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The Dingo: Ideological Interpretation of the Australian Native Dog

«It is the colouring that strikes you first.

In a pale and sparse land which at dusk can turn to an intense chrome yellow,

he looks luminous,

almost unreal»

(May, 1986, p. 8)

Dingoes are iconic Australian animals, like kangaroos and koalas. Dingos can be found on postcards, as characters in children books, and presented as one of the main attractions in organized tours for tourists, for example on Fraser Island (Queensland) that is part of the Great Sandy National Park, where dingoes live freely. Nonetheless, dingo's perception in present-day Australia is typified as "dual", being simultaneously a cunning wolf and a friendly dog, an animal that needs to be eradicated (for its predatory role towards sheep and cows) but also protected (as an Australian "native" species, endangered by hybridization with domestic dogs and by mass killings). The dualism that surrounds the image of the dingo has a long history, with roots in the Dreaming, the aboriginal myth about life and death, and in the ways, European settlers had signified their encounter and their lives with this animal.

Even though the dingo is considered a native Australian animal, it is not. Studies are still producing new information, but thanks to archaeological research and analysis of dingo's mitochondrial DNA there is a general agreement among scholars about the fact that dingoes were introduced in Australia in the late Holocene era, more likely not before 4000 years ago, from South East Asia. Although then not autochthonous, the dingo became pretty soon native. The dingo is the main character of an ancient aboriginal myth performed during the corroboree, a ceremony in which through singing and dancing Australian aboriginals recalled and recreate the Dreaming. This myth also tells that dingoes had found a specific place in the lives of aboriginal peoples, both in the mythological and supernatural realm and in practical life.

The Dreaming Dingo

«When Aboriginal man goes through the law he might become […] a dog man.

Those dingoes watch over the dog man […].

They do their job – they are part of our Dreaming»

(an Antikarinya Aboriginal elder)

The connection drawn in The Dreaming between humans and dingo is also explicated in myths about shape-shiftings; usually, there are human beings that for different reasons turn into dingoes. Shape-changing creatures are starred in a great number of myths, for instance in hunting myths. From these types of myths emerges a different image of the dingo: one in which it is a negative presence symbolizing wilderness. Parker (2006) reports the so-called myth "The Bora of Baiame": it is about a large group of shape-shifting ancestral spirits who reunites for a ceremony; among them, there are Dreaming Dingoes called Madhi. The dingoes misbehave during the ceremony making noise and not listening to the elders; as a punishment, they are forever deprived of the ability to speak human language.

Thus, the dingo is an ancestral spirit that shapes the world and establishes the Law; it behaves at the same time as a creator and a destructor: the Dreaming Dingo breaks its own rule and acts like a trickster. Moreover, dogs/dingoes are depicted as having negative or uncanny attributes, for example, they are disloyal and when a prey is captured, they do not share it with their masters. Kolig (1978) points out that Aboriginal myths are modeled on the basis of the observation of nature and its beings, and this is why the dingo emerges as a dualistic creature: it is brave and faithful, a great companion, as shown by the myth "Manindi, a special dingo", where a giant lizard threatens a native camp and the dingo Manindi kill the lizard to protect the people; but it is also a wild and blood-thirsty animal, dangerous for other mythical beings.

Overall, in the mythical knowledge, the dingo plays a dualistic role; on the one hand, myths in which the dingo is characterized as a positive creature underline the unity and intrinsic connection between humans and canine animals. On the other hand, hunting and warning myths teach that dingoes can be "wild", and so can people: in this role the dingo represents for Aboriginal people «a powerful symbol for moderation in behavior» (McIntosh in Smith and Litchfield, 2009, p. 125), a way to identify a dangerous member of society. Quite interestingly, it is possible to find another narrative involving the dingo which representation matches to some extent the Aboriginal's one: the narrative forged by the European colonials.

The dingo in the colonial project

The conquest of Australia was born as a means to create a new place to send different categories of people who were considered to be social problems. The aim was to displace people and at the same time to control them. This "new" land became pretty soon the land of convicts, rural workers, and outlaws. The colonial project planned for Australia by the British Empire was one where the colony itself must be self-sufficient, thus through exploration, settlement, and development Australia was "discovered" and occupied. But controlling the land was not enough: there was the need to take control of the land from the people who already lived there. According to Rose (1994), the conquest of Australia was organized around two major strategies: killing and control. And for what native fauna is concerned, the second option seemed to be the only one applicable.

The first encounter between the dingo and Europeans happened when British colonizers established the colony of New South Wales. From this moment began a complicated and not devoid from contradictions relationship that was shaped at the beginning by the scientific "read" of the dingo. One of the first descriptions of the dingo is made by Captain Arthur Phillip, the commander of the First Fleet that arrived in Botany Bay in 1789. Governor Phillip was aware of the necessity of documenting the natural history of the colony, especially for the possible benefit that new and to some extent, "exotic" stuff could bring to the commerce of Great Britain. Among those exotic things, there was the dingo, which is called by Governor Phillip in his report "The Dog of New South Wales" (1789:174). Notwithstanding, one of the first things that he wrote down is« [it] (the dingo) has much of the manners of the dog, but is of very savage nature, and not likely to change in this particular» (1789:274). Nevertheless, several attempts to own dingoes as pets were made by the colonial elite as a consequence of the fact that dingoes were associated with dogs. But the one with the dogs was not the only association that has been made: from the earliest days of the colonization, the dingo was described with lupine characteristics. This type of description became even more frequent when the dingo was targeted as a "native enemy" by the settlers, that is when in the XIX century the sheep industry was established.

