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5.1: History, Beliefs, Rituals, Legends

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    The Anishinaabe, the Inca/Quechua, the Yoruba, the Indigenous Australians

    The Anishinaabe

    Pow-wow dancers at Grand Portage National Monument
    Pow-wow dancers at Grand Portage National Monument

    The Ojibwe, also known as Chippewa, refer to themselves in their original language as the Anishinaabe, or “the people.” The term Ojibwe comes from what other tribes called the Anishinaabe people, and means “puckered”, which refers to the toes of the moccasins that the Anishinaabe people made and wore. The term Chippewa is just a variation of the pronunciation of the word Ojibwe.

    Numbering more than more than 170,000 in the United States and more than 160,00 in Canada, the Ojibwe people are a network of independent bands or tribes, knit together by a shared language, culture, and traditional clan system, and inhabiting the Western Great Lakes region of Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, Ontario, and Manitoba. The Anishinaabe are culturally related to other peoples of the Northeast Woodlands and linguistically related to other peoples of the Algonkian language family.[1]

    History and Belief

    According to oral history, the people who eventually became known as the Anishinaabe originated on the east coast of North America, and because of a series of prophecies, they traveled by various routes to the western Great Lakes area, both north and south of the lakes. These prophecies came to be known as the Seven Fires. The Seven Fires Prophecies make for vivid and interesting listening: Seven Fires Prophecies

    The religious beliefs and activities of the Anishinaabe can vary from place to place, and clan to clan, but are all based on a profound respect for life and the gifts of life.

    Beliefs include:

    • understanding the manidoog (sometimes spelled manitous), the spirits, or “mysteries.” The manidoog are the sources of life and existence. All things have spirit–plants, animals, the earth, as well as people.
    • gratitude to the Giche Manidoo, “Great Spirit” or “Great Mystery.” The Anishinaabe are basically monotheistic, although some also refer to Mother Earth as worthy of reverence. Mother Earth is considered both the physical manifestation of all physical creation, and also of the Great Spirit Gitche Manidoo who created it.
    • praying to the spirits is important, asking for health, expressing gratitude, looking for assistance in troubles, rejoicing, naming children, and much more. Prayer takes many forms, but is often accompanied by one or more of these– smoke, drums, singing and dance.
    • Elders are respected for their wisdom and knowledge. The clan system revers these wise ones, and various behaviors indicating respect are part of daily life.
    • Women are respected as bearers of life, and protectors of water.
    • A key value includes walking in harmony with the world, connected to all parts of the land, with no separation between sacred and secular.

    As with many indigenous peoples, the immigrant Europeans tried to impose their lifestyle, beliefs, and manners on the tribes of the Americas. With the Ojibwe, this took the form of removing them from their land, forcing them into individual land ownership and farming instead of communal land ownership and hunting/gardening, and various forms of forced assimilation. For decades Ojibwe children were removed from their homes and send to “boarding schools” in order to lose their native identities, languages and practices. Learning about these schools, and the graveyards now being discovered across Canada and the US is crucial to understanding some of the suffering still being experienced in Ojibwe culture.

    A story: Catholic Boarding School in Wisconsin

    One woman’s story of her mother’s experience in a school, and the impact on her life, the life of her children, and her legacy. The Atlantic is a subscription publication, but allows for a few free articles a month.

    Death by Civilization: the traumatic legacy of native boarding schools

    The tribe local to the the author’s home is the Fond du Lac Band of Ojibwe, and is primarily located in Cloquet, Minnesota. Before white settlers arrived here, the band lived in an area in Duluth now key to commercial shipping, and with access to both the large natural harbor and to Lake Superior, called Gichigami. More in depth stories about the lives and history of the people who originally lived at this western end of Lake Superior can be found here: Onigamiinising Dibaajimowinan

    The Fond du Lac Band is one of six Chippewa Indian Bands that make up the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe. The Fond du Lac Reservation was established by the La Pointe Treaty of 1854. Archaeologists, however, maintain that ancestors of the present day Chippewa (Ojibwe) have resided in the Great Lakes area since 800 A.D. Today, our Band includes over 4,200 members. The Ojibwe name for the Fond du Lac Reservation is “Nagaajiwanaang”, which means “where the water stops”.[2]

    Local life of the Anishinaabe is seen in many places around the city, including at American Indian Community Housing Organization, at art galleries in the area, both at the University of Minnesota and at the AICHO Galleries, in the Lake Superior Ojibwe Gallery, and in many public parks, as increasingly the debt owed to the Anishinaabe is becoming clearer. Local colleges offer language and history courses, and local authors bring materials to local readers. Onigamiising is a set of essays on life in Duluth as an Ojibwe.

    Lyz Jaakola is an Ojibwe member of the Fond du Lac Band and well known musician in the area. Hear her comments on the ongoing struggle for health in the community, and her composition for healing.

    Healing Music: Lyz Jaakola

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    Whether one accepts the oral tradition of the Seven Fires or not, both Ojibwe oral history and a number of archaeological finds indicate that these people moved from the east coast to the upper midwest over several centuries. It is well documented that by the time the French fur traders and various explorers arrived in the Great Lakes area in the early 1600s, the Ojibwe were well established as far west as Sault Ste. Marie, Madeleine Island at the northern tip of Wisconsin, and into Minnesota.

