Creation stories follow a general pattern, all related to the land and landscape. Before creation, the land now called Australia was a barren place, devoid of all human life. In the Dreamtime, Ancestral Beings came down from the stars and rose from the earth. They moved across the land, singing into existence an intricate network of rivers, deserts, mountains, forest, animals, and birds. They stretched to the sun announcing; "I am Ant!" "I am Snake!" "I am Kangaroo!" "I am Emu!" As they called out the names they created sacred songs that brought aspects of the land into being. Each region would be influenced by several powerful figures and those Ancestral Beings would then continue to support and resource the communities living within that area. When their work was done, the Ancestral Beings sank into the earth or returned to the sky, ready to be called upon by prescribed ritual. Australian Aboriginals understand that they act as custodians of the land, and are therefore responsible for protecting the world of the spirit beings that created the land and still live in mountains, waterholes, trees, rocks, and sky. The Ancestral Beings are honored and called to protect the land by prescribed rituals of the elders. The places on the earth where Ancestral Beings brought forth life are still known as sacred sites.
The all-pervasive powers of the Ancestral Beings of the Dreaming are present in the land and natural species, and reside within individuals. Particular groups, tribes, or clans fulfill their responsibilities, working within a highly complex structure that incorporates spiritual belief, sacred law, ceremonies, kinship, and places in a particular area with which they have been associated for many thousands of years. It is associated with their day-to-day survival in provision of food and medicines, ritual songs, objects, and graphic designs.
One of the best-known sacred sites in Australia is Uluru (Ayers Rock), on the land of the Pitjantjatjara people, which is of particular significance to the Mala (Wallaby) and Kunia (Carpet Snake) clans. There are many other sacred sites throughout Australia. In simple terms, sacred sites are like churches. Each site has particular meaning and significance and special ceremonies and ways of behaving associated with it. Often their location and significance are closely guarded secrets and cannot be shared with outsiders. It is not proper to discuss sacred sites with everyone, as some sites are only to be shared by men and some sites are only for women. Men's and women's business are scrupulously segregated, but of equal power and importance in traditional societies.
Land represents the mainspring of the psyche and well-being of the people who inhabit a certain territory. Communities and individuals are still directly responsible for the protection of the land under their guardianship. This responsibility or custodianship forms the basis of much of the conflict that continues to exist between Aborigines and those who operate in a way that abuses the sacred obligations placed on those who inhabit the land. Land can never be sold or traded, as it represents a sacred bequest from the Ancestral Beings and the Dreaming.
Specialized knowledge of any territory, such as details of ritual and the more intimate details of the particular relationship of any community to their traditional lands, is jealously guarded. It is considered sacrilegious to share privileged information with outsiders. From an early age children are taught relationships and knowledge about their role in learning and passing on rituals and information belonging to their particular family group.
Aboriginal law is very sacred and complex. Ceremonial objects used in rituals to do with the law are revered, and kept in the possession of either the "clever man" or "clever woman." It is a serious transgression of the law to look upon them, even by accident. Aboriginal elders are "wise men and clever women" who have the sacred responsibility of acting as guardians of the land and the sites created by the Ancestral Beings. They believe that disturbance of a sacred site by entering without the appropriate ceremony represents a violation of that trust that has been handed down for hundreds of generations, long before Australia was settled by others. All children are taught to show respect to their elders.
The Ancestral Beings are still relevant today. Dayto- day activities are carried out within the framework of that original structure created many thousands of years ago. They continue to inspire, protect, support, and govern daily life of traditional Aboriginal people, and are recognized by all Aborigines, even those who have grown up in cities. The Dreaming has deep and sacred meanings. It is inaccurate to refer to Dreaming stories as fables or folklore, as the Dreaming is not fictitious to many Aboriginal people.
This traditional and complex culture was in no way prepared to encounter white explorers and settlers from alien cultures with a vastly different belief system. The colonizers believed that Australia was an empty continent, or terra nullius, which is Latin for "a land belonging to no-one." It was established as a concept in European international law in the age of European colonization. Nyoongar elder Yongar Mungan tells the story of Aboriginal leader Yellagonga who, when greeted by Captain James Stirling in the southwest of Western Australia, "He bowed and offered his country and resources to the settler." It was thought the settlers were countrymen who had returned from the spirit world. Today, many Aboriginal people in Australia still honor their traditions. All people in Australia know that to the first people of Australia the land was filled with an intricate web of Dreaming. "We walk together on sacred ground. Black feet, white feet, footprints, soft upon the land. The Tjukurpa (Pitjantjatjara word for Dreaming) moves beneath our feet. The landscape is alive."-Anon.