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Aboriginal dream

By combining Aboriginal traditions with IT networking pupils could become lifetime guardians of biodiversity, suggests David Murray.

Moses Mangiru is affectionately known to his Kunbarllanjnja (Gunbalanya) Aboriginal community as green ant. This animal is his "Dreaming". Dreaming or Dreamtime is the beginning of time when the world was created by supernatural beings. Spirit ancestors wandered through the land, created the physical environment and land forms, gave life to plants, animals and humans and established the order - laws, customs and beliefs - of Aboriginal society. Ancestral beings charged each family group with the care of a land area and everything living upon it.

Kunbarllanjnja teacher Joseph Singh believes that "when we are deceased we go back into the land. Because my Dreaming is salt water turtle maybe my spirit will go back into the sea and I'll become a green back turtle".

Today each Aboriginal must still look after his or her Dreaming or totem. David Mowaljarlai's totem is hibiscus: "All people were given jobs to look after the nature; some snakes, some lizards, some birds. These people will represent mountain, another lot grass, another lot whistle ducks, another lot river, somebody else stringy bark tree."

Jerry Blitner, retired Northern Land Council chairman and a Christian since the age of three, rejects the sacred ceremony but agrees: "We are put in this world to conserve the things that we look into. That's why we have a totem system. My totem, that I have to look after sincerely, is the king brown (snake). My wife's is a frilled neck lizard. Everybody's got different animals."

Aborigines retain totemic links with ancestral significant, or sacred sites and with traditional foods, bush tucker. The Dreamings of Sammy Nardvmalu's Croker Island clan are rock paintings. Maningrida children can eat family totems - wallaby, python, goanna, crocodile, magpie goose - only during sacred ceremonies.

This Aboriginal concept of totem is entirely relevant today to the conservation of our native species, many of which are facing extinction. The strong ties between the land and Aboriginal peoples have diminished since European settlement began, upsetting a unique environmental balance. Many Aborigines believe that the decline of Australian native species is partly because traditional ecological knowledge has not been handed down to children; and old people, who "held the law" for those animals and plants, have died. In Britain today, estrangement from our natural environment is more advanced. Most of us have little or no meaningful interaction with the land or with its wild fauna and flora.

Alienation of the masses from nature is inexorably linked to Britain's ecological crises. The variety of British wildlife is diminishing at an alarming rate. This century 183 known species have been lost and 64 threatened species, almost half of which live only in the UK, face global extinction. More than 3,500 threatened land species are already listed in British red data books as either "extinct", "endangered", "vulnerable", or "rare" (at risk). This includes 141 flowering plants, 27mammals, numerous birds and insects and a presently inestimable number of marine creatures. At least 10 distinct UK habitat types, including deciduous woodland and wildflower meadows and hedgerows, are "very rare".

Most British people, including school children, have little incentive for committed, continuous involvement in the protection and improvement of their natural heritage. They have no easy access to information or ecologically important sites, feel unable to help determine land care programmes and cannot perceive the significance of their contributions in the context of maintaining the variety of species and habitats. Most importantly, they have no personal, valued relationship with any specific habitat or its wildlife. Limited and transient participation in occasional surveys, public campaigns or practical tasks, though valuable, will not by itself ensure what Aborigines call "caring for the land". Each person needs a totem.

would like to see each British primary school develop a special relationship with one native plant or animal. If all 27,000 primary schools decided to adopt at least one totem we would be moving closer towards a more meaningful interaction with wildlife and a better understanding of the land. Indeed, several totemic groups, analogous to Aboriginal families, could be established in any school. As Joseph Singh explains: "Each Aboriginal person owns something. He belongs to something. So if each person does his job and looks after, maintains, that thing he owns, we make up a big picture, like a puzzle."

Maningrida teacher Gordon Mathbioobirr shares the same Dreaming as Jerry Blitner, the king brown. Likewise geographically disparate schools might choose the same totem. Neighbouring schools could, in consultation with each other, define their respective land boundaries of concern.