    One of the larger tribes in North America, the Ojibwe live in both the United States and Canada and occupy land primarily around the western Great Lakes, tribes being located in Minnesota, North Dakota, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Ontario. The Ojibwe tribes who moved into the plains area of North Dakota and north into Canada are known as the Saulteaux.

    pre-contact Anishinaabe map from Information derived from R. E. Asher and Christopher Moseley's Atlas of the World's Languages, 2nd edition, 2007
    pre-contact Anishinaabe map from Information derived from R. E. Asher and Christopher Moseley’s Atlas of the World’s Languages, 2nd edition, 2007


    The Ojibwe have historically lived in heavily forested areas, rich with lakes, rivers, and swamps. Activities in their originally semi-nomadic lives have included:

    • hunting, usually for bear, deer, moose and various birds
    • fishing, by spear, hook, and in all seasons, including ice fishing in the winter
    • maple sugar and syrup production
    • harvesting wild rice, the “food that grows on water”, which was prophesied for them long before their arrival in the Great Lakes area
    • gathering, but also some gardening

    These activities continue in modern life, with increasing attention being paid to former treaties that guarantee that these activities may continue on tribal lands.

    Example–Wild ricing in northern Minnesota


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    Various rituals relating to spirituality have developed over the centuries among the Anishinaabe. These may include:

    • smudging–usually using one of 4 herbs–tobacco, sage, cedar and sweetgrass-smoke is created to surround and cover a place, a person, a thing, or a situation for purity, cleansing, hope
    • sweat lodges–small constructions with heated rocks to are constructed and used by people in a way that causes deep sweats. Adding to this prayers and ritual on the interior provides healing, direction, or other ways of connecting with the spirit
    • vision quests–a time of fasting and solitude arranged so that young people might find their purpose, direction
    • pow-wows–held for many reasons, these times of dance, eating, and ceremony are a community event for rejoicing, naming of children, supporting sobriety, community health
    • drumming circles–the drums speak through the drummers. The drummers allow the voice of the spirit to come to the people through the drums
    • sacred pipes–not Peace Pipes, which is a European phrase, but a carefully held and prepared pipe is used for prayer; as the smoke rises , so do the prayers
    • Midewiwin (Medicine Lodge)–composed of healers and spiritual leaders, this is a fairly guarded set of knowledge that allows those trained in this knowledge to support the community in body and soul
    • gift exchanges–connecting with community through giving

    The Anishinaabe Creation story

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    “White Earth Wild Rice Harvest- Manoominikewag.” White Earth Land Recovery Project, 14 Sept. 2013,

    “The Ojibwe People.” Minnesota Historical Society, 2021,

    “‘Strong Woman’s Song’ by Lyz Jaakola.” YouTube, 20 Oct. 2020,

    Fond Du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, 2021,

    Pember, Mary Annette. “Death by Civilization.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 8 Mar. 2019,

    “The Ojibway Creation Story: Fire and Water: Ojibway Teachings and Today’s Duties.’” Ojibwe Creation Stories, University of Toronto Libraries, 2021,

    “Anishinaabe Ojibwe Ways.” The Pluralism Project, Harvard University, 2021,

    “Anishinaabe (NA): The Ojibwe PEOPLE’S DICTIONARY.” Anishinaabe (Na) | The Ojibwe People’s Dictionary, University of Minnesota, 2021,

    “Anishinaabe Timeline.” American Indian Resource Center, Bemidji State University, 2021,

    White Earth Nation, 2021,

    Peacock, Thomas D., and Marlene Wisuri. Ojibwe WAASA Inaabidaa = We Look in All Directions. Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2011.

    The Inca/ Quechua

    Quechua woman spinning with two children by her side
    Quechua woman spinning

    The Incan empire pulled together various smaller tribes over time and truly flourished between about 1400 and 1500 CE, largely in an area which is now Peru. The Incan empire and culture was thoroughly and horribly destroyed by the Spanish under the leadership of Francisco Pizarro. In a very short period of time, the Spanish stole over 280,000 kilograms of gold from the Incas and as they conquered the people and stole this wealth, they also suppressed or destroyed all expression of their native religion and culture. Yet in spite of the harsh treatment by the various explorers and conquerors, some Incan traditions managed to survive and carry forward in the myths, beliefs and practices within Peru, Ecuador and Columbia. The heirs to the Incas are now called various names and form many tribes, but speak the language called Quechuan. Calling this group of tribes Quechua is a catch all phrase in some ways, but refers to many varied but related clan groups in the Andes mountain region.

    History and Belief

    Gordon McEwan is an associate professor of anthropology at Wagner College. He has worked in Cuzco for more than twenty-five years and is the author of numerous articles and several books on the archaeology of the Wari and Inca cultures. Here is his introduction to the Incan society. The remaining people who fled at the destruction of the Incan empire are the people whose descendants remain in the mountains of the western shore of South American today.

    Key History: Ted Ed lesson on the history of the Incas

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    Although many of the Quechua speaking people have incorporated Roman Catholicism into their lives, some beliefs common to the Incas that still survive today in the lives of the Quechuas include:

    • a belief that supernatural forces govern everyday events, such as weather, crops, health and illness
    • by making offerings to the powers that control natural forces, the Quechua feel they can influence events and not merely be helpless in the face of bad weather or disease
    • the conviction that the world is populated by spirits who have human attributes
    • the conviction that the mountains are sacred places and are central elements of a mythical historical identity, since the founding fathers, according to Inca legend, arose directly out of the land
    • belief in the Andean deities Viracocha (creator deity) and Pachamama (the Incan Mother Earth)


    Map of the current distribution of the Quechuan languages (solid) with the historical extent of the Inca Empire (shaded)
    Map of the current distribution of the Quechuan languages (solid) with the historical extent of the Inca Empire (shaded)

    The Incas originally held a great deal of territory along the western coast of what is now South America. Although much of this is rugged, we can notice that a familiar place belonging to the Incas is Machu Picchu.

