First Nations Perspectives
Landcare Australia is proud to acknowledge Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the Traditional Custodians of the Country on which we live and work. We value and respect their deep and continued spiritual and cultural connections to the land, waters and seas, and pay our respects to their Ancestors, and Elders past, present and future.
Caring For Country
For First Nations peoples, Country is viewed entirely different to that of how non-Indigenous peoples view Country. When Indigenous peoples speak about Country, they often refer to it as they would a person. Their view of Country is that it is alive and living – interrelated and interconnected on many levels. Therefore, their perception of Country is not just observed through a physical lens as consisting of earth, soil, minerals, water and air but is much more than that. It is also more than just people, plants and animals, as it also contains spirituality. For example, the creation time (also referred to as the dreaming) and the spirit world are also connected to Country through the continuation of ceremony and song-lines. This is often reflected holistically in what they refer to as Country.
Indigenous culture and customary law require people to be responsible and obligated to care for Country. All-encompassing of this, they sing, talk and visit Country like they would their relatives. When Country is sick, they manage it and restore vitality and life back to Country through methods that have been taught and passed down through intergenerational (countless generations transmitting cultural Traditional knowledge extending back to the creation time. Cultural fire burning practices has been one of these main management methods.
For Indigenous peoples, managing Country with controlled fire is seen to be essential for life and wellbeing of everything in and on Country. For thousands of years, they have practiced their own Indigenous science and ecological knowledge of different terrain and adaptive species of plants, trees and ecosystems. By managing Country through fire knowledge, they have gained greater understanding on how these terrains, species of plants, trees and ecosystems have flourished and improved the total wellbeing of Country. Developing their sciences overtime, they have developed a deeper awareness of the uniqueness of plants and trees that require fire to germinate with the assistance of smoke. For instance, a cool burn fire promotes the process of fertilization and germination development so that certain species can flower and seed.
For those who still reside on their traditional homelands, they can still engage in traditional knowledge and be immersed in their learning through access to their Country. From an early age they are taught by Elders in their communities on how to survive by learning how to read the landscape and everything in it. Understanding Seasons and weather patterns helps further understand the life cycles of animals, fruits, seeds and root vegetables and when to hunt, gather and collect food.
Tangible and Intangible Cultural Heritage
For First Nations people, Country is a living entity, an interconnected web of the physical, cultural, and spiritual landscape, present across space and time. There are features of Country that are intangible and unseen, with other aspects illustrating the deep connections to the culture that has been nurtured by it for countless generations.
In many places throughout Australia, the physical aspects of cultural heritage seen in Country today are only a small, tangible reminder of the vibrant and rich culture of First Nations peoples. For areas across the continent, experiencing colonisation to different degrees, the presence of material culture in Country enduring the effects of time, such as stone, trees, and sheltered sites, may still be found. The existence of other materials, made from bone, shell, resins, clay, paint, rope, feathers, and fur has mostly not survived the ravages of time.
Physical features of Country that can still be seen, often referred to as Aboriginal Cultural Heritage, include:
- Living places, such as meeting places, open campsites, hearths, rock shelters and middens;
- Art and spiritual places, which include sacred and ceremonial sites, rock art, engravings, carved trees and burial sites; and
- Areas of industry consisting of tool making sites, grinding grooves, scarred trees, and raw material resource places.
In various places in Australia, especially in urban or disturbed areas, there have been great and lasting losses in the remaining cultural heritage. Despite this, throughout the continent, the intangible cultural heritage values such as lore, knowledge, cultural practices, languages, dances, songs, stories, and the connections to the tangible values of Country, remain or are being reclaimed and renewed. It is important to acknowledge the profound connection between the tangible and intangible values for First Nations peoples, being a strong legacy and an integral part of their ongoing identity. To learn more about and respect for cultural heritage in Country in your local area, contact the Traditional Owners, Elders or First Nations organisations.
Traditional Land Management Practices
Approaches to Traditional Land Management is often connected to the belief in Caring for Country, though the land management aspect is often a physical expression of that belief, informed by broader cultural and spiritual knowledge and practice. Traditional Land Management may relate to practices around several features in Country, such as maintaining healthy waters, ways of ensuring the abundance of trees and plants produce, and balancing animal habitat and populations.
One notable Traditional Land Management method is using fire to manage fire responsive plant communities. This is often referred to as Cultural Burning. Cultural burning is guided by how people viewed seasons and indicators within these seasons in the way this was observed in Country. First Nations people were able to read these signs in Country and the right environmental conditions to undertake burning at the best time to create the desired outcomes. First Nations peoples could tell when there were imbalances in these plant communities through their extensive knowledge and could support the health of Country through applying Traditional practices such as the use of fire. The application of the correct fire during the right season, supported the growth of food and medicine which benefited people and animals. It was used as an approach to improve the health of landscapes where fire was needed, but also to protect areas in Country where fire is essentially harmful.
There is a greater awareness by the broader community of the continuation of Traditional Land Management practices in some parts of Australia, often less impacted by European colonisation. Respect for the recommencement of these traditions in areas closer to cities and towns, as an expression of Caring for Country is also gaining momentum in recognising how Country is managed.
To understand more about Traditional Land Practices in your local area, contact Traditional Owners groups, First Nations organisations or Land Management bodies that partner with First Nations peoples to support Caring for Country.
Water is Sacred
For First Nations peoples, water is sacred, it is the lifeblood of Country which binds all aspects together in the landscape, holding high physical, cultural, and spiritual significance. Water is the nurturing and nourishing lifeforce, sustaining the wellbeing of Country and the beings both tangible and invisible within it, that both depend on water and in return ensure it remains healthy. First Nations peoples understood that plants, animals, landforms and spiritual beings hold a reciprocal and beneficial relationship to water. It is also widely known that water can hold a destructive element that impacts and changes Country, though the appreciation of this, and knowledge on how to respond, is profoundly embodied in the peoples’ continuing connection to Country.
Throughout Australia, strict protocols and practices around the use and management of water, are of the utmost importance to First Nations peoples. Rivers, streams, billabongs, waterholes, chains of ponds, and lagoons are highly regarded and respected as an important source of sustaining life. Within many areas across the continent, there are water places revered as significant and special, promoting spiritual and physical healing, often interwoven with ceremonial practices.
In the more arid and semi-arid regions of Australia where water flows and bodies are scarcer, water was extremely precious and protected. Extra measures were taken to ensure the health of water, such as small water soaks covered to prevent evaporation, being polluted, or overused. More broadly, different waterways had separate uses ranging from the everyday to the sacred. Sometimes this is related to gender or age restrictions, or in certain water places, laws around the spiritual and physical safety of strangers, in contrast to the people belonging to that Country.
To understand and appreciate more about how important water is for First Nations peoples, Country and in truth the broader community, contact local Traditional Owners, First Nations organisations or water management bodies committed to Caring for Country partnerships.
Working with First Nations Communities
Engage with meaning: Building relationships and working together with your local First Nations communities
We aspire to work in partnership with local First Nations communities in hearing their voices about the local environment, to better understand and apply Traditional knowledge and practice, in the sustainable management of Country, led from a First Nations perspective.
We believe that developing collaborative relationships with First Nations communities, through meaningful engagement we can:
- Gain and develop a deeper understanding of First Nations perspectives.
- Achieve inspired action and better inclusive learning outcomes.
- Embark on the process of reconciliation and work together in a spirit of true healing for both First Nations peoples and Country.
Incorporating First Nations perspectives into landcare activities are key to understanding how we can better care for the land through a profoundly informed and inclusive approach. Therefore, it is not only important but essential that we foster and develop sustaining positive relationships with Australia’s First Peoples. By building relationships and working together with your local First Nations community, for the successful working partnerships.
We can aim to achieve this through some basic culturally guided principles including:
– Avoiding negative language and stereotypes that can be interpreted as derogatory or show disparaging behaviour and attitudes.
– Not place labels on people as it has negative consequences that create restrictive and distorted views of people and placing them into groups, classifications and typesets.
-Avoid assumptions and negative language that present stereotypes and labels as these can infer generalisations that are not true or accurate.
-Be mindful that the way in which both language and communication styles are used are vitally important as they can convey or imply certain meanings that can affect interactions. Consider the choice of vocabulary and be authentic in your conversations.
-Interact in an authentic way that can develop partnerships. Communication, collaboration, and consultation are also key to sustaining successful partnerships with your local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community.
Strong working relationships should be built on a genuine commitment of inclusiveness. Therefore, it is important to foster an atmosphere of trust, mutual respect, and inclusion.
We recommend that when landcare groups are undertaking projects, such as group excursions, ecological restoration or working on Country initiatives, or planning gardens that feature native plants, to approach and include local representatives from First Nations communities.
