What is Aboriginal spirituality?

Aboriginal spirituality is deeply linked to the land which “owns” Aboriginal people.

All objects are living and share the same soul or spirit Aboriginal people share.

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What is Aboriginal spirituality?

Our spirituality is a oneness and an interconnectedness with all that lives and breathes, even with all that does not live or breathe.—Mudrooroo, Aboriginal writer [1]

Aboriginal spirituality, Mudrooroo continues, “is a feeling of oneness, of belonging”, a connectedness with “deep innermost feelings”. Everything else is secondary.

Everything is connected

For the Yankunytjatjara Aboriginal people from north-west South Australia the law of Kanyini implies that everybody is responsible for each other. [10] It is the principle of connectedness that underpins Aboriginal life. [11]. And because of connection, Kanyini teaches to look away from oneself and towards community: “We practise Kanyini by learning to restrict the ‘mine-ness’, and to develop a strong sense of ‘ours-ness’,” explains Aboriginal Elder Uncle Bob Randall [21].

Uncle Bob continues: “We do not separate the material world of objects we see around us with our ordinary eyes, and the sacred world of creative energy that we can learn to see with our inner eye. …. We work through ‘feeling’, what white people call intuitive awareness.” [12]. “White people,” he says, “separate things out, even the relationship between their minds and their bodies, but especially between themselves and other people and nature… [and] spirit.” [13]

Aboriginal spirituality sees the interconnectedness of the elements of the earth and the universe, animate and inanimate, whereby people, the plants and animals, landforms and celestial bodies are interrelated. These relations and the knowledge of how they are interconnected are expressed in sacred stories. These creation stories describe how the activities of powerful creator ancestors shaped and developed the world as people know and experience it. [14]

Those sacred Aboriginal stories (also known as Dreamtime, Dreaming stories, songlines, or Aboriginal oral literature) find expression in performances within each of the language groups across Australia [15].

What Mudrooroo and Uncle Bob Randall are referring to when they use the terms ‘feelings’, ‘inner eye’ and ‘intuitive awareness’ are ‘things’ that cannot be defined by words and thoughts because they are beyond the mind. Only by negation – what they are not – can we start comprehending what they might be.

The land is part of being, family

Aboriginal spiritual beliefs are intimately associated with the land Aboriginal people live on. It is ‘geosophical’ (earth-centred) and not ‘theosophical’ (God-centred).

The earth, their country, is “impregnated with the power of the Ancestor Spirits” which Aboriginal people draw upon [2].

They experience a connection to their land, with the entirety of nature that is associated with it, that is unknown to white people. A key feature of Aboriginal spirituality is to look after the land, an obligation which has been passed down as law for thousands of years.

Land joins the commonly cited trilogy of being: “To recover our wellbeing, we have to pay attention to all four dimensions of our being, mind, body, spirit and land,” explains Uncle Bob Randall [16]. Land is seen as a family member. [17]

“Spirituality is about tapping into the still places I go to when I’m on country and I feel like I’m part of all the things around me,” explains Senimelia Kingsburra, from the far north Queensland Yarrabah community [2].

Quandamooka woman Evelyn Parkin also values the silence which connects her with the land. “The spiritual contact with mother earth holds me in my place,” she says [8].

A powerful explanation of the spiritual connection of Indigenous people to the land can be found in a publication of the now abolished ATSIC [3].

We don't own the land, the land owns us. The land is my mother, my mother is the land. Land is the starting point to where it all began. It's like picking up a piece of dirt and saying this is where I started and this is where I'll go. The land is our food, our culture, our spirit and identity.—S. Knight [3]

Video: The land owns us

Watch Uncle Bob Randall explain how the connectedness of every living thing to every other living thing is not just an idea but a way of living. This way includes all beings as part of a vast family and calls us to be responsible for this family and care for the land with unconditional love and responsibility.

Aboriginal author and Yorta Yorta woman Hyllus Maris (1934-86) expressed this connectedness with the land beautifully in her poem Spiritual Song of the Aborigine [4].

Spiritual Song of the Aborigine

I am a child of the Dreamtime People
Part of this Land, like the gnarled gumtree
I am the river, softly singing
Chanting our songs on my way to the sea
My spirit is the dust-devils
Mirages, that dance on the plain
I'm the snow, the wind and the falling rain
I'm part of the rocks and the red desert earth
Red as the blood that flows in my veins
I am eagle, crow and snake that glides
Thorough the rain-forest that clings to the mountainside
I awakened here when the earth was new
There was emu, wombat, kangaroo
No other man of a different hue
I am this land
And this land is me
I am Australia.