    UNESCO Machu Picchu Website

    UNESCO shows pictures of this area, a 15th-century Inca citadel, located in the Eastern Cordillera of southern Peru, on a 7,970 foot mountain ridge. “Recent research has shown that the site’s location, and the orientation of its most important structures, was strongly influenced by the location of nearby holy mountains, or apus. (The Inca religion uses the term ‘apu’ to refer to a mountain with a living spirit; the body and energy of the mountain together form the spirit’s wasi (“home” or “temple”).) An arrow-shaped stone atop the peak of Huayna Picchu appears to point due south, directly through the famous Intihuatana Stone, to Mount Salcantay, one of the most revered apus in Incan cosmology. On important days of the Inca calendar, the sun can be seen to rise or set behind other significant peaks.”[3]


    The present-day Quechua-speaking peoples of the Andes make up between 30- 45 percent of the population of Peru, Colombia, Bolivia and Ecuador. They live in close-knit, generally rural, communities and combine farming and herding to make a living. Much of the agricultural work is done cooperatively, sharing grazing space, harvests and redistributing labor and the outcome of farming when needed.

    All aspects of Quechua life, including farming, marriage relationships, religion and celebrations, are done in an ayllu, which is an involved and clan-like kinship grouping. A basic component of ayllu communality is ayni, which in a fairly simple way can be described as “help rendered to others today in anticipation of that help being returned at a future date”. Ayni is reciprocal assistance, so that members of an ayllu will help a family with a large project, such as putting up fencing or construction of a home, and in turn can expect to be similarly helped later with a project of their own.

    Many traditional handicrafts are an important part of Quechua culture. This includes

    Quechua woman weaving
    Ollantaytambo Peru- indigenous women weaving

    a long tradition of weaving handed down from Incan times (or possibly even earlier than the 14th century) using cotton, wool (from llamas, alpacas, guanacos, vicunas) and a wide variety of natural dyes. There are numerous traditional woven patterns used (pallay).

    The Quechua domesticated potatoes thousands of years ago and still grow many potato varieties, which are used for both food and medicine. Quinoa is another traditional crop used as a staple, and is fast becoming so expensive that unless individuals grow their own crop of quinoa, they are no longer able to afford to buy it, as the grain has become very popular in the Western cultures.

    Hallpay is the Andean ritual of chewing coca leaves, which produces a mild stimulation. Growing coca for cocaine production is illegal in these countries, but personal use in the Quechua communities, who just chew the coca leaves, is accepted. An explanation is found here:

    [The] varied procedures and social etiquette have been compared in intricacy to the Japanese tea ceremony. Each person selects a few of the best leaves and stacks them shiny side up (the stack is called a k’intu). The individual then blows on the stack lightly while reciting a short blessing to the earth and particular location (known as a phukuy). If another person is present (as is often the case), the k’intu is then passed to that person, who receives it with thanks before reciting a phukuy again. Only then are the coca leaves inserted in the mouth for chewing.[4]


    Many rituals in Quechuan speaking communities are now a combination of Roman Catholic and native practices. Some hark back to Incan times, some are more recent in origins, but still blend with Catholicism.

    • The Festival of the Sun (Inti Raymi) is based on an ancient Incan ceremony and includes elaborate pageantry and the (simulated) sacrifice of a llama.
    • the Andean deities Viracocha (creator deity) and Pachamama (the Incan Mother Earth) have become associated with the Christian faith, and connect to God and to the Virgin Mary, respectively, as a syncretic approach to religion.
    • Religious imagery—frequently associated with miracles, visions, and punishments—often plays an important role in the spiritual beliefs. The line between the Christian images and the Quechua images blurs.
    • Ritual offerings to Pachamama (in a ceremony known as the pago a la tierra) continue to be performed regularly. The pago a la tierra ceremony traces its roots back to traditional Inca festivals of harvests and plantings.
    • pilgrimages to sacred spaces, again often a combination of Catholic imagery imposed on ancient sites in the mountains, are common. They tend to be more festive in actions than somber or serious.
    • The characteristic music of the central Andes is called huayno. The Incas used a single word– “taqui”– to describe dance, music and singing, though this word in the Quechuan language means “song”. Theses three activities were interconnected, never separated. Most dances were related to rituals and agriculture. And all music was communally produced, as music was considered a group activity. Music uses a variety of traditional instruments, varying from percussive items to strings to flute like we hear in this example:

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    Inca Creation Story

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    “Cultural Orientation – Quechua.” Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center, 2021,

    “Field Support, Cultural Orientation.” Quechua Cultural Orientation, 2021,

    Centre, UNESCO World Heritage. “Historic Sanctuary of Machu Picchu.” UNESCO World Heritage Centre, 2021,

    The Religion of the Quechua, Division of Religion and Philosophy University of Cumbria, 2021,

    “Quechua.” Junior Worldmark Encyclopedia of World Cultures, edited by Timothy L. Gall and Susan Bevan Gall, 2nd ed., vol. 7, UXL, 2012, pp. 161-168. Gale In Context: High School, Accessed 26 Aug. 2021.

    Gibson, Karen. “The Quichua.” Faces: People, Places, and Cultures, vol. 22, no. 4, Dec. 2005, pp. 36+. Gale In Context: High School, Accessed 26 Aug. 2021.

