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Indigenous Australians

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Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander
Indigenous Australians
Total population
798,365 (2016)[1]
3.3% of Australia's population
Population distribution by state/territory
New South Wales 265,685 (3.55%)
Queensland 221,276 (4.57%)
Western Australia 100,512 (3.93%)
Northern Territory 74,546 (30.34%)
Victoria 57,767 (0.94%)
South Australia 42,265 (2.47%)
Tasmania 28,537 (5.51%)
Australian Capital Territory 7,513 (1.86%)
Several hundred Australian Aboriginal languages (many extinct or nearly so), Australian English, Australian Aboriginal English, Torres Strait Creole, Kriol
Related ethnic groups
Papuans, Melanesians

Indigenous Australians include the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples of Australia. The term Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people is preferred by many;[a] First Nations of Australia, First Peoples of Australia and First Australians are also increasingly common terms. All of these terms include people descended from groups who existed in Australia and surrounding islands before British colonisation.

The time of arrival of the first peoples on the continent and nearby islands is a matter of debate among researchers. The earliest conclusively human remains found in Australia are those of Mungo Man LM3 and Mungo Lady, which have been dated to around 50,000 years BP.[2] Recent archaeological evidence from the analysis of charcoal and artefacts revealing human use suggests a date as early as 65,000 BP.[3][4] Luminescence dating has suggested habitation in Arnhem Land as far back as 60,000 years BP.[5] Evidence of fires in South-West Australia suggest "human presence in Australia 120,000 years ago", although more research is required.[6] Genetic research has inferred a date of habitation as early as 80,000 years BP. Other estimates have ranged up to 100,000 years[7] and 125,000 years BP.[8]

The population of Indigenous Australians at the time of permanent European settlement is contentious and has been estimated at between 318,000[9] and 1,000,000[10] with the distribution being similar to that of the current Australian population, the majority living in the south-east, centred along the Murray River.[11] A population collapse principally from disease followed European settlement,[12][13] beginning with a smallpox epidemic spreading three years after the arrival of Europeans. Massacres and frontier conflicts involving European settlers also contributed to depopulation.[14][15] The characterisation of this violence as genocide is controversial and disputed.[16]

Although there are a number of commonalities among the various Aboriginal peoples, there is also a great diversity among different communities and societies in Australia, each with its own mixture of cultures, customs and languages. In present-day Australia these groups are further divided into local communities.[17] At the time of initial European settlement, over 250 Aboriginal languages were spoken; it is currently estimated that 120 to 145 of these remain in use, but only 13 of these are not considered endangered.[18][19] Aboriginal people today mostly speak English, with Aboriginal phrases and words being added to create Australian Aboriginal English (which also has a tangible influence of Indigenous languages in the phonology and grammatical structure).

Since 1995, the Australian Aboriginal Flag and the Torres Strait Islander Flag have been among the official flags of Australia.

The Australian Census includes counts of Indigenous peoples, based on questions relating to individuals' self-identification as Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islander, or of both origins. As of 30 June 2016, the count was 798,365, or 3.3% of Australia's population.[1]



Harold Thomas' Australian Aboriginal Flag


There is a number of appropriate terms to use when referring to Indigenous peoples of Australia, but there is general agreement that it is important to respect the "preferences of individuals, families, or communities, and allow them to define what they are most comfortable with" when referring to Indigenous people.[20]

The word aboriginal has been in the English language since at least the 16th century to mean, "first or earliest known, indigenous". It comes from the Latin word aborigines, derived from ab (from) and origo (origin, beginning).[21] The term was used in Australia to describe its Indigenous peoples as early as 1789. It became capitalised and was employed as the common name to refer to both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, although today the latter are not included in the term. The term "Aborigine" is deprecated, being regarded as outdated and inappropriate, having connotations of colonial Australia.[20][22]

While the term "Indigenous Australians" has grown since the 1980s,[23] many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples dislike it, feeling that it is too generic and removes their identity. However, the term has a practical application and can be used where appropriate.[20]

In recent years, "First Nations",[24] "First Peoples"[25] and "First Australians" have become more common. First Nations is considered the most acceptable by most people.[20]

Being as specific as possible, for example naming the language group (such as Arrernte), demonym relating to geographic area (such as Nunga), is considered best practice and most respectful. (See also below under Regional groups section.) The abbreviation "ATSI" (for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people) is considered disrespectful.[22]

Terms "black" and "blackfella"

The term "black" has been used to refer to Indigenous Australians since European settlement.[26] While originally related to skin colour and often used pejoratively,[20] the term is used today to indicate Aboriginal heritage or culture in general and refers to any people of such heritage regardless of their level of skin pigmentation.[27] In the 1970s, many Aboriginal activists, such as Gary Foley, proudly embraced the term "black", and writer Kevin Gilbert's book from the time was entitled Living Black. The book included interviews with several members of the Aboriginal community, including Robert Jabanungga, reflecting on contemporary Aboriginal culture.[citation needed] Use of this term varies depending on context and its use needs care as it may be deemed inappropriate.[20]

A less formal term, used by Indigenous Australians and not normally derogatory, is "blackfellas", as distinguished from "whitefellas". Some people consider its use by white people offensive.[20]

Regional groups

Aboriginal groups

Men and boys playing a game of gorri, 1922

Aboriginal peoples of Australia are the various peoples indigenous to mainland Australia and associated islands, excluding the Torres Strait Islands.

The broad term Aboriginal Australians includes many regional groups that may be identified under names based on local language, locality, or what they are called by neighbouring groups. Some communities, cultures or groups may be inclusive of others and alter or overlap; significant changes have occurred in the generations after colonisation. The word "community" is often used to describe groups identifying by kinship, language or belonging to a particular place or "country". A community may draw on separate cultural values and individuals can conceivably belong to a number of communities within Australia; identification within them may be adopted or rejected. An individual community may identify itself by many names, each of which can have alternative English spellings.

Aboriginal farmers in Victoria, 1858

The naming of peoples is complex and multi-layered, but a few examples are Anangu in northern South Australia, and neighbouring parts of Western Australia and Northern Territory; Arrernte in central Australia; Koori (or Koorie) in New South Wales and Victoria (Aboriginal Victorians); Goorie (variant pronunciation and spelling of Koori) in South East Queensland and some parts of northern New South Wales; Murri used in parts of Queensland and northern New South Wales where specific collective names are not used; Tiwi people of the Tiwi Islands off NT, and Palawah in Tasmania. The largest Aboriginal communities – the Pitjantjatjara, the Arrernte, the Luritja and the Warlpiri – are all from Central Australia[citation needed]

Throughout the history of the continent, there have been many different Aboriginal groups, each with its own individual language, culture, and belief structure. At the time of British settlement, there were over 200 distinct languages.[28]

Robert Hawker Dowling, Group of Natives of Tasmania, 1859

The Tasmanian Aboriginal population are thought to have first crossed into Tasmania approximately 40,000 years ago via a land bridge between the island and the rest of mainland Australia during the last glacial period.[29] Estimates of the population of the Aboriginal people of Tasmania, before European arrival, are in the range of 3,000 to 15,000 people although genetic studies have suggested significantly higher figures, which are supported by Indigenous oral traditions that indicate a reduction in population from diseases introduced by British and American sealers before settlement.[30][b] The original population was further reduced to around 300 between 1803 and 1833 due to disease,[31] warfare and other actions of British settlers.[32] Despite over 170 years of debate over who or what was responsible for this near-extinction, no consensus exists on its origins, process, or whether or not it was genocide. However, using the "...UN definition, sufficient evidence exists to designate the Tasmanian catastrophe genocide".[30] A woman named Trugernanner (often rendered as Truganini) who died in 1876, was, and still is, widely believed to be the very last of the full-blooded Tasmanian Aboriginal people. However, in 1889 Parliament recognised Fanny Cochrane Smith (d:1905) as the last surviving full-blooded Tasmanian Aboriginal person.[c][d]

The 2016 census reported 23,572 Indigenous Australians in the state of Tasmania.[33]

Torres Strait Islanders

The Torres Strait Islander people possess a heritage and cultural history distinct from Aboriginal traditions. The eastern Torres Strait Islanders in particular are related to the Papuan peoples of New Guinea, and speak a Papuan language.[34] Accordingly, they are not generally included under the designation "Aboriginal Australians". This has been another factor in the promotion of the more inclusive term "Indigenous Australians". Six percent of Indigenous Australians identify themselves fully as Torres Strait Islanders. A further 4% of Indigenous Australians identify themselves as having both Torres Strait Islander and Aboriginal heritage.[35]

The Torres Strait Islands comprise over 100 islands[36] which were annexed by Queensland in 1879.[36] Many Indigenous organisations incorporate the phrase "Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander" to highlight the distinctiveness and importance of Torres Strait Islanders in Australia's Indigenous population.

Eddie Mabo was from "Mer" or Murray Island in the Torres Strait, which the famous Mabo decision of 1992 involved.[36]


Migration to Australia

Aboriginal peoples

Artwork depicting the first contact that was made with the Gweagal Aboriginal people and Captain James Cook and his crew on the shores of the Kurnell Peninsula, New South Wales

Several settlements of humans in Australia have been dated around 49,000 years ago.[37][38] Luminescence dating of sediments surrounding stone artefacts at Madjedbebe, a rock shelter in northern Australia, indicates human activity at 65,000 years BP.[39] Genetic studies appear to support an arrival date of 50-70,000 years ago.[40]

The earliest anatomically modern human remains found in Australia (and outside of Africa) are those of Mungo Man; they have been dated at 42,000 years old.[2][41] The initial comparison of the mitochondrial DNA from the skeleton known as Lake Mungo 3 (LM3) with that of ancient and modern Aboriginal peoples indicated that Mungo Man is not related to Australian Aboriginal peoples.[42] However, these findings have been met with a general lack of acceptance in scientific communities.[citation needed] The sequence has been criticised as there has been no independent testing, and it has been suggested that the results may be due to posthumous modification and thermal degradation of the DNA.[43][44][45][46] Although the contested results seem to indicate that Mungo Man may have been an extinct subspecies that diverged before the most recent common ancestor of contemporary humans,[42] the administrative body for the Mungo National Park believes that present-day local Aboriginal peoples are descended from the Lake Mungo remains.[47] Independent DNA testing is unlikely as the Indigenous custodians are not expected to allow further invasive investigations.[48]

