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What does land mean to Aboriginal people?
Non-Indigenous people and land owners might consider land as something they own, a commodity to be bought and sold, an asset to make profit from, but also a means to make a living off it or simply ‘home’ . They ‘develop’ land, as if it was unfinished or raw.
For Aboriginal people the relationship is much deeper. Palyku woman Ambelin Kwaymullina explains:
“For Aboriginal peoples, country is much more than a place. Rock, tree, river, hill, animal, human – all were formed of the same substance by the Ancestors who continue to live in land, water, sky. Country is filled with relations speaking language and following Law, no matter whether the shape of that relation is human, rock, crow, wattle. Country is loved, needed, and cared for, and country loves, needs, and cares for her peoples in turn. Country is family, culture, identity. Country is self.” 
They have a profound spiritual connection to land. Aboriginal law and spirituality are intertwined with the land, the people and creation, and this forms their culture and sovereignty.
The health of land and water is central to their culture. Land is their mother, is steeped in their culture, but also gives them the responsibility to care for it. They “feel the pain of the shapes of life in country as pain to the self”. 
Key take-away: The land owns Aboriginal people and every aspect of their lives is connected to it.
Living in a city has its own challenges. “I often wonder how to connect with my country when I’m in the city,” wonders Aboriginal dancer and choreographer Francis Rings . “For many Indigenous people it’s a visceral connection; you look beyond the buildings and concrete and feel a sense of belonging,” she says.
We cultivated our land, but in a way different from the white man. We endeavour to live with the land; they seemed to live off it.—Tom Dystra, Aboriginal elder 
The Lost Girl
The girl had lost her way. She had wandered far from the Mothers, the Aunties and the Grandmothers, from the Fathers and the Uncles and the Grandfathers. She had hidden in the shadow of a rock, and fallen asleep while she waited for her brothers and sisters to find her. Now it was night, and no one answered when she called, and she could not find her way back to camp.
The girl wandered, alone. She grew thirsty, so she stopped by a waterhole to drink, and then hungry, so she picked some berries from a bush. Then the night grew colder, so she huddled beneath an overhanging rock, pressing herself into a hollow that had trapped the warm air of the day. Finally she saw a crow flying in the moonlight, flapping from tree to tree and calling ‘Kaw! Kaw! Kaw!’. The girl followed the crow. She followed him through the trees and over the rocks and up the hills, until at last she saw the glow of her people’s campfires in the distance.
The people laughed and cried at once to see that the girl was safe. They growled at her for her foolishness, and cuddled her, and gave her a place by the fire. Her little brother asked her if she had been afraid; but the girl said – ‘How could I be frightened? I was with my Mother. When I was thirsty, she gave me water; when I was hungry, she fed me; when I was cold, she warmed me. And when I was lost, she showed me the way home.’ 
This story is available as a children’s book of the same name.
Aboriginal elder: “The land owns us”
Bob Randall, a Yankunytjatjara elder and traditional owner of Uluru (Ayer’s Rock), explains his connectedness to the land and how every living thing is connected to every other living thing.
3 different views of land
You wouldn’t believe that these three quotes all refer to the same site at James Price Point on Western Australia’s Kimberley coast :
Unremarkable beach.—Colin Barnett, Premier, Western Australia
'Major' heritage site.—WA Department of Aboriginal Sites ('major' is the Department's highest category)
Secret Aboriginal men's business site.—Goolarabooloo Aboriginal people
Land sustains Aboriginal lives in every aspect, spiritually, physically, socially and culturally. The notion of landscape as a second skin is central to every Aboriginal art form, whether it be theatre, dance, music or painting .
Without their connection to land Aboriginal artists cannot create. “Living and working or creating in the land of their birth is vital for an artist’s connection to country,” says Edwina Circuitt, manager of the Warakurna Art Centre in Western Australia . Maintaining this connection is vital to pass on important stories to younger generations.