    Waddington, R. (2003), The Indigenous Quichua People. The Peoples of the World Foundation. Retrieved August 26, 2021, from The Peoples of the World Foundation.

    “Cultures of The Andes: Quechua Songs & Poems, Stories, Photos…” Cultures of the Andes: Quechua Songs & Poems, Stories, Photos…, 2021,

    “Inca Creation Myth.” The Big Myth, 22 June 2020,

    The Yoruba:

    Yoruba mask for King Obalufon II; circa 1300 CE; copper; height: 29.2 cm; discovered at Ife; Ife Museum of Antiquities (Ife, Nigeria)
    Yoruba mask for King Obalufon II; circa 1300 CE; copper; height: 29.2 cm; discovered at Ife; Ife Museum of Antiquities (Ife, Nigeria)

    Africa covers around 6% of the earth’s surface and has 54 countries. The approximate population on the continent numbers around 1.3 billion people. There are well over 3000 different ethnic groups in Africa, each with their own history, language and set of beliefs and practices. These frequently co-exist alongside the religions of Islam, Judaism and Christianity, which also have long histories in various African nations. The relationship between the Abrahamic religions and the native beliefs and practices can be difficult at times, and the more conservative of the branches of those three religions has attempted to eradicate the practices of the Yoruba.

    History and Belief

    With help from Janet Topp Fargion[5]:

    Indigenous African beliefs frequently include the worship of various spirits, multiple gods, family and tribal ancestors, and are based on an understanding that the spiritual infuses every aspect of daily life. The concept of a supreme being is not always a part of indigenous tribal life and practice, and the gods, ancestors and spirits are not necessarily thought to be omnipresent, omniscient, or even always good.

    The role of ancestors is important within these traditions, indicating a link between the dead and their living descendants. Diviners, priests or community members communicate with the dead in various ways, and this might include prayers, sacrifices, rituals, festivals and ceremonies. In most parts of West Africa, public festivals and masquerades are central to spiritual wellbeing. The masks worn at these events embody gods and spirits who dance, sing or speak in ways that identify them to the participating community.

    The Yoruba are one of Africa’s largest ethnic groups with more than twenty-five million living in Nigeria, the Republic in Benin, and Togo. Its pre-modern history is based largely on oral traditions and legends. Ile Ife is the city where the Yoruba believe their civilization began as well as the location where they say that the gods descended to earth. Oral tradition and historical reality do not completely match, but the story is longstanding. Ile Ife came to be a city in about 500 BCE. It is considered to be the origin of all African people by the Yoruba.

    The meaning of the word “ife” in Yoruba is “expansion.” “Ile-Ife” is therefore in reference to the myth of origin, “The Land of Expansion.”

    Ibeji twin figures. Yoruba male artist, Nigeria, 20th century. Wellcome Collection, London.
    ‘Yoruba Ibeji figures, representing twins’ . Credit: Wellcome Collection.

    The creation story of the Yoruba is seen below.

    Besides being central in the history of the Yoruba people, Ife is also famous for its art. From terracotta sculptures to stones and bronze sculptures that can still be found in the museum, the art of the Yoruba is becoming world famous.

    The Yoruba have hundreds of deities. Yoruba deities are called orisha, and the high god is Olorun. Other important orishas include Eshu, the trickster; Shango, the god of thunder; and Ogun, the god of iron and modern technology.

    The Yoruba believe that the ancestors still have real influence among the living. Annual ritual honor is paid to the family or clan ancestors, and this yearly sacrificial activity honors all deceased members of the family. Egungun (maskers) appear at funerals and are believed to embody the spirit of the deceased person.

    Lecture: More information on Yoruba history and culture from Professor Toyin Falola [6]

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    Map Medieval Yoruba cities

    Yoruba people are concentrated in the southwestern part of the country of Nigeria, in Benin and northern Togo. The Yoruba number more than 35-40 million across Africa. There is a long and rich history of the various people who became the Yoruba. They originally called themselves the Oyo.

    The term Yoruba (or Yariba) did not come into use until the nineteenth century, and was originally confined to subjects of the Oyo Empire. The term Yoruba did not always designate an ethnicity and usually described those who spoke the Yoruba language. The first documented use of the term Yoruba as an ethnic description comes from a scholar in the sixteenth century.

    The empire of Oyo arose at the end of the 15th century CE. Expansion of the kingdom of the Oyo is usually associated with the people’s increased use of horses. At the end of the 18th century CE civil war took place within the Oyo empire, and the rebels against the old order turned to the Fulani for help. Instead of helping, the Fulani ended up conquering the Oyo empire in the 1830s. In the late 1880s, with the help of a British mediator, a treaty was signed. Yoruba lands were officially colonized by the British in 1901. Nigeria became an official colony in 1914. But on October 1, 1960 Nigeria was declared independent of British rule.


    The Yoruba were historically primarily farmers, growing cassava, maize, cotton, beans and peanuts. The Yoruba are also known for their fine crafts. Traditionally,

    16th century Ivory armlet from the Yoruba peoples. Owo region in Nigeria. Now in the National Museum of African Art, Washington DC.
    16th century Ivory armlet from the Yoruba peoples. Owo region in Nigeria. Now in the National Museum of African Art, Washington DC.

    they worked at such trades as blacksmithing, leatherworking, weaving, glassmaking, and both ivory and wood carving.

    Each town has an Oba (leader), and every Oba is considered to be a direct descendant of the founding Oba of that city even if that cannot be proved through written records. A council of chiefs usually assists the Oba.

