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Essentialism is a general view of specific properties possessed by a group as collective and not dependent on environment or circumstances. Essentialism is used in identifying essential cultural distinctiveness of a particular nation or culture and thus a group such as the Australian Indigenous people can be recognizes in such a manner.
Identity on the other hand is used to depict an individual’s knowledge of him or herself as a discrete, separate entity as well as the individual’s self-affiliation or recognition by others as a component of a cultural group. The Australian Indigenous people are generally known as the Australian Aborigines. This essay therefore essentially aims at discussing the cultural individuality of the Australian Aborigines as well as the universal acknowledgment of the Australian Aborigines’ practices.
It is estimated that the first inhabitants of Australia arrived approximately 40,000 to 70,000 years ago. Aborigines are thought to be the descendants of the inhabitants who arrived in Australia through a single migration though there are contravening arguments that suggest the Aborigines are descendants of individuals who arrived in Australia in three waves of migration (Frederick, 1987).
Once settled, the inhabitants divided themselves into a number of clans comprising of five to forty individuals (Tatz, 2005). According to Claire & Koch (2004), these clans were then integrated into nations with each nation having its own language or languages. The total number of nations was two hundred and fifty; therefore there existed more than two hundred and fifty languages.
A minimum population number of 315,000 inhabitants were approximated during the initial arrival of Europeans in 1788 to Australia, though it is possible that there existed more than 700,000 inhabitants (Paradies, 2006). Aborigines are thought to have lived as hunters and gatherers since they hunted animals for meat and cultivated the land for food.
Aboriginal communities were usually itinerant or else semi-nomadic since they depended on the availability of food and favorable seasonal conditions to settle in a given area (Lunn, 2008). For this reason, population densities varied in different regions with the greatest population being located in the southern and eastern regions, mostly the River Murray valley (Hughes, 2008).
Read (1981) indicates that the existing nations/clans managed to have a relatively cordial relationship though currently the nations no longer exist and approximately 200 languages are extinct or on the brink of extinction. Australian Indigenous people have often been referred to as “black” due to their superficial physiognomy rather than ethnology (Gardiner, 2000). Also the Australian Indigenous people have been commonly classified together with other black skin peoples of Asia and Africa (Paradies, 2006).
There were more than 250 languages used amongst the Indigenous Australians before the Europeans arrived in the continent. Currently, there are less than twenty languages still being spoken by all age groups with most of the other languages being rendered extinct (Hughes, 2008). It is interesting to note that the mainland languages spoken by the Australian Aboriginal people have no relation to any other languages outside Australia (Frederick, 1987).
The Pama-Nyungan languages and the non-Pama Nyungan are the two major languages spoken by the Australian indigenous people (Flannery, 1994). Most common are the Pama-Nyungan languages and the related languages which are widely used by most communities of the Australian indigenous people. According to Lunn (2008), the non-Pama-Nyungan languages on the other hand are spoken by a secluded minority who are mostly located in the northern parts of Australia, around the Gulf of Carpentaria and the Western Kimberley.
The Australian Aboriginal people practiced a hunter-gatherer lifestyle which consequently meant they moved often in search of food and also due to seasonal/climatic change. The Aboriginal people are also known to have altered certain aspects of the environment to create favorable conditions for certain species plants to grow. They also practiced “firestick farming” where they laid dry grass in specific areas seasonally in order to attract animals for capture (Paradies, 2006).
Men were responsible for hunting the big game such as kangaroos and emus where they used spears, clubs and snares and hunted individually or in small groups of two to three members (Flannery, 1994). Young men and boys hunted for smaller animals such as marsupials, birds and fish and the smaller animals were trapped either using snares or fish traps. Women on the other hand were responsible for providing vegetative food so their work was primarily foraging for nuts, tubers, seeds and small game.
Women foraged in large groups and spent several hours doing so since vegetation comprised 80% of the Aboriginal meals. In addition, the Australian indigenous people had tools which were however simple. Men had spears, clubs and spear thrower while women used a digging stick. Several Aboriginal tribes caught fish using lines made of crude shell or wooden hooks or set fish traps in rivers and along the coast to capture fish (Read, 1981).
