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Prior to European invasion in 1788, were Aboriginal people simply nomads who wandered around the wilderness purposelessly, aimlessly?  This is what a lot of mainstream Australian society seems to think about the history of this continent pre-colonization.

“Our law enabled more than five hundred nations to live on and manage this country from the first sunrise…” – Wayne ‘Coco’ Wharton, Kooma man and veteran Aboriginal rights campaigner

These nations/tribes had established trade networks spanning hundreds of miles, facilitating the exchange of weapons, tools, ochre, food, language, song, dance and story.  Neighbouring groups would also often gather to conduct ceremony, arrange marriages and settle disputes.

Prominent First Nations artist and Gamilaraay elder Marshall Bell says legislation like the 1993 Native Title Act imposes an “isolationist” view of Aboriginal tribes and “feeds into the myth that blackfellas only lived in their own tribal areas and didn’t move out of that area”.

Listen to Uncle Marshall Bell explain how the story of Waraba the turtle dispels this myth

Waraba the turtle
Marshall Bell











In order to maintain “healthy country” and equilibrium with the land, clan groups (subsections of the larger tribes/nations) would only stay in one area for a certain amount of time, typically moving around with the seasons.  For instance, the Himberrong clan of the Anaiwan nation would travel from their camp at Inglebah (one hour south of Armidale, NSW) to the coast during the winter.  This ensured there would always be sufficient food for the next season.

In his acclaimed book The Biggest Estate on Earth, Bill Gammage reveals the intricate and highly sophisticated ways in which First Nations people managed this country for thousands of years.

“There was no wilderness.  The Law – an ecological philosophy enforced by religious sanction – compelled people to care for all their country.  People lived and died to ensure this.  Management was active not passive, alert to season and circumstance, committed to a balance of life.”

Neville Bonner, the first Aboriginal person to become a Member of Parliament in Australia, noted that “there were no fences or barriers as in the traditional European way of marking land”.

“Indigenous people had their own way of dividing areas into traditional lands by using geographic boundaries such as rivers, lakes and mountains,” said Mr Bonner, a Jaggera elder.  “The knowledge about boundaries was then passed down by the elders to the younger people through songs, dance, art and storytelling.”

According to First Nations philosopher Mary Graham (Kombumerri & Waka Waka), tribal groups “had quite formal relations with their neighbours”.  Clans would often have disputes over borders and go through the process of negotiation and signing of verbal treaties.  “A lot of people were multilingual and there was a whole system of law that provided meaning and social order in life,” says Ms Graham.  “It was a really well thought out and very old system.”

Listen to Aunty Mary Graham talk about some of complex workings of tribal relations

Mary Graham