Frequently asked questions

1. Who are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people?
2. How many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are there?
3. Where do Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people live? How old are they?
4. How long have Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander lived in Australia?
5. What was Aboriginal society like before 1788?
6. What is the Dreaming?
7. What is the history of government policies on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people (since 1788)?
8. What has been the impact of past government policies?
9. What is the Mabo judgment?
10. What is the Wik judgment?
11. What is native title?
12. What are land rights?
13. What is the right to self-determination?
14. What is Aboriginal reconciliation?
15. Are all indigenous people called Kooris?
16. What is the Aboriginal Flag?
17. What is the Torres Strait Islander Flag?

1. Who are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people?
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are descended from the original inhabitants of Australia.
Old definitions based on skin colour or percentages of ‘Aboriginal blood’ have been replaced by modern definitions which stress ancestry and identification as key to Aboriginal identity.
Today, the Federal Government defines an Aboriginal person as someone who:

  • is of Aboriginal descent;
  • identifies as an Aboriginal person; and
  • is accepted as an Aboriginal person by the community in which he or she lives.

The term ‘Indigenous’ is also used to refer to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
Source: Face the facts

Aboriginality cannot be defined by skin colour or percentages of Aboriginal blood.

Definitions based on percentages of ‘blood’ were used for decades by government departments and produced results that were both brutal and inconsistent. The historian Peter Read has described one such set of results: Older definitions

2. How many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are there?
410,003 people identified as ‘Indigenous’ in the 2001 Census.
• 366,429 of these were Aboriginal.
• 26,046 were Torres Strait Islanders.
• 17,528 identified themselves as both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander.
In 2001, Indigenous people made up 2.2% of the total population of Australia. The number of people identifying as Indigenous has quadrupled since 1971.

From Face the Facts

3. Where do Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people live? How old are they?
As a whole, the Indigenous population is much younger than the non-Indigenous population. For example, nearly 60% of the Indigenous population in Australia are aged under 25 compared with 34% of the non-Indigenous population........


Indigenous population

% of national total indigenous population


Total population
Indigenous people as a % of state/territory population
New South Wales
Western Australia
Northern Territory
South Australia
Other territories

4. How long have Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander lived in Australia?

It is known from the work of archaeologists that human occupation of Australia dates back at least 60 000 years. The first people probably came from South-East Asia. Where they landed, whether there was more than one 'wave' of people, which routes they took as they spread out over the continent, and how their numbers increased are matters for much study and discussion. However, by the time the
British arrived in 1788, all parts of Australia were part of the territory of a particular linguistic group or 'tribe'

Aboriginal Australia, Aboriginal People of NSW

5. What was Aboriginal society like before 1788?

Across Australia Aboriginal people lived by hunting animals, fishing and collecting plant foods. It was mainly the men who hunted and fished, while the women gathered smaller animals, shellfish and plant foods such as yams, fruits and berries. Certain plant foods, such as the nuts of the Macrozamia (Burrawang palm), had to be treated to remove poisons before eating.

To harvest food resources, groups moved within defined areas, often called ranges. The amount of time spent in any one place was largely determined by the amount of food available. Sometimes important foods were only available seasonally, prompting more or less regular movements throughout the year.
New South Wales contains a range of different environments, which gave rise to many different subsistence practices. The main animals or plants eaten, the degree of mobility, the nature of seasonal movements, and the foods eaten at different times of the year varied from region to region throughout the State.

For people living on the coastal plain, the sea, estuaries, rivers and the land all provided food. Fish and shellfish were an important part of the diet for those groups living on the coast or estuaries. In most hunting and gathering societies, fishing was done by men; however, in coastal south-eastern New South Wales, women also fished. The two sexes used different equipment: spears for the men, and hooks and lines for the women.

On the dry plains of western New South...

6. What is the Dreaming?

The dreaming is the belief of many Aboriginal groups that Aboriginal people have been in Australia since the beginning.

During this significant period the ancestral spirits came up out of the earth and down from the sky to walk on the land where they created and shaped its land formations, rivers, mountains, forests and deserts. These were created while the ancestors traveled, hunted and fought. They also created all the people, animals and vegetation that were to be a part of the land and laid down the patterns their lives were to follow. It was the spirit ancestors who gave Aboriginal people the lores, customs and codes of conduct, and who are the source of the songs, dances, designs, languages, and rituals that are the basic of Aboriginal religious expression. These ancestors were spirits who appeared in a variety of forms. When their work was completed the ancestral spirits went back into the earth, the sky and into the animals, land formation, and rivers. The ancestors-beings are ‘alive’ in the spirit of Australian Aboriginals.

7. What is the history of government policies on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people (since 1788)?

