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Indigenous Australians are the original inhabitants of the Australian continent and nearby islands, and these peoples' descendants. Indigenous Australians are distinguished as either Aboriginal people or Torres Strait Islanders, who currently together make up about 2.6% of Australia's population.

The Torres Strait Islanders are indigenous to the Torres Straitmarker Islands which are at the northern-most tip of Queenslandmarker near Papua New Guineamarker. The term "Aboriginal" has traditionally been applied to indigenous inhabitants of mainland Australia, Tasmaniamarker, and some of the other adjacent islands. The use of the term is becoming less common, with names preferred by the various groups becoming more common.

The earliest definite human remains found to date are that of Mungo Man which have been dated at about 40,000 years old, but the time of arrival of the ancestors of Indigenous Australians is a matter of debate among researchers, with estimates ranging as high as 125,000 years ago.

There is great diversity among different Indigenous communities and societies in Australia, each with its own unique mixture of cultures, customs and languages. In present day Australia these groups are further divided into local communities.

Although there were over 250-300 spoken languages with 600 dialects at the start of European settlement, fewer than 200 of these remain in use – and all but 20 are considered to be endangered. Aborigines today mostly speak English, with Aboriginal phrases and words being added to create Australian Aboriginal English.

The population of Indigenous Australians at the time of permanent European settlement has been estimated at between 318,000 and 750,000, with the distribution being similar to that of the current Australian population, with the majority living in the south-east, centred along the Murray Rivermarker.


Indigenous Australians

Though Indigenous Australians are seen as being broadly related as part of what has been called the Australoid race, there are significant differences in social, cultural and linguistic customs between the various Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups.

Aboriginal Australians

The word aboriginal was used in Australia to describe its Indigenous peoples as early as 1789. It soon became capitalised and employed as the common name to refer to all Indigenous Australians. At present the term refers only to those peoples who were traditionally hunter gatherers. It does not encompass those Indigenous peoples from the Torres Strait, who traditionally practised agriculture.

The word Aboriginal has been in use in English since at least the 17th century to mean "first or earliest known, indigenous," (Latin Aborigines, from ab: from, and origo: origin, beginning), Strictly speaking, "Aborigine" is the noun and "Aboriginal" the adjectival form; however the latter is often also employed to stand as a noun.

The use of "Aborigine(s)" or "Aboriginal(s)" in this sense, i.e. as a noun, has acquired negative, even derogatory connotations in some sectors of the community, who regard it as insensitive, and even offensive. The more acceptable and correct expression is "Aboriginal Australians" or "Aboriginal people," though even this is sometimes regarded as an expression to be avoided because of its historical associations with colonialism. "Indigenous Australians" has found increasing acceptance, particularly since the 1980s.

The broad term Aboriginal Australians includes many regional groups that often identify under names from local Indigenous languages. These include: These larger groups may be further subdivided; for example, Anangu (meaning a person from Australia's central desert region) recognises localised subdivisions such as Pitjantjatjara, Yankunytjatjara, Ngaanyatjarra, Luritja and Antikirinya. It is estimated that prior to the arrival of British settlers, the population of Indigenous Australians was approximately 318,000–750,000 across the continent.

Torres Strait Islanders

The Torres Strait Islanders possess a heritage and cultural history distinct from Aboriginal traditions. The eastern Torres Strait Islanders in particular are related to the Papuan peoples of New Guineamarker, and speak a Papuan language. Accordingly, they are not generally included under the designation "Aboriginal Australians." This has been another factor in the promotion of the more inclusive term "Indigenous Australians".Six percent of Indigenous Australians identify themselves fully as Torres Straitmarker Islanders. A further 4% of Indigenous Australians identify themselves as having both Torres Straitmarker Islanders and Aboriginal heritage.

The Torres Strait Islandsmarker comprise over 100 islands which were annexed by Queensland in 1879. Many Indigenous organisations incorporate the phrase "Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander" to highlight the distinctiveness and importance of Torres Strait Islanders in Australia's Indigenous population.

Eddie Mabo was from Mer or Murray Islandmarker in the Torres Strait, which the famous Mabo decision of 1992 involved.


The term "blacks" has often been applied to Indigenous Australians. This owes more to superficial physiognomy than ethnology, as it categorises Indigenous Australians with the other black peoples of Asia and Africa. In the 1970s, many Aboriginal activists, such as Gary Foley proudly embraced the term "black", and writer Kevin Gilbert's ground-breaking book from the time was entitled Living Black. The book included interviews with several members of the Aboriginal community including Robert Jabanungga reflecting on contemporary Aboriginal culture.

In recent years young Indigenous Australians – particularly in urban areas – have increasingly adopted aspects of Black American, African and Afro-Caribbean culture, creating what has been described as a form of "black transnationalism."