It is generally believed that Aboriginal people are the descendants of a single migration into the continent, a people that split from the first modern human populations to leave Africa 64,000 to 75,000 years ago,[49] although others support an earlier theory that there were three waves of migration,[50] most likely island hopping by boat during periods of low sea levels (see Prehistory of Australia). Recent work with mitochondrial DNA suggests a founder population of between 1,000 and 3,000 women to produce the genetic diversity observed, which suggests "that initial colonisation of the continent would have required deliberate organised sea travel, involving hundreds of people".[51] Aboriginal people seem to have lived a long time in the same environment as the now extinct Australian megafauna.[52]


Genetically, while Aboriginal Australians are most closely related to Melanesian and Papuan people, there is also a Eurasian component that could indicate South Asian admixture or more recent European influence.[53][54] Research indicates a single founding Sahul group with subsequent isolation between regional populations which were relatively unaffected by later migrations from the Asian mainland, which may have introduced the dingo 4–5,000 years ago. The research also suggests a divergence from the Papuan people of New Guinea and the Mamanwa people of the Philippines about 32,000 years ago, with a rapid population expansion about 5,000 years ago.[54] A 2011 genetic study found evidence that the Aboriginal, Papuan and Mamanwa peoples carry some of the genes associated with the Denisovan peoples of Asia, (not found amongst populations in mainland Asia) suggesting that modern and archaic humans interbred in Asia approximately 44,000 years ago, before Australia separated from New Guinea and the migration to Australia.[55][56] A 2012 paper reports that there is also evidence of a substantial genetic flow from India to northern Australia estimated at slightly over four thousand years ago, a time when changes in tool technology and food processing appear in the Australian archaeological record, suggesting that these may be related.[57]

Aboriginal Australian men have Haplogroup C-M347 in high frequencies with peak estimates ranging from 60.2%[58] to 68.7%.[59] In addition, the basal form K2* (K-M526) of the extremely ancient Haplogroup K2 – whose subclades Haplogroup R, haplogroup Q, haplogroup M and haplogroup S can be found in the majority of Europeans, Northern South Asians, Native Americans and the Indigenous peoples of Oceania – has only been found in living humans today amongst Aboriginal Australians. 27% of them may carry K2* and approximately 29% of Aboriginal Australian males belong to subclades of K2b1, a.k.a. M and S.[60]

Aboriginal Australians possess deep rooted clades of both mtDNA Haplogroup M and Haplogroup N.[61]

Torres Strait Islands

Although it is estimated that people migrated from the Indonesian archipelago and New Guinea to mainland Australia about 70,000 years ago,[62] as of 2020 evidence of human settlement has only been uncovered by archaeologists dating back to about 2500 years ago.[63][64]

Before European contact

Aboriginal people

Aboriginal Australians, from Ridpath's Universal History

Aboriginal people in some regions lived as foragers and hunter-gatherers, hunting and foraging for food from the land. Although Aboriginal society was generally mobile, or semi-nomadic, moving according to the changing food availability found across different areas as seasons changed, the mode of life and material cultures varied greatly from region to region, and there were permanent settlements[65] and agriculture[66] in some areas. The greatest population density was to be found in the southern and eastern regions of the continent, the River Murray valley in particular.[67] Canoes were made out of bark for use on the Murray.

The scar on this tree is where Aboriginal people have removed the bark to make a canoe, for use on the Murray River. It was identified near Mildura, Victoria and is now in the Mildura Visitor Centre.

There is some evidence that, before outside contact, some groups of Aboriginal Australians had a complex subsistence system with elements of agriculture, that was only recorded by the very first of European explorers. One early settler took notes on the life styles of the Wathaurung people whom he lived near in Victoria. He saw women harvesting Murnong tubers, a native yam that is now almost extinct. However, the area that they were harvesting from was already cleared of other plants, making it easier to harvest Murnong (also known as yam daisy) exclusively.[67]

Along the northern coast of Australia, parsnip yams were harvested by leaving the bottom part of the yam still stuck in the ground so that it would grow again in the same spot.[68] Similar to many other farmers in the world, Aboriginal peoples used slash and burn techniques to enrich the nutrients of their soil. However, sheep and cattle later brought over by Europeans would ruin this soil by trampling on it.[68] To add on the complexity of Aboriginal farming techniques, natives deliberately exchanged seeds to begin growing plants where they did not naturally occur.[69] In fact there were so many examples of Aboriginal Australians managing farm land in a complex manor that Australian Anthropologist, Dr. Norman Tindale was able to draw an Aboriginal grain belt, detailing the specific areas where crops were once produced.[70]

In terms of aquaculture, explorer Thomas Mitchell noted large stone fish traps on the Darling River at Brewarrina. Each trap covers a pool, herding fish through a small entrance that would later be shut. Traps were created at different heights to accommodate different water levels during floods and droughts.[71]

Technology used by Indigenous Australian societies before European contact included weapons, tools, shelters, watercraft, and the message stick. Weapons included boomerangs, spears (sometimes thrown with a woomera) with stone or fishbone tips, clubs, and (less commonly) axes. The stone age tools available included knives with ground edges, grinding devices, and eating containers. Fibrecraft was well-developed, and fibre nets, baskets, and bags were used for fishing, hunting, and carrying liquids. Trade networks spanned the continent, and transportation included canoes. Shelters varied regionally, and included wiltjas in the Atherton Tablelands, paperbark and stringybark sheets and raised platforms in Arnhem Land, whalebone huts in what is now South Australia, stone shelters in what is now western Victoria, and a multi-room pole and bark structure found in Corranderrk.[72] A bark tent or lean-to is known as a humpy, gunyah, or wurley. Clothing included the possum-skin cloak in the southeast and riji (pearl shells) in the northeast.

There is evidence that some Aboriginal populations in northern Australia regularly traded with Makassan fishermen from Indonesia before the arrival of Europeans.[73][74]

At the time of first European contact, it is generally estimated that the pre-1788 population was 314,000, while recent archaeological finds suggest that a population of 500,000 to 750,000 could have been sustained, with some ecologists estimating that a population of up to a million or even two million people was possible.[10][75][e] More recent work suggests that Aboriginal populations exceeded 1.2 million 500 years ago, but may have fallen somewhat with the introduction of disease pathogens from Eurasia in the last 500 years.[51] The population was split into 250 individual nations,[76] many of which were in alliance with one another, and within each nation there existed separate, often related clans, from as few as 5 or 6 to as many as 30 or 40. Each nation had its own language, and a few had several.[citation needed]

There is some evidence to suggest that the section of the Australian continent now occupied by Queensland was the single most densely populated area of pre-contact Australia.[77] There are also signs that the population density of Aboriginal Australia was comparatively higher in the north-eastern sections of New South Wales, and along the northern coast from the Gulf of Carpentaria and westward including certain sections of Northern Territory and Western Australia.[citation needed]

Distribution of the pre-contact Aboriginal population when imposed on the current Australian states and territories[f]
State/territory 1930-estimated share of population 1988-estimated share of population Distribution of trad. tribal land
Queensland 38.2% 37.9% 34.2%
Western Australia 19.7% 20.2% 22.1%
Northern Territory 15.9% 12.6% 17.2%
New South Wales 15.3% 18.9% 10.3%
Victoria 4.8% 5.7% 5.7%
South Australia 4.8% 4.0% 8.6%
Tasmania 1.4% 0.6% 2.0%

Torres Strait Island people

The Torres Strait peoples' fishing economy relied on boats, which they built themselves. There is also evidence of the construction of large, complex buildings on stilts and domed structures using bamboo, with thatched roofs, which catered for extended family members living together.[67]

British colonisation

Dates by area

Wurundjeri people at the signing of Batman's Treaty, 1835

British colonisation of Australia began with the arrival of the First Fleet in Botany Bay, New South Wales, in 1788. Settlements were subsequently established in Tasmania (1803), Victoria (1803), Queensland (1824), Western Australia (1826), and the Colony of South Australia (1836).[78]

The first settlement in the Northern Territory was built after Captain Gordon Bremer took possession of the Tiwi Islands of Bathurst and Melville, claiming them for the colony of New South Wales, although that settlement failed after a few years,[79] along with a couple of later attempts; permanent settlement was only finally achieved at Darwin in 1869.

Australia was the exception to British imperial colonisation practices, in that no treaty was drawn up setting out terms of agreement between the settlers and native proprietors, as was the case in North America, and New Zealand.[78] Many of the men on the First Fleet had had military experience among Native American tribes in North America, and tended to attribute to the Aboriginal people alien and misleading systems or concepts like chieftainship and tribe with which they had become acquainted in the northern hemisphere.[80]

British administrative control began in the Torres Strait Islands in 1862, with the appointment of John Jardine, police magistrate at Rockhampton, as Government Resident in the Torres Straits. He originally established a small settlement on Albany Island, but on 1 August 1864 he went to Somerset Island.[81] English missionaries arrived on Erub (Darnley Island) on 1 July 1871.[82] In 1872 the boundary of Queensland was extended to include Thursday Island and some other islands in Torres Strait within 60 miles (97 km) of the Queensland coast, and in 1879 Queensland annexed the other islands, which became part of the British colony of Queensland.[81]


One immediate consequence was a series of epidemics of European diseases such as measles, smallpox and tuberculosis. In the 19th century, smallpox was the principal cause of Aboriginal deaths, and vaccinations of the "native inhabitants" had begun in earnest by the 1840s.[13] This smallpox epidemic in 1789 is estimated to have killed up to 90% of the Darug people. The cause of the outbreak is disputed. Some scholars have attributed it to European settlers,[83][84] but it is also argued that Macassan fishermen from South Sulawesi and nearby islands may have introduced smallpox to Australia before the arrival of Europeans.[85] A third suggestion is that the outbreak was caused by contact with members of the First Fleet.[86] A fourth theory is that the epidemic was of chickenpox, not smallpox, carried by members of the First Fleet, and to which the Aboriginal people also had no immunity.[87][88][89][90]

Another consequence of British colonisation was European seizure of land and water resources, with the decimation of kangaroo and other indigenous foodstuffs which continued throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries as rural lands were converted for sheep and cattle grazing.[91] Settlers also participated in the rape and forcible prostitution of Aboriginal women.[92] Despite this a number of Europeans, including convicts, formed favourable impressions of Aboriginal life through living with Aboriginal Groups.[93]

In 1834 there occurred the first recorded use of Aboriginal trackers, who proved very adept at navigating their way through the Australian landscape and finding people.[94]

During the 1860s, Tasmanian Aboriginal skulls were particularly sought internationally for studies into craniofacial anthropometry. The skeleton of Truganini, a Tasmanian Aboriginal who died in 1876, was exhumed within two years of her death despite her pleas to the contrary by the Royal Society of Tasmania, and later placed on display. Campaigns continue to have Aboriginal body parts returned to Australia for burial; Truganini's body was returned in 1976 and cremated, and her ashes were scattered according to her wishes.[citation needed]

