Australia’s contrasting geography has created very different contexts for the dispositions and culture of its Aboriginal people. You may have heard references to saltwater or freshwater people. There are also other finer distinctions within these groups, referred to as desert, spinifex or rainforest according to the ecological environment of the tribe or clan.
The sea is integral to Aboriginal concepts of country and identity. It incorporates spiritual beings and sacred sites that are fundamental to Aboriginal understandings of creation, ceremony and religion. It represents a continuum between Aboriginal culture in the distant past and contemporary coastal Aboriginal societies. All of these aspects of the relationship between Aboriginal people and the sea are reflected in the Aboriginal English terms ‘sea country’ and ‘saltwater country’. Saltwater people express their relationship to sea country in many forms, including art, dance, music and stories.
There has always been considerable diversity between the cultures of the hundreds of Aboriginal groups around Australia’s coasts. There are also many common factors that reflected the relationship of Aboriginal people to the sea. The fundamental social unit around most of coastal Australia was the extended family or ‘clan’. Clan membership was typically inherited from one’s father, but in some parts of Australia, clan membership was passed down through the maternal or matrilineal line.
For coastal clans their country always included the adjoining estuaries, beaches, coastal waters and ocean. Groups of clans speaking a common language formed a wider social group, sharing ceremonies, belief systems, technologies and subsistence strategies.
Like the land, saltwater country contained evidence of the Dreamtime events by which all geographic features, animals, plants and people were created. It contained sacred sites, often related to these creation events, and it contained tracks, or Songlines along which mythological beings travelled during the Dreamtime.
The clan members had a kin relationship to the important marine animals, plants, tides and currents. Most Aboriginal people with marine clan estates were coastal mainland dwellers. However, many lived exclusively or periodically on offshore islands, particularly off the Queensland, Northern Territory and Kimberly coasts. These island dwellers were particularly dependent on the subsistence resources of the sea and they maintained control of large marine estates radiating out from their island homes (National Oceans Office, 2004).
Cultural differences between groups of Aboriginal people in Australia have evolved against the variations in the landscape. This system of major rivers and watercourses divides the continent of Australia into fifteen distinct areas.
The Western Desert cultural area extends over much of the interior of Western Australia and the Northern Territory, and borders the Great Australian Bight to the south. The most significant common cultural feature of Aboriginal people living in the Western Desert area is the strategy used to exploit scarce water resources. After substantial rain, the populations disperse to the least reliable, short-lived water sources, far out in the plains.
The environmental differences which affect the way people obtain food and water also have a marked influence on the whole culture. As desert people have needed to travel to find available food and water, they have developed tools and weapons with multiple uses so that few need to be carried. Temporary shelter is built to be used briefly before being abandoned, so it is flexible and easy to construct.
Prior to European settlement, the wet tropics rainforests in the north east of the continent were one of the most populated areas of Australia, and the only area where Aboriginal people of Australia lived permanently in the rainforest.
The rainforest environment provided everything - spirituality, identity, social order, shelter, food and medicine. Aboriginal people also had an excellent economic system in place that involved the bartering of resources among different tribal groups. The coastal lowlands were particularly productive and could sustain a relatively large population. A rich array of plants and animals provided a steady food source as they travelled seasonally throughout the area.