The Indigenous languages of mainland Australia and Tasmaniamarker have not been shown to be related to any languages outside Australia. There were more than 250 languages spoken by Indigenous Australians prior to the arrival of Europeans. Most of these are now either extinct or moribund, with only about fifteen languages still being spoken by all age groups.

Linguists classify mainland Australian languages into two distinct groups: the Pama-Nyungan languages and the non-Pama Nyungan. The Pama-Nyungan languages comprise the majority, covering most of Australia, and are a family of related languages. In the north, stretching from the Western Kimberleymarker to the Gulf of Carpentariamarker, are found a number of groups of languages which have not been shown to be related to the Pama-Nyungan family or to each other; these are known as the non-Pama-Nyungan languages.

While it has sometimes proven difficult to work out familial relationships within the Pama-Nyungan language family, many Australianist linguists feel there has been substantial success. Against this some linguists, such as R. M. W. Dixon, suggest that the Pama-Nyungan group – and indeed the entire Australian linguistic area – is rather a sprachbund, or group of languages having very long and intimate contact, rather than a genetic linguistic phylum.

It has been suggested that, given their long presence in Australia, Aboriginal languages form one specific sub-grouping. Certainly, similarities in the phoneme set of Aboriginal languages throughout the continent suggest a common origin. One similarity of many Australian languages is that they display mother-in-law languages: special speech registers used in the presence of only certain close relatives. The position of Tasmanian languages is unknown, and it is also unknown whether they comprised one or more than one specific language family.


The consensus among scholars for the arrival of humans in Australia is placed at 40,000 to 50,000 years ago, with a possible range of up to 70,000 years ago. The earliest human remains found to date are that of Mungo Man which have been dated at about 40,000 years old. It is generally believed that the indigenous Australians are the descendants of a single migration into the continent, although a minority propose that there were three waves of migration.

Aborigines lived as Hunter-gatherers. They hunted and foraged for food from the land. Aboriginal society was relatively mobile, or semi-nomadic, moving due to the changing food availability found across different areas as seasons changed.

It has been estimated that at the time of first European contact, the absolute minimum pre-1788 population was 315,000, while recent archaeological finds suggest that a population of 750,000 could have been sustained.

The population was split into 250 individual nations, many of which were in alliance with one another, and within each nation there existed several clans, from as little as 5 or 6 to as many as 30 or 40. Each nation had its own language and a few had several. Thus over 250 languages existed, around 200 of which are now extinct or on the verge of extinction.

The mode of life and material cultures varied greatly from region to region. The greatest population density was to be found in the southern and eastern regions of the continent, the River Murraymarker valley in particular.

Since British colonisation

British colonisation of Australia began with the arrival of the First Fleet in Botany Baymarker in 1788. An immediate consequence of colonisation was a pandemic of Old World diseases, including smallpox which is estimated to have killed up to 90% of the local Darug people within the first three years of white settlement.

Smallpox would kill around 50% of Australia's Indigenous population in the early years of British colonisation.

A second consequence of British settlement was appropriation of land and water resources, which continued throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries as rural lands were converted for sheep and cattle grazing.

In 1834 there occurred the first recorded use of Aboriginal trackers, who proved very adept at navigating their way through the Australian landscape and finding people.

During the 1860s, Tasmanian Aboriginal skulls were particularly sought internationally for studies into craniofacial anthropometry. Truganini, the last Tasmanian Aborigine, had her skeleton exhumed within 2 years of her death in 1876 by the Royal Society of Tasmania, and was later placed on display. Campaigns continue to have Aboriginal body parts returned to Australia for burial.

In 1868, a group of Aboriginal cricketers toured England, becoming the first Australian cricketers to travel overseas.

20th century

By 1900 the recorded Indigenous population of Australia had declined to approximately 93,000. During the first half of the 20th century, many Indigenous Australians worked as stockmen on sheep stations and cattle stations.

Despite efforts to bar their enlistment, around 500 Indigenous Australians fought for Australia in the First World War.

In the 1930s, the case of Dhakiyarr V The King saw the first appeal to the High Courtmarker by an Aboriginal Australian. In 1934, Dhakiyarr was found to have been wrongly convicted of the murder of a white policeman and the case focused national attention on Aboriginal rights issues. Dhakiyarr disappeared upon release. In 1938, the 150th anniversary of the arrival of British First Fleet was marked as a Day of Mourning and Protest at an Aboriginal meeting in Sydney

Hundreds of Indigenous Australians served in the Australian armed forces during World War Two - including with the Torres Strait Light Infantry Battalion and The Northern Territory Special Reconnaissance Unit, which were established to guard Australia's North against the threat of Japanese invasion.