Place names sometimes reveal discrimination, such as Mount Jim Crow in Rockhampton, Queensland (now Mount Baga), as well as racist policies, like Brisbane's Boundary Streets which used to indicate boundaries where Aboriginal people were not allowed to cross during certain times of the day.[95] There is ongoing discussion about changing many of these names.[96][97]

Graph showing the destination of Indigenous wages in Queensland in the 19th and 20th centuries

Throughout most of the 19th and 20th centuries, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people had their lives under the jurisdiction of various state-based protection laws. These Acts of Parliament appointed Protectors of Aborigines and Aboriginal Protection Boards, whose role was to ensure the safety of Indigenous Australians as well as controlling their lives in matters of employment and marriage. Wages were controlled by the Protectors, and Indigenous Australians received less income than their non-Indigenous counterparts in employment.[98][99]

During this time, many Aboriginal people were victims of slavery by colonists alongside Pacific Islander peoples who were kidnapped from their homes, in a practice known as blackbirding. Between 1860 and 1970, under the guise of protectionist policies, people, including children as young as 12, were forced to work on properties where they worked under horrific conditions and most did not receive any wages.[100] In the pearling industry, Aboriginal peoples were bought for about 5 pounds, with pregnant Aboriginal women "prized because their lungs were believed to have greater air capacity"[101] Aboriginal prisoners in the Aboriginal-only prison on Rottnest Island, many of whom were there on trumped up charges, were chained up and forced to work.[102] In 1971, 373 Aboriginal men were found buried in unmarked graves on the island.[103] Up until June 2018, the former prison was being used as holiday accommodation.[104]

From 1810, Aboriginal peoples were moved onto mission stations, run by churches and the state.[105] While they provided food and shelter, their purpose was to "civilise" Aboriginal communities by teaching western values. After this period of protectionist policies that aimed to segregate and control Aboriginal populations, in 1937 the Commonwealth government agreed to move towards assimilation policies. These policies aimed to integrate Aboriginal persons who were "not of full blood" into the white community in an effort to eliminate the "Aboriginal problem". As part of this, there was an increase in the number of children forcibly removed from their homes and placed with white people, either in institutions or foster homes.[106]

Frontier Wars

As part of the colonisation process, there were many small-scale conflicts and clashes between colonists and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people across the continent and islands. In Queensland, the killing of Aboriginal peoples was largely perpetrated by civilian "hunting" parties and the Native Police, armed groups of Aboriginal men who were recruited at gunpoint and led by colonialist to eliminate Aboriginal resistance.[107] There is evidence that massacres of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, which began with arrival of British colonists, continued until the 1930s. Researchers at the University of Newcastle under Lyndall Ryan have been mapping the massacres.[108] as of 2020 they have mapped almost 500 places where massacres happened, with 12,361 Aboriginal people killed and 204 Colonists killed,[109] numbering at least 311 massacres over a period of about 140 years. After losing a significant number of their social unit in one blow, the survivors were left very vulnerable – with reduced ability to gather food, reproduce, or fulfill their ceremonial obligations, as well as defend themselves against further attack.[110]

Estimating the total number of deaths during the frontier wars is difficult due to lack of records and the fact that many massacres of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander were kept secret.[108] It is often quoted that 20,000 Aboriginal Australians and 2000 colonists died in the frontier wars;[111] however, recent research indicates at least 40,000 Aboriginal dead and 2,000 to 2,500 settlers dead.[112] Other research indicates a minimum of 65,000 Aboriginal peoples may have been killed in Queensland alone.[113] There have been arguments over whether deaths of Aboriginal peoples, particularly in Tasmania, as well as the forcible removal of children from Aboriginal communities, constitutes genocide.[114][115][116] Many place names in Australia mark places of frontier massacres, for example Murdering Gully in Newcastle.[117]


There has always been Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander resistance, from the arrival of colonists through to now.[118]

  • In 1938, over 100 Aboriginal peoples protested one of the first Australia Day celebrations by gathering for an "Aborigines Conference" in Sydney and marking the day as the "Day of Protest and Mourning";[119] the day is now often referred to as "Survival Day" or "Invasion Day" by Indigenous peoples.
  • In 1963 the Yolngu people of Yirrkala in Arnhem Land sent two bark petitions to the Australian government to protest the granting of mining rights on their lands. The Yirrkala Bark petitions were traditional Aboriginal documents to be recognised under Commonwealth law.[120]
  • On Australia day in 1972, 34 years after the first "Day of Protest and Mourning", Indigenous activists set up the Aboriginal Tent Embassy on the lawn of Old Parliament House to protest the state of Aboriginal land rights. The Tent Embassy was given heritage status in 1995, and celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2012,[121] making it the longest, unanswered protest camp in the world.[122]

1871–1969: Stolen Generations

The term Stolen Generations refers to those children of Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander descent who were forcibly removed[123] from their families by the Australian Federal and State government agencies and church missions for the purpose of eradicating Aboriginal culture, under acts of their respective parliaments.[g][124] The forcible removal of these children occurred in the period between approximately 1871[125] and 1969,[126][127] although, in some places, children were still being taken in the 1970s.[h]

Early 20th century

By 1900, the recorded Indigenous population of Australia had declined to approximately 93,000.[9] However, this was only a partial count as both Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders were poorly covered, with desert Aboriginal peoples not counted at all until the 1930s.[128] During the first half of the twentieth century, many Indigenous Australians worked as stockmen on sheep stations and cattle stations for extremely low wages. The Indigenous population continued to decline, reaching a low of 74,000 in 1933 before numbers began to recover. By 1995, population numbers had reached pre-colonisation levels, and in 2010 there were around 563,000 Indigenous Australians.[75]

Although, as British subjects, all Indigenous Australians were nominally entitled to vote, generally only those who merged into mainstream society did so. Only Western Australia and Queensland specifically excluded Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people from the electoral rolls. Despite the Commonwealth Franchise Act 1902, which excluded "Aboriginal natives of Australia, Asia, Africa and Pacific Islands except New Zealand" from voting unless they were on the roll before 1901, South Australia insisted that all voters enfranchised within its borders would remain eligible to vote in the Commonwealth, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people continued to be added to their rolls, albeit haphazardly.[128]

Aboriginal women, Northern Territory, 1928. Photo taken by Herbert Basedow.

Despite efforts to bar their enlistment, over 1,000 Indigenous Australians fought for Australia in the First World War.[129]

1934 saw the first appeal to the High Court by an Aboriginal Australian, and it succeeded. Dhakiyarr was found to have been wrongly convicted of the murder of a white policeman, for which he had been sentenced to death; the case focused national attention on Aboriginal rights issues. Dhakiyarr disappeared upon release.[130][131] In 1938, the 150th anniversary of the arrival of the British First Fleet was marked as a Day of Mourning and Protest at an Aboriginal meeting in Sydney, and has since become marked around Australia as "Invasion Day" or "Survival Day" by Aboriginal protesters and their supporters.[132]

Hundreds of Indigenous Australians served in the Australian armed forces during World War Two – including with the Torres Strait Light Infantry Battalion and The Northern Territory Special Reconnaissance Unit, which were established to guard Australia's North against the threat of Japanese invasion.[133] However, most were denied pension rights and military allotments, except in Victoria, where each case was judged individually, without a blanket denial of rights accruing from their service.[i]

Late 20th century

Picture of Albert Namatjira at the Albert Namatjira Gallery, Alice Springs. Aboriginal art and artists became increasingly prominent in Australian cultural life during the second half of the 20th century.
Australian tennis player Evonne Goolagong

The 1960s was a pivotal decade in the assertion of Aboriginal rights and a time of growing collaboration between Aboriginal activists and white Australian activists.[134] In 1962, Commonwealth legislation specifically gave Aboriginal people the right to vote in Commonwealth elections.[135] A group of University of Sydney students organised a bus tour of western and coastal New South Wales towns in 1965 to raise awareness of the state of Aboriginal health and living conditions. This Freedom Ride also aimed to highlight the social discrimination faced by Aboriginal people and encourage Aboriginal people themselves to resist discrimination.[136]

As mentioned above, Indigenous Australians received lower wages than their non-Indigenous counterparts in employment. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Queensland in particular had their income quarantined by the Protector and were allowed a minimal amount of their income.[98][99] In 1966, Vincent Lingiari led the famous Wave Hill walk-off (Gurindji strike) of Indigenous employees of Wave Hill Station in protest against poor pay and conditions[137] (later the subject of the Paul Kelly song "From Little Things Big Things Grow").[138] Since 1999, the Queensland Government, under pressure from the Queensland Council of Unions, has established a number of schemes to give any earned income not received at the time back to Indigenous Australians.[98][99]

The landmark 1967 referendum called by Prime Minister Harold Holt allowed the Commonwealth to make laws with respect to Aboriginal people by modifying section 51(xxvi) of the Constitution, and for Aboriginal people to be included when the country does a count to determine electoral representation by repealing section 127. The referendum passed with 90.77% voter support.[139]

In the controversial 1971 Gove land rights case, Justice Blackburn ruled that Australia had been terra nullius before British settlement, and that no concept of native title existed in Australian law. Following the 1973 Woodward commission enquiry, in 1976 the Australian federal government under Gough Whitlam enacted the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976 to recognise Aboriginal Australians' system of land rights in the Northern Territory. In 1985, the Australian government returned ownership of Uluru (Ayers Rock) to the Pitjantjatjara Aboriginal people. In 1992, the High Court of Australia reversed Justice Blackburn's ruling and handed down its decision in the Mabo Case, declaring the previous legal concept of terra nullius to be invalid and confirming the existence of native title in Australia.

