Understanding and respecting creation stories
Creation stories provide important information about culture, values, people, animals and the environment, and are passed down from generation to generation through storytelling. Sharing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people creation stories should be done respectfully.
What is a creation story
Creation stories tell people about their history, cultures and beliefs, and the environment in which they live or have come from. There are hundreds of different Aboriginal cultures in Australia, as well as Torres Strait Islander cultures. There are some similarities, but each group has their own distinct creation stories and languages. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders have been passing down stories to the next generations for over 60,000 years.
These stories often blend science and historical events, such as how things came to be, with cultural norms and important lessons for living1. Many of the events these stories describe match scientific understanding of historical events. There are stories that describe significant and catastrophic changes in the landscape that happened thousands of years ago, such as sea level rise after the last ice age (at least 7000 years ago2), animals that are now extinct, floods, asteroid strikes, volcanic eruptions and cyclones3.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ storytelling is an oral tradition. So these stories needed to be memorable and often age-specific, so the important details are easily remembered. Cultural stories contain facts and lessons, such as tips for survival and navigation along routes for which song series (or ‘songlines’) sometimes provide memory aids for navigation. These are passed down from generation to generation.
Many of these stories involve water because no matter where one lives in Australia, water is central to survival. In addition to drinking, waterways are where food and resources for technology can be harvested, and can be used for travel. Regional-based stories detail how particular rivers were made, where the water comes from, such as groundwater4 or rain, and the repercussions for communities during floods or when water is scarce.
Known by many names, the Rainbow Serpent, is an important creation story in Aboriginal cultures throughout Australia, and is often associated with the creation of landscapes and waterways. The Bidjara of southern Queensland know this being as Mundagudda.5 In the Carnarvon Ranges in central Queensland is the place where Mundagudda began its journey through the landscape, creating rivers and gorges as it went. These types of story indicate the starting places of many rivers, which is important information for finding water and navigation when travelling.
This is one reason why it is important that these narratives are said to be faithfully transmitted without change from generation to generation. These cultural stories are told in ways that make them interesting and easy to remember. Such as through dance, song, paintings, as well shared stories around campfires or at bedtime. Today books, film and animation are also used to tell them to a wider audience, so that people from all cultures can understand and respect Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures..
Another well-known story, found in many parts of Australia, is about a giant frog. In some regions, this frog is known as Tiddalik. The way Tiddalik’s story is told in the Pauline Gandel Children’s Gallery and at Bunjilaka Aboriginal Cultural Centre is a version that belongs to the Gunnai Kurnai people of Gippsland, Victoria.
Tiddalik is greedy, and drinks all of the water from the billabongs, rivers, and sea6. The land becomes dry, and the animals have to work together to try and find a solution, so everyone can have water to drink again. The story warns of the consequences of being selfish or not caring for water, otherwise plants and animals in the rivers and billabongs, as well as people who rely on them, will suffer. This story also teaches the importance of working together to meet a common goal.
Classroom activity - The Arts (Media Arts) Years 3 and 4
In the classroom, students will receive some background information on Aboriginal creation stories, and watch a short animated film of a creation story. Students can discuss what information is being told in the stories, and if the messages are still relevant to them. Students will discuss how and why they and others use images, sound and text to make and present media artworks.
If possible, students can visit a local waterway, to better understand a local Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander story (if one is able to be sourced).
Students should be supported to learn how to respect creation and other cultural stories, and understand how these stories are still important parts of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and cultures.
This resource addresses the following content descriptions from the Australian Curriculum:
- Use media technologies to create time and space through the manipulation of images, sounds and text to tell stories (ACAMAM059)
- Identify intended purposes and meanings of media artworks, using media arts key concepts, starting with media artworks in Australia including media artworks of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples (ACAMAR061)
This resource addresses the following excerpts from the achievement standard for Years 3 and 4 in The Arts (Media Arts):
- discuss how and why they and others use images, sound and text to make and present media artworks
Activity 1 – Tiddalik
Suggested timing for activity: One lesson – introduce topic, watch film (6 mins), followed by some time for discussion
Required resources: Television/projector/computers to watch film online
- Introduce the key points of creation stories:
- Handed down over tens of thousands of generations in a way that preserves the knowledge and key messages.Specific to each place or region, language and cultural group.