    An excellent and thorough look at Yoruba and Nigerian culture and lifestyle can be found at Yoruba Art and Culture: Phoebe Hearst Museum of Anthropology


    Performances of an Egungun (representative of ancestral spirits visiting the living),

    Epa (symbolic performances variously promoting valor and fertility), and

    Ẹyọ, a procession of masked dancers.

    “Art has often been inspired by spiritual beliefs. For the Yoruba, art and spirituality are often intertwined. Works of art give visual form to the divine and inspire religious devotion. In turn, they are made powerful by spiritual forces. Aesthetics play an important role in the manifestation of the sacred. As the Yoruba say, art has the power to fa ajú móra (magnetize the eyes), becoming àwòwò–tún–wò (that which compels repeated gaze).”[7]

    In Nigeria there are many gods (òrìṣàs) who are worshipped. Prior to the Gẹ̀lẹ̀dẹ́ masquerade festival, members of the community consult priests, who then communicate with the òrìṣàs. The priest throws sets of palm nuts and draws symbols on a board, interpreting the words of the òrìṣàs for the community.

    The film below includes extracts from a documentary on the Gẹ̀lẹ̀dẹ́ masquerade, performed by the Yoruba people of Nigeria. It shows preparations for the masquerade, including people consulting the Ifá priest, who helps to communicate with the spirits and decide which songs will be sung during the ritual. The Gẹ̀lẹ̀dẹ́ is performed to pay tribute to the role women play in the organization and development of Yoruba society. The songs tell of the power of the Great Mother. The film was made by Peggy Harper and Frank Speed in the 1960s.”[8]

    Example: preparation for a masquerade

    Thumbnail for the embedded element "Extract from ‘Gèlèdé: A Yoruba masquerade’"

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    Some of these West African practices were transported with enslaved individuals across the Atlantic Ocean in the 16th and 17th centuries. Brazilian candomblé, an extension of some of the Yoruba beliefs, is testament to the strength of the practices as they continue in these settings to the present day. Caribbean Vodou also carries in its beliefs and practices ideas found here about the role of spirits in human lives.

    In some instances leaders or community members enter a ‘trance-like’ state. Some communities interpret this as possession, believing that a spirit takes control of the person in a trance. It is often interpreted as the practitioner making contact with the spirit or an ancestor and then relaying what is said by one of these spirits or ancestors back to the community.

    The Yoruba Gẹlẹdẹ from the Ketu region of the modern Republic of Benin received the honor of being recognized as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO.

    The Yoruba Creation story

    Thumbnail for the embedded element "YORUBA CREATION MYTH"

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    “YORUBA Creation Myth.” The Big Myth, 25 June 2020,

    Nolte, Insa (2015). ‘Histories of religion and the word’ in West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song edited by Gus Casely-Hayford, Janet Topp Fargion and Marion Wallace. British Library.

    “The Yoruba from Prehistory to the Present.” Cambridge University Press, 21 Oct. 2020,

    “Yoruba – Art & Life in Africa – the University of Iowa Museum of Art.” Art & Life in Africa – The University of Iowa Stanley Museum of Art, 2021,

    Mullen, Nicole. Yoruba Art and Culture. PHOEBE A. HEARST MUSEUM OF ANTHROPOLOGY, 2004,

    Egu, Ken Chiedozie. “Ile IFE, Nigeria (Ca. 500 B.C.E.- ) •.” •Black Past, 16 Dec. 2020,

    Fargion, Janet Topp. “African Belief Systems.” British Library, Discovering Sacred Texts, 2021,

    Boundless World History. Located at: License: CC BY-SA: Attribution-ShareAlike

    Indigenous Australians:

    Smoking Ceremony 2 Major Sumner, a Ngarrindjeri elder, in a smoking ceremony, as part of the repatriation of Old People remains.
    Smoking Ceremony 2 Major Sumner, a Ngarrindjeri elder, in a smoking ceremony, as part of the repatriation of Old People remains.

    Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are the Indigenous peoples of Australia. If one refers to both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as a group, it’s best to say either ‘Indigenous Australians’ or ‘Indigenous people’. They are not in fact one group of people, but rather comprise about 500 different tribes in Australia, each with their own language and territory and usually made up of a large number of separate clans. Each of these hundreds of groups have their own distinct set of languages, histories and cultural traditions. And the term Aboriginal is moving out of favor as a descriptive term for the overall native people of the continent, having come from European terminology, and not that of the various tribes involved.

    Archaeologists believe that the Indigenous Australian people first came to the Australian continent between 45,000-50,000 years ago. The Indigenous population in Australia is estimated to be about 745,000 individuals or 3 per cent of the total population of 24,220,200. When Europeans settlers first arrived, it is thought that perhaps close to 1.5 million people lived on the continent.

    History and Beliefs

    Aboriginal Rock Art, Anbangbang Rock Shelter, Kakadu National Park, Australia
    Aboriginal Rock Art, Anbangbang Rock Shelter, Kakadu

    Originally the native people of Australia were hunters and gatherers. In addition to this, they had very sophisticated ways of taking care of the land. Through their work with the land they encouraged the growth of specific plants that their preferred animals would eat, using controlled burns, they set up gardens and crops, and they worked with waterways to extend the living space and the breeding of water creatures that were food for them, such as eels. As semi-nomadic people, they moved around with the seasons, returning to more permanent homes in the growing season, and cultivating their crops in season.

