The Dreamtime and Its Importance in Indigenous Australian Culture

Indigenous Australians are the world’s oldest existing culture on earth. According to archeological evidence, their history spans from 50,000 years to 80,000 years old. Indigenous Australians have preserved their history through stories called The Dreamtime, Dreamtime stories, or Creation stories.

These stories describe how the land came into existence as a creation of their Ancestral Beings, who still exist in the land today. These stories illustrate the deep and complex relationship that Indigenous Australians have with the country. Dreamtime stories illustrate the strong and unique bond Indigenous Australians have to the land, what Australians today call, country.

Indigenous Australians View the World Through Dreamtime 

Indigenous Australians dotted artwork of the Dreamtime depicts three spirit beings dancing amidst blue and yellow dots

Around the time of British colonization in 1778, there were 250 Indigenous languages. In addition, there were 500 different clan groups or ‘nations.’ The  Dreamtime stories differ from nation to nation and describe how ancestral beings, called the First People, brought the physical world into being. Indigenous Australians would carry on Dreamtime stories through dances, traditions, kinship structures, and songlines.

A songline is also a ‘Dreaming track’ and is one of the paths in the physical world which mark the presence of ancestral beings. The paths of the songlines are recorded in art, ceremonies, and song cycles. The people within a specific songline region will be the custodians and tellers of the story of that land. Different streams, rocks, or indents in the ground are the physical tracks that trace the First Peoples’ footsteps and stories. For this reason, the land is sacred to Indigenous Australians and an essential part of their identity.

The longest songline extends 3500 kilometers across the country or 2200 miles. This songline connects the Central Desert Region to the beaches of the East Coast. The songlines are carried through the country through song and practice and passed down to future generations. The songlines how Indigenous Australians keep the land alive.

Relationship to Country 

The Australian desert at sunset, with rock formations in the distance and bush scrub underneath

The Dreamtime stories show us that every rock, mountain, lake, or tree has a story connected to the First People of Indigenous Australians. They are passed on generationally and tie people to Country in a profound and intimate way. Telling the stories of the land and the First People keeps the Country healthy and alive. As a result, indigenous peoples have a strong sense of identity with their relationship to Country.

To Indigenous Australians, Country does not just mean plants, rocks, or sites, but rather a complex relationship between all living things. People, plants, the First People, and animals. Country is a place, but it is also a sense of belonging and identity and a belief system. The Dreaming is a story of what was but also what Country still is today.

The Rainbow Serpent 

The most well-known Dreamtime story tells of the Rainbow Serpent, an ancestral being who slept beneath the earth when it was empty and formless. One day he woke from his sleep and went out onto the surface of the earth, leaving long winding trails in the ground wherever he had been. She wandered like that for a long time until she found her way back to where she had been sleeping.

When she came back, she called out for the frogs to come out onto the surface. So they did, with their stomachs full of water that they had been storing during their sleep. The Rainbow Serpent tickled them, and they couldn’t stop themselves from laughing and spitting out water everywhere. This water trickled into the tracks that the Rainbow Serpent had left and became every river and stream on earth.

Eventually, other animals came to the surface to live under and around the trees that sprung up by the lake. The Rainbow Serpent created laws so that everyone could live peacefully on the earth, but some of the animals caused problems. The Rainbow Serpent then said that if the animals obeyed the laws, they would be gifted human form, and those who did not would be turned to stone. Those who broke the law turned into stone, which became the mountains, hills, and cliffs.

Those who obeyed the law, however, were gifted human form to more easily roam the earth. So the Rainbow Serpent divided them into clans and gave each its totem. For example, the emu, kangaroo, or reptile from their region. Each clan could not eat their totem but only hunt the other, ensuring the protection of animals and that there would be food for all. 

Indigenous Australians Dreamtime dotted artwork depicting the Rainbow Serpent Spirit in multi-colours

Rainbow Serpent Rituals

The Rainbow Serpent is a significant part of Indigenous Australian practice and Dreamtime stories. Some rituals are necessary to respect the Rainbow Serpent and ensure harmony with the natural world. For example, when approaching a water hole, it is important to sing out to the Spirit from a distance away. This way, she knows that someone is coming and that they have good intentions. She can also then understand that these people know who she is and her power and are from that land.

While singing out to the Rainbow Serpent from afar, they will rub earth onto their bodies so that she can smell them. Once this ritual is complete, it is safe to approach the water hole to drink or swim. 

an Indigenous Australians Dreamtime artwork on a rock next to a peaceful waterhole in the middle of the Australian desert.

The Seven Sisters

Perhaps one of the most widely known and told Dreamtime stories amongst Indigenous Australians is the tale of the Seven Sisters. The songline for this story stretches from the desert to the sea and carries across multiple languages, clans, and dialects.

The Seven Sisters story is a mythology of what we call the star cluster of the Pleiades. The story goes that the group of stars are the Napaljarri sisters from one clan. The morning star, Jukurra-jukurra, from another clan called Jakmarra, is in love with the seven sisters. However, he is of the wrong clan or ‘skin name’ and cannot marry them. So he chases them across the sky, and they run away from him. 

Eventually, the seven sisters, running from the Jakmarra man, dig a cave into the side of a hill. Coming out the other side and desperate to get away, they launch themselves into the sky. Following them, the man also launches himself into the sky, which we see every night when the Pleiades rise. It is the man Wati launching himself into the sky to chase the seven sisters.

The Dreamtime story of the Seven Sisters can be seen in many important Indigenous Australian artworks. 

