Everyone has a cultural identity and understanding the diverse cultural identities in Australia is an essential element of achieving reconciliation.
This chapter will introduce the diversity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups in Australia and consider how these cultural identities make Australia a unique country.
One of the biggest myths about Aboriginality is that if you have fair skin you can’t be Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander.
You’ve got to be black to be ‘a real’ Aboriginal – or that Aboriginality is attributed to the degree of ancestry, such as ‘she is 1/8th Aboriginal’.
Who is Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander?
You might meet a person who says they’re Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander but you’re doubtful because they don’t look the way you think Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should look.
Pride in Australia’s Indigenous history and culture has not always been the case.
At Federation in 1901, the rights of citizenship were not extended to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
Through the 1960s and ’70s ‘blood’ definitions such as those in the constitution were finally abandoned and today, a person is legally Aboriginal if they are a member of the Aboriginal race. Torres Strait Islanders are the Indigenous people of the Torres Strait Islands which are part of Queensland. Their identity and culture is distinct from Aboriginal peoples on the mainland.
“Membership of the Indigenous people depends on biological descent from the Indigenous people and on mutual recognition of a particular person’s membership by that person and by the elders or other persons enjoying traditional authority among those people.”
Justice Gerard Brennan Mabo and Others v Queensland (No. 2), (1992) 175 CLR 1,  HCA 23
Ngambri-Ngunnawal elder Matilda House Williams delivers the first ever “Welcome to Country” to federal Parliament, ahead of the government’s formal apology to the Stolen Generations in 2008.
Local people may have a preference for how they are described, for example at a function or event. If you’re not sure of a person’s particular language group and can’t find out, it’s usually okay to simply acknowledge them as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander. The easiest way to find out is to ask the person themselves – they will see this as showing respect and they’ll appreciate it.
Connection with country is crucial to the wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. For millennia, when Indigenous people visited the country of others, there would be rituals of welcoming to country. Today, these rituals have a legacy in formal ‘Welcome to Country’ and ‘Acknowledgment of Country’ protocols.
Usually a ‘Welcome to Country’ will occur at the beginning of any major public meeting. It will always be done by an appropriate Elder—someone widely recognised as having ancestral connection with the country where the meeting is taking place. She or he may welcome in their own language, or in English.
An ‘Acknowledgment of Country’ can be done by any Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander Australians that are not traditional owners of the country you are meeting on, or by non-Indigenous Australians.
Acknowledgements can be done at the beginning of any meeting. Some organisations, for example, begin staff meetings with an Acknowledgement. There is no set wording for an Acknowledgement and you may wish to establish your own wording. An Acknowledgement will often:
An Acknowledgment might be, for example “I would like to begin by acknowledging the traditional custodians of the land we’re meeting on today, and pay my respect to their Elders past and present. I also acknowledge my gratitude that we share this land today, my sorrow for some of the costs of that sharing, and my hope and belief that we can move to place of equity, justice and partnership together”.