The 1960s was a pivotal decade in the re-assertion of Aboriginal rights. In 1962, Commonwealth legislation specifically gave Aborigines the right to vote in Commonwealth elections. In 1966, Vincent Lingiari led a famous walk-off of indigenous employees of Wavehill Station, in protest against poor pay and conditions (later the subject of a Paul Kelly Song). The landmark 1967 referendum called by Prime Minister Harold Holtmarker allowed the Commonwealth to make laws with respect to Aboriginal people, and for Aboriginal people to be included when the country does a count to determine electoral representation. The referendum passed with 90.77% voter support.

In the controversial 1971 Gove land rights case, Justice Blackburn ruled that Australia had been terra nullius before British settlement, and that no concept of native title existed in Australian law. In 1971, Neville Bonner joined the Australian Senate as a Senator for Queensland for the Liberal Party, becoming the first indigenous Australian in the Federal Parliament. A year later, the Aboriginal Tent Embassymarker was established on the steps of Parliament House in Canberramarker. In 1976, Sir Douglas Nicholls was appointed as the 28th Governor of South Australia, the first Aboriginal person appointed to vice-regal office.

1982, Mark Ella became Captain of the Australian National Rugby Union Team, the Wallabies. In 1984, a group of Pintupi people who were living a traditional hunter-gatherer desert-dwelling life were tracked down in the Gibson Desertmarker in Western Australiamarker and brought in to a settlement. They are believed to be the last uncontacted tribe in Australia. 1985, the Australian government returned ownership of Uluru (named Ayers Rockmarker in Colonial times) to the local Pitjantjatjara Aborigines.

In 1992, the High Court of Australiamarker handed down its decision in the Mabo Case, declaring the previous legal concept of terra nullius to be invalid. A Constitutional Convention which selected a Republican model for the Referendum in 1998 included just six indigenous particpants, leading Monarchist delegate Neville Bonner to end his contribution to the Convention with his Jagera Tribal Sorry Chant in sadness at the low number of indigenous representatives. The Republican Model, as well as a proposal for a new Constitutional Preamble which would have included the "honouring" of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders was put to referendum but did not succeed

In 1999 the Australian Parliament passed a Motion of Reconciliation drafted by Prime Minister John Howard in consultation with Aboriginal Senator Aden Ridgeway naming mistreatment of indigenous Australians as the most "blemished chapter in our national history".

In 2000, Aboriginal sprinter Cathy Freeman lit the Olympic flame at the opening ceremony of the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney. In 2001, the Federal Government dedicated Reconciliation Placemarker in Canberra.

In 2004, the Australian Government abolished the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, the abolition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission occurred soon after rape allegations were brought against its chairman.

On 13 February 2008, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd issued a public apology to members of the Stolen Generation on behalf of the Australian Government.


There are a large number of tribal divisions and language groups in Aboriginal Australia, and, correspondingly, a wide variety of diversity exists within cultural practices. However, there are some similarities between cultures.

Belief systems

Religious demography among Indigenous Australians is not conclusive because the methodology of the census is not always well-suited to obtaining accurate information on Aboriginal people. The 1996 census reported that almost 72 percent of Aborigines practised some form of Christianity; 16 percent listed no religion. The 2001 census contained no comparable updated data. There has also been an increase in the number of followers of Islam among the Indigenous Australian community. This growing community includes high-profile members such as the boxer, Anthony Mundine.

In traditional Aboriginal belief systems, a creative epoch known as the Dreamtime stretches back into a remote era in history when the creator ancestors known as the First Peoples traveled across the land, creating and naming as they went. Indigenous Australia's oral tradition and religious values are based upon reverence for the land and a belief in this Dreamtime. The Dreaming is at once both the ancient time of creation and the present-day reality of Dreaming. There were a great many different groups, each with its own individual culture, belief structure, and language. These cultures overlapped to a greater or lesser extent, and evolved over time. Major ancestral spirits include the Rainbow Serpent, Baiame, and Bunjil.


The various Indigenous Australian communities developed unique musical instruments and folk styles. The didgeridoo, which is widely thought to be a stereotypical instrument of Aboriginal people, was traditionally played by people of only the eastern Kimberleymarker region and Arnhem Landmarker (such as the Yolngu), and then by only the men. Clapping sticks are probably the more ubiquitous musical instrument, especially because they help maintain rhythm for songs.

Contemporary Australian aboriginal music is predominantly of the country music genre. Most Indigenous radio stations – particularly in metropolitan areas – serve a double purpose as the local country-music station. More recently, Indigenous Australian musicians have branched into rock and roll, hip hop and reggae. One of the most well known modern bands is Yothu Yindi playing in a style which has been called Aboriginal rock.

