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Indigenous culture is one which shares knowledge and passes down information from generation to generation. Indigenous children learnt everything they needed to know from their family. They learnt about the Dreaming, the land, sacred sites, catching and collecting food and finding water through watching, listening and doing. Knowledge and information was also shared between groups so that information about the Dreaming and other important matters could be passed from group to group. Without this culture of sharing and conserving information and history, Indigenous culture and society would not have developed.

A culture of sharing

Before British colonisation, there were up to 600 different Indigenous language groups in Australia. Each language group had its own laws, customs and sacred sites that were part of its Dreaming. Sometimes there was contact and sharing between different groups. Groups may have traded or shared different materials including species of plants or shells, or may have come together to share in a bountiful food supply such as Bogong moths. When groups came together, they participated in ceremonies and rituals that allowed them to pass on stories and information. This sharing of knowledge explains why there are many similar elements of Indigenous culture between groups.

Indigenous families survived by sharing knowledge, information, and food. An Indigenous child was brought up not just by the mother and father, but by aunts and uncles. A child also had very strong bonds with its cousins as well as with brothers and sisters.

The family worked together to gather food and this food was shared according to customary law. Knowledge and information about important hunting grounds and bush foods was passed down to the children so they learnt how to survive. Children were shown how to do things but they also listened to stories and attended ceremonies and corroborees that taught them necessary spiritual knowledge. Some information, however, was so important that it could not be passed on until the children became adults. This information was then passed on through initiation ceremonies. Refer Image 1


In traditional Indigenous society an initiation ceremony generally took place when boys and girls reached puberty. Initiation was when girls and boys learnt about secret rituals, sacred objects and spiritual knowledge. Both girls and boys went through an initiation process, but for the boys initiation was a landmark event in their lives.

Boys were separated from normal camp life and most of their relatives. They would undergo ordeals and tests, and participate in secret ceremonies. They would learn about being a man in Indigenous society and would gain important knowledge about the Dreaming. After months, or even years, the boy would return to normal camp life as a man. He would often have some physical scars, but would be ready to share in the sacred life of his people. Refer Image 2

Initiation for girls was less intense but may have included some physical markings such as body scars or a missing tooth. At the end of her initiation, a girl left her parents' camp and was usually married to a man that had already been chosen for her.

Oral history

There were many spoken Indigenous languages in Australia, but no written language. Information was passed down to the next generation through words, storytelling, art and dance. This is known as oral history and the stories are known as the oral tradition of the Indigenous peoples.

Since there were so many spoken languages, it was often difficult for different language groups to communicate. When groups were travelling, message sticks were carried to help identify the group. Sign language using hands, the body, or facial movements could also be used to communicate with other groups; and dance and other ceremonies were conducted to share information and knowledge. Refer Image 3

It is not known how much Indigenous knowledge, information and history has been lost since the arrival of the British settlers. It is important that the knowledge and information that we do have is passed on to the generations that follow.

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1. What is it called when information is passed down through stories and words?

Written history

Oral history

Traditional history

Sign language


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