Indigenous Australians began to serve in political office from the 1970s. In 1971, Neville Bonner joined the Australian Senate as a Senator for Queensland for the Liberal Party, becoming the first Indigenous Australian in the Federal Parliament. A year later, the Aboriginal Tent Embassy was established on the steps of Parliament House in Canberra. In 1976, Sir Douglas Nicholls was appointed as the 28th Governor of South Australia, the first Aboriginal person appointed to vice-regal office.[140] In the general election of 2010, Ken Wyatt of the Liberal Party became the first Indigenous Australian elected to the Australian House of Representatives. In the general election of 2016, Linda Burney of the Australian Labor Party became the second Indigenous Australian, and the first Indigenous Australian woman, elected to the Australian House of Representatives.[141] She was immediately appointed Shadow Minister for Human Services.[142]

In sport Evonne Goolagong Cawley became the world number-one ranked tennis player in 1971 and won 14 Grand Slam titles during her career. In 1973 Arthur Beetson became the first Indigenous Australian to captain his country in any sport when he first led the Australian National Rugby League team, the Kangaroos.[143] In 1982, Mark Ella became Captain of the Australian National Rugby Union Team, the Wallabies.[144] In 2000, Aboriginal sprinter Cathy Freeman lit the Olympic flame at the opening ceremony of the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, and went on to win the 400 metres at the Games. In 2019, tennis player Ashleigh Barty was ranked world number one.[145]

In 1984, a group of Pintupi people who were living a traditional hunter-gatherer desert-dwelling life were tracked down in the Gibson Desert in Western Australia and brought in to a settlement. They are believed to have been the last uncontacted tribe in Australia.[146][147]

During this period, the federal government enacted a number of significant, but controversial, policy initiatives in relation to Indigenous Australians. A representative body, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC), was set up in 1990.[148]


Reconciliation between non-Indigenous and Indigenous Australians became a significant issue in Australian politics in the late 20th century. In 1991, the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation was established by the federal government to facilitate reconciliation. In 1998, a Constitutional Convention which selected a Republican model for a referendum included just six Indigenous participants, leading Monarchist delegate Neville Bonner to end his contribution to the Convention with his Jagera tribal "Sorry Chant" in sadness at the low number of Indigenous representatives.[149]

An inquiry into the Stolen Generations was launched in 1995 by the Keating government, and the final report delivered in 1997 – the Bringing Them Home report – estimated that around 10% to 33% of all Aboriginal children had been separated from their families for the duration of the policies.[150] The succeeding Howard government largely ignored the recommendations provided by the report, one of which was a formal apology to Aboriginal Australians for the Stolen Generations.[150]

The republican model, as well as a proposal for a new Constitutional preamble which would have included the "honouring" of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, was put to referendum but did not succeed.[149] In 1999, the Australian Parliament passed a Motion of Reconciliation drafted by Prime Minister John Howard in consultation with Aboriginal Senator Aden Ridgeway naming mistreatment of Indigenous Australians as the most "blemished chapter in our national history", although Howard refused to offer any formal apology.[151]

On 13 February 2008 Prime Minister Kevin Rudd issued a formal apology to Australia's Indigenous peoples, on behalf of the federal government of Australia, for the suffering caused by the Stolen Generations.[152]

21st century

In 2001, the Federal Government dedicated Reconciliation Place in Canberra. On 13 February 2008, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd reversed Howard's decision and issued a public apology to members of the Stolen Generations on behalf of the Australian Government.[153]

ATSIC was abolished by the Australian Government in 2004 amidst allegations of corruption.[148]

Emergency Response/Stronger Futures

The Northern Territory National Emergency Response (also known as the Intervention) was launched in 2007 by the government of Prime Minister John Howard, in response to the Little Children are Sacred report into allegations of child abuse among Aboriginal communities in the NT. The government banned alcohol in prescribed communities in the Territory; quarantined a percentage of welfare payments for essential goods purchasing; dispatched additional police and medical personnel to the region; and suspended the permit system for access to Aboriginal communities.[154] In addition to these measures, the army were released into communities[155] and there were increased police powers, which were later further increased with the so-called "paperless arrests" legislation.[156]

In 2010, United Nations Special Rapporteur James Anaya found the Emergency Response to be racially discriminatory, and said that aspects of it represented a limitation on "individual autonomy".[157][158] These findings were criticised by the government's Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin, the Opposition and Indigenous leaders like Warren Mundine and Bess Price.[159][160]

In 2011, the Australian government enacted legislation to implement the Stronger Futures policy, which is intended to address key issues that exist within Aboriginal communities of the Northern Territory such as unemployment, school attendance and enrolment, alcohol abuse, community safety and child protection, food security and housing and land reforms. The policy has been criticised by organisations such as Amnesty International and other groups, including on the basis that it maintains "racially-discriminatory" elements of the Emergency Response Act and continues control by the federal government over "Aboriginal people and their lands".[161]

Constitutional change proposed

In 2010, the federal government appointed a panel comprising Indigenous leaders, other legal experts and some members of parliament (including Ken Wyatt) to provide advice on how best to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the federal Constitution. The panel's recommendations, reported to the federal government in January 2012,[153] included deletion of provisions of the Constitution referencing race (Section 25 and Section 51(xxvi)), and new provisions on meaningful recognition and further protection from discrimination.[j] Subsequently, a proposed referendum on Constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians was ultimately abandoned in 2013.

The Uluru Statement from the Heart[162] was released 26 May 2017 by delegates to an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Referendum Convention, held near Uluru in Central Australia. The statement calls for a "First Nations Voice" in the Australian Constitution and a "Makarrata Commission" to supervise a process of "agreement-making" and "truth-telling" between government and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.[163] The statement references the 1967 referendum which brought about changes to the Constitution to include Indigenous Australians.



It has been variously estimated that before the arrival of British settlers, the population of Indigenous (probably Aboriginal only) Australians was approximately 318,000–1,000,000[10] with the distribution being similar to that of the current Australian population, the majority living in the south-east, centred along the Murray River.[11]


Over time Australia has used various means to determine membership of ethnic groups such as lineage, blood quantum, birth and self-determination. From 1869 until well into the 1970s, children under 12 years of age with 25% or less Aboriginal blood were considered "white" and were often removed from their families by the Australian Federal and State government agencies and church missions, under acts of their respective parliaments in order that they would have "a reasonable chance of absorption into the white community to which they rightly belong".[164] Grey areas in determination of ethnicity led to people of mixed ancestry being caught in the middle of divisive policies which often led to absurd situations:[165]

In 1935, an Australian of part Indigenous descent left his home on a reserve to visit a nearby hotel where he was ejected for being Aboriginal. He returned home but was refused entry to the reserve because he was not Aboriginal. He attempted to remove his children from the reserve but was told he could not because they were Aboriginal. He then walked to the next town where he was arrested for being an Aboriginal vagrant and sent to the reserve there. During World War II he tried to enlist but was rejected because he was an Aborigine so he moved to another state where he enlisted as a non-Aborigine. After the end of the war he applied for a passport but was rejected as he was an Aborigine, he obtained an exemption under the Aborigines Protection Act but was now told he could no longer visit his relatives as he was not an Aborigine. He was later told he could not join the Returned Servicemens Club because he was an Aborigine.[165]

In 1983 the High Court of Australia (in the Commonwealth v Tasmania or "Tasmanian dam(s) case")[166] defined an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander as "a person of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent who identifies as an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander and is accepted as such by the community in which he or she lives". The ruling was a three-part definition comprising descent, self-identification and community identification. The first part – descent – was genetic descent and unambiguous, but led to cases where a lack of records to prove ancestry excluded some. Self- and community identification were more problematic as they meant that an Indigenous person separated from her or his community due to a family dispute could no longer identify as Aboriginal.[167][168]

As a result, there arose court cases throughout the 1990s where excluded people demanded that their Aboriginality be recognised. As a result, lower courts refined the High Court test when subsequently applying it. In 1995, Justice Drummond in the Federal Court held in Gibbs v Capewell "...either genuine self-identification as Aboriginal alone or Aboriginal communal recognition as such by itself may suffice, according to the circumstances." This contributed to an increase of 31% in the number of people identifying as Indigenous Australians in the 1996 census when compared to the 1991 census.[169] In 1998 Justice Merkel held in Shaw v Wolf that Aboriginal descent is "technical" rather than "real" – thereby eliminating a genetic requirement.[168] This decision established that anyone can classify him or herself legally as an Aboriginal, provided he or she is accepted as such by his or her community.[167]


Indigenous Australians as a percentage of the population, 2011
Aboriginal Australians as a percentage of the population, 2011
Torres Strait Islanders as a percentage of the population, 2011
Both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders as a percentage of the population, 2011

Inclusion in the National Census

Aboriginal boys and men in front of a bush shelter, Groote Eylandt, c. 1933

Until the 1967 referendum, official Australian population statistics excluded "full-blood aboriginal natives" in accordance with section 127 of the Australian Constitution, even though many such people were actually counted. The size of the excluded population was generally separately estimated. "Half-caste aboriginal natives" were shown separately up to the 1966 census, but since 1971 there has been no provision on the forms to differentiate "full" from "part" Indigenous or to identify non-Indigenous persons who are accepted by Indigenous communities but have no genetic descent.[170]

As there is no formal procedure for any community to record acceptance, the primary method of determining Indigenous population is from self-identification on census forms. The Australian Census includes counts based on questions relating to individuals' self-identification as Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islander, or of both origins.[1] Owing to various difficulties which lead to under-counting, the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) follows a set method to estimate total numbers.[171]

Distribution and growth

The 2006 Australian census showed growth in the Indigenous population (recorded as 517,000) at twice the rate of overall population growth since 1996, when the Indigenous population stood at 283,000.[128] In the 2011 census, there was a 20% rise in people who identify as Aboriginal.[172] In the 2016 census, there was another 18.4% rise on the 2011 figure. 590,056 respondents identified themselves as Aboriginal, 32,345 Torres Strait Islander, and a further 26,767 both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.[33]

Growth was mainly in major cities and along the eastern coast of Australia. The ABS published a report exploring the reasons for these findings, with some of the factors behind the increase being higher fertility rates of Indigenous women; people entering the population through migration; variation in census coverage and response rates; and people changing how they self-identify between census years.[173] Another factor might be the children of mixed marriages: the proportion of Aboriginal adults married (de facto or de jure) to non-Aboriginal spouses increased to 78.2% in the 2016 census,[174] (up from 74% in 2011,[175] 64% in 1996, 51% in 1991 and 46% in 1986); it was reported in 2002 that up to 88% of the offspring of mixed marriages subsequently self-identify as Indigenous Australians.[169]

In the 2016, over 33% of the Indigenous population lived in major cities, compared with about 75% of the non-Indigenous population, with a further 24% in "inner regional" areas (compared with 18%), 20% in "outer regional" (8%), while nearly 18% lived in "remote" or "very remote" areas (2%).[176] (Ten years earlier, 31% were living in major cities and 24% in remote areas.[177])


Aboriginal languages

According to the 2005 National Indigenous Languages Survey (NILS), at the time the Australian continent was colonised, there were around 250 different Indigenous languages, with the larger language groups each having up to 100 related dialects.[178] Some of these languages were only ever spoken by perhaps 50 to 100 people. Indigenous languages are divided into language groups with from ten to twenty-four language families identified.[18] It is currently estimated that up to 145 Indigenous languages remain in use, of which fewer than 20 are considered to be strong in the sense that they are still spoken by all age groups.[18][179] All but 13 Indigenous languages are considered to be endangered.[19] Several extinct Indigenous languages are being reconstructed. For example, the last fluent speaker of the Ngarrindjeri language died in the late 1960s; using recordings and written records as a guide, a Ngarrindjeri dictionary was published in 2009,[180] and the Ngarrindjeri language is today being spoken in complete sentences.[18]

Linguists classify many of the mainland Australian languages into one large group, the Pama–Nyungan languages. The rest are sometimes lumped under the term "non-Pama–Nyungan". The Pama–Nyungan languages comprise the majority, covering most of Australia, and are generally thought to be a family of related languages. In the north, stretching from the Western Kimberley to the Gulf of Carpentaria, are found a number of non-Pama–Nyungan groups of languages which have not been shown to be related to the Pama–Nyungan family nor to each other.[181] While it has sometimes proven difficult to work out familial relationships within the Pama–Nyungan language family, many Australian linguists feel there has been substantial success.[182] Against this, some linguists, such as R. M. W. Dixon, suggest that the Pama–Nyungan group – and indeed the entire Australian linguistic area – is rather a sprachbund, or group of languages having very long and intimate contact, rather than a genetic language family.[183]

It has been suggested that, given their long presence in Australia, Aboriginal languages form one specific sub-grouping. The position of Tasmanian languages is unknown, and it is also unknown whether they comprised one or more than one specific language family.[citation needed]

Cross-cultural communications

Cross-cultural miscommunication can sometimes occur between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples. According to Michael Walsh and Ghil'ad Zuckermann, Western conversational interaction is typically "dyadic", between two particular people, where eye contact is important and the speaker controls the interaction; and "contained" in a relatively short, defined time frame. However, traditional Aboriginal conversational interaction is "communal", broadcast to many people, eye contact is not important, the listener controls the interaction; and "continuous", spread over a longer, indefinite time frame.[184][185]

Torres Strait Island languages

There are three languages spoken in the Torres Strait Islands, two indigenous languages and an English-based creole. The indigenous language spoken mainly in the western and central islands is Kalaw Lagaw Ya, a language related to the Pama–Nyungan languages of the Australian mainland. The other indigenous language spoken mainly in the eastern islands is Meriam Mir: a member of the Trans-Fly languages spoken on the nearby south coast of New Guinea and the only Papuan language spoken on Australian territory. Both languages are agglutinative; however Kalaw Lagaw Ya appears to be undergoing a transition into a declensional language while Meriam Mìr is more clearly agglutinative. Yumplatok, or Torres Strait Creole, the third language, is a non-typical Pacific English Creole and is the main language of communication on the islands.[citation needed]

Belief systems

Depiction of a corroboree by 19th century Indigenous activist William Barak

Tradional beliefs


Within Aboriginal belief systems, a formative epoch known as "the Dreamtime" or "the Dreaming" stretches back into the distant past when the creator ancestors known as the First Peoples travelled across the land, and naming as they went. Indigenous Australia's oral tradition and religious values are based upon reverence for the land and a belief in this Dreamtime.[186] The Dreaming is at once both the ancient time of creation and the present-day reality of Dreaming. Different language and cultural groups each had their own belief structures; these cultures overlapped to a greater or lesser extent, and evolved over time. Major ancestral spirits include the Rainbow Serpent, Baiame, Dirawong and Bunjil.[citation needed] Knowledge contained in the Dreaming has been passed down through different stories, songlines, dances and ceremonies, and even today provides a framework for ongoing relationships, kinship responsibilities and looking after country.[187]

Traditional healers (known as Ngangkari in the Western desert areas of Central Australia) were highly respected men and women who not only acted as healers or doctors, but were generally also custodians of important Dreaming stories.[188]

Torres Strait Islander

Torres Strait Islander people have their own traditional belief systems. Stories of the Tagai represent Torres Strait Islanders as sea people, with a connection to the stars, as well as a system of order in which everything has its place in the world.[187][189] Some Torres Strait Islander people share beliefs similar to the Aboriginal peoples' Dreaming and "Everywhen" concepts, passed down in oral history.[190]

After colonisation

Christianity and European culture have had a significant impact on Indigenous Australians, their religion and their culture. As in many colonial situations, the churches both facilitated the loss of Indigenous culture and religion and also facilitated its maintenance.[191] In some cases, such as at Hermannsburg, Northern Territory and Piltawodli in Adelaide, the work of missionaries laid the foundations for later language revival. The German missionaries Christian Teichelmann and Schürmann went to Adelaide and taught the local Kaurna people only in their own language and created textbooks in the language.[192][193] However, some missionaries taught only in English, and some Christian missions were involved in the placement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children after they were removed from their parents upon orders of the government, and are therefore implicated in the Stolen Generations.

Aboriginal peoples

The involvement of Christians in Aboriginal affairs has evolved significantly since 1788.[191] The Churches became involved in mission work among Aboriginal peoples in the 19th century as Europeans came to control much of the continent, and the majority of the population was eventually converted. Colonial clergy such as Sydney's first Catholic archbishop, John Bede Polding, strongly advocated for Aboriginal rights and dignity.[194] Around the year 2000, many churches and church organisations officially apologised for past failures to adequately respect Indigenous cultures and address the injustices of the dispossession of Indigenous people.[191][195]

A small minority of Aboriginal people are followers of Islam as a result of intermarriage with "Afghan" camel drivers brought to Australia in the late 19th and early 20th century to help explore and open up the interior.[196]

Torres Strait Islander peoples

From the 1870s, Christianity spread throughout the Torres Strait Islands, and it remains strong today among Torres Strait Islander people everywhere. The London Missionary Society mission led by Rev. Samuel Macfarlane arrived on Erub (Darnley Island) on 1 July 1871, establishing its first base in the region there. The Islanders refer to this as "The Coming of the Light", or "Coming of Light"[197] and all Island communities celebrate the occasion annually on 1 July.[82] However the coming of Christianity did not spell the end of the people's traditional beliefs; their culture informed their understanding of the new religion, as the Christian God was welcomed and the new religion was integrated into every aspect of their everyday lives.[197]

Recent census figures

In the 2016 Census, Australia's Indigenous and non-Indigenous population were broadly similar with 54% (vs 55%) reporting a Christian affiliation, while less than 2% reported traditional beliefs as their religion, and 36% reported no religion. The proportion of Indigenous people who reported no religion has increased gradually since 2001, standing at 36% in 2016. According to "Table 8: Religious Affiliation by Indigenous Status", 347,572 Indigenous people (out of the total 649,171 in Australia) declared an affiliation to some form of Christianity, with a higher proportion of Torres Strait Islander than Aboriginal people in this number. 7,773 reported traditional beliefs; 1,511 Islam; other religions numbered less than 1,000 each. However the question is optional; 48,670 did not respond, and in addtion, nearly 4,000 were reported as "inadequately described".[k] (In the 2006 census, 73% of the Indigenous population reported an affiliation with a Christian denomination, 24% reported no religious affiliation and 1% reported affiliation with an Australian Aboriginal traditional religion.[198])



Australia has a tradition of Aboriginal art which is thousands of years old, the best known forms being Australian rock art and bark painting. Evidence of Aboriginal art can be traced back at least 30,000 years,[199] with examples of ancient rock art throughout the continent. Some of these are in national parks such as those of the UNESCO listed sites at Uluru and Kakadu National Park in the Northern Territory, but examples can also within protected parks in urban areas such as at Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park in Sydney.[200][201][202] The Sydney rock engravings are between 5000 and 200 years old. Murujuga in Western Australia was heritage listed in 2007.[203]

In terms of age and abundance, cave art in Australia is comparable to that of Lascaux and Altamira (Upper Paleolithic sites in Europe),[204] and Aboriginal art is believed to be the oldest continuing tradition of art in the world.[205] There are three major regional styles: the geometric style found in Central Australia, Tasmania, the Kimberley and Victoria, known for its concentric circles, arcs and dots; the simple figurative style found in Queensland; and the complex figurative style found in Arnhem Land and the Kimberley. These designs generally carry significance linked to the spirituality of the Dreamtime.[199] Paintings were usually created in earthy colours, from paint made from ochre. Such ochres were also used to paint their bodies for ceremonial purposes.[206][207]

Several styles of Aboriginal art have developed in modern times, including the watercolour paintings of the Hermannsburg School and the acrylic Papunya Tula "dot art" movement. Some notable Aboriginal artists include William Barak (c.1824–1903) and Albert Namatjira (1902–1959).

Since the 1970s, Indigenous artists have employed the use of acrylic paints – with styles such as that of the Western Desert Art Movement becoming globally renowned 20th-century art movements.

The National Gallery of Australia exhibits a great many Indigenous art works, including those of the Torres Strait Islands who are known for their traditional sculpture and headgear.[208]

Aboriginal art has influenced many non-Indigenous artists, such as Margaret Preston (1875–1963) and Elizabeth Durack (1915 – 2000).

Music and dance

A didgeridoo player
Aboriginal dancers in 1981

Music and dance have formed an integral part of the social, cultural and ceremonial observances of people through the millennia of the individual and collective histories of Australian Indigenous peoples to the present day.[209][210][211][212] Around 1950, the first research into Aboriginal music was undertaken by the anthropologist Adolphus Elkin, who recorded Aboriginal music in Arnhem Land.[213]

The various Indigenous Australian communities developed unique musical instruments and folk styles. The didgeridoo, which is widely thought to be a stereotypical instrument of Aboriginal people, it was traditionally played by Aboriginal men of the eastern Kimberley region and Arnhem Land (such as the Yolngu).[214]

Corroboree is a generic word to explain different genres of performance, embracing songs, dances, rallies and meetings of various kinds. It is an appropriated English word that has been reappropriated to explain a practice that is different from ceremony and more widely inclusive than theatre or opera.[215]

Songlines relate to the Dreamtime in Aboriginal culture, overlapping with oral lore.[216]

Indigenous musicians have been prominent in various contemporary styles of music, including creating a sub-genre of rock music as well as participating in pop and other mainstream styles. Hip hop music is helping preserve indigenous languages.[217]

The Aboriginal Centre for the Performing Arts in Brisbane teaches acting, music and dance, and the Bangarra Dance Theatre is an acclaimed contemporary dance company.