Amongst young Australian aborigines, African-American and Aboriginal hip hop music and clothing is popular. Aboriginal boxing champion and former rugby league player Anthony Mundine identified US rapper Tupac Shakur as a personal inspiration, after Mundine's release of his 2007 single, Platinum Ryder.


Australia has a tradition of Aboriginal art which is thousands of years old, the best known forms being rock art and bark painting. These paintings usually consist of paint using earthly colours, specifically, from paint made from ochre. Traditionally, Aborigines have painted stories from their Dreamtime.

Modern Aboriginal artists continue the tradition, using modern materials in their artworks. Aboriginal art is the most internationally recognisable form of Australian art. Several styles of Aboriginal art have developed in modern times, including the watercolour paintings of Albert Namatjira; the Hermannsburg School, and the acrylic Papunya Tula "dot art" movement.

Australian Aboriginal poetry - ranging from sacred to everyday - is found throughout the continent.

Traditional recreation

Australian Aboriginal domestic scene from 1857 depicting traditional recreation, including a football game which may be Marn Grook.
Popular with Indigenous Australian communities.

The Djab wurrung and Jardwadjali people of western Victoria once participated in the traditional game of Marn Grook, a type of football played with a ball made of possum hide.The game is believed by some to have inspired Tom Wills, inventor of the code of Australian rules football, a popular Australian winter sport. The Wills family had strong links to Indigenous people and Wills coached the first Australian cricket side to tour England, the Australian Aboriginal cricket team in England in 1868.


In 1983 the High Court of Australiamarker defined an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander as "a person of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent who identifies as an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander and is accepted as such by the community in which he or she lives".

The ruling was a three-part definition comprising descent, self-identification and community identification. The first part - descent - was genetic descent and unambiguous, but led to cases where a lack of records to prove ancestry excluded some. Self- and community identification were more problematic as they meant that an Indigenous person separated from her or his community due to a family dispute could no longer identify as Aboriginal.

As a result there arose court cases throughout the 1990s where excluded people demanded that their Aboriginality be recognised. In 1995, Justice Drummond ruled "..either genuine self-identification as Aboriginal alone or Aboriginal communal recognition as such by itself may suffice, according to the circumstances."

Judge Merkel in 1998 defined Aboriginal descent as technical rather than real - thereby eliminating a genetic requirement. This decision established that anyone can classify him or herself legally as an Aboriginal, provided he or she is accepted as such by his or her community. As there is no formal procedure for any community to record acceptance, the primary method of determining Indigenous population is from self-identification on census forms.

There is no provision on the forms to differentiate 'full' from 'part' Indigenous or to identify non-Indigenous persons accepted by Indigenous communities, but who have no genetic descent.


The Australian Bureau of Statistics 2005 snapshot of Australia showed that the Indigenous population had grown at twice the rate of the overall population since 1996 when the Indigenous population stood at 283,000. As of June 2001, the Australian Bureau of Statistics estimated the total resident Indigenous population to be 458,520 (2.4% of Australia's total), 90% of whom identified as Aboriginal, 6% Torres Strait Islander and the remaining 4% being of dual Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander parentage. Much of the increase since 1996 can be attributed to greater numbers of people identifying themselves as Aborigines and to changed definitions of aboriginality.

In the 2006 Census, 407,700 respondents declared they were Aboriginal, 29,512 declared they were Torres Strait Islander, and a further 17,811 declared they were both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. After adjustments for undercount, the indigenous population as of end June 2006 was estimated to be 517,200, representing about 2.5% of the population.

Based on Census data at 30 June 2006, the preliminary estimate of Indigenous resident population of Australia was 517,200, broken down as follows:

The State with the largest total Indigenous population is New South Wales. Indigenous Australians constitute 2.2% of the overall population of the State. The Northern Territorymarker has the largest Indigenous population in percentage terms for a State or Territory, with 31.6% of the population being Indigenous.

All the other States and Territories have less than 4% of their total populations identifying as Indigenous; Victoria has the lowest percentage at 0.6%.

As of 2006 about 31% of the Indigenous population was living in 'major cities' (as defined by the Australian Bureau of Statistics/Australian Standard Geographical Classification) and another 45% in 'regional Australia', with the remaining 24% in remote areas. The populations in Victoria, South Australia, and New South Wales are more likely to be urbanised.

The proportion of Aboriginal adults married (de facto or de jure) to non-Aboriginal spouses was 69% according to the 2001 census, up from 64% in 1996, 51% in 1991 and 46% in 1986. The census figures show there were more intermixed Aboriginal couples in capital cities: 87% in 2001 compared to 60% in rural and regional Australia.

