Education: First Nations of Australia

Who are Indigenous Australians?

Just 30% of the general Australian community socialise with Indigenous people.[1]

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]


it's important for Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians to understand each other better, beyond myths and stereotypes.

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!

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

stereotypes: [assume ] look or act a certain way. dark skin, live in remote areas and be outstanding athletes. dysfunctional, dependant on welfare, violent or addicted to alcohol.

”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

Welcome to Country?

A Welcome to Country is a ceremony performed by Traditional Custodians to welcome visitors to their ancestral land. It can only be done by Traditional Custodians of the land you're on. If no Traditional Custodian is available, a First Nations person from a different nation, or a non-Indigenous person, may do an Acknowledgement of Country instead. A Welcome to Country usually takes place at the beginning of an event.

Welcome to Country is a tradition that‘s practised when one First Nations community seeks permission to enter another clan’s ancestral land. The ceremony varies from clan to clan.

Joy Murphy Wandin describes Welcome to Country as it’s practised by her People, Wurundjeri People:

“When there was a request to visit Country, the Werrigerri (a young man selected by the Elders of the community) would go on behalf of the community under the voice of the Elder, the Nurungeeta. There would be this negotiation and that could take a long time, it could take months. Everything could take a long time in traditional Aboriginal culture …

When agreement was reached with the Wurundjeri, when you came to Country, first of all you must accept the law of the land, and that was about respect that contained all things.

The other thing was that you could only stay for a short time. Why …? Because our people were seasonal travellers … you knew what resources were available, you knew how to get them, you knew how long they would last. So that staying here with us was about sharing … but sharing it with your neighbouring community that could be twice your size was a big effort.

The traditional ceremonies were quite big. The Yarnabool (visiting communities) would come with bark torches in their hand … to cleanse that journey, ‘swept away’ as my mother would say. And so, when they came onto Country there (was) a set up of two fires, and the eucalyptus around were used as gifts … Then the two Nurungeetas would come together at the fires, they would exchange whatever was necessary … and then there would be a big celebration. … It was a very long process and a very beautiful process.

So that is the background of Welcome to Country. It is not a new thing. It is not … because our land was dispossessed; it has nothing to do with that. It is all about respect for our culture and who we are. It is paying respect, especially to our ancestors.”


Acknowledgement of Country

We respect and honour Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Elders past, present and future. We acknowledge the stories, traditions and living cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on this land and commit to building a brighter future together.

Warning: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are advised that this website may contain images, voices and names of deceased persons.

An Acknowledgement of Country commonly involves saying something along the following lines:

“I’d like to acknowledge that this meeting is being held on traditional lands of (appropriate group) people of the (name of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander nation) nation, and pay my respects to Elders both past and present.”

Personalising and localising an acknowledgement helps to make it as meaningful as possible. When preparing your acknowledgement, take time to find out a bit about the local First Nations people, land and history. Be aware that not all land borders are agreed upon by everyone, and there could be tensions between neighbouring groups regarding land boundaries as a result of colonisation. If this is the case in your area, we recommend you make a general statement such as:

“I’d like to acknowledge Traditional Custodians of the land on which we meet today. I’d also like to pay my respects to Elders past and present.”

If you’re not sure if an acknowledgement is appropriate, or if the words you’ve chosen are appropriate, speak to your local First Nations organisation or land council.

Appropriate terminology

Queensland Studies Authority (2010) Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies Handbook, Queensland Curriculum & Assessment Authority website, accessed 14 December 2021.

There’s no rulebook when it comes to using appropriate terminology regarding First Nations people in Australia. This is because Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people across the nation are diverse; there are many different experiences and opinions regarding appropriate terminology and it’s difficult to identify language and terminology that’s acceptable to all people and groups [source ref]

A colonial history of dominating, discriminating against, misunderstanding and misrepresenting First Nations people and culture. Some of the names used to refer to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have negative connotations and should be replaced. [reflected the common belief that First Nations people were inferior to white people, or even less than human- [source ref]]

Why are culture and identity important?

Everyone has culture. Know about your culture and value the culture of others.

Dive into stories and articles that explore the significance of culture and its role in building a brighter future together.

