The Social, Cultural and Historical
Context of Aboriginal and Torres
Strait Islander Australians
To understand the contemporary life of Indigenous Australians, a historical and cultural background is essential. This chapter sets the context for further discussions about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and issues related to their social and emotional wellbeing and mental health. The history of colonisation is addressed, the subsequent devastation of Indigenous Australians, and their resilience and struggle to claim equality and cultural recognition, and to shape the present. Indigenous Australia is made up of two cultural groups who have shared the same struggle, yet often when using the term Indigenous, a Torres Strait Islander history is absent. In this chapter both cultures are equally presented. Brief overviews are given of pre-contact times, colonisation, resistance and adaptation, shifting government policies, and the struggle for recognition. Indigenous identity and meanings of belonging in country, community and family are also briefly covered. Contemporary issues confronting Indigenous people are included, with particular attention to racism.
ABORIGINAL AND TORRES STRAIT ISLANDER POPULATIONS
The Australian Bureau of Statistics estimated that in 2006 there were 517,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people living in Australia. Overall, Indigenous people make up 2.5% of the total Australian population. Among the Indigenous population in 2006, it is estimated that 463,700 (90%) were of Aboriginal origin, 33,300 (6%) were of Torres Strait Islander origin only, and 20,100 (4%) were of both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander origin (ABS, 2008b).
In 2006, 32% of Indigenous people lived in major cities, with 21% in inner regional areas and 22% in outer regional areas, while 9% lived in remote areas and 15% lived in very remote areas (ABS 2008a). While the majority of Indigenous people live in urban settings, the Indigenous population is much more widely dispersed across the country than the nonIndigenous population, constituting a much higher proportion of the population in Northern Australia and more remote areas (ABS, 2008a).
ABORIGINAL CULTURAL HISTORY
To appreciate the contemporary realities of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians, their cultural ways of life need to be understood. In the recent decades there has been a strong renaissance of Indigenous culture and forms of creative expression, and a reconnection and
reclaiming of cultural life. Aboriginal culture has roots deep in the past. Australia’s Indigenous cultural traditions have a history and continuity unrivalled in the world. Far from signifying the end of Indigenous Australian traditions, new forms of adaptation are bringing new vitality to older cultural themes and values that need to be addressed. Contemporary Indigenous Australia presents new challenges, issues and options for reconciliation. Aboriginal people have been in Australia for between 50,000 and 120,000 years. They were a hunter-gatherer people who had adapted well to the environment. There were approximately 300,000 Aboriginal people living in Australia when the British arrived in 1788 (Commonwealth of Australia, 1998).
At the time of colonisation there were approximately 260 distinct language groups and 500 dialects. Indigenous Australians lived in small family groups and were semi-nomadic, with each family group living in a defined territory, systematically moving across a defined area following seasonal changes. Groups had their own distinct history and culture. At certain times family groups would come together for social, ceremonial and trade purposes. It is estimated that up to 500 people gathered at the one time. Membership within each family or language group was based on birthright, shared language, and cultural...