    First Contact with the Europeans came in 1770:

    “On 29 April 1770, HMB Endeavour sailed into Botany Bay, in the country of the Gweagal and Bidjigal peoples of the Dharawal Eora nation, as part of Lieutenant James Cook’s broader exploration of the Pacific.

    Approaching the southern shore, his landing party were met by two Gweagal men with spears. Attempts to communicate failed, so Cook’s party forced a landing under gunfire. After one of the men was shot and injured, the Gweagal retreated.

    Cook and his men then entered their camp. They took artefacts and left trinkets in exchange. Seven days later, after little further interaction with Gweagal people, the Endeavour’s crew sailed away.”[9]

    [From the Journal of James Cook, At Anchor, Botany Bay, New South Wales.]

    Sunday, April 29th, 1770.
    “In the P.M. wind Southerly and Clear weather, with which we stood into the bay and Anchored under the South shore about 2 miles within the Entrance in 5 fathoms, the South point bearing South-East and the North point East. Saw, as we came in, on both points of the bay, several of the Natives and a few hutts; Men, Women, and Children on the South Shore abreast of the Ship, to which place I went in the Boats in hopes of speaking with them, accompanied by Mr. Banks, Dr. Solander, and Tupia. As we approached the Shore they all made off, except 2 Men, who seem’d resolved to oppose our landing. As soon as I saw this I order’d the boats to lay upon their Oars, in order to speak to them; but this was to little purpose, for neither us nor Tupia could understand one word they said. We then threw them some nails, beads, etc., a shore, which they took up, and seem’d not ill pleased with, in so much that I thought that they beckon’d to us to come ashore; but in this we were mistaken, for as soon as we put the boat in they again came to oppose us, upon which I fir’d a musquet between the 2, which had no other Effect than to make them retire back, where bundles of their darts lay, and one of them took up a stone and threw at us, which caused my firing a Second Musquet, load with small Shott; and altho’ some of the shott struck the man, yet it had no other effect than making him lay hold on a Target. Immediately after this we landed, which we had no sooner done than they throw’d 2 darts at us; this obliged me to fire a third shott, soon after which they both made off, but not in such haste but what we might have taken one; but Mr. Banks being of Opinion that the darts were poisoned, made me cautious how I advanced into the Woods. We found here a few small hutts made of the Bark of Trees, in one of which were 4 or 5 Small Children, with whom we left some strings of beads, etc. A quantity of Darts lay about the Hutts; these we took away with us. 3 Canoes lay upon the beach, the worst I think I ever saw; they were about 12 or 14 feet long, made of one piece of the Bark of a Tree, drawn or tied up at each end, and the middle keept open by means of pieces of Stick by way of Thwarts. After searching for fresh water without success, except a little in a Small hole dug in the Sand, we embarqued, and went over to the North point of the bay, where in coming in we saw several people; but when we landed now there were nobody to be seen. We found here some fresh Water, which came trinkling down and stood in pools among the rocks; but as this was troublesome to come at I sent a party of men ashore in the morning to the place where we first landed to dig holes in the sand, by which means and a Small stream they found fresh Water sufficient to Water the Ship. The String of Beads, etc., we had left with the Children last night were found laying in the Hutts this morning; probably the Natives were afraid to take them away. After breakfast we sent some Empty Casks a shore and a party of Men to cut wood, and I went myself in the Pinnace to sound and explore the Bay, in the doing of which I saw some of the Natives; but they all fled at my Approach. I landed in 2 places, one of which the people had but just left, as there were small fires and fresh Muscles broiling upon them; here likewise lay Vast heaps of the largest Oyster Shells I ever saw.

    Monday, April 30, 1770
    As Soon as the Wooders and Waterers were come on board to Dinner 10 or 12 of the Natives came to the watering place, and took away their Canoes that lay there, but did not offer to touch any one of our Casks that had been left ashore; and in the afternoon 16 or 18 of them came boldly up to within 100 yards of our people at the watering place, and there made a stand. Mr. Hicks, who was the Officer ashore, did all in his power to intice them to him by offering them presents; but it was to no purpose, all they seem’d to want was for us to be gone. After staying a Short time they went away. They were all Arm’d with Darts and wooden Swords; the darts have each 4 prongs, and pointed with fish bones. Those we have seen seem to be intended more for striking fish than offensive Weapons; neither are they poisoned, as we at first thought. ”

    Key Information: Timeline connecting to European arrival in Australia

    You will find various links and information to more detailed history of the native and immigrant contacts in this timeline from the Australian National Museum: Education Timeline

    As happened in many places around the world, the immigrant Europeans wanted the Indigenous people to conform to the European ideas of community, culture, religion and work. To make this happen, children were taken from their families and introduced into schools, set as farm workers, or adopted out to European families in order to remove the youngest generation from the influence of their tribe, families and clans. This removal of children from their homes took place between 1910-1970. It is thought that something like one in 3 children, especially those with lighter skin color, were taken from their own families and moved into assimilation situations.

    After 1970 legislation and policy began to change how Indigenous people were treated. The stories of The Stolen Generation tell us a history of racism and attempted destruction of native cultures, which happened in most continents where colonialism was common.

    Example of the story of a person taken from her family: Faye Clayton

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    The Apology: The National Apology to the Stolen Generations of Indigenous people who were taken from their homes and away from tribes, family and clans.

    Thumbnail for the embedded element "National Apology to the Stolen Generations"

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    The expression of spirituality differs between Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders. Aboriginal spirituality mainly derives from the stories of the Dreaming, while Torres Strait Islander spirituality draws upon the stories of the Tagai.