It is important for landcare groups to remember when actively working on land, though projects to respectively learn about First Nations perspectives, cultural knowledge, and practices about Caring for Country. This demonstrates respect for Country, and everything connected to it.
Understanding Key Principles and Protocols
For First Nations communities across Australia, there are many diverse and complex Traditional customs alongside more contemporary practices that are intrinsic to cultural values and standards being closely observed and adhered to by those communities. These customs consist of protocols and principles that follow traditional lore that define and govern the ways in which to live, the social, cultural and spiritual ‘rules’ and the relationships between people and all beings within Country. Fundamentally, these protocols and principles centred on mutual respect towards all beings within Country as well as the enacting proper conduct, which are the foundations of constructive cultural interactions. Demonstrating respect and showing inclusiveness are in essence the foundation of healthy relationships.
The concept of reciprocity is another important aspect of the right conduct being a key factor to maintaining open and continual working relationships with others.
Overall, understanding all features of protocols and conduct is key to forming partnerships with Indigenous communities.
Collaboration and recognition of the right to ‘speak for Country’ are key aspects to creating relationships and through this, meaningful partnerships with First Nations peoples can occur. Therefore, it is important to recognise the key factors for interacting and communicating in a positive manner. Understanding key terms and knowing the appropriate ways in which to use these are important to assisting this process.
Traditional Welcome, Welcome to Country or Acknowledgement of Country?
What Is a Welcome to Country?
The protocols for welcoming visitors to Country have been a part of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures for millennia. Although First Nations Traditional Owner groups did not have physical fences stipulating their boundary, they had clear tangible boundaries that separated their Country from that of other groups. Crossing into another Traditional Owner group’s Country required a special request for permission to enter. When permission was granted the hosting group would welcome the visitors, offering them safe passage and spiritual protection during the journey. Once visitors were provided with a safe passage, they also had to understand and respect the protocols and rules of the Traditional Owner group whilst on their Country.
A Welcome to Country Ceremony is an adapted and contemporary form of the Traditional Welcome. It has become a formal practice for Traditional Owners and Elders to welcome people such as dignitaries onto their land.
The correct cultural practice of a Welcome to Country should only be undertaken by Aboriginal Elders who are true descendants and Traditional Owners of that Country, and most importantly, a member of that historical clan group. By understanding these protocols, you are demonstrating respect by following cultural protocols and ensuring that ceremony is done in ‘the proper way’.
If any Traditional Owners/Elders or members of their group cannot direct the Welcome to Country ceremony, then an Acknowledgement of Country by another First Nations person or a non-Aboriginal person may undertake this role.
What is an Acknowledgement of Country?
An Acknowledgement of Country is much like a Welcome to Country and is generally offered at the beginning of a meeting, speech, or other formal occasions such as functions and conferences. It is a demonstration and show of respect for Traditional Owners and the continuing connection of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to Country. It can be given by both non-Indigenous peoples and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. It can either be formal or informal.
An Acknowledgement of Country commonly involves saying something along the following lines:
General format: I’d like to begin by acknowledging the Traditional Owners of the land on which we meet today. I would also like to pay my respects to Elders past and present.
Specific Format: I’d like to begin by acknowledging the Traditional Owners of the land on which we meet today, the (people) of the (nation) and pay my respects to Elders past and present.
Know the nation! Before giving an acknowledgement, it is always best to research the First Nation’s tribal group. Find out how to say and pronounce the name correctly when you are on meeting on the land of the distinct group. If you are uncertain, then you should ask your Local Aboriginal Land Council, or the Aboriginal Development Worker based within your Local Government Authority. Alternatively, you can check the website of the Aboriginal Heritage Office in your state.
“Always ask the correct pronunciation and practice it. Check the correct way of spelling a First Nation groups’ tribal name as the pronunciation of the name can be phonetically different to common English pronunciation rules.”
Some general rules to consider:
Respect Elders. We’ve capitalised “Elders” as a sign of respect.
- Include land. Always include a reference to Aboriginal land.
- Be personal. Use “I” rather than the organisation’s name, or “we”, to make the acknowledgement more personal. (It’s a single person speaking, after all.)
Glossary of Terms and Style Guide
Which terms should I use?
At the best of times, it can be somewhat difficult and perplexing to understand which term is appropriate and in which setting to correctly use the appropriate term.
