole, Central Australia, 1934 , Olive Pink, Australia.

By Steve Trotter

Posted on 11th December 2023

A Future For All of Us

Ever heard the expression, ‘You are your own worst enemy?’ Nothing could be truer in Australia in 2023.

When the British arrived, they believed they were superior to the Aboriginal people of Australia. They had twisted Darwin’s theory of Evolution into a bastardised concept known as Social Darwinism. They convinced themselves they were more evolved than the Aboriginal people to legitimise their invasion of a peaceful nation.

They criticised the Indigenous Australians and their way of life. The British invaders often described the ‘black feller’ as being ‘lazy’ or ‘indolent’ or, more ignorantly, as ‘primitive’ and ‘savage’ and being stuck in ‘the stone age.’ What the British failed to realise (and are still failing to realise) is that progress and hostility are not a marker of an advanced civilisation; stability and peace are.

Credit: Robert Hawker Dowling – Robert Dowling | Group of Natives of Tasmania, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12635841

The Aboriginal people had perfected a harmonious political, economic, judicial, environmental, and social system like no other people on the planet. The British conquerors had a relativistic, and very erroneous, view of Australia’s First Nations people. The British saw nakedness as uncivilised. They saw spears as primitive weapons. They saw a barbaric and savage people living primitively on the land. What they saw, selectively, validated their invasion of Australia, in their eyes, and justified their settlement of an ‘undeveloped’ land. They saw only what they wanted to see: a land of terra nullius, “a land that belonged to no-one”.

But, if we delve beyond the colonialists’ first impressions and compare the first nation achievements with ours, historically, I think it is hard to deny who is the more ‘savage’ of the two civilisations. We have a saying, that history repeats itself. That adage suggests that although we have made some technological progress, we have not really learned much from our past mistakes. Our British ancestors’ history is bloody. It is scorched by warfare, torture and atrocities including genocide. And, it’s only 3000 years old, at best.

Compare that to Aboriginal history. There is no record of warfare or the achievements of powerful Kings, Queens or political figures. Fact. The records that Aboriginal people kept were educational and instructional. Fact.

To be a leader of the people in British society, even today, you need to be wealthy, powerful and well-connected. You need to study law.

Compare that to Aboriginal culture. To be a leader you need to pass through your initiations. Period. And by doing so, you are taught the Lore.

Credit: Britannica

It would seem, that the Indigenous people in Australia did learn from their mistakes, and time (80,000 years of it) allowed them to make some incredibly significant reforms to their society that we can only hope to learn from. Wisdom from experience is far more valuable than mere intelligence. Many intelligent people make dumb decisions; but wise people rarely make them.

To achieve what the first people of Australia did, they must have collaborated and co-operated incredibly (that alone is something our politicians can learn from).

The first Australians put measures in place so they would not repeat the mistakes of the past, essentially, stopping any change or ‘progress’ in its tracks. They reached a point of equilibrium in their society, a point of perfect balance and froze their historical timeline at that point in time. They developed a way of life that was atemporal. Their culture existed outside of time. History ceased to exist.

Credit: Mombas at English Wikipedia., CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Ambition? Redundant. Power struggles? Pointless. Records of past events? Obsolete. Aboriginal history in Australia did away with a timeline and replaced it with a singularity that was unchanging, and outside of time.

So, the question is, how did they do it?

Let’s back track a little. So… here’s this whole population of Indigenous people across Australia, whose Elders, or maybe their Clever Men, come together to solve a whole heap of big problems happening in their world at the time (sounds familiar, doesn’t it?). The Elders take turns yarning, at some central site, maybe Uluru.

The gathering lasts days. Weeks. Months. If they want to be happy now and into the future, they know they have to stay there and sort it out. They’re all prepared to stay, as long as it takes.

They talk and talk and talk some more. A lot of grievances are aired. A lot of hopes shared and agreed upon. They don’t want any more wars. They must look after their food sources. They must mitigate floods and fires. They must conserve their other resources. They must work out how people can still travel around the country. Who should marry who to avoid problems. Like inbreeding. And fighting over women. They realise their children need a lot of help and guidance to be the best humans they can be. All of it is achievable. They nut things out, create a Lore that eliminates, or at least mitigates, all foreseeable future threats.

They divide the land equitably between family groups and in one fell stroke remove the need for territorial wars. They embed the boundary in their stories so they can never be challenged in the future.

With a second stroke, they agree on access to each other’s lands and the protocols to follow to keep visitors safe. They agree on protocols to maintain the land and its health through slashing, burning, seasonal migration and farming to ensure they have an endless supply of resources.

They develop a universal language using message sticks to share important information that can be read anywhere in the country.

They work out binding ties between mobs through arranged marriages and ensure every family member is looked after and has a job to do. They follow the same belief and practice system (with some local tweaks) that reinforces the social structure of every mob across the country. They have strict Lores and punishments but eliminate the need for gaols.

They have regular festivals around the country where they connect, share valuable knowledge, and celebrate their culture. They agree to follow the cyclical rhythms of nature, not the whims of humans and live harmoniously with nature forever after… until the Brits arrive.

So, the Brits arrive in boatloads, declare Australia a terra nullius and claim it. They see pastures everywhere, parks, and unnaturally immaculate forests and think they’ve hit the jackpot. They spread out, like rats, and claim every blade of grass and chop down and dig up everything they can get their hands on.

Sydney, 1792

Credit: By Port Jackson Painter, fl. 1788-1792. – Natural History Museum: First Fleet Artwork Collection, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17403656

They do what they have done in every other country that an Imperial power has colonised. They consume it.

You could not find two more opposite cultures, really. Ours thinks only of what it can take for itself today and Indigenous culture thinks about how they can provide for the generation of tomorrow.

We have a very bad track record when it comes to managing the environment, but the Indigenous people of this land have the most incredible record ever. Hands down. No-one comes close to them. They were the greatest leaders, diplomats and custodians the world has ever seen. They created a sustainable way of life that lasted for tens of thousands of years. Through their meticulous management of the environment, they honoured the generations before them and those to come by preserving it EXACTLY as they inherited it. Their footprint on the planet wasn’t just small it was so insignificant that, to the untrained eye, it didn’t exist.

When I try to present this argument to some people, they resort to the colonialists’ ‘noble savage’ defence. They tend to ignore the evidence and put forward a more palatable and a somewhat more revisionist view of our history. They attempt to dismiss the evidence because it does not support their parochial understanding of Australia’s history. They like the colonialist view. The original inhabitants were cave men, we came in and civilised them. End of story. However, we live in a post-colonial world now and know better. This is a colonialist lens. It’s very limited in its scope and understanding.

Indigenous culture is incredibly complex, sophisticated, and secretive. Aboriginal people have interacted with white fellahs for over 200 years and have shared very little of their knowledge. Why? Because they realise we are the savages. The Elders realised this when we arrived in our boats with wings. Our leaders are not wise. They are greedy. They are thieves. And they are murderers. They dominate people, and pretend to be equals.

The Elders knew that our leaders would weaponise the information the Elders shared with us to use against our enemies.

It was not that Indigenous people were not intelligent enough to want to progress; the reality was that they were TOO intelligent to want to progress.

I grew up in Ballina on the Far North Coast of Australia. When I was growing up there were under ten thousand people living in Ballina. Some of the roads were still dirt tracks. The beaches away from town were empty and there weren’t any man-made fences or lookouts anywhere. The land was virtually the same as it had been for thousands of years with very little change introduced. It was Edenic. It could not be improved upon because you cannot improve upon nature.

Unfortunately, the Western world values expansionism and capitalism more. The world that I grew up in 50 years ago is long gone. Progress has paved its way over all that beauty. A housing estate stretches for as far as the eye can see in three directions. In the illustrious words of Joni Mitchell the 1970s folk singer, ‘They paved Paradise to put up a parking lot’ instead.

The Aboriginal people of Australia knew that they could not improve upon the environment. The best they could hope to do was to maintain it. And they did a pretty good job. For 65,000 years. And more. The British have only been for 200 years and they’ve almost destroyed it irreparably already. Like I said earlier, intelligence does not equate to wisdom. Only experience can earn you wisdom. No amount of Law Degrees can compensate for that kind of knowledge.


In the last 200 years the world has changed dramatically. We live in a globalised world that is churning through our natural resources. Some people are getting very rich from it; but it comes at a cost for the rest of us. And for our children. And our grandchildren. It’s been estimated that, over the last 200 years, we have consumed more resources than in all of human history combined. Read that again. And take it in. It’s a modern phenomenon. No other people of any era have had to face what were on the verge of facing.

Actually, that’s not entirely true. Aboriginal culture faced a similar predicament. They too had their careless period. The difference is that they put the brakes on, learnt their lesson (once) and passed it onto their children through a new story so they wouldn’t repeat the mistakes from the past.

Our resources are finite and we are using them up. If we don’t intervene and change our ways, there will not be a world to pass on to our children and our children’s children. If we don’t embrace a new and better paradigm then we, as a species, are doomed.

Having a lifestyle centred around constant growth is unachievable. If there are no resources left, you cannot make any money.

Corporations and governments are aware of this but they are determined to squeeze the last drop of blood out of any stone they can get their hands on because they cannot see an alternative to wealth and power. Look at our ‘solution’ to our fossil fuel crisis. Electric cars sound like an amazing solution: on paper. But are they any different to what we’re being sold now? Corporations have just shifted their focus in their factories. They’re still churning through our resources to make a buck and as far as the environment goes, what are going to do with all those lithium batteries when they run out of charge? Sounds like a problem to pass onto the next generation rather than a solution for a better and more sustainable future.

We have two choices: continue doing what we’re doing and destroy the world and ourselves; or change, and save it. If we don’t try to stop our over-consumption of resources on this planet now… it will be too late to stop it. The scientists tell us that the tipping point is getting closer every day. When I hear this on the news, I can’t help but think of the Christopher Reeves’ ‘Superman’ movie. There are a couple of scenes at the start where Jor-el (Superman’s dad played by Marlon Brando) pleads with the leaders of Krypton to act to save their planet. They mock him. They laugh at him. They ignore him. They ban him from sharing his concerns with others. And then… the world explodes.

No leaders in our modern times – in any country – have offered us a solution as to how we can live beyond the next 100 years on this planet; but the Indigenous people of Australia have.

Maybe it’s time we apologised for our savage behaviour, acknowledge their wisdom and asked them for their help. Our future may just depend on it.

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 success of the Aboriginal people to live sustainably with their environment. 


Walk on Country

How about a tour? If you want to learn about a deeper time history of Ballina, why not arrange a tour of the Nyangbal people’s country? Eli Cook, and the other Nyangbal custodians, will guide you through their country, share their culture with you and tell you about their history, in person. 

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

© Steve Trotter 2023

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