Groups and communities

Throughout the history of the continent, there have been many different Aboriginal groups, each with its own individual language, culture, and belief structure.At the time of British settlement, there were over 200 distinct languages.

There are an indeterminate number of Indigenous communities, comprising several hundred groupings. Some communities, cultures or groups may be inclusive of others and alter or overlap; significant changes have occurred in the generations after colonisation.

The word 'community' is often used to describe groups identifying by kinship, language or belonging to a particular place or 'country'. A community may draw on separate cultural values and individuals can conceivably belong to a number of communities within Australia; identification within them may be adopted or rejected.

An individual community may identify itself by many names, each of which can have alternate English spellings. The largest Aboriginal communities - the Pitjantjatjara, the Arrernte, the Luritja and the Warlpiri - are all from Central Australia.


The Tasmanian Aborigines are thought to have first crossed into Tasmaniamarker approximately 40,000 years ago via a land bridge between the island and the rest of mainland Australia during the last glacial period. The original population, estimated at 4,000 to 6,000 people, was reduced to a population of around 300 between 1803 and 1833 due to the introduced diseases and actions of British settlers.

A woman named Truganini, who died in 1876, is generally considered to be the last first-generation (full‐blooded) tribal Tasmanian Aborigine, while Fanny Cochrane Smith, who died in 1905, is recognised as the last of the Tasmanian Aborigines. This conflict is a subject of the Australian history wars.

Contemporary issues

The Indigenous Australian population is a mostly urbanised demographic, but a substantial number (27% as of 2002) live in remote settlements often located on the site of former church missions. The health and economic difficulties facing both groups are substantial. Both the remote and urban populations have adverse ratings on a number of social indicators, including health, education, unemployment, poverty and crime.

In 2004 former Prime Minister John Howard initiated contracts with Aboriginal communities, where substantial financial benefits are available in return for commitments such as ensuring children attend school. These contracts are known as Shared Responsibility Agreements. This saw a political shift from 'self determination' for Aboriginal communities to 'mutual obligation', which has been criticised as a "paternalistic and dictatorial arrangement".

The "Mutual Obligation" concept was introduced for all Australians in receipt of welfare benefits and who are not disabled or elderly. Notably, just prior to a federal election being called, John Howard in a speech at the Sydney Institute on October 11, 2007 acknowledged some of the failures of the previous policies of his government and said "We must recognise the distinctiveness of Indigenous identity and culture and the right of Indigenous people to preserve that heritage. The crisis of Indigenous social and cultural disintegration requires a stronger affirmation of Indigenous identity and culture as a source of dignity, self-esteem and pride."

Stolen Generations

The Stolen Generations were those children of Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander descent who were forcibly removed from their families by the Australian Federal and State government agencies and church mission, under acts of their respective parliaments. The removals occurred in the period between approximately 1869 and 1969, although, in some places, children were still being taken in the 1970s.

On February 13, 2008, the federal government of Australia, led by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, issued a formal apology to the Indigenous Australians over the Stolen Generations. They are still awaiting compensation for their displacement.

Political representation

Under Section 41 of the Australian Constitution Aboriginals always had the legal right to vote in Australian Commonwealth elections if their State granted them that right. This meant that all Aborigines outside Queensland and Western Australia had a legal right to vote. The right of indigenous ex-servicemen to vote was affirmed in 1949 and all Indigenous Australians gained the unqualified right to vote in Federal elections in 1962.

It was not until 1967 that they were counted in the population for the purpose of distribution of electoral seats. Only two Indigenous Australians have been elected to the Australian Parliament, Neville Bonner (1971–1983) and Aden Ridgeway (1999–2005). There are currently no Indigenous Australians in the Australian Parliament, however a number of indigenous people represent electorates at State and Territorial level, and South Australia has had an Aboriginal Governor, Sir Douglas Nicholls. The first indigenous Australian to serve as a minister in any government was Ernie Bridge, who entered the West Australian Parliament in 1980. The first woman minister was Marion Scrymgour, who was appointed to the Northern Territory ministry in 2002 (she became Deputy Chief Minister in 2008).

ATSIC, the representative body of Aborigine and Torres Strait Islanders, was set up in 1990 under the Hawke government. In 2004, the Howard government disbanded ATSIC and replaced it with an appointed network of 30 Indigenous Coordination Centres that administer Shared Responsibility Agreements and Regional Partnership Agreements with Aboriginal communities at a local level.