    The mainland native Australian people are storytellers, passing on their culture through a tradition called songlines. Since a songline can span the lands of more than a single language group, different parts of the song are said to be sung in different languages, according to what is happening in the songline. Different languages are not a barrier to the listener, however, because the melodic contour of the song describes the land over which the song passes. A songline has been called a “dreaming track”, as it marks a route across the land or through the sky that is followed by one of the creator-beings or ancestors in the Dreaming.

    “The Dreaming has different meanings for different native people. It is a complex network of knowledge, faith and practices that derive from stories of creation, and it dominates all spiritual and physical aspects of life. The Dreaming sets out the structures of society, the rules for social behavior and the ceremonies performed in order to maintain the life of the land.

    It governed the way people lived and how they should behave. Those who did not follow the rules were punished.

    The Dreaming or Dreamtime is often used to describe the time when the earth and humans and animals were created. The Dreaming is also used by individuals to refer to their own dreaming or their community’s dreaming. In essence, the Dreaming comes from the land. In native society, people did not own the land– it was part of them and it was part of their duty to respect and look after mother earth.”[10]

    The Tagai:

    “The people throughout the Torres Strait are united by their connection to the Tagai. The Tagai consists of stories which are the cornerstone of Torres Strait Islanders’ spiritual beliefs. These stories focus on the stars and identify Torres Strait Islanders as sea people who share a common way of life. The instructions of the Tagai provide order in the world, ensuring that everything has a place.

    One Tagai story depicts the Tagai as a man standing in a canoe. In his left hand, he holds a fishing spear, representing the Southern Cross. In his right hand, he holds a sorbi (a red fruit). In this story, the Tagai and his crew of 12 are preparing for a journey. But before the journey begins, the crew consume all the food and drink they planned to take. So the Tagai strung the crew together in two groups of six and cast them into the sea, where their images became star patterns in the sky. These patterns can be seen in the star constellations of Pleiades and Orion.”[11]

    Some substantial assistance in understanding the Tagai comes from this article by Duance Hamacher[12], published through CC licensing from the publication The Conversation:

    A Shark in the Stars: Astronomy and Culture in the Torres Straight


    Australia by region

    The continent of Australia was occupied by people arriving from southeast Asia by boat about 50,000 years ago. These people are considered some of the earliest people to leave Africa for other places.

    First contact with the Europeans on James Cook’s ship occurred at Botany Bay, which is a harbor that is now a part of Sydney. The tribes in Australia were thriving at that time, with vibrant communal lifestyles. European settling in Australia started in about 1788, and, as with many colonial situations, brought a mixture of problematic and helpful consequences with their arrival. Because England used the continent as a type of jail for some of its worst criminal offenders, this reality brought additional issues as the British encountered the land and had to find a way to relate to the native inhabitants.

    In 1901, however, fewer than 100,000 of the native people remained. It is suggested that three major reasons exist for this societal destruction: disease, losing their resources, and direct killing. European diseases that exposed the population lacking immunological defenses to destruction included smallpox, venereal disease (e.g., gonorrhea), influenza, measles, pneumonia, and tuberculosis. The English settlers and their descendants took over native land and removed the indigenous people by cutting them off from their food resources. There are also clear records of intentional genocidal massacres of native people. There was substantial resistance by the native people, once they realized that the English had decided that the entire continent should belong to them. This resistance was considered barbarous behavior on the part of the Indigenous people, and considered ill considered resistance to the civilizing influence of the English.

    England sent over 162,000 convicts in 806 ships between 1788 and 1850 to colonize the Australian continent. Australia as a nation emerged in 1901 as a federation of the six English colonies.


    Indigenous Australians have a rich and complex system of family roles which are at the core of their various cultures. These complex ways of functioning define each person’s place within the community and act as a structure for how people within extended families are bound to one another. Extended family roles define the obligations for each person in the raising and nurturing of the young people. Tradition defines how each individual is meant to support the kinship system. Elders are especially honored, and become a link to the past by passing on their understanding of history, the necessary cultural skills, and oral materials, stories and music to the younger members of the community.

    Paintings and carvings on rock, carvings on body ornaments, abstract symbols, including spiral designs, and naturalistic styles are found in centuries of Indigenous art in Australia. Human figures and animals, such as fish, turtles and kangaroos, connected with the hunt or with spiritual beliefs, are common. Modern Indigenous art takes advantage of ancient symbols, including dot painting, animals and figures, and symbols with protected meanings that are shared privately within family structures.

    These 8 Australian Indigenous ways of learning are based on work by Tyson Yungaporta. Yunkaporta, T. (2009)
    These 8 Australian Indigenous ways of learning are based on work by Tyson Yungaporta. Yunkaporta, T. (2009) Aboriginal pedagogies at the culturthal interface

    There is a rich oral tradition of myth, relating the ancestral time, ‘The Dreaming’, to the present. A wealth of native symbols are used to present their messages, stories and tradition, and both the ancient and the modern artwork that use the symbols become a way to pass these rich stories on from generation to generation.

    “Tribal totem ancestors of Australian Aborigines include the eagle-hawk, kangaroo, and snake. About 40% still follow the traditional hunter-gatherer way of life and live mostly in the remote desert areas of Northern Territory, the north of Western Australia, and in northern Queensland. About 12% of Australia is owned by Aborigines and many live on reserves as well as among the general population; (65% of Aborigines live in cities or towns). Others work on cattle stations, and a few have entered the professions and government service.”[13]


    There are many reasons for ceremonies in Australian Indigenous society. All have a place in the spiritual beliefs and cultural practices of their communities. These might include transmission of culture and stories, men’s and women’s roles in spiritual practices, and the care of sacred sites.


