8 interesting facts about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders

8 interesting facts about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders

Five facts about Indigenous Australia

Australia has a rich Indigenous history dating back tens of thousands of years and evolving over hundreds of generations. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities maintain strong connections to their culture, language and traditional lands and view the world with a spiritual lens that is unique to their community. Here are some interesting facts about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians that you may not have heard of before. 

1. History of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in Australia

Who are the Indigenous Australians?

Indigenous Australians are the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people of Australia. The traditional owners of the land which archaeological evidence confirms is the oldest continuous civilisation on earth, extending back over 65,000 years. They were among the first humans to migrate out of Africa, across the coastlines of India and Asia until reaching the shores of Australia.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are not one homogenous group – they are a diverse group of hundreds of nations (or cultural groups) and clans within those nations. It has been estimated that around 250 languages and 600 dialects were spoken at the time of colonial invasion in 1788 in over 500 different nations, many with very different and distinctive cultures, beliefs and languages.

Aboriginal Woman applies traditional face paint to two Aboriginal children for the Australia Program 4 

Torres Strait Islanders are the Indigenous Australians who come from the islands of the Torres Strait, between Cape York in Queensland and Papua New Guinea. They are of Melanesian origin and have differing identities, histories and cultural traditions to Aboriginal Australians. The Torres Strait Islands are a group of about 274 small islands distributed across an area of 48,000km2.  

Not all Islanders live on the Torres Strait Islands – 64 percent live in Queensland on both the mainland and islands. This phenomenon is often referred to as the ‘Torres Strait diaspora.’

Today, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders make up approximately 3.3 percent of the total Australian population, or more than 800,000 of 24 million people.

Indigenous people continue to have a much younger age profile than the non-Indigenous population. More than half (53 percent) of Aboriginal people are aged under 25 years.

Over one-third of Indigenous Australians live in major cities but remote communities face much more substantial levels of disadvantage.



2. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flags

Aboriginal flag

The Aboriginal Flag

The Aboriginal Flag was designed in the 1970s and its colours represent different aspects of Aboriginal life. The black symbolises Aboriginal people, the yellow represents the sun and the red represents the earth and the relationship between people and the land.


The Torres Straight Islander flag

The Torres Strait Islander Flag

The Torres Strait Islander Flag was designed in the 1990s and features a white dharri or deri (a type of headdress) with a five-pointed star representing the different island groups. The white represents peace, the green represents land, the black represents the people and the blue represents the sea.



3. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander spirituality

The Dreamtime

What is the Dreamtime?

The Dreamtime (or the Dreaming) is a general term used to describe the complex network of Aboriginal spiritual beliefs, creation and existence on earth. This worldview encompasses the past, present and future and details the ways in which the land and the people were created by Spirits, who made the rivers, streams, waterholes, hills, rocks, plants and animals. This knowledge is passed down through generations through different stories, songs, dances and ceremonies. This forms part of their Indigenous culture and provides a vital context for ongoing relationships, kinship responsibilities and looking after country.

The Tagai

Torres Strait Islanders are united by their connection to the Tagai. The stories of the Tagai reflect the stars and describe the Torres Strait Islanders as sea people. The Tagai is the spiritual belief system that connects people to the order of the world, stating that everything has its place.


4. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families 

How does the Indigenous family kinship system work?

Indigenous Australians often have a complex system of family ties, roles and responsibilities which are the core of their cultures. These systems define one’s place in the community and bind people together. They also define the obligations and responsibilities for children and their families, and how each family member is meant to support others in the kinship system. Elders bridge the past and the present by passing on their understanding, skills, knowledge and stories to the generations who follow them. 

This means that caring for children is the responsibility of broader kinship networks and not just a child's biological parents. In Australia's very recent past, families and communities were separated because of the impacts of colonisation and the imposition of European social, political, economic and cultural structures. This caused long-term, traumatic problems for the passing down of cultural knowledge and the maintenance of social and cultural ties. 

Some Torres Strait Islanders have traditional or customary adoption practices, where a child will not necessarily be raised by his/her mother. Customary adoption occurs when childless family members adopt a child so that they are given an opportunity to raise their own child. It also strengthens bonds between families and means that boys and girls can be distributed evenly between families or can provide care for an older relative. 

Aboriginal mother and child hold hands in the Australia Program 1


5. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art 

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art is among the oldest form of art in the world. Like the different languages unique to different cultures, Indigenous art has a different meaning for different groups. Colours and styles differ from one nation to another, as do the messages in the stories.

Symbols are used widely as a way to present a message, and the artwork becomes a way to continue telling stories and passing them on from generation to generation. Some of these art forms – dot paintings and dance for example – have also become well known throughout the world. They have become a major area of cultural pride as well as employment and income for Indigenous people.

Traditional Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art


6. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander disadvantage 

How are Indigenous Australians disadvantaged?

Despite their rich history, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders face many challenges today. They experience widespread inequality, discrimination and cultural disconnection as a result of complex policies and systems in Australia that have limited their voices from being heard in decision-making processes that impact on their lives. 

There is currently a gap between Indigenous Australians and non-Indigenous Australians in the achievement of key indicators of development – child mortality, early years education, children’s literacy and numeracy, school attendance and completion, employment and life expectancy. 

The most recent Closing the Gap report (2018) shows that, despite some progress, more initiatives focusing on holistic approaches are needed to drive further change. 

How Indigenous Australians are disadvantaged: 

- 20 percent of four to five-year-olds are not attending preschool* 
- 38 percent of job-seekers do not complete Year 12** 
- 43 percent of Year 4 students fall beneath the low benchmark for reading** 
- 59 percent of the Australian youth detention population is Indigenous**

*Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth (2018), “Report Card 2018: The Wellbeing of Young Australians” 
**Australian Institute for Health and Welfare (2017), “Australia’s Welfare: Community factors and Indigenous wellbeing”


7. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Reconciliation 

What is reconciliation?

It refers to the bringing together of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and non-Indigenous Australians and working to overcome the division, misunderstanding and inequality between them.  

A Reconciliation Plan (RAP) is the strategy developed by a group or organisation which works to reduce the gap in inequality and discrimination affecting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians. It provides the steps for non-Indigenous staff to learn about, engage with and understand better, Indigenous people, cultures and histories. 

World Vision believes that in an unreconciled Australia, we cannot adequately address racism and inequality, deal with inter-generational trauma or create a culture of dignity and respect. Without true reconciliation, young hearts and minds cannot reach their potential. 
See our Reconciliation Action Plan 2016-2018 here



8. How you can help Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities

World Vision Australia has been partnering with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities since 1974. We work with Indigenous organisations, governments, non-governmental organisations and private enterprises to achieve long-term development goals in collaboration with Indigenous leaders and community members. 

We create new programs as well as adapt our successful community-led development approach from around the world to the needs of each Indigenous community and context; this includes working in the fields of Early Childhood Care and Development, connecting youth to culture, strengthening future leaders, bringing people together to improve the justice system and addressing gender-based violence. 

Partner with us to be a part of a shared journey and shared story – connecting with and listening to the voice of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, working towards a stronger future for all. Find out more here.  

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth community in a painting class


You can help make a difference.


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