In October 2007, just prior to the calling of a federal election, the then Prime Minister, John Howard, revisited the idea of bringing a referendum to seek recognition of Indigenous Australians in the Constitution (his government first sought to include recognition of Aborigines in the Preamble to the Constitution in a 1999 referendum). His 2007 announcement was seen by some as a surprising adoption of the importance of the symbolic aspects of the reconciliation process, and reaction was mixed. The ALP initially supported the idea, however Kevin Rudd withdrew this support just prior to the election - earning stern rebuke from activist Noel Pearson. Critical sections of the Australian public and media meanwhile suggested that Howard's raising of the issue was a "cynical" attempt in the lead-up to an election to "whitewash" his handling of this issue during his term in office. David Ross of the Central Land Council was sceptical, saying "its a new skin for an old snake", while former Chairman of the Reconciliation Council Patrick Dodson gave qualified support, saying: "I think it's a positive contribution to the process of national reconciliation...It's obviously got to be well discussed and considered and weighed, and it's got to be about meaningful and proper negotiations that can lead to the achievement of constitutional reconciliation."

Age characteristics

The Indigenous population of Australia is much younger than the non-Indigenous population, with an estimated median age of 21 years (37 years for non-Indigenous), due to higher rates of birth and death. For this reason, age standardisation is often used when comparing Indigenous and non-Indigenous statistics.

Life Expectancy

Indigenous life expectancy is difficult to quantify accurately. Indigenous deaths are poorly identified, and there is some uncertainty about the size of the population at risk. In 2009, the ABS estimated life expectancy at 67.2 years for Indigenous men (11.5 years less than for non-Indigenous) and 72.9 years for Indigenous women (9.7 years less than for non-Indigenous). Previous figures published in 2005 had indicated a widely-quoted gap of 17 years between indigenous and non-indigenous life expectancy, but the ABS does not consider the 2005 figures to be reliable.


Students as a group leave school earlier, and live with a lower standard of education, compared with their peers. Although the situation is slowly improving (with significant gains between 1994 and 2002),

  • 39% of indigenous students stayed on to year 12 at high school, compared with 75% for the Australian population as a whole.
  • 22% of indigenous adults had a vocational or higher education qualification, compared with 48% for the Australian population as a whole.
  • 4% of Indigenous Australians held a bachelor degree or higher, compared with 21% for the population as a whole. While this fraction is increasing, it is increasing at a slower rate than that for Australian population as a whole.

The performance of indigenous students in national literacy and numeracy tests conducted in school years three, five, and seven is also inferior to that of their peers. The following table displays the performance of indigenous students against the general Australian student population as reported in the National Report on Schooling in Australia 2004.

Percent achieving 2004 benchmark
Reading Writing Numeracy
Year 3 Year 5 Year 7
82.9 69.4 71.0
Year 3 Year 5 Year 7
76.8 81.7 78.8
Year 3 Year 5 Year 7
79.2 69.4 51.9
93.0 88.7 91.0
92.9 94.2 93.6
93.7 91.2 82.1

In response to this problem, the Commonwealth Government formulated a National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education Policy. A number of government initiatives have resulted, some of which are listed by the Commonwealth Government's page.


Indigenous Australians as a group generally experience high unemployment compared to the national average. For instance, in August 2001, the (non-age-standardised) unemployment rate for Indigenous Australians was 20.0%, compared to 7.2% for non-Indigenous Australians. The difference is not solely due to the increased proportion of Indigenous Australians living in rural communities, for unemployment is higher in Indigenous Australian populations living in urban centres than for non-Indigenous populations in the same regions (Source: ABS). As of 2002, the average household income for Indigenous Australian adults (adjusted for household size and composition) was 60% of the non-Indigenous average.


Due to lack of access to medical facilities, Indigenous Australians were twice as likely to report their health as fair/poor and one-and-a-half times more likely to have a disability or long-term health condition (after adjusting for demographic structures).

Health problems with the highest disparity (compared with the non-Indigenous population) in incidence Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. are outlined in the table below:

Health complication Comparative incidence rate Comment
Circulatory system 2 to 10-fold 5 to 10-fold increase in rheumatic heart disease and hypertensive disease, 2-fold increase in other heart disease, 3-fold increase in death from circulatory system disorders. Circulatory system diseases account for 24% deaths
Renal failure 2 to 3-fold 2 to 3-fold increase in listing on the dialysis and transplant registry, up to 30-fold increase in end stage renal disease, 8-fold increase in death rates from renal failure, 2.5% of total deaths
Communicable 10 to 70-fold 10-fold increase in tuberculosis, Hepatitis B and Hepatitis C virus, 20-fold increase in Chlamydia, 40-fold increase in Shigellosis and Syphilis, 70-fold increase in Gonococcal infections
Diabetes 3 to 4-fold 11% incidence of Type 2 Diabetes in Indigenous Australians, 3% in non-Indigenous population. 18% of total indigenous deaths
Cot death 2 to 3-fold Over the period 1999–2003, in Queensland, Western Australia, South Australia and the Northern Territory, the national cot death rate for infants was three times the rate
Mental health 2 to 5-fold 5-fold increase in drug-induced mental disorders, 2-fold increase in diseases such as schizophrenia, 2 to 3-fold increase in suicide.
Optometry/Ophthalmology 2-fold A 2-fold increase in cataracts
Neoplasms 60% increase in death rate 60% increased death rate from neoplasms. In 1999–2003, neoplasms accounted for 17% of all deaths
Respiratory 3 to 4-fold 3 to 4-fold increased death rate from respiratory disease accounting for 8% of total deaths

