The spirituality of Aboriginal people in Australia is traditionally associated with specific tracts of land in diverse ways. The ancestral spirits permeate social life, and individuals within each group develop a genuine sense of belonging with the spiritual and physical landscapes. Within individual regions, various social groups possess certain traits in addition to their spiritual beliefs. They have a shared language or dialect and economic system, and particular songs and ceremonies that belong to their specific clan. Descent groups occupy particular environments and come to be associated with specific territories. Children at birth are taught which descent group they belong to and what part of the land is theirs to be part of and protect. They are taught songs and told stories about their ancestors.
There have been perhaps 300 language groups in Aboriginal Australia. Today, many of those languages no longer exist. There are approximately 20 languages still spoken by more than a few people. As none of the languages were written, many have been lost forever. Clans or other descent-based groups comprised the social frameworks within each. Descent groups acted as guardians of the land inherited from their ancestors. By belonging to a clan, individuals are provided with a birthright, a passport to a portion of the land, shared customs, and the obligation to comply with the rigorous rules of the social structure that accompany clan membership. All children learn these rules at an early age. At each stage of development, they are expected to know and behave in certain ways in relationship to their own family, the land, and their spiritual relationship to both.
Clans consist of men, women, and children who are considered to be descendants of the same ancestor or ancestors, but whom at any one time, are scattered throughout a number of different lands. All clan members within a language group are related, even if distantly, and all relationships are recognized and respected. Unwritten rules govern how people are addressed by one another and what behaviors are appropriate for each relationship and each age group. These social relationships and rules are all part of the laws of the Dreaming.
At birth, children possess their own spiritual presence, and the rest of the group already knows their kinship ties. They are given a special name at a ceremony. From their earliest days, children live within their kin structure and are gradually taught how to behave toward other people. They have special kinship terms and relationships. For example, it is common for the mother's brother to occupy the most important place in the life of a male child, guiding the young boy along the early steps towards initiation and manhood.
An extended family usually lives at the same camp and moves about the territory as a group. Kinship is a crucial element in the structuring of social and spiritual relationships in Aboriginal societies. Kinship is of prime importance throughout Aboriginal Australia, and is applied to all people inclusively. It is part of the spiritual relationship to the land and their ancestors. In traditional societies, everyone with whom an Aboriginal person comes into social contact is likely to be recognized as some kind of relative. Every individual is connected to everyone else by descent, marriage, or some other form of affiliation. To an outsider, the network of relationships and obligations might seem complex. Nobody remains outside the kinship system, and all are required to carry out their obligations and responsibilities toward others and the land. No one is forgotten. If children are left orphaned or adults widowed, they are incorporated into the kinship system. This in turn connects all to a spiritual life. In its simplest form, the notion of kin is based on the idea that a man calls his brother's children son and daughter. In turn, they address him as father as they do their biological father. A man's sister's children are considered son and daughter.
Traditionally, spiritual beliefs permeate every aspect of life. The spirit helps the individual pass through a series of important life events or rites of passage. The laws are laid down in the Dreaming. The Dreaming is a term used to describe the spiritual, natural, and moral order of the cosmos. Each life segment brings with it a set of rights and obligations.
Children spend a lot of their time in the company of other youngsters and various adults, especially members of the extended family. They enjoy great freedom as long as their actions do not harm anyone and they obey instructions such as staying clear of dangerous and sacred places. Proper respect to elders and family is to be shown at all times. Many of the proper ways of behaving are conveyed to children through stories and songs around the campfire. These stories vary from region to region and are passed on orally. The stories have several levels. The first stories were for children and all community members. The same story may vary in information for different ages and contain sacred information. Art and drawings are also used to convey spiritual information linking always to the land.