The importance of the sheep industry is crucial in understanding the depiction of the dingo as a vermin by the colonizers: the sheep industry from being a pillar of the success of the colonial project became one of the cores of the newly Euro-Australian identity. It is out of doubt that dingoes injured and killed sheet stock, and from the accounts of farmers it is evident that dingoes kill in excess of their food-related needs; nonetheless, the dingo was depicted as a murderous pest that kills sheep almost consciously. In fact, the dingo is usually described in the colonial discourse as "canning". By killing sheep, dingoes were acting against the farmers and were threatening the success of the colonial project; as a consequence, they began to be seen as vermin. Farmers set traps, they used poisons (as the strychnine) against dingoes and they hunted dingoes down on horseback; soon enough, the colonial governments established a bounty for each dingo pelt delivered. Notwithstanding, the problem represented by dingoes attacks on sheep was not solved; at this point, the single farms began to fence their own properties until this method developed into an actual fence long 5,309 kilometers and nearly two meters high that goes from South Australia, through New South Wales and ends in Queensland.

This barrier is known as the "Great Dingo Fence" and it had come into place over many decades; it was built with the purpose of separating the sheep from the dingoes. However, the fence was not that effective because dingoes could easily slip through it. Furthermore, the fence epitomized both a physical and an ideological separation. Its two sides represented the farmers' lands, whose importance lies in its economic values and in the fact that it symbolizes the "civilized garden", a place familiar and not touched by chaos; and the "bush", the wilderness that held a peculiar position in the colonial's minds because it represents something entirely unknown that is dreadful, but fascinating at the same time. Furthermore, the symbolic Great Fence was separating two more "others": the European colonizers and the Aboriginals.

The settlement of Australia by Europeans was based on the doctrine of terra nullius, the idea that the Australian land was empty and not owned by people; as a consequence, Aboriginal presence undermined this "rightful" occupation by settlers. Aborigines were forced out of their territories likewise the dingoes were outcasted from the farm areas. Aborigines went back to their lands every night in search of food and water, and dingoes ventured "on the other side of the fence" to feed on sheep and cows. Human and non-human natives were thus perceived as unwanted. The dingo and the Aborigines became part of a denigratory discourse built upon a narrative that describes both of them as cunning and treacherous in order to justify acts of aggression towards them and their removal from the lands.

To conclude, the colonization of Australia involved the meeting of one culture that defined itself as absolutely different from animals, with another that defined itself as indistinguishable from animals: on the one hand, the Aboriginal discourse proposes a dingo that shares a position in the environment with them, a dingo "which belongs". On the other, the European settlers thought the environment to exist for human's well-being, and thus whatever interfered with their exploitation of the colony had to be eliminated: Aborigines for not being worthy of occupying the land, and dingoes for posing a concrete threat to the colonial project based on the sheep industry.


  • Balme J., O'Connor S. (2016). Dingoes and Aboriginal social organization in Holocene Australia, Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, 7, pp. 775-781.

  • Cahir D., Clark I. (2015). The Historic Importance of the Dingo in Aboriginal Society in Victoria (Australia): A Reconsideration of the Archival Record, Anthrozoös, 26 (2), pp. 185-198.

  • Ellis J.A. (1995). This is the dreaming: Australian Aboriginal legends, HarperCollins.

  • Governor Phillips. (1789).The Voyage of Governor Phillip to Botany Bay.

  • Kolig E. (1978). Aboriginal dogmatics: canines in theory, myth and dogma, Journal of the Humanities and Social Sciences of Southeast Asia, 134 (1), pp. 84-115.

  • May, B. (1986), The Great Dingo fence and Other Australian Odditites, St George Books.

  • Rose D.B. (1992). Dingo make us human: Life and Land in an Australian Aboriginal Culture, Cambridge University Press.

  • Parker M., (2006), Bringing the Dingo Home: discursive representations of the dingo by aboriginal, colonial and contemporary australians, a thesis submitted for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy of the University of Tasmania, april 2006.

  • Smith B., Litchfield C. (2009). A Reviw of the Relationship between Indigenous Australians, Dingoes (Canis dingo) and Domestic Dogs (Canis familiaris), Anthrozoös, 22 (2), pp. 111-128.

  • Stanner W.E.H., 1979, White Man Got no Dreaming. Essays 1938-1973, Australian National University Press Camberra.

  • Stockton E., (2000), The dreaming in Australian aboriginal culture. Download on November 15, 2018, from

Images references

  • Dingo, photo from UNSW Sydney.

  • Dingo Dreaming. (2018). Artwork by Lanita Numina.

  • Watercolor of a dingo. (Pre-­‐1793). John Hunter's drawing books © The Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons.

  • The Great Dingo Fence. Map by FanMaps.


Author Photo

Marica Felici

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