- Morals, group norms and values are an important feature
- Animals and other beings are sometimes used to describe important historical events and natural rock formations or natural springs can be connected to a story.
- Watch the film: https://museumsvictoria.com.au/bunjilaka/about-us/creation-stories/
- Discuss the following inquiry-based questions related to the features of the film and the devices used:
- How is this film different to a version of the story told orally within a family or community? How has technology changed the way cultural stories are told?
- How is the environment in the film different to the present environment?
- Do the animals behave in the way you would expect?
- How is this story different or similar to European stories you know? E.g. Little Red Riding Hood, Hansel and Gretel, Bible stories.
- How did the film-makers use sound and colour?
- What were the messages in the story?
- Who does this story belong to? Why is it important that the story stays the same?
Activity 2 – Narrative round
Suggested timing for activity: Up to 15 minutes, either before or after watching the film.
Required resources: A few pieces of paper, pencil.
Students will experience first-hand what happens when a story is re-told again and again. until it changed and unrecognisable.
- Ask students to sit in a circle, or at their desks.
- Give one student a short phrase written on a piece of paper, making sure no-one else sees the phrase. E.g. “A guppy in a shark tank”
- This student whispers the phrase to their neighbour, then the neighbour whispers the phrase to their neighbour, and so on.
- The last student says the phrase out loud. Then the student with the original phrase shares it with the class. It is likely to have changed significantly from the original phrase. Repeat with other phrases.
- For class discussion: How might it be possible to share the phrase without it changing?
Activity 3 – Water
Suggested timing for activity: One lesson/45 min.
Required resources: Paper, and some drawing materials, e.g. pastels, coloured pencils.
Students can visit a local site, such as a creek or waterhole, to connect with a cultural story in their local environment (if one can be sourced)
- Research Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander stories from your local area. If possible, invite a local storyteller, Elder or organisation to speak to the class. Discuss the basic elements of the story you have researched.
- If a field trip is possible, ask students to look around them and imagine how elements of the story fits into the environment. If this isn’t possible, use google maps to show students the location/s in the story. If there are no cultural restrictions, students can draw pictures of the story.
- Inquiry-based question for class discussion: Does your understanding of the story change when you can see the place it happened in?
1 Creation Stories. (2019) Retrieved from https://museumsvictoria.com.au/bunjilaka/about-us/creation-stories/
2 Judd, W. (2013) Ice Age struck Indigenous Australians hard. Retrieved from https://www.australiangeographic.com.au/news/2013/09/ice-age-struck-indigenous-australians-hard/;
Reid, N. (2015) Aboriginal memories of inundation of the Australian coast dating from more than 7000 years ago. Retrieved from https://www.cdu.edu.au/sites/default/files/the-northern-institute/aboriginaltradsealevelscdu.pdf
3 Morris, L. (2017) 7,000 year old Indigenous story proved true. Retrieved from https://www.nationalgeographic.com.au/australia/7000-year-old-indigenous-story-proved-true.aspx
4 Skatssoon, J. (2006) Aboriginal people built water tunnels. Retrieved from http://www.abc.net.au/science/articles/2006/03/15/1590192.htm
5 Birjara people and culture (2017) Retrieved from: https://www.swqict.com/copy-of-charleville-yumbas-1
6 Creation stories. (2019) op. cit.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
The development of these resources was funded through an Australian Government initiative delivered by the University of Melbourne's Indigenous Studies Unit. The resources include the views, opinions and representations of third parties, and do not represent the views of the Australian Government. They have been developed as a proof of concept to progress the inclusion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander content in Australian classrooms. In drawing on the material, users should consider the relevance and suitability to their particular circumstances and purposes.