For Torres Strait Islander people, singing and dancing is their "literature" – "the most important aspect of Torres Strait lifestyle. The Torres Strait Islanders preserve and present their oral history through songs and dances;...the dances act as illustrative material and, of course, the dancer himself is the storyteller" (Ephraim Bani, 1979). There are many songs about the weather; others about the myths and legends; life in the sea and totemic gods; and about important events. "The dancing and its movements express the songs and acts as the illustrative material".[218]


David Unaipon, the first Aboriginal published author
Aboriginal lawyer, activist and essayist Noel Pearson

There was no written form of the many languages spoken by Indigenous peoples before colonisation. A letter to Governor Arthur Phillip written by Bennelong in 1796 is the first known work written in English by an Aboriginal person.[219] The historic Yirrkala bark petitions of 1963 are the first traditional Aboriginal documents recognised by the Australian Parliament.[220]

In the 20th century, David Unaipon (1872–1967), known as the first Aboriginal author, is credited for providing the first accounts of Aboriginal mythology written by an Aboriginal person, in his Legendary Tales of the Aborigines (1924–1925). Oodgeroo Noonuccal (1920–1995) was a famous Aboriginal poet, writer and rights activist, credited with publishing the first book of verse by an Aboriginal author, We Are Going (1964).[221] Sally Morgan's novel My Place (1987) was considered a breakthrough memoir in terms of bringing Indigenous stories to a wider audience. The talents of playwrights Jack Davis and Kevin Gilbert were recognised. Poetry by Indigenous poets, including traditional song-poetry – ranging from sacred to everyday – has been published since the late 20th century.[l]

Writers coming to prominence in the 21st century include Alexis Wright; Kim Scott (twice winner of the Miles Franklin Award); Tara June Winch; Melissa Lucashenko; playwright and comedy writer Nakkiah Lui; in poetry Yvette Holt; and in popular fiction Anita Heiss. Leading activists Marcia Langton, who wrote First Australians (2008) and Noel Pearson (Up From the Mission, 2009) are as of 2020 active contemporary contributors to Australian literature. Journalist Stan Grant has written several non-fiction works on what it means to be Aboriginal in contemporary Australia, and Bruce Pascoe has written both fiction and non-fiction works. AustLit's BlackWords project provides a comprehensive listing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Writers and Storytellers. The Living Archive of Aboriginal Languages contains stories written in traditional languages of the Northern Territory.

Film and television

Australian cinema has a long history, and the ceremonies of Indigenous Australians were among the first subjects to be filmed in Australia – notably a film of Aboriginal dancers in Central Australia, shot by the anthropologist Baldwin Spencer and F.J. Gillen in 1900–1903.[222]

Jedda (1955) was the first Australian feature film to be shot in colour film, the first to star Aboriginal actors in lead roles (Ngarla Kunoth and Robert Tudawali), and the first to be entered at the Cannes Film Festival.[223] 1971's Walkabout was a British film set in Australia; it was a forerunner to many Australian films related to indigenous themes and introduced David Gulpilil to cinematic audiences. Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1976), directed by Fred Schepisi, was an award-winning historical drama from a book by Thomas Keneally, about the tragic story of an Aboriginal bushranger. Peter Weir's 1977 mystery drama The Last Wave, also starring Gulpilil and featuring elements of Aboriginal beliefs and culture, won several AACTA Awards.

The canon of films related to Indigenous Australians increased from the 1990s, with Nick Parson's film Dead Heart (1996) featuring Ernie Dingo and Bryan Brown;[224] Rolf de Heer's The Tracker (2002), starring Gary Sweet and David Gulpilil;[225] and Phillip Noyce's Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002).[226]

The soundtrack of the 2006 film Ten Canoes directed by Rolf de Heer was filmed entirely in dialects of the Yolŋu Matha language group, with the main version featuring subtitles and English narration by David Gulpilil. The film won won the Un Certain Regard Special Jury Prize at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival.[227][228]

The Straits, a 2012 drama series for TV based on an idea by Torres Strait Islander actor Aaron Fa'aoso, was partly filmed in the Torres Strait Islands and starred Fa'aoso and Jimi Bani (from Mabuiag Island), as well as Papua New Guinean actors.[229] The documentary TV series Blue Water Empire (aired 2019), featuring Fa'aoso and Bani, tells the story of Torres Strait Islands from pre-colonial era up to contemporary times.

Many Indigenous actors, directors, producers and others have been involved in the production of film and TV series in the 21st century: Ivan Sen, Rachel Perkins (with her company Blackfella Films), Aaron Pedersen, Deborah Mailman, Warwick Thornton, Leah Purcell, Shari Sebbens, Sally Riley, Luke Carroll and Miranda Tapsell, Wayne Blair, Trisha Morton-Thomas and Rachel Perkins, among others, with many of them well-represented in award nominations and wins.[230] The films Sweet Country (2017), Top End Wedding (2019) and TV series Cleverman and Total Control (2019), all made by Aboriginal film-makers and featuring Aboriginal themes, were well-received and in some cases won awards.

The third series of the sketch comedy TV series Black Comedy, co-written by Nakkiah Lui, Adam Briggs, Steven Oliver and others, and featuring many Indigenous actors, goes to air in January 2020.[231]

Recreation and sport

1857 depiction of the Jarijari (Nyeri Nyeri) people near Merbein engaged in recreational activities, including a type of Aboriginal football.[232][233][234]
Aboriginal cricket team with Tom Wills (coach and captain), Melbourne Cricket Ground, December 1866

Though lost to history, many traditional forms of recreation were played and while these varied from tribe to tribe, there were often similarities. Ball games were quite popular and played by tribes across Australia, as were games based on use of weapons. There is extensive documented evidence of traditional football games being played. Perhaps the most documented is a game popularly played by tribes in western Victorian regions of the Wimmera, Mallee and Millewa by the Djab wurrung, Jardwadjali and Jarijari people. Known as Marn Grook, it was a type of kick and catch football game played with a ball made of possum hide.[235] According to some accounts, it was played as far away as the Yarra Valley by the Wurundjeri people,[236] Gippsland by the Gunai people, and the Riverina in south-western New South Wales. Since the 1980s it has been speculated that Marn Grook influenced Australian rules football; however there is no direct evidence in its favour.

A team of Aboriginal cricketers from the Western District of Victoria toured England in 1868, making it the first Australian sports team to travel overseas. Cricketer and Australian rules football pioneer Tom Wills coached the team in an Aboriginal language he learnt as a child, and Charles Lawrence accompanied them to England. Johnny Mullagh, the team's star player, was regarded as one of the era's finest batsmen.[237]

Lionel Rose earned a world title in boxing. Evonne Goolagong became the world number-one ranked female tennis player, with 14 Grand Slam titles. Arthur Beetson, Laurie Daley and Gorden Tallis captained Australia in rugby league, while Mark Ella captained Australia in rugby union. Sprinter Cathy Freeman earned gold medals in the Olympics, World Championships, and Commonwealth Games. In Australian rules football, Indigenous Australians are playing at the highest level, the Australian Football League: Graham Farmer, Gavin Wanganeen and Adam Goodes are just a few prominent names. Goodes was also the Australian of the Year for 2014. Two basketball players, Nathan Jawai and Patty Mills, have played in the National Basketball Association.

Sporting teams include the Indigenous All-Stars, Flying Boomerangs and Indigenous Team of the Century in Australian rules football, and the Indigenous All Stars, NSW Koori Knockout and the Murri Rugby League Team in rugby league.

Contemporary issues

Closing the Gap

To this day, the forced removal of children known as the Stolen Generations has had a huge impact on the psyche, health and well-being of Indigenous Australians; it has seriously impacted not only the children removed and their parents, but their descendants as well. Not only were many of the children abusedpsychologically, physically, or sexually – after being removed and while living in group homes or adoptive families, but were also deprived of their culture alongside their families.[150] This has resulted in the disruption of oral culture, as parents were unable to communicate their knowledge to their children, and thus much has been lost.[150]

There are many issues facing Indigenous people in Australia today when compared with the non-Indigenous population, despite some improvements. Several of these are interrelated, and include health (including shorter life expectancy and higher rates of infant mortality), lower levels of education and employment, inter-generational trauma, high imprisonment rates, substance abuse and lack of political representation.[150]

Some demographic facts are related to these issues, as cause and/or result:

  • In the 2016 Australian Census, over 33% of the Indigenous population lived in major cities, compared with about 75% of the non-Indigenous population, with a further 24% in "inner regional" areas (compared with 18%), 20% in "outer regional" (8%), while nearly 18% lived in "remote" or "very remote" areas (2%).[176]
  • The Indigenous population of Australia is much younger than the non-Indigenous population, with an estimated median age of 21 years (37 years for non-Indigenous), due to higher rates of birth and death.[238] For this reason, age standardisation is often used when comparing Indigenous and non-Indigenous statistics.[239]

The federal government's Closing the Gap strategy, created in 2008 and coordinated by the National Indigenous Australians Agency since July 2019, aims to address multiple areas to improve the lives of Indigenous peoples. Draft targets for 2019 were created by the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) in December 2018. These were in the following areas:[240]

  • families, children and youth
  • health
  • education
  • economic development
  • housing
  • justice (including youth justice)
  • land and water, "where Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples' land, water and cultural rights are realised"
  • cross-system priorities, which "addresses racism, discrimination and social inclusion, healing and trauma, and the promotion of culture and language for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples"


Social and cultural determinants such as discrimination, lack of education or employment (and therefore income), and cultural disconnection can impact both physical and mental health, and contemporary disadvantage is related to colonisation and its ongoing impact.[241][242]

Successive censuses have shown, that (after adjusting for demographic structures) Indigenous Australians experience greater rates of renal disease, several communicable diseases (such as tuberculosis and hepatitis C virus), type 2 diabetes, respiratory disease, poor mental health and other illnesses than the general population.[242][239]

Life expectancy

The life expectancy of Indigenous Australians is difficult to quantify accurately. Indigenous deaths are poorly identified, and the official figures for the size of the population at risk include large adjustment factors. Two estimates of Indigenous life expectancy in 2008 differed by as much as five years.[243] The ABS introduced a new method in 2009,[244] but problems remained. A 2013 study, referring to the national Indigenous reform policy, Closing the Gap, looked at the difficulties in interpreting the extent of the gap because of differing methods of estimating life expectancy between 2007 and 2012.[m] The 2019 report by the Close the Gap campaign reported that the gap in life expectancy was "widening rather than closing".[245]

Infant mortality (ages 0–4) was twice as high as for non-Indigenous children in 2014–6.[241]

Mental health

Mental health, suicide and self-harm remain major concerns, with the suicide rate being double that of the non-Indigenous population in 2015, and young people experiencing rising mental health rates.[241] There are high incidences of anxiety, depression, PTSD and suicide amongst the Stolen Generations, with this resulting in unstable parenting and family situations.[150]

Substance abuse

A signpost outside Yirrkala, NT, where kava was introduced as a safer alternative to alcohol, but was withdrawn in 2007.