    There are detailed and fascinating descriptions of this use of ceremony in a pdf published by the Queensland Curriculum and Assessment Authority: Aboriginal Ceremonies

    Indigenous people today continue to meet socially, sharing songs and dances to celebrate daily activities and significant events in their communities.

    Participation in ceremonies may be dependent on the age and gender of the people. Children may be involved in some ceremonies while others are restricted to teens and adults. Women’s ceremonies have been protected over time much more than those for men, and photos and images are considered inappropriate for recording these activities.

    Cropped image from photograph taken at the premiere of Corroboree, a ballet written by composer John Antill and based on the real-life ceremony, at the Empire Theatre, Sydney, in about 1950.
    Cropped image from photograph taken at the premiere of Corroboree, a ballet written by composer John Antill and based on the real-life ceremony, at the Empire Theatre, Sydney, in about 1950.

    A Corroboree is a ceremonial meeting of Australian Aboriginals, a dance ceremony which may take the form of a sacred ritual or may be more of an informal gathering. The word comes from Dharuk garaabara, denoting a style of dancing.[14]

    Another description is “a gathering of Aboriginal Australians interacting with the Dreaming through song and dance”, which may be a sacred ceremony or ritual, or different types of meetings or celebrations.[15]

    Looking through various pieces of art, clothing, one can get a feeling for the ritual and drama that is a part of any Corroboree, whether formal ritual or informal gathering.

    Creation Story of the Australian Aboriginal people

    Thumbnail for the embedded element "ABORIGINAL CREATION MYTH"

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    “Aboriginal Creation Myth.” The Big Myth, 19 June 2020,

    International, Survival. “Aboriginal Peoples.” Survival International, 2021,

    Cook, James. “Captain Cook’s Journal During the First Voyage Round the World.” Gutenberg Press, 2005,

    “Australian Museum.” Spirituality – Australian Museum, 1996,

    Hamacher , Duane. “A Shark in the Stars: Astronomy and Culture in the Torres Strait.” The Conversation, 30 Aug. 2021,

    “Profile of Indigenous Australians.” Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 2021,

    National Museum of Australia; address=Lawson Crescent, Acton Peninsula. “National Museum of Australia – Timeline.” National Museum of Australia, National Museum of Australia; c=AU; o=Commonwealth of Australia; Ou=National Museum of Australia, 30 Jan. 2020,

    Jalata, Asafa. “The Impacts of English Colonial Terrorism and Genocide On Indigenous/Black Australians – ASAFA JALATA, 2013.” SAGE Journals, 2021,

    “Who Are the Stolen Generations?” Healing Foundation, 2021,

    Australian Aboriginal art. (1994). In H. E. Read, & N. Stangos (Eds.), The Thames & Hudson Dictionary of Art and Artists (2nd ed.). Thames & Hudson. Credo Reference:

    Australian aborigine. (2018). In Helicon (Ed.), The Hutchinson unabridged encyclopedia with atlas and weather guide. Helicon. Credo Reference:

    “Aboriginal Ceremonies.” Queensland Curriculum and Assessment Authority, Queensland Studies Authority, Queensland Government, 2021,

    1. with help from The Pluralism Project: Harvard University
    3. National Geographic,
    4. Quechua Cultural Orientation Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center
    5. Dr Janet Topp Fargion is Head of Sound and Vision at the British Library. Her general research interest is the discipline of Ethnomusicology, with a focus on the music of Africa, particularly of South Africa and the Swahili Coast in East Africa. Her research currently centers on ethnographic sound recordings as sources for ethnomusicological investigation. Janet is an active member of the British Forum for Ethnomusicology and the Archiving Committee of the Society for Ethnomusicology and is chair of the Research Archive Section of the International Association of Sound and Audiovisual Archives. In 2015, she co-curated the British Library major exhibition West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song.
    6. Professor — Ph.D., 1981, History, University of Ife Professor; Jacob & Frances Sanger Mossiker Chair in the Humanities; University Distinguished Teaching Prof.
    7. From Newark Museum's archived Embodying the Sacred in Yoruba Art
    8. From African Belief at the Discovering Sacred Texts site of the British Library
    10. Australian Museum: Aboriginal Spirituality
    11. The Australian Museum: Aboriginal Spirituality
    12. Associate Professor Duane Hamacher is a cultural astronomer in the ASTRO-3D Centre of Excellence and the School of Physics at the University of Melbourne. His research focuses on astronomy in a cultural, social, historical, and heritage context, as well as the preservation of astronomical heritage through dark sky studies. Born in the United States, Duane earned a degree in physics at the University of Missouri before moving to Australia to complete a Masters degree (by research) in astrophysics at UNSW, followed by a PhD in Cultural Astronomy at Macquarie University. He is a member of the International Astronomical Union (IAU), serves in the IAU Working Group on Star Names, Chairs of the IAU Working Group on Ethnoastronomy & Intangible Heritage, is Secretary of the International Society of Archaeoastronomy and Astronomy in Culture, and an associate editor of the Journal of Astronomical History & Heritage.
    13. Australian aborigine. (2018). In Helicon (Ed.)
    14. Oxford Reference. Retrieved 7 Sep. 2021, from

    This page titled 5.1: History, Beliefs, Rituals, Legends is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Jody Ondich via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform.