Sherry Balcombe – « Aboriginal Spirituality »

Sherry Balcombe

« Aboriginal Spirituality: A Testimony from Australia »

Geraldo de Mori, Michel Andraos, Bernardeth Caero Bustillos

Concilium 2019-4. Christentum und indigene Völker
Concilium 2019-4. Christianities and Indigenous Peoples
Concilium 2019-4. Cristianismos y pueblos indígenas
Concilium 2019-4. Popoli indigeni e cristianesimi
Concilium 2019-4. Les peuples indigènes et le christianisme
Concilium 2019-4. Povos indígenas e cristianismos

Aboriginal Spirituality is a feeling or connection that is not easily explained to someone who is not Aboriginal. For us, it is born in us. It is something that is handed down through our bloodlines from generation to generation. It is an unspoken knowing that all Aboriginal people possess. For this, we are truly blessed, because it is in our soul from the time of conception. For me, it was always a special connection that I did not fully understand, something deep inside me. I knew I was different from others around me but I didn’t know why.

It wasn’t until the latter teens that I understood what it was: it was my Aboriginality. And until I fully understood what it is, and the gifts that accompanied it, I was in a sense lost or missing something. As I accepted these gifts, the feeling of fulfilment, completeness, or maybe just my true belonging became for me a gift that is indescribable. It is kind of a spiritual knowing and belonging that touch you deep in your soul. As Aboriginal persons, we have an unseen connection to other Aboriginal people. When we see them in the street, we discreetly make eye contact and nod as a sign of respect and connection. This comes from us knowing that we connect, that we are brothers and sisters, even if we don’t know each other yet. 

This is something that our ancestors passed to us without knowing or needing to know. It’s just THERE.

We are born of the Spirit of this country and land. We are conceived from it. It is our home, and it is where we belong. The earth is our mother. That is the easiest way to explain it. You must always respect and protect your mother. This is linked to our survival as a race. Through our mother earth, we have a deep connection with the Creator Spirit, God.

When we are born the Traditional way, we are baptised in the land with the soil of our country. We would have animal fat rubbed on our arms and legs to make us strong and protect us. Then we would be washed in the local river or waterways. 

Traditions are very different all around Australia. What would be the norm for one community could be unknown to another. Some clans will wait for a full moon to cut the hair and nails of the baby, and then burn them in the light of the full moon, holding the baby up asking for protection from the Creator Spirit and the ancestors. In other parts, traditional beliefs are the opposite. A newborn is not allowed to see the moon until a certain age.

So we fashion our rituals and ceremonies to suit our environments, which are vastly different from one clan to another.

We learn that we are not greater than any other of God’s creation. We are equal, and as such, we must respect everything: the trees, mountains, animals, and plants. Even the seasons demand respect.

We have rituals for every season of our lives. These rituals rule our lives as they are connected to the Lore (our ancient teachings).

God gifted us with a very unique connection to the plants, animals and the waterways, not just for survival, but also for us to be fully part of everything he created. This is part of his dream for a race of people to live as one in peace and harmony with all he had created.

We have totemic relationships with all things, thereby creating a deep respect for all living and non-living things like the mountains, the hills and the soil. We knew we had to care for these things, as they are sacred to the Creator Spirit too. And as care takers of the land, we learned how to care for it properly, like for example using fire to rejuvenate and enrich the soil for future generations.

We use our totemic relationship with the birds and animals to manage our environment and animal populations. If everyone is a Kangaroo then no one can eat the Kangaroos. Their population explodes and then others members become wombats (totem’s) or snakes etc. so that they are able to eat the abundant Kangaroos. We also use our totemic relationships to suit our environment. If one particular animal was depleting, then another would thrive. We would manage the wildlife population for our well being.

Our totemic relationship with the birds and animals connects us with both the physical world and the Spiritual world. This underpins a reciprocal obligation to care for each other and the natural environment. Taking care of each other is our responsibility as the First Peoples and a gift given to us by the Creator Spirit. And what an amazing gift! It is unsurpassed by any other material or spiritual belief or item.

As we had no written language, we would use our totemic relationships as a birth, death and marriage register. Many clan groups would use the same totems to identify themselves. The Lore’s teach us that if you are a Kangaroo, you cannot marry a Kangaroo because you might be related, and if you are a Black Snake you cannot marry another Black Snake, as you could be cousins.   

This system was every intricate and involved the holders of the knowledge, the Elders. They would either approve or disapprove of a marriage.

From the beginning of time we have worshipped the Creator Spirit and listened to his calling for us. We realized that for our survival we had to obey the Lore’s that were given to us as a gift at the beginning of time.

All of our rituals, corroborees, and celebrations are to pay respect to, acknowledge, and say thanks to the Creator Spirit. As Aboriginal people, we believe that if we did not perform a particular ritual there would be consequences for the whole tribe. So our worship is also connected to our pride and dignity as peoples.

I recently attended the Laura Festival in far North Queensland where twenty local clans participated in a dance for a whole weekend. The Festival celebrates the world’s oldest continuous culture, its Aboriginal communities, languages, songs, dances and stories. Multi-generational performances showcase the strength, pride and uniqueness of Aboriginal people and their customs and traditions. Over five hundred performers participated in the festival representing the twenty communities.

The ceremony and dance ritual are extremely well practiced and are a very serious affair. Before each group performs, they do a lap of the arena around the boundary asking for permission from and dedicating the dance to the Creator Spirit. Around five thousand people visit this biennial festival, camping out around Laura and becoming fully immersed in this culturally significant celebration. I invite you to my country sometime to experience this incredible celebration.

This is the teaching of the Lore

Pride and dignity to Aboriginal people are very sacred and must always be upheld. To bring Shame on your people is almost unforgivable. We must always be respectful of Elders, whether our own or not, whether they are right or wrong. 

We consider the land to be alive as it carries a deep sacredness for us all; it is Holy land. Our song lines, our dreaming, our past, our present, and our future are deeply entwined with the land. The sense of belonging to the land has sustained and guided us for thousands and thousands of years.

Our spirituality, our faith, our culture and our Lore are all part of the oneness that all Aboriginal people possess. This truly is an amazing gift and the belonging and oneness that I speak of are the reasons why the genocide, massacres, and stolen generation did not destroy us.

Our children continue to be drawn home to their people, to belonging as if there is a secret weapon inside all of us Aboriginal people that the Creator gave to us so that we would survive. We are now starting to thrive once again. However, the untold damage done to us is still evident today. We have intergenerational trauma ravaging our communities causing a lot of dysfunction. I think this is due to the depletion of our Spirituality. Our Spirituality is what has guided us; it gave us our Lore and knowledge about how to live.

Today we try to share the sacredness of our gifts with all Australians and the Catholic Church, as these gifts enrich and deepen everyone’s connection to God. At times, it is a struggle, as many have no concept of Aboriginal peoples’ connection to the land and to our Lore. Because they learn from a book, they think ‘their way’ is the only way. There are many Indigenous communities around the world who meld their traditional faith and with the Catholic faith to create beautifully, culturally enriched services that speaks to all present. These services reach out and draw others to the beauty that exists in other cultures while strengthening the connections with the Creator.

Our faith is our connection to the country and to all that God has created.

People must remember that we have been here since the beginning of time; we have been here since Tasmania was connected to the mainland. We lived through the Ice Age and through the Mega fauna. We are here for a reason, and we have survived for a reason. What that reason is, I am not sure. Maybe it is to teach the world about the most resilient people on earth.

We are a minority in our own country and we do not have a voice. The “Uluru Statement From the Heart” in 2017 affirms that proportionally, we are the most incarcerated people on the planet, with our children languishing in detention in unprecedented numbers. But we are a strong, proud race whose resilience has helped us survive unthinkable acts of genocide. We have survived, but we still have much work to do. Our hearts are heavy, and our legs are tired, but our Spirit is stronger than ever!


Sherry Balcombe is leader of the Aboriginal Catholic Ministry, Victoria, Australia. She is also the representative member for Victoria at The National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Catholic Council (NATSICC).

Address: Aboriginal Catholic Ministry, ABN 68 374 296 945, 434 St Georges Road, PO Box 1088, Thornbury Vic 3071, Australia.