Who are Indigenous Australians header image lighter

“[It] isn't about the colour of your skin, it's the practice of what you've been taught, it's tradition that's gone through generations.”

Just 30% of the general Australian community socialise with Indigenous people.[1] So where do the majority of Australians get their ideas about Indigenous Australians? The media? The government? Maybe the history books? We believe it's important for Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians to understand each other better, beyond myths and stereotypes. So first things first, who are Indigenous Australians?

First things first, who are Indigenous Australians?

Indigenous Australians are descended from the people who lived in Australia and the surrounding islands prior to European colonisation. Generally speaking, there are two distinct groups of Indigenous people in Australia - Torres Strait Islanders, who come from the Torres Strait Islands north of Cape York in Queensland, and Aboriginal people, who come from all other parts of Australia.

Amongst Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, there are many different languages, cultures and beliefs. So when we refer to “Indigenous Australians”, we’re actually using a collective name to refer to hundreds of diverse groups.

In fact, at the time of colonisation, approximately 700 languages were spoken by different Indigenous groups throughout Australia.[2] Some of these languages are still spoken in Indigenous communities, and many Indigenous cultures have survived and adapted to colonisation while others are being actively revived and reclaimed. So whether you’re in the city or the bush, Indigenous culture is very much alive across Australia!

What makes someone Indigenous?

Many Australians assume that to be Indigenous, a person should look or act a certain way. For example, often Indigenous Australians are expected to have dark skin, live in remote areas and be outstanding athletes. Sadly, there’s also an assumption that Indigenous people must be dysfunctional, dependant on welfare, violent or addicted to alcohol. These are stereotypes; they’re not only extremely hurtful, they contribute to the confusion about who Indigenous people are. 

Who does the government say Indigenous people are?

The Australian Government has 3 criteria for determining whether a person is Indigenous. According to this definition, a person is Indigenous if they:

  • are of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander descent
  • identify as Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander and
  • are accepted by the Indigenous community in which he or she lives[3]

Listening to Indigenous People

To really understand who Indigenous Australians are, we need to listen to what Indigenous people say. Remember, Indigenous people are diverse - being Indigenous means different things to different people. Yet for many, being Indigenous is about being connected to Country, community and culture.

The following quotes from Indigenous people express what it means to them to be an Indigenous person living in Australia.

“Our culture connects with the land, with our kinships. We know who we are, what sort of relationships we've got within our clan groups, or other clan groups around the Tanami. To do with our skin names, which part of the country we belong to, which part of the country is ours… That's why it's important for us to know who we are, what skin group, which country we belong to.” 
Lynette, Walpiri, Lajamanu, NT

”If you're an Aboriginal person, then you have spirituality. There is no denying that. All of our history, everything that makes us Aboriginal is connected to spirituality.”
Kyle, Bundjalung Cultural Leader, NSW

“Aboriginality and spirituality and connection and culture isn't about the colour of your skin, it's the practice of what you've been taught, it's tradition that's gone through generations.”
Jamie, Peek Whuurrong Gunditjmara and Gunnai Cultural Leader, VIC

“I represent my ancestors and dreamtime.”
Andrew Johnson, Walpiri, Lajamanu, NT

Where do Indigenous Australians live?

Today, Indigenous people make up 3% of Australia’s population. New South Wales has the highest Indigenous population (208,500 people), while the Northern Territory has the highest proportion of Indigenous people (30% of the Northern Territory’s population). As these statistics suggest, despite common misperceptions that Indigenous people only live in remote communities, a third of Indigenous Australians actually live in major cities. [4]