Early missionaries to Australia

Early Australian colonists were heavily influenced by 19th century attitudes that regarded Indigenous people as inferior. Newspapers and journals of the time contain ample evidence of this.

One Blood [1], John Harris: the story of the first Aboriginal Christian missions in Australia. The official records, articles and diaries to speak for themselves, exposing the stories of the early missions and the challenging context in which they operated.

Whilst Harris admits that “It is hard to sum up the early missions with any word other than failure” (pg. 125), he also notes that, “...however unwittingly, however imperfectly, however inadequately, (the missionaries) did carry the knowledge of Christ to these shores” (pg.18).

three key factors which were present in settler society within a very few years of white settlement. These were: the low view of Aboriginal society and culture displayed by the missionaries; the brutal or immoral treatment of Aboriginal people by many settlers; and the gross contradictions between Christian values and the lifestyle of colonial white society (pg.44).

the Wesleyan missionary, Samuel Leigh, who “described Aboriginal people as ‘barbarians’ to whom had been assigned ‘the lowest place in the scale of intellect’”, and the Lutheran missionary, William Schmidt, who “wrote that (Aboriginal people) were ‘the lowest in the scale of the human race’” (pg. 29).

the early missionaries maintained a social distance between themselves and Aboriginal people 

the early missionaries’ failure to distinguish between the gospel and what they considered “civilisation”, European culture, seriously undermined their efforts to communicate Christ’s love to the Aboriginal people.

the cruel and degrading treatment of Aboriginal people by many settlers. It was common practice for white men to keep multiple Indigenous women captive for sexual purposes. Aboriginal people inevitably thought Christianity to be the religion of the British colonists” (pg.59). consequently, the brutal treatment of Aboriginal people by the colonists also undermined the message of Christ’s love that the missionaries sought to deliver. 

not only the settler’s behaviour towards Indigenous people, but the wholesale immorality of life outside the mission that contradicted the missionaries’ efforts. 

“As (Aboriginal people) began to understand the missionary teaching on sin and eternal damnation, they began to ask... whether or not particular white men known to them would be punished for their very public sins, and why the missionaries preached about sin to the Aborigines so much and not to the whites” (pg.59).

there were many other factors contributing to the missionaries’ failure, including misunderstandings between missionaries and their respective mission societies, lack of financial support, the declining Aboriginal population as a result of disease and dispossession, and personal disagreements amongst missionaries, settlers and governing authorities (pg.126-145).

in 1845, catalogued the mission failures up to that year:

‘The civilisation of the natives of Australia, it is obvious, has been in every experiment a pitiable as well as a mischievous failure. 

1. The government schools, established by Lady Darling in 1821, failed. 

2. The mission on Lake Macquarie, under Mr Threlkeld in 1826, failed. 

3. The German mission to Moreton Bay in 1836 failed.

4. The church mission to Wellington Valley in, 1832, failed. 

5. and 6. The missions to Port Phillip, under Mr Langhorne in 1837, and Mr Tuckfield in 1836, failed. 

And lastly, 7. and 8. The Protectorate has failed, and the native police have failed. The Roman Catholic and Lutheran missions at Moreton Bay are recently abandoned.’ (pg.127)

Missionary encounters with Indigenous spirituality

“The first fleet did not transport God to Australia in 1788… God was already here, present and active as Creator and Sustainer of every remote corner of the earth. God was not indiscernible to Aboriginal people, a religious people who sought to relate to their environment in spiritual terms.” (pg. 17).