Each of these indicators is expected to underestimate the true prevalence of disease in the population due to reduced levels of diagnosis.

In addition, the following factors have been at least partially implicated in the inequality in life expectancy:
  • poverty
  • insufficient education
  • substance abuse
  • for remote communities poor access to health services
  • for urbanised Indigenous Australians, cultural pressures which prevent access to health services
  • cultural differences resulting in poor communication between Indigenous Australians and health workers.

Successive Federal Governments have responded to these issues by implementing programs such as the Office of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health (OATSIH). Which effected by bringing health services into indigenous communities, but on the whole the problem still remains challenging.


In 2000, Indigenous Australians were more likely per capita to be both victims of and perpetrators of reported crimes in New South Wales.In 2002, Indigenous Australians were twice as likely as their non-Indigenous peers to be a victim of violent aggression, with 24% of Indigenous Australians reported as being a victim of violence in 2001.In 2004, Indigenous Australians were 11 times more likely to be in prison (age-standardised figures).In June 2004, 21% of prisoners in Australia were Indigenous.There are frequent reports of domestic violence and community disturbances.

Substance abuse

Many Indigenous communities suffer from a range of health, social and legal problems associated with substance abuse of both legal and illegal drugs.

A large 2004–05 health survey by the ABS found that the proportion of the Indigenous adult population engaged in 'risky' and 'high-risk' alcohol consumption (15%) was comparable with that of the non-Indigenous population (14%), based on age-standardised data. The percentage-point difference between the two figures quoted is not statistically significant, and a similar result was obtained in the earlier 2000–01 survey.

The same health survey found that, after adjusting for age differences between the two populations, Indigenous adults were more than twice as likely as non-Indigenous adults to be current daily smokers of tobacco.

To combat the problem, a number of programs to prevent or mitigate against alcohol abuse have been attempted in different regions, many initiated from within the communities themselves. These strategies include such actions as the declaration of "Dry Zones" within indigenous communities, prohibition and restriction on point-of-sale access, and community policing and licensing.

Some communities (particularly in the Northern Territory) introduced kava as a safer alternative to alcohol, as over-indulgence in kava produces sleepiness, in contrast to the violence that can result from over-indulgence in alcohol. These and other measures met with variable success, and while a number of communities have seen decreases in associated social problems caused by excessive drinking, others continue to struggle with the issue and it remains an ongoing concern.

The ANCD study notes that in order to be effective, programs in general need also to address "...the underlying structural determinants that have a significant impact on alcohol and drug misuse" (Op. cit., p. 26). In 2007, Kava was banned in the Northern Territory.

Petrol sniffing is also a problem among some remote Indigenous communities. Petrol vapour produces euphoria and dulling effect in those who inhale it, and due to its previously low price and widespread availability, is an increasingly popular substance of abuse.

Proposed solutions to the problem are a topic of heated debate among politicians and the community at large. In 2005 this problem among remote indigenous communities was considered so serious that a new, low aromatic petrol Opal was distributed across the Northern Territory to combat it.

Prominent Indigenous Australians

After the arrival of European settlers in New South Wales, some Indigenous Australians became translators and go-betweens; the best-known was Bennelong, who eventually adopted European dress and customs and travelled to England where he was presented to King George III. Others, such as Pemulwuy, became famous for armed resistance to the European settlers.

During the twentieth century, as social attitudes shifted and interest in Indigenous culture increased, there were more opportunities for Indigenous Australians to gain recognition. Albert Namatjira became one of Australia's best-known painters, and actors such as David Gulpilil, Ernie Dingo, and Deborah Mailman became well known. Bands such as Yothu Yindi, and singers Christine Anu and Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu, have successfully combined Indigenous musical styles and instruments with pop/rock, gaining wide appreciation amongst non-Indigenous audiences.

Indigenous Australians have also been prominent in sport. Lionel Rose earned a world title in boxing, Evonne Goolagong became a number-one ranked tennis player with 14 Grand Slam titles, Mark Ella Captained Australia in Rugby Union and runner Cathy Freeman earned gold medals in the Olympics, World Championships, and Commonwealth Games; many more Indigenous athletes are active at national and international level.

