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First Nations' values

First Nations' values


Connections between catchments. Artwork by John Locke

First Nations people of Australia continue to practice the oldest living culture on earth and have done so for thousands of years. This practice entails two worlds, the physical and spiritual world. The physical represents all life on earth, including flora and fauna that occupies the waterways and landscape. The spiritual world entails ancestral beings described in dreamtime stories (creation), which come alive through dance, songlines, artwork, and lore. Creation stories are captured throughout many First Nations groups across the country, describing ancestral beings forming the landscape (Country). For example, it is understood that in freshwater Country, the Rainbow Serpent (hydrology) carves out the landscape, forming mountains and waterways, creating high and low energy pockets that dissipate along the outer and inner corner of each meandering watercourse, connecting gullies, tributaries, creeks, and rivers, bringing multiple landscape stories from different parts of the country. The waterways are alive.

First Nations people are part of the environment, it is their obligation to Mother Earth. The waterways are the veins of Mother Earth, trees functioning to clean the air, symbolising her breathing and wetlands as kidneys, filtering sediment particles from water, Mother Earth is alive. First Nations people always talk to Country and sing up Country, connecting with past ancestors (the spiritual world) as they travel through Country, connecting the songlines to features in the landscape and sky Country. Totems relate to flora and fauna, a symbol of past ancestors. It is known that totems are an inherited rights assigned by Elders to the members of a tribe, to care for and maintain the habitat of each totem (ecology) throughout its life cycle and they cannot be used as a food source. The ancient songlines are sung in traditional language by Elders and performed in eloquent ceremonial displays during important gatherings and rituals, as they travel throughout Country. The Elders are the storytellers, they represent an encyclopedia, holders of deep knowledge, ready to pass onto the next generation.

See David Foster's artistic representation of countries across Australia here

First Nations people have a vast array of spiritual, material, intellectual and emotional dimensions. For example, Gugu (pronounced “goo-goo”) means purposeful voice, a word from Yidini language belonging to the Yidinji tribal group in the Wet Tropics. This relates to listening to people and the sacred landscape. The connection between Country and First Nations people rests within the environment - signals in the landscape are indicators that Country is speaking. These signals are represented by the flora and fauna that are scattered across the landscape. A species of flower blooming in season, indicating a specific food source ready to eat or patterns (seasons) in the landscape, indicating a right time to burn off Country.

Knowledge from under the water, is akin to First Nations knowledge of the world above. Different sound frequencies and vibration from birds for instance along a rainforest track, alerting that ground animals are close by.  Displacement of a rock or foliage on the rainforest floor, can indicate movement of an animal in the area. Under the water are distinct sound signatures, not just from aquatic animals, but rolling pebbles that indicate a strength of water flow. These observations and awareness of First Nations people have been fine-tuned within their surrounding environment (Country) for thousands of years and it demonstrates the vast array of connectedness being displayed through their culture, in sync with nature.

The Queensland Government recognises and respects First Nations people, and their enduring and deep relationship with land, sea, and sky Country. These artworks were commissioned by the Queensland Government to broaden the understanding of First Nations connection to and traditional knowledge of aquatic ecosystems. By sharing this perspective, we can identify the values that are held by First Nations people and lay the foundations for engagement and co-design for river and catchment management. These artworks can also allow the broader community to visualise the landscape through First Nations lens and deepen their understanding and connection to Country and respect for Traditional Custodians.

The Connections between catchments artwork (as seen at the top of the page) represents several different catchments across this sacred landscape, connecting the tangible and intangible that interplay between catchments and the diversity of tribal groups. The concentric circles in the centre of each star-like structure (highlighted in light blue) represent the high point in the landscape, from which major rivers flow to the lower areas of the surrounding catchments. This also symbolises a meeting place or sacred place (ceremonial ground) where creation stories come alive through ancient songlines and dance to the sound of the ancient instruments, such as the digeridoo and clap sticks. The outer circles (highlighted in a variety of colours) are connected by the movement of the Rainbow Serpent (snaking lines) as it moved through the landscape forming river channels. This represents the different languages, tribal, clan family, and the diversity of culture, directing the rivers that pass through and connect each group, culturally and spiritually.

The artwork symbolises the importance of people coming together to care for our rivers and landscapes. The importance of viewing the whole-of-system as an interconnected space where changes in one part of the landscape has flow on effects to other areas is also visualised in this image. This perspective is also a key feature of the Whole-of-System, Values-Based management approach.


The catfish. Artwork by John Locke


The Catfish image relates to freshwater Country displaying all its sensitivities representing multiple energies, vibrations, pulses, and frequencies that exist in and across our terrestrial and aquatic spaces. The meaning and significance are the range of senses the catfish has: taste, smell, touch, hearing and sight, as well as electric and pressure sensitivities. These attributes of the catfish sensory system relate to the relationship that First Nations people have with the physical and spiritual world.

In areas of significance (sacred sites), First Nations people connect and speak to ancestral beings, notifying their presence, and asking for guidance, a symbol of a two-way relationship. This artwork represents First Nations perspective on the relationship between nature and humans - when we care for Country, Country is healthy and so are we. Key themes that are woven into the Whole-of-system, Values-Based Framework include the importance of understanding the parts and processes of a system from which ecosystem services are provided. These services have value to people – different people may value them differently.

Turtles are a sacred animal which can live in two systems, land and water. This ability to transition from fresh to brackish water and onto land, symbolises multiple dimensions, linking the two systems together. The turtles provide perspective that what we do on the land will impact the aquatic system (water quality) and vice versa. This theme is woven into the Rehabilitation Process via the Whole-of-System, Values-Based Framework.


The turtle. Artwork by John Locke


The Australian landscape is a significant cultural space for First Nations people - it is evident that this ancient landscape holds deep spiritual stories and sustainable ecological knowledge. Waterways play a substantial role in the wellbeing of First Nations culture – they are the foundation for survival. Waterways connect the land to sea Country. Waterways hold sacred dreamtime stories, a place for storytellers, reliant food source, bush medicine, natural boundaries (ownership) for tribal groups, song lines linking to areas of significance and lore, ancestral resting places, and a place to connect to the spiritual world.  First Nations people have a responsibility that has been passed down from their ancestors to care for and protect their Country which they have maintained and shaped for thousands of generations. Everything is interconnected, it is written in the landscape, look after Country, and Country will look after you.

Additional information:

Last updated: 28 June 2022

This page should be cited as:

Department of Environment, Science and Innovation, Queensland (2022) First Nations' values, WetlandInfo website, accessed 18 March 2024. Available at:

Queensland Government
WetlandInfo   —   Department of Environment, Science and Innovation