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Dingoes and Dogs in Indigenous culture

Dingoes have been on the Australian continent for the past 4000 or so years. It is thought that they were brought to the mainland by Asian seafarers, with whom the Aboriginal people had extensive trade links. During this time dingoes have been woven into the fabric of Aboriginal life, law and culture. Little distinction is usually made between dingoes and more recently introduced dogs when applying Indigenous beliefs and law.

Aboriginal people in contemporary society own dogs for a variety of reasons. They serve in the role of:

  • Companion: as for most societies, this is particularly the case for the elderly and children. It is also noted here that elderly people, possibly because of a stronger need to obey law and culture, tend to give their dogs greater attention than younger people in communities. It is common for older women to give large amounts of their own ‘meals on wheels’ food to their dogs. Older people also tend to accumulate dogs in far higher numbers than younger people.
  • Physical protector: the level of protection offered by dogs serves an important role for the family.
  • Spiritual protector: dogs continue to be seen as protectors from spiritual interference. Sorcery remains a very real threat in contemporary Indigenous life in northern Australia. Dogs howling, barking or indeed being silent through the night are often interpreted in relation to the spirit world.
  • Hunter: many dogs are known as the “good kangaroo dog” or the “good goanna dog”. These dogs are prized for their hunting prowess and strategic breeding of their lines occurs.
  • Source of warmth: “two, three and four dog nights” are still very present in many Indigenous communities where relative poverty and overcrowding mean there is often not enough warm bedding to go around when the temperature drops. 

Dingoes, and now to some extent dogs, are regarded as sacred animals. They are incorporated into Aboriginal society via:

  • Formal inclusion into family units: certain dogs are given “skin” names. This automatically positions the dingo into society, granting them status such as parent, grandparent, aunt, child, etc. In some cases dogs are considered important enough to attend rituals, acting as fully fledged lawmen. In certain areas dogs are also believed to be direct reincarnations of ancestors.
  • Incorporation into creation and “dreaming” knowledge: the Dreamtime or Dreaming is that part of Aboriginal culture which explains the origin and culture of the lands and its people. There are many dog dreaming sites located around the Australian continent. Each has its own and often interconnected story of creation and movement of the dingo through the country. Stories are told covering areas over thousands of kilometres and across different language groups. Ceremonies that are based around the dingo and dog continue to be practised across northern Australia with relevant songs, dances and stories being very much intact.
  • Individuals will carry with them “dog dreaming”, that is, they are the custodians of the law and history of dingoes and dogs.

For more information about Dogs and Dingoes in Indigenous culture see Conducting Dog Health Programs in Indigenous Communities: A Veterinary Guide

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