While relatively few Indigenous Australians have been elected to political office (Neville Bonner and Aden Ridgeway remain the only ones to have been elected to the Australian Senate), Aboriginal rights campaigner Sir Douglas Nicholls was appointed Governor of the State of South Australiamarker in 1976, and many others have become famous through political activism - for instance, Charles Perkins' involvement in the Freedom Ride of 1965 and subsequent work; or Torres Strait Islander Eddie Mabo's part in the landmark native title decision that bears his name. The voices of Cape York activist Noel Pearson; and academics Marcia Langton and Mick Dodson today loom large in national debates. Others who initially became famous in other spheres - for instance, poet Oodgeroo Noonuccal - have used their celebrity to draw attention to Indigenous issues.

Representative Sporting Teams

Aboriginal Cricket Team, MCG, 1867
Aboriginal Australia has been represented in various sporting teams. Notable teams include the Indigenous All-Stars and Flying Boomerangs (Australian rules football) and the Indigenous Dreamtime Team (Rugby League). The first organised trip of Australian cricketers to travel overseas comprised solely of Aboriginal members and embarked on a tour of England in 1868.

See also


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  2. "When did Australia's earliest inhabitants arrive?", University of Wollongong, 2004. Retrieved June 6, 2008.
  3. "Aboriginal truth and white media: Eric Michaels meets the spirit of Aboriginalism", The Australian Journal of Media & Culture, vol. 3 no 3, 1990. Retrieved June 6, 2008.
  4. "Australian Social Trends" Australian Bureau of Statistics, 1999, Retrieved on June 6, 2008,
  5. Nathan, D: "Aboriginal Languages of Australia", Aboriginal Languages of Australia Virtual Library, "" 2007
  6. 1301.0 - Year Book Australia, 2002 Australian Bureau of Statistics January 25, 2002
  7. Pardoe, C: "Becoming Australian: evolutionary processes and biological variation from ancient to modern times", Before Farming 2006, Article 4, 2006
  8. Originally used by the Romans to denote the (mythical) indigenous people of ancient Italy; see Sallust, Bellum Catilinae, ch. 6.
  9. Appropriate Terms for Australian Aboriginal People
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  11. Places – Torres Strait Islands ABC Radio Australia website, 2005. Retrieved 21 June 2007.
  12. Chris Gibson, Peter Dunbar-Hall, Deadly Sounds, Deadly Places: Contemporary Aboriginal Music in Australia, pp. 120–121 (UNSW Press, 2005).
  13. Zuckermann, Ghil'ad, "Aboriginal languages deserve revival", The Australian Higher Education, August 26, 2009.
  14. Bowern, Claire and Harold Koch (eds.). 2004. Australian Languages: Classification and the comparative method. John Benjamins, Sydney.
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  16. Keith Windschuttle and Tim Gillin, Quadrant Magazine, June 2002: The extinction of the Australian pygmies.
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  20. Ronald M. Berndt has published traditional Aboriginal song-poetry in his book "Three Faces of Love", Nelson 1976. R.M.W. Dixon and M. Duwell have published two books dealing with sacred and everyday poetry: "The Honey Ant Men's Love Song" and "Little Eva at Moonlight Creek", University of Queensland Press, 1994".
  21. (From William Blandowski's Australien in 142 Photographischen Abbildungen, 1857, (Haddon Library, Faculty of Archaeology and Anthropology, Cambridge)
  22. Kids play "kick to kick" -1850s style from
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  33. Mutual Obligation Requirements
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  37. In its submission to the Bringing Them Home report, the Victorian government stated that "despite the apparent recognition in government reports that the interests of Indigenous children were best served by keeping them in their own communities, the number of Aboriginal children forcibly removed continued to increase, rising from 220 in 1973 to 350 in 1976" ( Bringing Them Home: "Victoria").
  38. "Rudd says sorry", Dylan Welch, Sydney Morning Herald February 13, 2008.
  40. [4].
  41. (ABC Television News 12 October 2007)
  42. (ABC radio 12 October 2007)
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  45. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.
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  47. Australian Bureau of Statistics.
  48. Petrol Sniffing - Health & Wellbeing.
  49. Alcohol and Other Drugs - Petrol.
  50. The definition of "risky" and "high-risk" consumption used is four or more standard drinks per day average for males, two or more for females.
  51. Australian Broadcasting Commission (2007) "Kava Ban 'Sparks Black Market Boom'", ABC Darwin 23 August 2007 Accessed 18 October 2007
  52. Effects of sniffing petrol Northern Territory Government Health Department
  53. Petrol Sniffing in Remote Northern Territory Communities Legislative Assembly of the Northern Territory.

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