Here are some examples of terms that may provide some insight into what is deemed acceptable and appropriate by First Nations peoples.
‘Country’ is everything. It is the essence of every living thing interconnected through a physical and spiritual relativity.
* rocks and land and water formations such as waterways, mountains and hills; as well as all animals and plant species. Humans are also inclusive of Country as they come from and belong to Country.
‘Caring for Country’ is the responsibility and custodianship of all First Nations peoples to manage and maintain healthy Country.
‘Elder’, refers to men and women who are highly recognised and respected for their high levels of cultural knowledge and protocols that stipulate correct standards that others in the group should follow and exercise. These mandates maintain social order according to traditional lore.
*Each male and female Elder in a group hold distinct and specific knowledge in their area of expertise. Information in certain areas such as lore, medicine properties for healing, spiritual and dance, song, and stories. No one person holds all knowledge.
‘First Nations’ is an emerging contemporary term that is being embraced and used as a preferred generic term as it encompasses and acknowledges the diverse groups of Australia’s First Nations people.
‘People’ (singular) refers to a single geo-cultural community (for example, the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation) or Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander individuals (for example, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in our school community).
‘Peoples’ (plural) refers to diverse Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander identities/geo-cultural community groups across Australia.
‘Traditional Owners’ (TO’s), emphasises the rightful holder and connection to land through lineage it is also interchangeably used with the term, ‘Traditional Custodians’ (TC’s).
‘Traditional Custodians’ (TC’s), denotes the responsibilities and accountability of Caring for Country (every living thing in and on Country), and is closely tied to the rights and responsibilities of ownership.
Traditional Knowledge (or Cultural Knowledge) is an array of natural earth sciences that relate to seasonal, ecological, medicinal, and biodiversity-related knowledge embodied in a continuous state of evolution.
What terms should I avoid?
The following terms are considered highly inappropriate and offensive to the wider Aboriginal Community throughout Australia. A few of these terms are explained and set out below.
There are some Aboriginal groups and individuals within Australia, who don’t agree with the use of some terms such as ‘First Nations’ as they see it as a conglomerate term that refers to other worldwide Indigenous groups such as the Native American and Canadian peoples as First Nation Groups. However, this term is used more frequently as it exclusively provides a clear indication that equally relates to all groups without prejudice.
Other terms that are broadly recognised by Aboriginal groups as inappropriate and offensive are ‘Aborigine’, ‘Aborigines’ and ‘Aboriginals’. These terms are outdated and were widely used within colloquial historical texts and therefore are contemptable terms that ineffectively define the complexity and diversity of First Nations peoples.
‘Native’ is also an outdated term that was used in the early colonial period and is not deemed suitable or appropriate as it elicits an image not appropriate nor applicable to present day. Today, these terms are seen as offensive and racist and are perceived as paternalistic and somewhat patronising.
“Be mindful to always capitalise ‘Aboriginal’, Elders, First Nations, Traditional Owners and ‘Indigenous’ as this is a mark of respect”
Historically, language and terminologies were specifically used to distinguish people often used to label and berate First Nations as an inferior group of people. Best practice is to steer clear of outdated terminologies as First Nations peoples consider these terms to be derogatory and insulting. It is only right and respectful to avoid making assumptions, statements and opinions that can cause harm or offence. Be mindful that people have their own individual views.
Source: Appropriate words & terminology for First Nations topics – Creative Spirits https://www.creativespirits.info/aboriginalculture/media/appropriate-terminology-for-aboriginal-topics
Source: Demonstrating inclusive and respectful language – Reconciliation Australia Plan https://www.reconciliation.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2021/10/inclusive-and-respectful-language.pdf
The content for First Nations Perspectives was developed for Landcare Australia. The purpose of this information is to provide a useful introductory resource for educators using Junior Landcare resources, for landcare groups and other environmental community groups, and for individuals. This is dynamic content and we understand that some information may change from time to time. Please contact us if you would like to provide additional information that we can include in this important resource.
Cultural Land Management
First Nations peoples connection to Country provides a rich source of knowledge for better land and water management, and fire management policies. With our stakeholders, Landcare Australia has made available articles, videos and other resources to help landcarers and land managers appropriately integrate First Nations peoples knowledge into building ecological and community resilience.
Victor Steffenson performing a cultural burn for Landcare Australia’s film Fire and Water: Healing Country and People.