Poem by Hyllus Maris.

Aboriginal spirituality is the belief that all objects are living and share the same soul or spirit that Aboriginals share.—Eddie Kneebone, Aboriginal Reconciliation campaigner and painter [5]

This is a very fundamental statement about Aboriginal spirituality. It implies that besides animals and plants even rocks have a soul.

An Aboriginal person’s soul or spirit is believed to “continue on after our physical form has passed through death”, explains Eddie Kneebone [5]. After the death of an Aboriginal person their spirit returns to the Dreamtime from where it will return through birth as a human, an animal, a plant or a rock. The shape is not important because each form shares the same soul or spirit from the Dreamtime.

But what is the Dreamtime?

Living in the Now

Non-Aboriginal people’s lives are often ruled by planning and future-thinking while Aboriginal people think in the Now.

“Our actions were always determined by our needs,” says Uncle Bob Randall. “We didn’t plan anything. We didn’t worry about what happened to us. Everything material was very temporary.” [18]. He continues: “When we think about time, it is only the now, the present, that is important. In each and every moment of ‘now-ness’ is where we live out the truth of the connectedness of Kanyini.” [19] This way of thinking reminds us of the teachings of spiritual masters of all traditions, for example Eckhart Tolle, who have pointed to the Now as the key to the spiritual dimension. [20]

There is not one Aboriginal spirituality

While Aboriginal spirituality has similar core concepts across Australia, such as connection [22], there are regional flavours.

There were more than 250 languages prior to invasion and each language group had its own creation stories and spirituality.

“Aboriginal spirituality is so incredibly diverse,” says Aboriginal director Warwick Thornton, “there are 50 languages left, 30 of them critical but all of them with their own culture, their own spirituality, their own creation stories, their own everything.” [9].

What is not Aboriginal spirituality?

Many texts and books use ‘Aboriginal religion’ when addressing Aboriginal spirituality. But these two terms should not be confused:

Spiritual “relates to people’s deepest thoughts and beliefs, rather than to their bodies and physical surroundings” [6].

Religious is “something that [...] is about or connected with religion”, i.e. “the belief in a god or gods and the activities that are connected with this belief, such as prayer or worship in a church or temple” [6].

Hence spirituality is the foundation of religion, the deeper layer of any religious practice and expression.

Some little children come in and say 'but God made the world'. And I say, 'Yes, according to the Bible, yes, God did; but according to my spiritual beliefs my rainbow serpent made these things', so we don't have any arguments over that either; they understand: religion is their way, spiritualism is our way. They understand.—Oodgeroo Noonuccal, Aboriginal writer [7]

Thank you
Many thanks to Chris Laughton for his contribution to this article.


View article sources (22)

[1] Us Mob, Mudrooroo, 1995, p.33,
[2] 'Programs 'must take in lessons from Yarrabah'', Koori Mail 449 p.46
[3] Knight S., 1996, Our Land Our Life, card, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, Canberra
[4] Spiritual Song of the Aborigine, Hyllus Maris, in: Discover...The Australian Aborigines, 1998, p.18
[5] in: Us Mob, Mudrooroo, 1995, p.34,
[6] Collins Cobuild Dictionary, 1987
[7] in: Teaching Aboriginal Studies, Allen & Unwin, 1999, p.89
[8] 'Aboriginal spirituality', Eremos presentation, 10/8/2014
[9] 'Warwick Thornton in conversation with God', SMH 1/9/2014
[10] 'Songman: The Story of an Aboriginal Elder of Uluru', Bob Randall, ABC 2003, p.12
[11] Bob Randall, loc. cit., p.16
[12] Bob Randall, loc. cit., p.3
[13] Bob Randall, loc. cit., p.4
[14] 'Aboriginal Spirituality, Aboriginal Philosophy, The Basis of Aboriginal Social and Emotional Wellbeing', Grieves,V., 2009, Discussion Paper Series: No.9, p.7, Cooperative Research Centre for Aboriginal Health, Darwin
[15] 'Australian Aboriginal Mythology', Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Australian_Aboriginal_mythology, retrieved 16/1/2017
[16] Bob Randall, loc. cit., p.217
[17] Bob Randall, loc. cit., p.223
[18] Bob Randall, loc. cit., p.13
[19] Bob Randall, loc. cit., p.17
[20] 'The Power of Now', Eckhart Tolle, Hodder Australia 2004, p.51
[21] Bob Randall, loc. cit., p.24
[22] Bob Randall, loc. cit., p.17

Cite this article

An appropriate citation for this document is:

Aboriginal culture - Spirituality - What is Aboriginal spirituality?, retrieved 12 December 2018