Many Indigenous communities suffer from a range of health, social and legal problems associated with substance abuse of both legal and illegal drugs, including but not limited to alcohol abuse, petrol sniffing, the use illegal drugs such as methamphetamine ("ice") and cannabis and smoking tobacco.[242]

Tobacco use has been estimated to be the "greatest contributor (23%) to the gap in the disease burden between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians", with Indigenous people more than 2.5% likely to smoke daily than non-Indigenous Australians.[246]

Indigenous Australians were 1.6 times as likely to abstain completely from alcohol than non-Indigenous people in 2012–3. Twice as many men as women drink alcohol, and more likely to drink to risky levels. Foetal alcohol syndrome has been a problem, but the rate of pregnant women drinking had halved between 2008 and 2015 (from 20% to 10%).[242] Various strategies, such as the declaration of "dry zones" within Indigenous communities, prohibition and restriction on point-of-sale access, and community policing and licensing have been used to prevent or mitigate the problem.

Petrol sniffing has been a problem among some remote communities.[247] In 2005 a new, low aromatic petrol Opal was distributed across the Northern Territory to combat it.[248] A 2018 longitudinal study by the University of Queensland (UQ), commissioned by the National Indigenous Australians Agency,[n] reported that the number of people sniffing petrol in the 25 communities studied had declined by 95.2%, from 453 to just 22.[249][250][251]

The 2018 UQ study also reported that alcohol and cannabis were the drugs causing most concern in many of the 25 communities studied. "Alcohol was reported as being in regular use in 22 communities, and occasionally present in two others. Cannabis was reported as being in regular use in all 25 communities, and a serious problem in 20 communities. Ice was reported to be present in 8 of the 25 communities" (although mostly only occasional use).[250][o]


There is a significant gap between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people in terms of education. This presents significant issues for employment. Overall, Aboriginal students:

  • Have a lower attendance rate than non-Aboriginal students nationally, with these rates at 83.5% and 93% respectively.[252]
  • Are marked lower in NAPLAN testing than non-Aboriginal peers.[252]
  • Have a lower Year 12 attainment than non-Aboriginal peers.[252]
  • Are underrepresented in higher education and have lower completion rates (40.5% compared to 66.4%).[252]

Due to this, the Closing the Gap government strategy (a term borrowed from the Close the Gap social justice campaign) has focused on improving education for Aboriginal persons, with some success. Attainment of Year 12 or equivalent qualification for ages 20–24 has increased from 47.4% in 2006 to 65.3% in 2016, thus narrowing the gap by 12.6 percentage points.[252] Furthermore, this completion of Year 12 qualifications has resulted in a greater number of Aboriginal persons undertaking higher education or vocational education courses. According to the Closing the Gap report, "The number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students in higher education award courses has more than doubled over the past decade (from 8,803 in 2006 to 17,728 in 2016). In comparison, domestic award student enrolments increased by 46.2 per cent over the same period."[252] The attendance rate of Aboriginal students in primary and high schools has also remained steady.

However, while there has been some improvement, most of the Closing the Gap targets for education are not on track, barring Year 12 attainment goals. In general, the gaps have improved – as with an improvement of NAPLAN results – or not devolved – as with the attendance rate remaining stable for several years – but unfortunately not to the standard required.[252] Remoteness does appear to be a factor, as students in remote areas do not perform or attend as well as students in urban areas.[252]

In response to this problem, the Commonwealth Government formulated a National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education Policy. A number of government initiatives have resulted, some of which are listed at the Commonwealth Government's website.[253]

The Aboriginal Centre for the Performing Arts was established as a training centre by the State and Federal Governments in 1997.


Compared to national average, Aboriginal persons experience high unemployment and poverty rates. As of the 2018 Closing the Gap report,[254] the Aboriginal employment rate had decreased from 48% in 2006 to 46.6% in 2016, while the non-Aboriginal employment rate remained steady at around 72%, making for a 25.4% gap between the two populations. However, while still remaining significantly lower than non-Aboriginal counterparts, the employment rate for Aboriginal women has increased from 39% in 2006 to 44.8% in 2016. These low employment rates suggest significant barriers to Aboriginal persons gaining employment, which may include job location, employer discrimination, and lack of education, amongst others.[255]

A big factor for Aboriginal employment is education. Those with a degree have an employment probability of 85% (for males) and 74% (for females) for gaining employment.[255] These statistics decrease depending on qualifications so that those who have completed Year 9 and below have a 43% (male) and 32% (female) probability of gaining employment.[255] However, other factors do contribute to low employment and these, unlike education, are not covered by current government policy, such as discrimination and unfair treatment. Employed Aboriginal Australians are more likely to experience discrimination than those who are unemployed, and it has been found that the second most common source of unfair treatment after members of the public is while Aboriginal persons are at work or applying for work. In addition, there is a significant lack of consultation with Aboriginal peoples on the methods they think best to tackle issues like unemployment.[255]


Aboriginal Australians are overrepresented in Australia's criminal justice system. As of 2018, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander prisoners represented 28% of the total full-time adult prisoner population while accounting for 2% of the general population.[256] Furthermore, the increasing percentage of Aboriginal women in Australia's prisons also reflects this: while again being 2% of the general population, Aboriginal women make up 34% of the prison population.[257] These figures, however, are nowhere as startlingtext[according to whom?] as those exposed by a recent report into youth justice undertaken by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.[258] The report states that, "Although only about 5% of young people aged 10–17 in Australia are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander, half (2,339 or 50%) of the young people aged 10–17 under supervision on an average day in 2016–17 were Aboriginal." On average, Aboriginal youth are around 18 times more likely as non-Aboriginal youth to be under supervision. This is evidence of a clear issue occurring not only within Australia's criminal justice system, but within communities as a whole.[258]

Explanations for this overrepresentation link back to the effect systemic racism has on the individual and the community. Historical acts of systemic racism, such as the Stolen Generation, have traumatised entire communities, as has other issues such as police brutality, disconnection from land, offence criminalisation and poor socioeconomic situation as a result of high poverty and unemployment rates, amongst others.[259] On 9 August 2018, a senior research officer from Human Rights Watch reported, "I visited 14 prisons across Australia, and heard story after story of Indigenous people with disabilities, whose lives have been cycles of abuse and imprisonment, without effective support." The researcher said that the result is Australia's prisons are disproportionately full of Indigenous people.[260] In addition to this, Aboriginal Australians are overrepresented as victims of crime. An ABS report from 2016 found that these persons are more likely to be victims of assault than non-Aboriginal persons by ratios of 2.6 (in NSW), 6 (in SA), and 5.9 (in NT). Aboriginal women are again highly overrepresented in this figure, accounting for a higher proportion of assault victims than the non-Aboriginal category.[261]

In 2007, the Northern Territory Government commissioned a study into sexual abuse crimes being committed on children in Aboriginal communities. The study, Ampe Akelyernemane Meke Mekarle "Little Children are Sacred", suggested that children in Aboriginal communities were being widely exposed to inappropriate sexual activity such as pornography, adult films and adults having sex within their view. It indicated that this exposure has likely produced a number of effects, particularly the "sexualisation" of childhood and the creation of normalcy around sexual activity that may be used to engage children in sexual activity. Due to the nature of the issue, quantitative data were difficult to collect and therefore the author relied on a large amount of anecdotal evidence that was collected. This led the author to conclude that issues such as rape and incest are widespread particularly within regional Aboriginal communities despite being drastically underreported to local government or police.[262] A later statistical overview of Aboriginal Australians did note however "that non-Aboriginal children were more likely than Aboriginal children to have substantiations where the main type of abuse was sexual." The author also noted that while underreporting must be considered as a factor, the information available at the time "does not appear to support the allegations of endemic child abuse in NT remote communities that was the rationale for the NTER".[263]

Political issues

Political representation

Under Section 41 of the Australian Constitution, Aboriginal Australians always had the legal right to vote in Australian Commonwealth elections if their State granted them that right. This meant that all Aboriginal peoples outside Queensland and Western Australia had a legal right to vote. The right of Indigenous ex-servicemen to vote was affirmed in 1949 and all Indigenous Australians gained the unqualified right to vote in Federal elections in 1962.[264] Unlike other Australians, however, voting was not made compulsory for Indigenous people, and it was not until the repeal of Section 127 of the Constitution of Australia in 1967 that Indigenous Australians were counted in the population for the purposes of distribution of electoral seats.

Six Indigenous Australians have been elected to the Australian Senate: Neville Bonner (Liberal, 1971–1983), Aden Ridgeway (Democrat, 1999–2005), Nova Peris (Labor, 2013–2016), Jacqui Lambie (2014–2017), Pat Dodson (Labor, 2016– incumbent), and former Northern Territory MLA Malarndirri McCarthy (Labor, 2016– incumbent). Following the 2010 Australian Federal Election, Ken Wyatt of the Liberal Party won the Western Australian seat of Hasluck, becoming the first Indigenous person elected to the Australian House of Representatives.[265][266] His nephew, Ben Wyatt was concurrently serving as Shadow Treasurer in the Western Australian Parliament and in 2011 considered a challenge for the Labor Party leadership in that state.[267] In March 2013, Adam Giles of the Country Liberal Party became Chief Minister of the Northern Territory – the first indigenous Australian to become head of government in a state or territory of Australia.[268]

A number of Indigenous people represent electorates at State and Territorial level, and South Australia has had an Aboriginal Governor, Sir Douglas Nicholls. The first Indigenous Australian to serve as a minister in any government was Ernie Bridge, who entered the Western Australian Parliament in 1980. Carol Martin was the first Aboriginal woman elected to an Australian parliament (the Western Australian Legislative Assembly) in 2001, and the first woman minister was Marion Scrymgour, who was appointed to the Northern Territory ministry in 2002 (she became Deputy Chief Minister in 2008).[264] Representation in the Northern Territory has been relatively high, reflecting the high proportion of Aboriginal voters. The 2012 Territory election saw large swings to the conservative Country Liberal Party achieved in remote Territory electorates and a total of five Aboriginal CLP candidates won election to the Assembly (along with one Labor candidate) in a chamber of 25 members. Among those elected for the CLP were high-profile activists Bess Price and Alison Anderson.[269]

The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC), a representative body of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, was set up in 1990 under the Hawke government. In 2004, the Howard government disbanded ATSIC and replaced it with an appointed network of thirty Indigenous Coordination Centres that administer Shared Responsibility Agreements and Regional Partnership Agreements with Aboriginal communities at a local level.[270]