As indicated by Paradies (2006), due to the Aboriginal spiritual beliefs regarding ‘the Dreamtime’ and mutual respect for the land; symbolic totemic associations between human and nonhuman species were common. Killing and eating the totem was regarded as a taboo since the animal was considered sacred. Some foods were also regarded as taboo during certain stages of life in both men and women. Wallaby and bandicoot were prohibited to girls, since they were thought to cause premature puberty.
Young boys were also denied certain species of bandicoot since they were considered to cause discoloration of facial hair leading to a brownish beard instead of a black one (Frederick, 1987). Men also refrained from eating certain plants, while animal parts such as heart, liver and kidneys were reserved for highly regarded individuals (Claire & Koch, 2004). Pregnant women were forbidden from eating bitter tubers since it was thought the tubers caused miscarriages or stunted growth of the child (Gardiner, 2000).
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Culture of the Australian Indigenous people
The Australian Aboriginal people have a vast number of tribes which breakdown to diverse language groups and hence cultural practices differ according to the tribes. There were initially various different groups, due to the fact that 250 nations existed and each nation had numerous clans which had different cultural practices.
According to Hughes (2008), these cultures integrated as time progressed and eventually a more common culture among the tribes was adapted. Due to the convergence of the tribes to common ancestry, cultural practices tend to have many similarities (Claire & Koch, 2004); The Australian Aborigines have customarily believed in an animist spiritual structure with most of the tribes having a symbolic totem which is usually an animal.
The Rainbow Serpent and Bunjil are considered to be the most common spiritual figures among the Australian indigenous people (Frederick, 1987). Aboriginals also believe in a significant period in the secluded precedent referred to as ‘the Dreamtime’ when the initial ancestors known as the First Peoples moved through the land, creating earthly beings and naming them along their journey.
In addition, they believe “The Dreaming” takes place simultaneously both in the ancient time of creation and the current reality in parallel levels of the land (Gibson & Dunbar-Hall, 2005). Indigenous Australia’s oral folklore and spiritual principles are subject to the respect for the land and also influenced by the Dreamtime era.
Different Indigenous Australian communities developed distinctive songs, musical instruments and folk styles (Gibson & Dunbar-Hall, 2005).
For instance, Clapping sticks were a prominent musical instrument among the Australian Aboriginal people and they were used to control and maintain the rhythm of a song. Another widely accepted and an Aboriginal associated musical instrument is the didgeridoo, which was conventionally used and uniquely made by the inhabitants of the eastern Kimberley region and Arnhem Land for example the Yolngu, and the instrument was exclusively played by the men in these communities (Gibson & Dunbar-Hall, 2005).
The Australian Aboriginal people expressed their experiences and imagination through painting which was mostly done on rock surfaces. However, some tribes also developed another painting skill which allowed them to peel off tree barks and use them as painting surfaces. The paintings were made of brown color with paint derived from ochre and the paintings usually reflected their view of Dreamtime (Flannery, 1994).
The Australian Aboriginal people have been known to suffer tremendously in the modernized conditions in Australia. Aboriginal students attain lower education on average when compared to their peers. According to Tatz (2005), only a small group of less than 25% of indigenous adults had a professional or higher education prerequisite as compared to about 50% of the whole Australian population.
Consequently, the unemployment rate of the Australian Aboriginal people is relatively high on a national scale, regardless of the preferential employment policies. This has led the Australian Aboriginals to adapt a lower standard of living relative to all Australians and as a result they have a higher fatality rate due to lack of access to medical facilities.
This has ended up causing frustration among the Aboriginals which conversely has encouraged substance abuse that has partly led to the high rate of fatalities. In addition, substance abuse and employment have led to a higher crime rate among the Aboriginals with about 11 out of 20 prisoners in Australia being indigenous Australians.
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Flannery, T. (1994) The Future Eaters: An Ecological History of the Australasian Lands and People. Atlanta: Grove Press.
Frederick, R. (1987) The Traditional Mode of Production of the Australian Aborigines. Sydney: Angus and Robertson.
Gardiner, J. G. (2000) The Definition of Aboriginality. Web.
Gibson, C., & Dunbar-Hall, P. (2005) Deadly Sounds, Deadly Places: Contemporary Aboriginal Music in Australia. South Wales: UNSW Press.
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