The history of government policies on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people falls into

Terra nullius
From 1788, Australia was treated as a colony of settlement, not of conquest. Aboriginal land was
taken over by British colonists on the premise that the land belonged to no-one ('terra nullius'). Australia's colonisation resulted in a drastic decline in the Aboriginal population. Estimates of how many Indigenous people lived in Australia at the time of European settlement vary from 300,000 to 1 million. Estimates of the number of Indigenous people who died in frontier conflict also vary widely. While the exact number of Indigenous deaths is unknown, many Indigenous men, women and children died of introduced diseases to which they had no resistance such as smallpox, influenza and measles. Many also died in random killings, punitive expeditions and organised massacres.

Protection policies
Indigenous survivors of frontier conflict were moved onto reserves or missions. From the end of the nineteenth century, various State and Territory laws were put in place to control relations between Aboriginal people and other Australians. Under these laws, protectors, protection boards and native affairs departments segregated and controlled a large part of the Aboriginal population. It has been estimated that the Aboriginal population during the 1920s had fallen to only about 60,000 from perhaps 300,000 or even one million people in 1788.

Assimilation policies
In 1937, the Commonwealth Government held a national conference on Aboriginal affairs which
agreed that Aboriginal people 'not of full blood' should be absorbed or 'assimilated' into the wider population. The aim of assimilation was to make the 'Aboriginal problem' gradually disappear so that Aboriginal people would lose their identity in the wider community.
Protection and assimilation policies which impacted harshly on Indigenous people included separate education for Aboriginal children, town curfews, alcohol bans, no social security, lower wages, State guardianship of all Aboriginal children and laws that segregated Indigenous people into separate living areas, mainly on special reserves outside towns or in remote areas. Another major feature of the assimilation policy was stepping up the forcible removal of Indigenous children from their families and their placement in white institutions or foster homes.

Self-determination policy
The federal Labor Government led by Gough Whitlam adopted the policy of 'self-determination' for
Indigenous communities in 1972. This policy was described as 'Aboriginal communities deciding
the pace and nature of their future development as significant components within a diverse Australia',
It recognised that Aboriginal people had a right to be involved in decision making about their own
lives. In 1976, the federal Government passed land rights law for Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory. All states have followed except Western Australia.

Self-management policy
The federal Coalition Government led by Malcolm Fraser, which came to power in late 1975, adopted the policy of 'self-management which focused on Indigenous communities managing the government projects and funding locally but with little say in what projects would be created. The Hawke and Keating Labor Governments from 1983-1996 used both self-determination and self-management as key principles in their Indigenous affairs policies and Keating began the reconciliation movement in 1991.

Practical reconciliation
Since 1996, the focus of the federal Coalition Government led by John Howard has been on 'practical
measures' to overcome disadvantage and improve the lives of Indigenous people in areas like
health, education, employment and housing.

8. What has been the impact of past government policies?

10.1.1 Australia's history since the arrival of British settlers helps explain the great sense of injustice and the strong sense of common historical experience which Aboriginal people share today. It helps explain their economic, social, residential status and their attitudes to non-Aboriginal Australians and the nation whose foundation was premised on their dispossession. Following the takeover of their land by the British, the personal liberty of Aboriginal people was jeopardised. They no longer had the freedom to live as they pleased and their life choices were dictated much more by government and government-approved missions than was the case for non-Aboriginal people. Their children were taken away to dormitories or distant towns, as parents and kin were thought to be a degrading influence. The various colonial and later State, Commonwealth and Territory Governments introduced policies which led to intrusions into most aspects of their everyday lives. These included inspections of camp sites and other residences, and limitations upon their mode of living, work, financial and leisure activities. Institutionalisation was to be a dominant theme in Aboriginal lives. The general population discriminated against Aboriginal people in many ways, which affected their education, housing, employment, income and self-esteem.

9. What is the Mabo judgment? The Wik judgment? And other legal landmarks?

1992: First recognition of native title - the Mabo Case
In the Mabo Case of 1992, the High Court of Australia recognised the native title rights of the Meriam people of the Torres Strait. This decision rejected the doctrine of terra nullius. It recognised for the first time that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who have maintained a continuing connection with their country, according to their traditions and customs, may hold native title.
To read the Mabo Case (No. 2 visit: http://www.austlii.edu.au/au/cases/cth/high_ct/175clr1.html

1993: The Native Title Act
In 1993 the Native Title Act was passed to recognise and protect surviving native title rights throughout
Australia and set up a process for settling claims and conflicts about native title. The Act established the National Native Title Tribunal allowed Indigenous groups claiming native title to negotiate about developments on the land before proving their claim set out the priorities between native title and other land titles.
For more information about the Native Title Act visit: http://www.nntt.gov.au.

1996: The question of pastoral leases - the Wik Case
In the 1996 Wik Case, the High Court held that pastoral leases do not necessarily cancel out native
title and that it could co-exist with the rights of some pastoralists.
To read the Wik Case visit: http://www.austlii.edu.au/au/cases/cth/high_ct/unrep299.htmi.