An artwork depicting the tale of the Seven Sisters shows seven black figures in a blue sky, next to an image of the star constellation

The Story of Tiddalik

Another of the most widely told Dreamtime stories among Indigenous Australians is that of Tiddalik the Frog. Tiddalik, the largest Frog in existence, woke from a nap one day with such an unquenchable thirst that he decided to drink every drop of water on earth. As a result, every lake, river, and puddle was empty. 

It didn’t take long for the earth to start wilting, and all the other animals gathered to determine what should be done. Finally, they decided that they would take turns making the Frog laugh, and indeed, he would eventually laugh so hard he would spit out his water. 

The emu, kangaroo, kookaburra, lizards all told their best jokes to no avail. Eventually, the eel crept up from his dry river bed and began to contort himself into different shapes and knots. Finally, Tiddalik couldn’t hold back his laughter any longer and spat out all the water on the earth and replenished the lakes and watering holes again. 

An Indigenous artwork of Tiddalik the frog in blue and green dotts on a black background

Uluru Dreaming 

It is difficult to express in the English language how Dreamtime stories are an ongoing spiritual connection with Country for Indigenous Australians. For the Anangu in the Central Desert Australia, the dreaming can be seen in Tjukupar, which they call the physical manifestation of the First people. 

For the Anangu, the site of Uluru is full of Tjukupar, marking songlines all over and around the rock. One of these is the story of the Mala people who came to Uluru to make inma or ceremony. In preparation, they raised the ceremonial pole called Ngaltawata.

As the Mala was preparing food for their inma, they were approached by some Wintalka men. The men invited the  Mala to their inma. The Mala said no, as preparations for their inma had already begun. The Wintalka men were angry and created an evil spirit called Kurpany to attack the Mala and ruin their inma. 

As Kurpany was on his way, a woman named Luunpa, from another clan, warned them that she had seen him coming to attack. However, the  Mala people ignored her. Because of this, Kurpany attacked and killed two of their men, with the rest of the Mala people fleeing to the country’s south. The songline continues in this southern part of the country.

Today, Luunpa is still at Uluru, in the form of a large stone. The inma ceremonial pole is also still there, a large portion of the rock that stretches up the side of Uluru. There are no photographs of this part of Uluru, as it is a sacred site. Indigenous culture prohibits the photography of certain sacred places and Tjukupar.


Ulurua at sunset, with pink and purple clouds being the bright red rock

Dreamtime Hunting Central to Indigenous Australians

The Indigenous cosmology is a kinship system and belief system and a way of protecting and maintaining the environment. Because Indigenous Australians see the natural world and animals as their ancestors and kin, they are responsible for protecting the environmental balance. There were specific techniques and seasons for hunting that ensured no species ever became endangered.

Dreamtime practices in hunting and fishing make sure the land is physically and spiritually maintained. For example, there was a sacred cave in Arand land where the people kept sacred objects or food. Because the cave is a sacred, neutral area, hunting is not allowed in or around it. They will not track a frightened or wounded animal that has sought refuge in this area.

Overhunting never occurs because the land is divided into restricted or open areas for hunting, fishing, or gathering. The prohibition of hunting totem animals also ensures this.

An Indigenous Australian artwork of a Dreamtime story featuring human figures and animals painted in brown and black

The Significance of Dreamtime for Indigenous Australians

For Indigenous Australians, Dreamtime stories represent a shared sense of kinship with the natural world, animals, water, humans, and ancestral beings. Therefore, as we read the Dreamtime stories, we begin to see and feel the landscape the way Indigenous Australians do.

The British colonization of Australia resulted in the contraction of diseases in the Indigenous nations. As a result, many Indigenous Australians died during the initial white settler years. They were also displaced from their traditional lands by violence and discrimination. This results in a rapid decrease in the Indigenous population of up to 80% in a few short years. Indigenous people who wished to maintain their way of life were forced off their lands and onto the fringes of European society.

Indigenous Australians also suffered the evils of the Assimilation Policies that included removing Indigenous children from their clans to raise them in European orphanages and homes. This way, they would be educated and ‘civilized’ into European ways of life. Today, these children are now called the Stolen Generations. All of this caused a profound and devastating loss of cultural identity for Indigenous Australians.

Not only were they displaced from their land, but also their kin systems tied to that land and their songlines. Indigenous Australians now have an even greater connection with telling and passing on the Dreamtime stories. Today, telling Dreamtime stories is a way of repairing and restoring their cultural identity and claiming back their history.

An Indigenous Australian elder women sits on the sand with three children drawing images of Dreatime stories in the sand with her hands

Cultural Significance in Anthropology

Indigenous Australian identity is entangled with Dreamtime stories, rituals, and hunting, which make up a large part of their kin structure also. This has always been of great interest to anthropologists, as it is incredibly unique and distinct from Euro-American ideas of kinship and personhood.

The Dreamtime conveys a vastly different worldview and ideas about how people are related. For indigenous Australians, it is a complex web of inter-connected relations that includes humans and non-humans. However, our concept of the individual as it exists in European philosophy and Enlightenment ideas that dominate our understanding of kinship and people, is not present.

Many anthropologists have collaborated with Indigenous communities to compile knowledge about Indigenous stories and ways of life. Some anthropologists also work within the field of ‘native title.’ Native title is a branch of study that focuses on researching and recovering land that is sacred to Indigenous peoples. Not only is this important for Indigenous cultural identity, but they can then take political action to ensure the land is protected from development. Not only is this meaningful for Indigenous Australians, but also for European Australians to create a shared identity through Dreamtime history and land.

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