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Culture, Country & spirituality

About this topic

Culture is a broad term. It includes traditional practices, ways of understanding the world, and methods of expression such as language, celebrations and events. Country refers to an area of land or sea on which Indigenous people have a traditional or spiritual association. Spirituality is a way of understanding life and connection with others. Individual Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures have specific spiritualities that are connected to Country and community.

Culture and spirituality can be expressed through many contemporary and traditional forms including language, dress, kinship, social norms, stories, music, song, dance, visual art, literature and film. Through these practices, culture can provide a sense of belonging that contributes to individual and community wellbeing.

Connection to culture, Country and spirituality and ancestors

Connection to culture, connection to Country and connection to spirituality and ancestors are 3 of the 7 domains of social and emotional wellbeing for Indigenous Australians.

Social and emotional wellbeing is a holistic way of looking at relationships between individuals, family, kin and community in the context of land, culture, spirituality and ancestry. Cultural groups and individuals each have their own interpretation of social and emotional wellbeing (Gee et al. 2014).

Factors that support the connections to culture, Country and spirituality and ancestors include cultural education, time spent on Country, and opportunities to attend ceremonies. Factors that adversely affect these domains include services that are not culturally safe, languages being under threat, and access to Country being restricted (PM&C 2017).

Culture

Culture is informed by history and heritage. It is also dynamic as it differs across time, geographic areas and groups of people (Paradies 2006). Often, rituals and ceremonies connect person, land and place (Dudgeon et al. 2017). Taking part in traditional customs and rites of passage can provide opportunities to learn about practices, acceptable behaviours, or familial and cultural responsibilities (Dudgeon et al. 2017). Cultural activities can also provide a sense of continuity with the past and help underpin a strong identity that contributes to wellbeing (PM&C 2017).

Country

Improvements in physical and mental health outcomes can be experienced as a result of being on and caring for Country. These outcomes include improved diet, more frequent physical activity, lower blood pressure and lowered psychological distress (Burgess et al. 2009). Connection to Country can be maintained by:

  • recognising an area as Country that one belongs to
  • having access to Country
  • continuing cultural responsibilities to Country (Gee et al. 2014).

Country is a holistic concept based on the belief that all things—people, land and seas—are connected (Nursey-Bray & Palmer 2018). Management of land and seas can be disrupted by human-induced and natural environmental factors (Burgess et al. 2009).  

Spirituality

Spirituality can be described as providing ‘a sense of purpose and meaning’. The mental health and emotional wellbeing of Indigenous Australians can be influenced by their relationship with traditional beliefs and metaphysical worldviews (PM&C 2017).

In many Indigenous Australian cultures, poor connection to spirituality can adversely affect mental health. Spiritual healing practices by traditional healers may aid in the treatment of mental health conditions (Ypinazar et al. 2007). Practices can include restoring the spiritual balance of an individual through massage, coaxing and using sacred tools (Dudgeon & Walker 2015). Traditional healers (such as Ngangkaris in the Ngaanyatjarra, Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara lands) partner with psychiatrists and psychologists in contemporary practice to calm and heal a person’s spirit. Symptoms such as a weakened spirit and community disconnection may require cultural resolution and healing with culturally appropriate counselling services (Gee et al. 2014).

Key statistics

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The information presented above is from survey data. Estimates are calculated using a sample selected from a population rather than all members of that population. See the downloadable excel workbook for notes related to this data and for alternative text.

In 2018–19, 73% of Indigenous adults who lived on homelands or traditional Country experienced low or moderate psychological distress, and 27% experienced high or very high psychological distress.

In 2018–19:

  • 66% (314,170) of Indigenous Australians aged 15 and over identified with a tribal/ language group or clan.
  • 74% (357,420) recognised an area as homelands/traditional Country (AIHW & NIAA 2020).

In 2014–15:

  • 32% of surveyed Indigenous Australians living in remote areas were involved in festivals involving arts, craft, music or dance in the last year, compared to 22% living in non-remote areas.
  • Almost 2 in 3 (63% or 277,700 people) Indigenous adults and 3 in 4 (75%) children participated in selected cultural events, ceremonies or organisations in the previous year.
  • 38% of surveyed Indigenous adults (aged 15 years and over) and 34% of surveyed Indigenous children (aged 4–14 years) spoke an Australian Indigenous language or some words of the language.
  • 44% of Indigenous children had spent time with an Indigenous Elder or leader in the previous week (ABS 2016).

This information was compiled from the following data sources: ABS National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Survey (NATSIHS) 2018–19 and the ABS National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey 2014–15. More information about these data sources and data quality is available in Data sources.

The following factors should be considered when interpreting these estimates

  • Data are collected from a self-report survey, and responses may differ from information available from other sources.
  • Accuracy of responses may be affected by the length of time between events experienced and participation in the survey.
  • Some people may have provided responses they felt were expected rather than those that accurately reflect their own situation. (ABS 2019).

See ABS NATSIHS 2018–19 Methodology and NATSISS 2014–15 Explanatory notes for more information.

AIHW & NIAA (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare & National Indigenous Australians Agency) 2020. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Performance Framework. Canberra: AIHW. Viewed 17 May 2021.

ABS (Australian Bureau of Statistics) 2016. National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey, 2014–15. ABS cat. no. 4714.0. Canberra: ABS.

ABS 2019. National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health survey, 2018–19. ABS cat. no. 4715.0. Canberra: ABS.

Burgess C, Johnston F, Berry H, McDonnell J, Yibarbuk D et al. 2009. Healthy country, healthy people: The relationship between Indigenous health status and caring for country. Medical Journal of Australia 190(10):567–572.

Dudgeon P & Walker R 2015. Decolonising Australian psychology: Discourses, strategies, and practice. Journal of Social and Political Psychology 3(1):276–97.

Dudgeon P, Bray A, D’Costa B & Walker R 2017. Decolonising psychology: validating social and emotional wellbeing. Australian Psychologist 52:316–325.

Gee G, Dudgeon P, Schultz C, Hart A & Kelly K 2014. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander social and emotional wellbeing. In: Dudgeon P, Milroy H & Walker R (eds). Working together: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander mental health and wellbeing principles and practice. 2nd edn. Canberra: Australian Government, pp. 55-68.

Nursey-Bray M & Palmer R 2018. Country, climate change adaptation and colonisation: insights from an Indigenous adaptation planning process, Australia. Heliyon 4.

Paradies YC 2006. Beyond black and white: Essentialism, hybridity and indigeneity. Journal of Sociology 42(4):355–67.

PM&C (Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet) 2017. National Strategic Framework for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples’ Mental Health and Social and Emotional Wellbeing. Canberra: Australian Government.

Ypinazar V, Margolis S, Haswell-Elkins M & Tsey K 2007. Indigenous Australians’ understandings regarding mental health and disorders. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry 41:467–478.

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