RELIGION AND POLITICS IN AUSTRALIA
LECTURE 18 (October 8 2007)
ABORIGINAL SPIRITUAL BELIEFS AND AUSTRALIAN POLITICS
1. Definitions and Questions
• Sacred Sites: places that hold religious significance for Aborigines
because of their connection with the ancestral spirit beings of Dreamtime.
…a large area, such as Uluru; more commonly they are confined to a
waterhole, a rock painting, a burial site, a shell midden, a carved tree, or a
scattering of artefacts” (Oxford Companion to Australian History)
• Dreamtime: refers to the spiritual dimension of Aboriginal existence,
linking the present to the time of world creation” (OCAH)
• Oral tradition handed down from generation to generation (therefore
suspect?); secrecy both on principle and for practical reasons of protection
(acceptable to the Western legal tradition?)
• Types of religious belief: doctrinal, mythical, ritual, ethical, social and
experiential (Maddox). What type are Aboriginal spiritual beliefs?
• Is Aboriginal traditional historical and static or evolving? Government is
more comfortable with a static tradition. This became an issue in the
Coronation Hill case.
• Is there something inherent in Aboriginal beliefs that weaken their
political impact? That is, because their manifestation is quite different to
the doctrinal/personal beliefs of Christianity and some non-Christian
religions like Islam and Judaism.
• Are Aboriginal beliefs treated less seriously by Australians than Christian
beliefs? “Indigenous religion has, at crucial moments in Australian policy
and practice, not been accorded respect in equal terms or measure with
that accorded to Christian religion” [Hindmarsh Island dispute] (Sheen).
• Is the case for land rights made stronger by the language of sacred sites?
See Goot and Rowse, Divided Nation, 2007 for public opinion surveys.
2. Sacred Sites and Contemporary Australian Politics
• Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act
(Comm.):”sacredness” is one ground for protecting heritage