Aboriginal Australia


Key points

  • Aboriginal people have been living continuously in Australia for more than 50,000 years.
  • The Dreaming is a western term used to explain the basis of Aboriginal spiritual identity.
  • Gaps exist between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians in areas such as education, housing, health and employment.
  • Constitutional and legal changes have affected the rights of Aboriginal Australians.
  • School A to Z features links to third-party websites and resources. We are not responsible for the content of external sites
  • Warning: Indigenous Australians are advised that links contained in this assignment starter may include names or images of people now deceased.

Two boys

Aboriginal history

Being Aboriginal has nothing to do with the colour of your skin or the shape of your nose. It is a spiritual feeling, an identity you know in your heart. It is a unique feeling that may be difficult for non-Aboriginal people to understand.Linda Burney Extract from 'Aboriginal education training & development resource: presenter's handbook'.
  • Research shows that Aboriginal people have been living continuously in Australia for more than 50,000 years. Each language group has its traditional lands defined by key landmarks and boundaries, including mountains, lakes, rivers and other natural and specific boundaries.
  • Before 1788, it is estimated there were approximately 200-250 different languages spoken by Aboriginal people living throughout Australia. 
  • Many words from the various Aboriginal languages have come into common usage in English (although in many cases the words have been anglicised) including: barramundi, dingo,  budgerigar, kangaroo, koala, kookaburra, taipan, wallaby, waratah, wombat and place names such as Noosa, Coonabarabran, Woy Woy, Woollahra, Toowoon (Bay), Kuring-Gai, Terrigal and Mudgee.

Spirituality, identity and culture

  • The Dreaming is a western term used to describe Aboriginal spirituality. Language/clan groups have their own language term for spirituality. For most Aboriginals it is the basis of their spiritual identity. For them, the Dreaming is past, present and future and holds the law and lore, incorporating important knowledge and values, beliefs and understandings. It tells of the ancestral spirits that created the land and waterways, and remain as living forces, making these places sacred and significant.
  • Storytelling, dance, painting and ceremony are important elements of Aboriginal cultures as they maintain law and lore.
  • Aboriginal Australians are one of the oldest living cultures and have survived through adapting and changing over time and by maintaining a great affinity with the environment.
  • Aboriginal elders are greatly respected because they are responsible for guiding and mentoring and keeping their Aboriginal heritage alive and ensuring its language, rituals, sacred ceremonies and knowledge are passed on from generation to generation.
  • Family is very important to Aboriginal people and kinship relationships are quite complex. They define what a person may or may not do, what each person's responsibilities and entitlements are, and how they are related to others and to the land.

Aboriginal Australia today

In Australia, 'Indigenous' refers to people who are Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander. An Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander is:
- a person of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander descent
- a person who identifies as an Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander and
- a person who is accepted by the Aboriginal community in which he or she lives or has lived.

  • In 2006 the Australian Bureau of Statistics calculated 2.5% of the population identified themselves as Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander.
  • Some of the continuing issues for Aboriginal people today are the continuing processes of reconciliation, self-determination and land ownership, the gap between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians in education, housing and health.
  • Prominent Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander people who have made great contributions to Australia include: Bennelong, Barangaroo, Pemulwuy, Pat O'Shane, Oodgeroo Noonuccal, Eddie Koiki Mabo, Tommy McRae, Lowitja O'Donoghue, Mick Dodson, David Unaipon, Aden Ridgeway, Neville Bonner, Albert Namatjira, Sally Morgan, Charles Perkins, Mandawuy Yunupingu, Noel Pearson and ‘Mum Shirl' Smith, Linda Burney, Sir Douglas Nicholls, Cathy Freeman, Lionel Rose, and David Gulpilil.

Constitutional and legal changes

  • The British Crown claimed ownership of New South Wales in the 1700s under the principle of terra nullius (uninhabited territory belonging to no state). British representatives in the colony considered the Indigenous people did not own the land.
  • The High Court of Australia overturned this interpretation in 1992 in what is called the Mabo decision.
  • Many Aboriginal people can find it extremely difficult to prove continuous connection to their lands, when the Government (in the late 1800s) forcibly removed Aboriginal people from Country under the Assimilation Policy and interned in missions and reserves.
  • After that, Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander people could make valid claims to ownership of their traditional land, called native title, if they could prove continuous connection with that land. In the 1996 Wik Case the High Court ruled that the Wik people could have access to their traditional lands even if it was being used under a pastoral lease.
  • Australia's Constitution in 1901 excluded Aboriginal people from being counted in the population and from the rights given to citizens. Over the last two centuries, state and federal government practices restricted the access of Aboriginal people to such things as social services, voting, education and housing.
  • In 1965, Charles Perkins led the Freedom Ride through NSW country towns to highlight the appalling conditions that existed there for Aboriginal people.
  • The referendum of 1967 changed two parts of the Constitution of Australia which discriminated against Indigenous Australians.

The referendum did not: 
- give Indigenous people the right to vote 
- give Indigenous people citizenship rights 
- give Indigenous people the right to be counted in the census. 

The real purpose of the referendum was to make two changes to the Australian Constitution. These changes enabled the Commonwealth Government to: 

(a) make laws for all of the Australian people by amending s51 of the Constitution, (previously people of ‘the Aboriginal race in any State' were excluded), and; 

(b) take account of Aboriginal people in determining the population of Australia by repealing s127 of the Constitution (formerly, Indigenous people had been haphazardly included in the census but not counted for the purposes of Commonwealth funding grants to the states or territories. From 1967, Indigenous people were counted in the census and included in base figures for Commonwealth funding granted to the states and territories on a per capita basis). 

  • Until 1969, the Aborigines Protection Board (1909-1943) and the NSW Aborigines Welfare Board (1943-1969) tried to assimilate Indigenous people and, as part of this, took children away from their parents. These children have become known as the Stolen Generations and many never found their families again.
  • In Federal Parliament on February 13, 2008 then Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, apologised to Indigenous Australians for the Stolen Generations and pledged to close the gap that exists for them in education, health and living conditions in ways that respect their own right to self-determination.


This site uses Google Translate, a free language translation service, as an aid. Please note translation accuracy will vary across languages.

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