“Missionaries arrived in Australia not expecting to find among Aboriginal people ideas of any intellectual or spiritual depth” (pg. 541), 

missionary, John Dunmore Lang, who wrote:

“[The Aborigines] have no idea of a supreme divinity, the creator and governor of the world, the witness of their actions and their future judge. They have no object of worship. . . They have no idols, no temples, no sacrifices. In short, they have nothing whatever of the character of religion or of religious observance, to distinguish them from the beasts that perish.” [2]

The Lutheran missionary, Christopher Eipper, similarly failed to discern any tangible evidence that Aboriginal people had the capacity to worship:

"I confess the prospects here are less encouraging, for the presence of an idol shows yet the dependence of the creature, and the necessity presented. . . to the mind, of having something to worship. This here must be first created…” [3]

the Jesuits in the Northern Territory acknowledged Aboriginal spiritual beliefs insofar as they ridiculed them, however they “modified their attitude when they observed supernatural phenomena which 'staggered' them” (pg. 542). [4]

those missionaries who did recognise spirituality in Indigenous culture commonly associated it with evil, referring to Aboriginal people as ‘devotees of the devil’" (pg. 543). [5]

“very few missionaries acknowledged the possibility that Aboriginal spirituality could have been derived, even in part, from God’s general revelation of himself.” (page 327).


John Bulmer, a long term missionary at Lake Tyers in Victoria, “was pleased to discover that Aboriginal people shared his belief in a creator of the world and in the immortality of the soul” (pg. 543). Bulmer wrote:

“The question has been asked. 'Have the Aborigines of Australia any idea of a supreme being?…’ They certainly have ideas of beings who existed long ago… and that to them all things as they now exist are due… Thus the Murray people had their Ngalambru or ancient of days… The Gippslanders had their Ngalambru, meaning the first… The Maura people had their Boganbe... meaning big or high… The people of the Wimmera had their Ngramba Natchea, meaning the oldest spirit… The blacks did not think death was the end of existence. They recognised the fact that a man had a spirit, Gnowk.”  [6]

in New South Wales, the Wiradjuri people spoke to the Presbyterian missionary, William Ridley, of ‘Baiame’, “whose very name was derived from the word ‘to create’” (pg. 543), and whose distinctive attributes were “immortality, power and goodness” (pg. 543). [7]


Although the early missionaries encountered many problems, some that “were beyond the power of the missionaries to solve” (pg. 20), Harris notes that “it is also true that in most cases the missionaries themselves were not equal to the task” (pg. 20). According to Harris, “The better educated missionary candidates were usually sent to such places as China or India where it was anticipated that they would be competent to debate Buddhist or Hindu philosophies. The standard for Africa, Australia and the South Pacific was much lower” (pg. 651). 

The early Australian missionaries’s theology was not only inadequate, but deeply flawed, particularly their belief that Indigenous Australians were the cursed descendants of Noah’s son, Ham. This view was the result of a serious misinterpretation of Genesis 9 and 10.

“Instead of seeing the fulfillment of the curse of Canaan in the Hebrew conquest of the Canaanites, the curse was seen to apply to Ham and all his descendants: Cush (Ethiopia), Mizraim (Egypt) and Phut (Libya). These were African nations and included black races. By extension, the curse was given universal application, not only to the black peoples of Africa, but to all black races of the southern hemisphere” (pg. 29-30).

Two significant consequences of this misguided theological perspective, one positive, and the other negative. 

On the negative side, writes Harris, Indigenous Australians were consequently considered by missionaries of the time to be ‘the lowest scale of degraded humanity’ (pg. 30). The Presbyterian Minister, Thomas Dove.

The extension of Ham’s curse on the African nations to include Indigenous Australians on the basis of their skin colour also perpetuated the imagery of light as good and dark as evil. This is evident in the writing of the Anglican preacher, William Henry.

one vital positive outcome: "If they were descended from Ham, they were also descended from Adam." 

The view that Aboriginal people were degraded, even that they were the most degraded of all people, still contained within it one essential safeguard. They were still human. Although the belief In their utter degradation was terribly flawed, it was not therefore fatally flawed…In the final analysis, the belief itself demanded the essential humanity of the Aborigines. If they were descended from Ham, they were also descended from Adam” (pg. 32).

acknowledging Indigenous people as human hardly seems extraordinary, in the context of colonial Australia it distinguished missionary opinion from that of wider settler society. This is expressed by a pastoral letter from Catholic Archbishop John Bede Polding written in 1869: :

"[Some of our fellow colonists] have, in justification of a great crime, striven to believe that these black men are not of our race, are not our fellow creatures. We Catholics know assuredly how false this is: we know that one soul of theirs is, like one of our own, of more worth than the whole material world, that any human soul is of more worth, as it is of greater cost, than the whole mere matter of this earth, its sun and its system or, indeed, of all the glories of the firmament." (48)

almost certainly the Church of England clergyman Robert Cartwright, wrote in the Sydney Gazette in 1824: “In the sight of the Creator, their souls I believe to be of infinite importance… If we therefore now hasten their destruction or neglect to promote their salvation, shall we be innocent or without blame?”

The missionaries, regardless of their church denomination, maintained this opinion despite strong and relentless opposition, often citing Acts 17:26:

‘God hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth’ (pg. 35). 

when confronted with community agitation for the massacre of Aborigines” (pg. ). In response to the trials over the Myall Creek massacre in 1838, the Reverend John Saunders wrote:

'Does it seem strange to speak of the majesty of the New Hollanders? Wilt thou despise the Saviour of the world? Then despise not him who sprang out of the same stock, despise not him for whom Christ died. The Saviour died as much for him as he did for you. Now by every sentiment of humanity and love you are bound to love him, to admit him to your fraternity and to treat him as a fellow man.’ 

It is important to acknowledge and understand some of the damaging effects of the early missionaries’ theology, whilst also recognising the extreme counter cultural nature of their opinion on Indigenous humanity, and their consequential efforts to protect and proselytise the first Australians.



Australia Day: answers to tricky questions

It’s ok to want to celebrate this country! There’s a lot to be proud of. But, it’s important to also acknowledge January 26 is a painful day for many First Nations people, and make an effort to understand why.

▸ Feeling guilty about Australia’s history isn’t useful. We’re not responsible for past injustices. But our words and actions in the present can be a starting point to building a brighter future together.

▸ It's possible to celebrate Australia Day AND show solidarity with First Nations people. For example, you could:


1. What's the fuss about Australia Day?

▸ January 26 marks the anniversary of the arrival of the First Fleet and the start of British colonisation. Some people say this was the beginning of modern Australia, but for many First Nations people, it was the start of losing land, culture and family.

▸ Colonisation may have started over 230 years ago, but it continues to have a real impact today. That’s why some call it Invasion Day, Survival Day or Day of Mourning.

▸ January 26 is not a day of unity. Some people want to change the date to one that’s inclusive of and respectful to both First Nations people and non-Indigenous Australians. Some people want to keep the date as it is, and some want to cancel it all together. It’s a debate with loud voices and many strong opinions.

▸ The question we need to be asking is how do we move forward together? There’s no simple answer; it’s going to take time, and people willing to listen to the perspectives of others. Understanding our shared story is a great place to start.

2. Why can’t they just get over it?

▸ Colonisation happened a long time ago; however, much of the injustice faced by First Nations people is recent; for example, the Stolen Generations occurred up until the 1970s. This means there are people, who are only in their 40s today, who were taken from their families as children.

▸ When you learn the full facts about what happened, you’ll understand the pain isn't something that’s easy to ‘just get over'. It affects many aspects of life for generations.

▸ This injustice can be seen today in the devastating statistics that impact many First Nations people across a range of life indicators. There’s a gap between the health and social outcomes and life-expectancy for First Nations people and non-Indigenous Australians. For example, although Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults make up around 2% of the population, they constitute 27% of the prison population. [1] These statistics show that injustice isn’t something that only happened in the past. It’s continuing today, which makes it difficult to ‘just get over’.

▸ Simply forgetting and 'getting over it' isn’t how we move forward. What’s needed is empathy; understanding our shared story is a good place to start.

3. Should we change the date, save the date or cancel it all together?

▸ This question can be challenging, as there are many different perspectives from both First Nations people and non-Indigenous Australians.

▸ Saving the date means continuing to celebrate a date that’s painful for many people.

▸ Changing the date or cancelling the date doesn’t address the trauma and disadvantage that started at colonisation and still affects First Nations people today.

▸ If we simply make a choice and move on, we miss the opportunity to understand where we’ve come from, where we are today and where we go from here.

▸ Learning more about our nation’s shared history between First Nations people and non-Indigenous Australians can help you answer this question for yourself.