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Australia's Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples

Before the arrival of European settlers, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people inhabited most areas of the Australian continent, each speaking one or more of hundreds of separate languages, with distinct lifestyles and religious and cultural traditions in different regions. Adaptable and creative, with simple but highly efficient technology, Indigenous Australians had complex social systems and highly developed traditions reflecting their deep connection with the land and the environment.

Australia's Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are ethnically and culturally different. Historically, Aboriginal people have lived on mainland Australia, Tasmania and many of the continent's offshore islands like Groote Eylandt, Bathurst and Melville in the Northern Territory. Torres Strait Islanders come from the islands of the Torres Strait between the tip of Cape York in Queensland and Papua New Guinea and have many cultural similarities with the people of Papua New Guinea and the Pacific.

The Indigenous population at the time of European settlement in the late 18th century is unknown but estimates range from 300 000 to more than a million. Many scholars now accept a figure of around 750 000. This population declined dramatically during the nineteenth and early twentieth century under the impact of new diseases, dispossession and cultural disruption and disintegration.

In the last 20 years, changing social attitudes, political developments, improved statistical coverage and a broader definition of Indigenous origin have all contributed to the increased number of people identifying as being of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander origin. During the last census (2001), some 410 000 people did so. After adjusting for undercounting and unknown Indigenous status, the estimated resident population was 458 500, representing about 2.4 per cent of the population. The Australian Bureau of Statistics projects that this figure will increase to approximately 470 000 in 2006, based on current birth and mortality rates.

Aboriginal people

Although all Aboriginal people shared a similar way of life and similar religious beliefs they belonged to separate groups that had their own languages, country, legends and ceremonies.

The first words from an Australian language were written down in 1770 by Captain Cook, from the Guugu-Yimidhirr people at the Endeavour River in North Queensland. They included kang-ooroo, the name for a species of large black kangaroo. More than 250 different languages and over 700 dialect groups were subsequently recorded throughout Australia.

Many Aboriginal people are multilingual, often able to speak a number of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal languages, including English. Aboriginal people have set up language centres and recorded and promoted their languages and a national Aboriginal Languages Association has been formed.

Australian Aboriginal people lived in different environments and had different histories. So their engravings and paintings found throughout Australia have a wide variety of styles and subjects. According to the beliefs of many Aboriginal groups, people have been in Australia since the beginning—the Dreaming. During this period ancestral spirits came up out of the earth and down from the sky to walk on the land. They shaped its rocks, rivers, mountains, forests and deserts. They also created all the people, animals and plants that were to live in the country and laid down the patterns their lives were to follow. The spirit ancestors gave Aboriginal people their laws, customs and codes of conduct and are the source of the songs, dances, designs and rituals that are the basis of Aboriginal religious expression.

Much of Aboriginal art is bound up with the Dreaming stories and the rituals and ceremonies that are performed to maintain the links between people and the spirit world.

Torres Strait Islander people

Torres Strait Islanders take their name from the strait that separates the Australian mainland at Cape York from the south coast of Papua New Guinea. There are now over 6 800 Torres Strait Islanders living in the Torres Strait region and another 42 000 outside the region, mainly in the coastal towns of north Queensland, particularly in Townsville and Cairns.

Although they had long-standing contact with Australian Aboriginal people in the south and Melanesians to the north, the Islanders are a distinct people with their own culture and identity. This has now been recognised officially and the Islanders in the Torres Strait and on the mainland have a distinct voice in national affairs .

The Torres Strait Islanders are a sea-faring people, travelling long distances in search of turtles and dugong and trading with other islands and villages on the Papuan coast. The sustainable commercial exploitation of marine resources is considered crucial to employment and economic development in the region. Sharing regional responsibility for the management of these fisheries is therefore a primary cultural and economic goal of Torres Strait Islanders.

As well as maintaining their distinct culture, Torres Strait Islanders have made an important contribution to Australia's economic development in the pearling industry, the building of railways, the sugar industry and arts and culture.

Where do Indigenous Australians live?

International media reporting of Australia's Indigenous people often tends to focus on remote or nomadic communities, perpetuating narrow and often stereotyped perceptions of contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander lifestyles.

The reality is that Indigenous Australians live in every State and territory of Australia and in highly urbanised environments, as well as relatively remote areas. Although most of the Australian population is concentrated along the eastern and south-west coasts, the Indigenous population is more widely spread.

While many of Australia's Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples live in major cities of Australia, a much greater proportion than in the general population live in remote and very remote parts of Australia. Based on the ABS Remoteness Structure and according to 2001 Census figures, the geographic distribution of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population is as follows:

The State of New South Wales has the highest population of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, but Indigenous Australians form the greatest percentage of the population in the Northern Territory. At the time of the 2001 Census, the population breakdown in individual states and territories was as follows

New South Wales

134 888


125 910

Western Australia

65 931

Northern Territory

56 875


27 846

South Australia

25 544


17 384


3 909

Other territories


Media visits to Indigenous lands

Permits are required to enter some Aboriginal lands. Approval to film must be negotiated with relevant Aboriginal councils and this can sometimes be a lengthy and delicate procedure.

Media visitors should first contact the relevant Aboriginal Land Council in the area of the proposed visit. A minimum of several weeks' notice generally is required, but even longer notice should be given where possible.

Requests should provide details of visitors including names, addresses, official positions and organisations represented, proposed areas of entry, the period and purpose of entry.

The Land Councils will then relay the requests to the relevant communities which will then consider whether permission should be granted. If the request is granted, the Land Council or Trust will issue an appropriate permit.

Once approval is given, media visitors to the Aboriginal areas should check in at the community or council office on arrival and seek details of specific arrangements made for them. Dealings concerning community matters should, where possible, be discussed with Aboriginal elders or councillors who also may wish their community advisers to be present.

Visitors are urged to be sensitive and courteous in their dealings with the community to avoid giving offence. It is an intrusion on the privacy of Aboriginal Australians to film or photograph them on their land without their permission. Visitors should ask before filming or photographing.

National parks

Some national parks contain sites or areas sacred to Aboriginal Australians, such as Uluru (Ayers Rock - Mt Olga) National Park. Permission must be sought from the relevant authority for access to national parks for filming and photography.

Further information

Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs -
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission -

Further information about other aspects of contemporary Australia

Projected population based on 1996 Census, low series.

The ABS Remoteness Structure groups Census Collection Districts (CCDs) into five broad classes of remoteness sharing common characteristics in terms of physical distance from services and opportunities for social interaction. The concept of remoteness is based upon road distance from any point to the nearest urban centre in each of 5 population size classes. For example, any location within close proximity of an urban centre of more than 250 000 persons belongs to the Major Cities of Australia class. The population size of the urban centre is used as a proxy for the availability of a range of services and road distance is used as a proxy for the degree of remoteness from those services.