When walking on country, Aboriginal woman Melissa Lucashenko sees another dimension beyond the obvious. “We see the world that white people see but we are also seeing a mythic landscape at the same time, and an historic landscape,” she says. “White people see Rotary parks and headlands; we see sacred sites. And we are looking at bush food.” 
Aboriginal law and life originates in and is governed by the land. The connection to land gives Aboriginal people their identity and a sense of belonging. Ambelin Kwaymullina explains how law is the basis to everything we see today:
“The Ancestors taught the peoples the ways of living in country, and these ways were called Law. It was Law that sustained the web of relationships established by the Ancestors, and the web of relationships established by the Ancestors formed the pattern that was life itself. This pattern − being life – is everywhere; it exists in a single grain of sand, and is formed again by millions of grains coming together to make desert; it is in spinifex and crow and rock and human and every other shape of life; and is created anew when these shapes come together to form country; and when all country comes together to form a continent.” 
Country was, and still is to many, a place of learning. “We know everything there; the trees, animals, plants,” explains Djawa Timmy Burarrwanga, an Aboriginal Elder from Arnhem Land. “It’s like a bush library for us, and often a bush university too. It’s there that we study and understand, and have learnt about the land and the care of that land over thousands of years. We can read it like a GPS. It’s been handed down by our ancestors.” 
But if we don’t sustain the land, when we only take and not give back, we are destroying this library:
“It’s just like a big book to us. This whole land. Now, over the years, people been taking – like tearing pages out of our book so there’s bits and pieces getting lost… You know, if we take out the centre part of our country, you know we’ve taken out a whole guts of our book, we’re tearing it right out… It would be hard for teaching to carry on after that point.” 
In the learning borne of country is the light that nourishes the world.—Ambelin Kwaymullina, Aboriginal lawyer 
The land is my backbone… I only stand straight, happy, proud and not ashamed about my colour because I still have land… I think of land as the history of my nation.—Galarrwuy Yunipingu, Aboriginal musician 
In white society, a person's home is a structure made of bricks or timber, but to our people our home was the land that we hunted and gathered on and held ceremony and gatherings.—Nala Mansell-McKenna, Youth Worker, Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre 
“Money don’t mean nothing to me”
Jeffrey Lee could have become a millionaire. But he decided not to.
Jeffrey is a senior custodian of the land know as Koongarra. The French energy company Areva was seeking to activate its mineral lease to extract 14,000 tonnes of uranium from the site.
Instead of accepting millions in mining royalties Mr Lee approached the federal government with an offer to incorporate the land into the Kakadu National Park.
“When you dig ‘em hole in that country, you’re killing me,” he told reporters. “Money don’t mean nothing to me. Country is very important to me.” For him it was more important to protect the sacred sites and burial sites in the country he is responsible for.
Jeffrey works as a ranger in the park and hopes the extension will bring more visitors to the area and create further employment for Aboriginal people.
“Traditional owners will be doing stuff on country,” he said, adding that it was important to preserve land for future generations so non-Indigenous Australians could learn about Aboriginal culture. 
The Koongarra deposit is only 3 kilometres from Nourlangie Rock, one of the most visited attractions in Kakadu.
Not all Aboriginal people oppose land development
With their intimate connection to land Aboriginal people could be perceived as strongly opposed to any land development.
The opposite is true. A national survey of Aboriginal land owners found in 2007 that although custodial responsibilities and land care were their first priority, nearly all land owners strongly supported economic development .
Their goal is ultimately self-sustainability, but a lack of financial support and the ability to access it prevent many to reach this goal.
Arguments in favour of development
- Development brings benefits. When properly negotiated many development deals can bring benefits packages worth millions for Aboriginal people.
- Grab an opportunity. Resource developers only have that much patience. If a development proposal is not approved within a certain time, they take their dollars elsewhere.
- Get some whitefella money. Aboriginal people working on pastoral properties were often paid in food and clothes, or not at all. This experience is still fresh in their memory, so the prospect of getting some money “back” from the white man is tempting.