1998: The Wik amendments to the Native Title Act
In 1998, after the Wik Case, the government amended the Native Title Act to wind back the rights of native title holders and claimants. The amendments:
+ weakened the 'right to negotiate' by native title claimants
+ confirmed and validated the extinguishment of native title on a range of leases and other
land tenures
+ limited native title holders' right of access to pastoral leases
+made it more difficult to register native title applications
+introduced 'Indigenous land use agreements' as an alternative to formal determination

11. What is native title?

'Native title' is the name given by Australian law to Indigenous peoples' traditional rights to their lands and waters. Those rights can range from a relationship similar to full ownership through to the right to go onto the land for ceremonies or to hunt, fish or gather foods and bush medicines. To have their native title rights recognised. the Indigenous group has to prove they still have their connection with their country according to their traditional laws.

Australian law gives all other land titles priority over native title. However, in some cases the two titles can co-exist - for example, Indigenous people might be able to visit their country freely even though it is on a cattle station.

Native title cannot be recognised on land which is fully owned by someone else. It can only be recognised in areas like:

  • vacant land owned by the government (this is called 'Crown land')
  • some national parks and forests
  • some pastoral leases (where the pastoralist rents a cattle or sheep station from the government without owning the land)
  • Aboriginal reserves beaches, seas, lakes and rivers that are not privately owned.

Face the Facts

12. What are land rights?

Land rights are not the same thing as native title. Land rights are given by the government whereas
native title existed before white occupation. A land rights grant may cover traditional land, an Aboriginal reserve, an Aboriginal mission or cemetery, Crown land or a national park. Native title only covers land on which the traditional relationship is unbroken.

The first Australian legislation to recognise land rights and allow Aboriginal land claims was the
federal government's 1976 Aboriginal land rights legislation for the Northern Territory. Since then,
land rights legislation has been passed in every State except Western Australia. When land rights
are granted the land is owned by the community and not by individuals. Usually it cannot be sold.

13. What is the right to self-determination?

Self-determination is the right of all peoples to 'freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development' (article 1 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights). Self-determination is a collective right (belonging to a 'people' as a group) rather than an individual right.

The claim by Indigenous peoples to the right of self-determination raises two questions:
(1) Do Indigenous groups satisfy the definition of 'peoples'?
(2) Does self- determination give Indigenous peoples the right to break away from an existing nation?

Most Indigenous people in Australia want self-determination within the existing nation. This would require recognition by the government of their distinct cultures and forms of social organisation, governance and decision-making. It would mean transferring responsibility and power for decision-making to Indigenous communities so they can make decisions that affect them.
Face the Facts

14. What is Aboriginal reconciliation?

The movement for Aboriginal reconciliation aims to promote understanding of the history of contact between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people and develop better relations for the future.

The Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation was established by legislation in 1991 with 25 Indigenous and non-Indigenous members appointed by the Government. Its main task was to promote reconciliation between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and the wider Australian community.

The Council was given a 10 year life span which ended in December 2000.

The Council's final report, Reconciliation: Australia's Challenge. recommended comprehensive action to address the 'unfinished business' of reconciliation. This included calls for a formal agreement or treaty as well as the establishment of a foundation to continue the Council's work. This foundation, Reconciliation Australia, was established in December 2000.
Face the Facts

15. Are all indigenous people called Kooris?

These terms are used by Aboriginal people to describe each other according to their home country. It is a guide only:

Koori/Goori – New South Wales / Victoria
Murri – Queensland
Nungah – South Australia
Yolngu - Northern Territory (Arnhem land)
Palawa - Tasmania

16. What is the Aboriginal Flag?

The Aboriginal Flag is divided horizontally into equal halves of black (top) and red (bottom), with a yellow circle in the centre.

The black symbolises Aboriginal people and the yellow represents the sun, the constant re-newer of life. Red depicts the earth and peoples' relationship to the land. It also represents ochre, which is used by Aboriginal people in ceremonies.

The flag - designed by Harold Joseph Thomas, a Luritja man from Central Australia - was first flown at Victoria Square, Adelaide on National Aborigines' Day on 12 July 1971. It was used later at the Tent Embassy in Canberra in 1972.

Today the flag has been adopted by all Aboriginal groups and is flown or displayed permanently at Aboriginal centres throughout Australia.

Source: Australian Museum

17. What is the Torres Strait Islander Flag?

The Torres Strait Islander Flag - designed by the late Bernard Namok from Thursday Island - stands for the unity and identity of all Torres Strait Islanders.

It features three horizontal coloured stripes, with green at the top and bottom and blue in between - divided by thin black lines.

A white dharri or deri (a type of headdress) sits in the centre, with a five-pointed white star underneath it.

The colour green is for the land. The dharri or deri is a symbol for all Torres Strait Islanders. The black represents the people. The blue is for the sea.

The five-pointed star represents the island groups. Used in navigation, the star is also an important symbol for the sea-faring Torres Strait Islander people. The colour white of the star represents peace.

Source: Australian Museum