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. They are the traditional owners of the land and were among the first humans to migrate out of Africa, across the coastlines of India and Asia until reaching the land of Australia more than 50,000 years ago. Archaeological evidence has proven that they possess the oldest continuous living culture in the world.
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.
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.
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.
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.