Tjukurpa is the basis of all Aboriginal knowledge. It is a complex, all-encompassing belief system that defines religion, law and moral systems for Australia's indigenous people. It comes from their ancient ancestors who created, and brought life to the earth, during what non-indigenous people know as 'Dreamtime', or the 'Dreaming'.
In Aboriginal languages, there are no such words as 'Dreamtime', or 'Dreaming', but these terms have been adopted by non-indigenous people to describe Aboriginal beliefs. There is some debate, but it's generally acknowledged that the terms were first used by amateur ethnographer Francis Gillen in a report in 1896.
Dreamtime symbolises the birth of existence for Aboriginal people and the stories are the creationist myth for Aboriginal Australians. The stories of the Dreaming tell of how all living things descend from the Dreamtime ancestors, the Tingari, and how they shaped the earth. They are the ancient ancestors of every Aborigine today.
In the beginning, the earth was a flat, desolate surface, which the ancestors broke through. The sun rose, and the land received light for the first time, and the ancestors moved across the land performing rituals and having adventures. When their travels came to an end, they returned to a state of sleep forming features in the land and sky above. These places and landscape features are sacred in Aboriginal life.
In a culture with no written language, Dreaming as a religion has not been passed down through texts, but through a vast network of songs, rituals and celebrations. The tales of the Tingari, the Tingari cycle, have been preserved through the generations under the care of senior tribesmen. Within tribes, each family (or skin group) is assigned a story inspired by a landscape feature. This story is then further divided among individuals who then share their part of the Dreaming story and teach it to their children.
Not only did this division system preserve the stories of their ancestors, but it also had a crucial function in helping the survival of the tribes. The stories contained topographical details and knowledge of the land, plants and animals that would have assisted the nomadic tribes in navigating and surviving the outback.
In-depth knowledge of Tingari business is still very secretive, however, there are a few public stories that do not disclose sacred knowledge, and these give outsiders a glimpse into Aboriginal spiritual life. Tingari-related designs, such as those used in body and sand paintings, are usually considered "dear" rather than "dangerous" to share with non-indigenous people.
This is party why so many artists have concentrated on Tingari stories in paintings. They typically contain a network of roundels which often signify sites, interlinked by lines that represent travel. These are a map of their lands and the journeys of their ancient ancestors.
Although Tjukurpa encompasses stories of the past, it also refers to the present and the future; it describes the relationship between people, plants, animals and the physical features of the land. Tjukurpa is knowledge, and it is ever-evolving, while not forgetting how these relationships came to be, what they mean and how they should be maintained.