Rituals are timeless and indispensable

The Indigenous Journey / Vicki Clark OAM
Ancient Indigenous rituals were practised long before the Church’s rituals were developed; yet the similarities are clear.

This journey reflection comes from deep within my Aboriginal Catholic identity.

For many years I have been privileged to listen and celebrate with my family Elders, Aboriginal Catholic Elders and other tribal leaders from across Australia who have inspired me to go deeper into the connection with my own Aboriginal understandings of sacred ritual.

In the old ways, at the birth of a baby, Aboriginal women performed rituals that mirror the Christian initiation we celebrate today in the Catholic Church’s sacrament of Baptism.

Ceremonies would start with women digging a hole and placing the babe into the dirt, into country, immediately linking forever the spirit of the babe and the spirit of the land. Then the babe would be held up high facing the four directions so that whenever he or she moved across the country in their later years their spirit would always be connected to their homeland.

Water, symbol of new life, would be poured over the child to wash away any evil spirits and to sustain the babe. Bushes from the local area would be burnt for the ritual of smoking and purification. Babes would be given the start of their ceremonial markings (ochre) and ceremonial clothing (possum skins) that they will carry through their lives.

Fat from local animals - for example, emu, goanna or kangaroo - would be melted down until it turned into oil. The oil would be then rubbed on the babe for good health, strong bones and a good heart.

This ritual was practised long before the Church’s rituals were developed; yet the similarities are clear: oil, water, purification. In our modern Aboriginal Catholic baptisms we ensure that soil is part of ceremony in recognition of Country and headbands are worn symbolising identity along with the traditional symbols of oil and water.


An added dimension of birth rituals for Aboriginal babies is the gift of a Totem (such as emu, cloud, rockhole). Totems are gifted through family connections and are often dictated by the circumstances (time and place) of birth. These totems stay with person and remind them of Country, Family and our responsibilities to both.


Elders from our communities watch us as we grow toward adulthood and look for the good qualities that are starting to develop within the young person. The qualities they look for are honesty, forgiveness, fairness and a willingness to share. These qualities are necessary before someone can truly enter into the next stage of their journey. Elders especially watch for a spirit of truth in the young ones that allows them to accept and acknowledge when they have done wrong things.

The Laws (the Dreaming) governing Aboriginal life are strong and direct us to seek qualities of reconciliation and justice; these were and are vital for the harmony and future of the community.


When the Elders recognise that the young ones have acknowledged wrong, and are ‘on the right track’, they will place their hands gently on their shoulders as a mark of recognition, support and acceptance.

Once a child has shown signs of being a good person he/she is then invited to gather around the camp fire for a special ritual. The Elders very carefully and sacredly carve the meat of an animal that will feed the family. The child is taught how this must be done with respect for the animal that has sacrificed its life for them so that they can live. The child is taught that the blood of the animal must go back to the land, although some blood is kept back and sipped from a small wooden bowl as a reminder of the great sacrifice of life. A special part of the animal that the child has not been able to eat until he/she has shown the qualities of reconciliation is then offered. After eating the animal and drinking its blood, the young person is ready for the next stage in the journey. What an honour to sit with community around the camp fire and Elders sharing in the sacred thanksgiving meal.


Participants in this ritual ‘men’s and women’s business’ are led and guided by important ceremonial leaders, and is the greatest test of all for the young person. It is the time when he/she needs to show strength to endure all that life is bringing, including the responsibilities within family and community. This ritual is a culmination of a young person’s journey, and recognises that the young person has fulfilled the responsibilities of entering adulthood.

In earlier times, these rituals often took place along the Dreaming tracks that connected family groups. The sacred ceremonial sites where the ancestors practised these age-old rituals include sacred trees, rocks, waterholes and boora rings. Some of the associated symbols were the oil, the special attire, and the sacred scarring of the bodies. These are reflected today as we celebrate sacraments in our sacred chapels and churches through our use of symbols of land, nature, identity, leadership and purification (smoking).

Preparation of the young ones requires particular responsibilities from family members; they are involved in all parts of the process and require a commitment for a long period of time. This ‘men’s and women’s business’ involves recognition of pain and struggle, it requires strong discipline, endurance, and brings about a deeper learning of law and cultural responsibilities. The mothers or aunties would place their hands on the shoulders of the young ones symbolising they are ready to enter the ceremony that completes their initiation of woman and manhood.

All this has to happen before they can truly enter into the new stage of the young ones’ journey into manhood and womanhood, in the community, as Keepers of the Law.

Topics for discussion:

1. Role of Woman

2. Right place/sacred land

3. Respect for cultural customs

4. Keeper of the Law 

Vicki Clark OAM, Mutthi Mutthi Woman
EREA Board Member