Focus Topics

topic 2 | Activity 3: Australian Indigenous peoples

Australian Indigenous peoples are the First Peoples of Australia. There are varying estimates for how long they have lived on this land, however, current research indicates that it is at least 60,000 years, which makes Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures the oldest continuous cultures on Earth.1

Australia has always been a multicultural continent. There were many different language groups and cultural ways before the arrival of Europeans. Significant diversity of cultures, social structures and ways of life exist among Australian Indigenous peoples. Communities vary according to geographic location, environment and resources, each having their own unique cultural practices and protocols, beliefs, knowledge and material cultures.

The AIATSIS map of Indigenous Australia attempts to represent the language, social or nation groups of Indigenous Australia and serves as a visual reminder of the richness and diversity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures. The map shows the general locations of larger groups of people which may also include smaller groups.2

Although the terms ‘Indigenous’, ‘Aboriginal’ and ‘Torres Strait Islander’ are commonly used now, it is important to remember that these are colonial labels that were imposed on a range of people with diverse cultures and languages. Aboriginal peoples and Torres Strait Islander peoples often prefer to identify themselves by their Country, nation, clan or Island groups (eg, Eora, Maluilgal, Kaiwalagal, Ngunnawal, Larrakia).3

Aboriginal peoples overview

  • Associated with the land, mountains, deserts, rainforests, coastal areas, rivers and waterways
  • Strong spirituality and belief in all living things being connected and carrying energy
  • Refer to maternal or paternal families’ traditional land areas as ‘Country’
  • Self-identify by language group and traditional land area, known as nation or clan
  • Have knowledges tied to Country and environment, constellations, plants and animal life.

The Aboriginal flag, designed in 1971 by artist Harold Thomas, a Luritja man from central Australia. The black represents the Aboriginal people, the red represents the earth and the spiritual relationship to the land, and the yellow represents the sun, the giver of life.

The flag was designed to be an eye-catching rallying symbol for Aboriginal people, a symbol of identity and unity. It was recognised by the Australian Government as an official ‘Flag of Australia’ in 1995.4

Torres Strait Islander peoples overview

  • Have a land and sea culture
  • Have five Island clusters which identify language groups
  • Have 20 communities that make up the Torres Strait region, each with unique history and culture
  • Have beliefs connected to the constellations, seas and sky

The Torres Strait Islander flag was designed by Bernard Namok of Thursday Island.

The colours of the flag represent the Torres Strait Islander people’s connection to the land, sea and sky. The green stripes represent the land – the mainlands of Australia, the black stripes represent the people, the blue represents the sea, the white ‘Dhari’ (headdress) is a symbol of Torres Strait Islanders.

Underneath the Dhari is a white five-pointed star. The star is an important symbol for navigating the sea. The points of the start represent the five Island groups in the Torres Strait and the white symbolises peace.

Each part of the flag gives meaning to Torres Strait Islander culture and holds special legal and political status worldwide.4

About Australian Indigenous peoples

Click on the tabs below to learn more about the languages, kinship systems and Lores of Australian Indigenous peoples:

It is estimated that prior to colonisation, there were 600 different Aboriginal groups across the country. Language is a key part of understanding Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture and heritage as history and knowledges are primarily passed on orally, through stories, songs and dances. Past policies of assimilation prevented people from using their own language which has contributed to the breakdown of traditional languages and the passing on of cultural knowledge between generations. In some communities, traditional languages were never lost. In others they are being revived, and used and taught in schools.5
Kinship systems
While the diversity of the many different cultures, languages and customs is broad, the value of connection to family and community, and Country and Sea, and respect for Elders, are common.

Australian Indigenous peoples have kinship systems and understandings of ‘family’ that go beyond the European idea of family, extending to much wider groups. These systems are based on beliefs about everyone, and everything being interrelated and interconnected – not just people, but plants, animals, and rocks – on the land and in the sea. Kinship forms a framework for each person’s identity, defining connectedness, roles, reciprocal responsibilities, obligations and interactions.

The classificatory kinship system has many different types of relationships under one term. For example, ‘Mother’ refers to maternal mother and her sisters, ‘Brothers’ and ‘Sisters’ refer to all the children of mothers, fathers, aunts and uncles in a large family group. The extension of kinship relationships to the community is complex and alters in different areas. Kinship connections are deeply rooted and multi-layered – all relationships have roles and reciprocal responsibilities. Everyone has a role within the family and maybe the community. It includes the responsibility to care for all living things, for Country and a responsibility for someone else in the family. IPEPA Cultural Considerations 3

The benefits of kinship systems in supporting people affected by life-limiting illness include:

  • Shared decision-making across families / community so that difficult decisions are not the responsibility of one person
  • Strong support for the sick person and their family during the end-of-life and bereavement journeys
  • Shared and collective resources, including finances, time and help with care and transport.6

Many people have retained kinship connections, while those in areas that were colonised earlier and most intensively, or who are survivors of the Stolen Generations, may no longer have large family or community groups. Many people living in urban settings still have large family and community groups and have strong kinship ties with family regardless of where the extended family are living.

The establishment of Link-Up organisations in each state / territory provide assistance to Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander people who are trying to locate family.4

Learn more about various aspects of kinship by accessing the video resources provided by the National Centre for Cultural Competence7 in the Related Links section on this page.

Lores / Traditional laws
The many different Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander communities have sophisticated codes of conduct to guide behaviour. These can be called traditional or customary laws, also known as lore and are unique to each cultural group. Lores help guide their own communities in how to behave according to traditional beliefs and practices, such as leadership and etiquette, property, special events like marriage, coming of age and death, and sacred knowledge. Lore is passed on down the generations through songs, stories, art and dance, and governs all aspects of traditional life, for those who are connected to culture in this way. An example of this is the responsibility for decision-making at end of life. An Elder or other family member may be obligated under Lore to make decisions on behalf of the sick person.5

For many Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander people, it is important to pass on cultural knowledge and family history at the end of life. This is often a key focus during the last days. This topic is explored further in Section 6.

  1. Reflect on your understanding of Australian history and current society, policy and practice.
    • What do you need to learn more about to help you develop an awareness of the needs and situations of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander people?
    • Go back through this section and explore the various learning resources. Make some notes about what you learn and discuss with a friend or colleague.
  1. Malaspinas, A., M. Westaway, and C. Muller, A genomic history of Aboriginal Australia. Nature, 2016. 538: p. 207-214.
  2. Horton, D., AIATSIS Map of Indigenous Australia. 1996, Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies.
  3. PEPA Project Team, Cultural Considerations: Providing end-of-life care for Aboriginal peoples and Torres Strait Islander peoples. 2020, Program of Experience in the Palliative Approach.
  4. Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies. AITSIS Website: Explore. 2020; Available from:
  5. Reconciliation Australia. Share Our Pride. 2013; Available from:
  6. Gwandalan National Palliative Care Project. eLearning Modules. 2021; Available from:
  7. University of Sydney. Our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Community: Kinship Module. 2014; Available from: