Australia's Indigenous Peoples

Who are Australia’s Indigenous Peoples?

Unlike some countries, there are different Indigenous groups within Australia. As colonisation developed, two distinct Indigenous groups were included within the Australian nation state: the Aboriginal people of mainland and also some island communities, and the Torres Strait Islander people whose traditional lands are the Islands that lie between Queensland and Papua New Guinea.

The languages, cultures and histories of Australia’s two Indigenous groups are very different; they have two distinct national flags. There are currently more than 500,000 Indigenous people living in Australia, 2.5% of the total Australian population.

In some parts of the country some Indigenous people refer to themselves with larger generic names, e.g. the Koories of Victoria, the Murries of Queensland, the Nyoongahs around the south of Western Australia. In other parts of the country people will call themselves according to their local language or tribal name e.g. Tiwi, Arrernte, Bardi or Kukatja.

When meeting Indigenous people it is respectful to discover what name they prefer to be called, and to use that name when acknowledging and showing respect to them, their elders and ancestors.

Today, the Indigenous people of Australia live in towns, remote communities and large urban centres. Some are of dark skin, others are not. Some claim mixed descent, some do not. Indigenous identity is not defined by ‘colour’ but by an historical identity as being Indigenous and also belonging to an Indigenous community.

Indigenous Languages in Australia

At the time of colonization in 1788, there were several hundred distinct language groups within Australia. A small number of these have continued while many have died out. There are large ‘family’ groups of languages which share common characteristics e.g. the Western Desert group of languages.

An additional language has also developed since colonisation, Kriol, which resulted from the contact of Indigenous traditional languages with English. There is a mainland and also a Torres Strait Kriol spoken today. In the larger cities and urban centres most Indigenous people speak English.

While most Indigenous people use English as a form of communication with non Indigenous people, it should not be assumed that the use of English is always the same.

Indigenous Families & Kinship

Indigenous families are not small and nuclear, as are most non-Indigenous families. Many hold extensive relationships (kinship) with a large number of people they call ‘family’. Kinship systems vary between different Indigenous groups in different parts of the country.

Land, family and Dreamtime offer important values that continue to influence how Indigenous people live today but in new ways shaped by contact history and the many effects of secular western culture and Christianity.

Indigenous People & Christianity

A large number of Indigenous people have been influenced by Christianity. The parents and grandparents of many grew up on missions. A large number have embraced Christian belief and practice, but some have not. There are some Indigenous ordained ministers and bishops (particularly in Anglican and Uniting Church communities).

While not all Indigenous people would claim to be Christian, and some would hold strong feelings about the harmful effects of missionary activity on their people and culture, many show respect for those who follow the Christian way of life.

National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Catholic Council

The National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Catholic Council is the national representative and consultative body to the Church on issues concerning Indigenous Catholics.

Click here to visit their website.