- Develop Aboriginal future. Land development agreements can play a vital role in helping Aboriginal people determine the course of their future.
Arguments against development
- Government, not land should provide for needs. No other Australians but Aboriginal people seem to have to give up their assets to receive bare essentials like housing, health, education.
- Protect the land. Many developments impact the environment, pollute it or leave behind a mess of waste and destruction. Protecting the land and its sacred sites is more important than developing it.
Case study: The biggest native title deal in Australian history
In May 2011 traditional owners in Western Australia voted overwhelmingly to allow a gas plant be built at James Price Point, 60 kms north of Broome, in exchange for projects and benefits worth 1.5 billion.
The Goolarabooloo and Jabirr Jabirr people relinquished 1.5% of their native title interests in what WA Premier Colin Barnett described as “the most significant act of self-determination by Aboriginal people in the country” .
The settlement then was the largest single native title settlement in Australia’s history.
The package included cash, employment and housing benefits, education, training initiatives, support for rangers and contracting opportunities.
However, prior to the decision the Premier had started moves to compulsorily acquire the land if no compromise was found.
Their spiritual and cultural connection to the land obliges Aboriginal people to look after cultural sites which are ‘living museums’ of their ancestors and include 
- Dreaming sites,
- archaeological sites,
- water holes,
- burial grounds.
Ceremonial activities help them renew or rebuild their spiritual connection to the land and the sacred sites they look after.
Today access to traditional lands can be gained when native title is recognised, but gaining this title is a lengthy, costly and complex process.
Non-Indigenous people have problems understanding the close relationship with land. When Aboriginal people try to educate about what the land means to them they often are “hit with this hurtful phrase ‘the land doesn’t belong to you Aboriginal people, it belongs to all of us.” It is one of the “most hurtful comments” that they have to endure. 
“Aboriginal cultural heritage places are an essential part of our library,” explains Tasmanian Aboriginal activist Jim Everett. “[They hold] not only material evidence of our ancestors’ lifestyles, influenced by ice ages, isolation, climate changes and eventually colonisation, but also a spiritual connection to country and the identity of place and spiritual belonging.” 
“Destruction is like ripping pages from our library books, it is like cutting the hearts of our people, cutting our identity and our cultural philosophy that sustains our spiritual connectedness to country.”
Many Aboriginal people’s connection to the land has been severed during the time of the Stolen Generations. They have lost their traditional connection. Aboriginal author and academic Stephen Hagan estimates that about 70% of the people he has spoken to do not have “the faintest idea” of their connection to country .
It's like the love for your mum and dad.—Natasha Neidje, grand-daughter of Bill Neidje, about the love for the land, Kakadu National Park
If you belong there your country will find a way to call you back. Country needs to be remembered, needs to be listened to, needs to know that we can still speak its language.—Aboriginal elder in TV series Double Trouble
“He and the sea were one”
Jan Brown remembers her cousin, Edward ‘Ted’ Beresford Buchanan, and his relationship to the sea .
“He was the only man I knew who could go fishing with no bait. He would just pick up a crab, crack it open and throw it on his line and come home with a bag full of fish.
It was as if he and the sea were one. He could tell me where the fish were travelling. He could tell the tides by the moon, and he could tell when there was bad weather coming and warn all the fishing mates not to take their boats out because the storm was going to hit at, say, exactly 5.30pm.”
Most nights before bed I retreat outside to savour the beauty that soothes my mind. Stars stain the sky scattered all around I peer into the darkness observing every sound. The call of an owl the distant croak of a frog the squeaking of a bandicoot as it scurries past a log. The symphony of insects whose song fills the air the whisper of a westerly that flows through my hair. A mother and her joey briskly bound away these sounds hold more meaning than what words can ever say. Moonshine protrudes the sparse shifting cloud a river of lilac streams to the ground. I bathe in this brilliance a smile on my face grateful to the spirits for maintaining this place.
By Jonathan Hill, Old Erowal Bay, NSW . Read more Aboriginal poems.