In October 2007, just before the calling of a federal election, the then Prime Minister, John Howard, revisited the idea of bringing a referendum to seek recognition of Indigenous Australians in the Constitution (his government first sought to include recognition of Aboriginal peoples in the Preamble to the Constitution in a 1999 referendum). His 2007 announcement was seen by some as a surprising adoption of the importance of the symbolic aspects of the reconciliation process, and reaction was mixed. The ALP initially supported the idea, however Kevin Rudd withdrew this support just before the election – earning stern rebuke from activist Noel Pearson.[271] Critical sections of the Australian public and media[272] meanwhile suggested that Howard's raising of the issue was a "cynical" attempt in the lead-up to an election to "whitewash" his handling of this issue during his term in office. David Ross of the Central Land Council was sceptical, saying "it's a new skin for an old snake",[273] while former Chairman of the Reconciliation Council Patrick Dodson gave qualified support, saying: "I think it's a positive contribution to the process of national reconciliation...It's obviously got to be well discussed and considered and weighed, and it's got to be about meaningful and proper negotiations that can lead to the achievement of constitutional reconciliation."[274]

The Gillard Government, with bi-partisan support, convened an expert panel to consider changes to the Australian Constitution that would see recognition for Indigenous Australians. The Government promised to hold a referendum on the constitutional recognition of indigenous Australians on or before the federal election due for 2013.[275] The plan was abandoned in September 2012, with Minister Jenny Macklin citing insufficient community awareness for the decision.[citation needed]

40 people identifying themselves as of Indigenous Australian ancestry have been members of the ten Australian legislatures. Of these, 22 have been in the Northern Territory Legislative Assembly. The Northern Territory has an exceptionally high Indigenous proportion (about one third) of its population. Adam Giles, who was Chief Minister of the Northern Territory from 2013 to 2016, was the first Indigenous head of government in Australia.[citation needed]

Major political parties in Australia have tried to increase the number of Indigenous representation within their parties. A suggestion for increasing the number of Indigenous representation has been the introduction of seat quotas like the Maori electorates in New Zealand.

Native title and sovereignty

About 22% of land in Northern Australia (Kimberley, Top End and Cape York) is now Aboriginal-owned.[276][277] In the last decade, nearly 200 native title claims covering 1.3 million km2 of land – approximately 18% of the Australian continent – have been approved.[278]

In 1992, in Mabo v Queensland, the High Court of Australia recognised native title in Australia for the first time. The majority in the High Court rejected the doctrine of terra nullius, in favour of the concept of native title.[279]

In 2013 an Indigenous group describing itself as the Murrawarri Republic declared independence from Australia, claiming territory straddling the border between the states of New South Wales and Queensland.[280] Australia's Attorney General's Department indicated it did not consider the declaration to have any meaning in law.[280]

In 2014 another Indigenous group describing itself as the Sovereign Yidindji Government declared independence from Australia.[281]

Unlike in other parts of the former British Empire, like the Treaty of Waitangi in New Zealand, no treaty has ever been concluded between Indigenous Australians and an Australian government. However, although there is still no move toward a treaty at federal level, it is contended that the Noongar Settlement (South West Native Title Settlement) in Western Australia in 2016 constitutes a treaty, and at the state and territory levels there are currently (early 2018) other negotiations and preparatory legislation.[282] In South Australia, however, following the 2018 state election negotiations have been "paused".[283] In June 2018, the Parliament of Victoria passed a bill to advance the process of establishing a treaty with Aboriginal Victorians.[284]

Prominent Indigenous Australians

Cathy Freeman surrounded by world media and carrying the Aboriginal and Australian flags following her victory in the 400 m final of the Sydney Olympics, 2000.
ABC footage and interviews of Australians celebrating Freeman's Olympics win – many noting how it brought the country together "as one".

After the arrival of European settlers in New South Wales, some Indigenous Australians became translators and go-betweens; the best-known was Bennelong, who eventually adopted European dress and customs and travelled to England where he was presented to King George III. Others, such as Pemulwuy, Yagan, and Windradyne, became famous for armed resistance to the European settlers.

During the twentieth century, as social attitudes shifted and interest in Indigenous culture increased, there were more opportunities for Indigenous Australians to gain recognition. Albert Namatjira became a painter, and actors such as David Gulpilil, Ernie Dingo, and Deborah Mailman became well known. Bands such as Yothu Yindi, and singers Christine Anu, Jessica Mauboy and Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu, have combined Indigenous musical styles and instruments with pop/rock, gaining appreciation amongst non-Indigenous audiences. Polymath David Unaipon is commemorated on the Australian $50 note.

While relatively few Indigenous Australians have been elected to political office (Neville Bonner, Aden Ridgeway, Ken Wyatt, Nova Peris, Jacqui Lambie and Linda Burney remain the only Indigenous Australians to have been elected to the Australian Federal Parliament), Aboriginal rights campaigner Sir Douglas Nicholls was appointed Governor of the State of South Australia in 1976, and many others have become famous through political activism – for instance, Charles Perkins' involvement in the Freedom Ride of 1965 and subsequent work; or Torres Strait Islander Eddie Mabo's part in the landmark native title decision that bears his name. The voices of Cape York activists Noel Pearson and Jean Little, and academics Marcia Langton and Mick Dodson, today loom large in national debates. Some Indigenous people who initially became famous in other spheres – for instance, poet Oodgeroo Noonuccal – have used their celebrity to draw attention to Indigenous issues.

In health services, Kelvin Kong became the first Indigenous surgeon in 2006 and is an advocate of Indigenous health issues.[285][286][287][288]

See also


  1. ^ The use of Indigenous or Indigenous Australian is considered offensive by many, as being too generic; they prefer more specific terms for their unique cultural origins, or "Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander". (AIATSIS 2015)
  2. ^ Rhys Jones:3,000-5,000, N. J. B. Plomley: 4,000–6,000, Henry Reynolds: 5,000–7,000, Colin Pardoe: 12,000+ and David Davies: 15,000.
  3. ^ For discussion of the Truganini claim, and the other candidates, Suke and Fanny Cochrane Smith, see Taylor 2008, pp. 140ff
  4. ^ Ryan 1996, p. 220 denies Truganini was the last "full-blood", and makes a case for Suke (d.circa 1888)
  5. ^ Neil Thomson argues that the likely aboriginal population of Australia in 1788 was around 750,000 or even over a million. (Thomson 2001, p. 153)
  6. ^ Statistics compiled by Ørsted-Jensen for Frontier History Revisited (Brisbane 2011), page 10-11 & 15. Column one is the distribution percentage calculated on the estimates gathered and publicised in 1930 (Official Year Book of the Commonwealth of Australia XXIII, 1930, pp672, 687–696) by the social anthropologist Alfred Reginald Radcliffe-Brown. The percentage in column two was calculated on the basis of N.G. Butlin: Our Original Aggression and "others", by M. D. Prentis for his book A Study in Black and White (2 revised edition, Redfern NSW 1988, page 41). Column three however, is calculated on the basis of the "Aboriginal Australia" map, published by Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS), Canberra 1994.
  7. ^ Bringing them Home, The general principle that came to be followed was that those who were identified as purely Aboriginal were left alone, because it was assumed that they would die out in a few generations, but part-Aboriginal people were "rescued" so that they could be brought up like white children. A few may have benefited from this, but for a majority of them separation from their families was distressing. Appendices listing and interpretation of state acts regarding "Aborigines": Appendix 1.1 NSW; Appendix 1.2 ACT; [ Appendix 2 Victoria][permanent dead link]; [ Appendix 3 Queensland][permanent dead link]; Tasmania; [ Appendix 5 Western Australia][permanent dead link]; [ Appendix 6 South Australia][permanent dead link]; [ Appendix 7 Northern Territory][permanent dead link]
  8. ^ In its submission to the Bringing Them Home report, the Victorian government stated that "despite the apparent recognition in government reports that the interests of Indigenous children were best served by keeping them in their own communities, the number of Aboriginal children forcibly removed continued to increase, rising from 220 in 1973 to 350 in 1976" Bringing Them Home: "Victoria".
  9. ^ Indigenous people across Australia and other colonist societies – Canada, New Zealand and South Africa – did not gain equal access to their repatriation benefits and military wages. In contrast to other Australian states, Aboriginal authorities in Victoria did not systematically deny Aboriginal people military allotments and pensions, but judged each case on its "merits". (Horton 2015, p. 205)
  10. ^ For a discussion of the recommendations, see: Wood 2012, p. 156
  11. ^ "[Include 'Religion' table download from this page, 'Table 8 Religious Affiliation by Indigenous Status, Count of persons(a)']" (ABoS 2017.0 2017)
  12. ^ Ronald M. Berndt has published traditional Aboriginal song-poetry in his book "Three Faces of Love", Nelson 1976. R.M.W. Dixon and M. Duwell have published two books dealing with sacred and everyday poetry: "The Honey Ant Men's Love Song" and "Little Eva at Moonlight Creek", University of Queensland Press, 1994.
  13. ^ "A specific estimate of the life expectancy gap has not been established among stakeholders in Indigenous health. Agreement on the magnitude of the gap is arguably needed in order to evaluate strategies aimed at improving health outcomes for Indigenous Australians. Moreover, measuring progress towards 'closing the gap' depends on the availability of comparable estimates, using the same techniques of measurement to assess changes over time." (Rosenstock et al. 2013:356–64)
  14. ^ On 1 July 2019 the Indigenous Affairs portfolio was moved through a Machinery of Government change to form the National Indigenous Australians Agency (NIAA).
  15. ^ "A report for the National Indigenous Australians Agency, Health and Wellbeing Branch" (d'Abbs et al. 2019)


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Further reading

  • "Aboriginal Australia - Referendums and Recognition: The 1967 Referendum". State Library of South Australia. Includes concise summary of referendum, plus detailed section on Legislative Background, starting with the 1891 National Australasian Convention. Tabs to other pages include a long list of Resources and a guide to sources relating to the movement for constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians .
  • "Summary Commentary: Estimates of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians". Australian Bureau of Statistics. 18 September 2018. NOTE: Updates to 798,400 people, or 3.3% of the population, includes reasons for 19% increase in the population estimate in 30 June 2011.
  • Colonization of the indigenous
  • Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies
  • AUSTLANG Australian Indigenous Languages Database
  • Science 2.0: Australian Aborigines were once Indians – Study
  •,au Information on Australian Government Indigenous initiatives and programs
  • Australian Museum: Indigenous Australia
  • The South Australian Museum: Tribal boundaries in Aboriginal Australia map
  • Indigenous Language Map
  • Australian Indigenous Health InfoNet
  • Australian Human Rights Commission: Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Index
  • Indigenous Law Resources
  • National Indigenous Times – national Indigenous affairs newspaper
  • Singing about nations within nations: Geopolitics and Identity in Australian Indigenous rock music
  • The politics of suffering: Indigenous policy in Australia since the 1970s
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