What are the local criteria for species adoption? No living thing is an insignificant conservation target. Many of our "internationally important" species are common. We must preserve that abundance. Numerous species are "declining" dramatically in range and numbers. "Localised" species can be found at only a few sites. "Rare" species may soon not exist. In choosing our totem, we must reawaken forgotten cultural links with the land. Historical traditions - festivals, play and rhymes, food, medicines and occupations - suggest priorities. Ancient named geological and geographical landmarks, including fields, streets and dwellings, provide clues. Professional ecologists, archaeologists, landowners and voluntary organisations can help.

I am campaigning for the establishment of a new national environmental resource consisting of an organic national database able to take voluntary contributions from all interested primary schools by the year 2000. If it succeeds, pupils will be able to implement and develop that resource directly by means of telephone connections through the Internet. Anyone will be able to search for information collected and donated by each totemic group. This may include historical, biological and geographical facts, species and habitat status updates, survey results and related practical conservation carried out by the school. Environmental impacts, protection campaigns, bibliographic details and enlisted authoritative individuals - if they exist - can also be recorded. Called "Dreaming", this interactive, multi-media approach would mean that pupils, as they leave school and move around the country, can continue to add to the nationally held information about their totem because the Internet is accessible everywhere.

By combining the totem philosohy with the data-recording on the internet, each of our 6,000 secondary schools could play a crucial role. In addition to liaising with feeder primaries about appropriate totems, they would inherit a unique responsibility towards several plants, animals and habitats. In Leicestershire, a secondary school might represent up to 25 primaries and 44 geographic areas. Pupils would need encouragement and guidance to develop the resource. Teachers could systematically nurture pupils' sincere desires to become future totemic guardians. Inevitable European links, particularly where common species are identified, should also be developed.

Adopting a totem doesn't only mean learning about that species. It must not degenerate to merely working on species or habitat conservation, which is of immense value, for a day or week each year. It means understanding how that living thing interacts with other living things, how we can best sustain its survival and guard against its destruction throughout our lives. It offers an opportunity to appreciate the interrelationship of that totem with other totems from the same and similar habitats.

Successful long-term strategies to conserve our species and ecosystem varieties demand more than the public's awareness, understanding and support. Local communities must be empowered to own and initiate proposals, decisions and outcomes. Children can entice their parents, through a totem system, to share continuing, purposeful responsibility for land care. Only then will everyone identify with particular habitats, whether located in urban or rural surroundings. Individuals will begin to realise that they, like the Aborigines, are part of the land.

We may never appreciate the genetic significance of the probable demise of the ant, Formica pratensis, last sighted in 1988. But our aim must be to ensure that in the next millennium no creature which forms part of the national ecosystem is ever driven to extinction. Aboriginal sacred sites provide a spiritual connection between the past and life today and in the future. Our significant wildlife areas areas must not in the 21st century be confined to nature reserves. By making five million school children the guardians of this land now, we have a real chance of achieving that goal.

oIf you would like to register your interest in a national totemic database being set up, write to David Murray at Matilda Quest, Magazine House, 11 Newark Street, Leicester, LE1 5SS

David Murray is a biologist and director of Matilda Quest, which organises conservation expeditions

Examples of well-known UK threatened species

Category................ Species

Extinct...........large tortoiseshell butterfly, greater mouse-eared bat, ant (F. pratensis)?

Globally threatened...... blue ground beetle, medicinal leech, corncrake, large blue butterfly

International important.... bluebell, gannet, grey seal

Declining...... three-lobed crowfoot (buttercup), spreading hedge parsley, high brown fritillary butterfly, chequered skipper butterfly, scarlet tiger moth, salmon, natterjack toad, sand lizard, tree sparrow, kestrel, barn owl, pipestrelle bat, water vole.

Localised.... alpine forget-me-not, moths, oyster catcher, greater horseshoe bat.

Rare........ lichens, mosses, beetles, sturgeon, osprey, pine marten, wildcat.

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