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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture and people are uniquely Australian. Indigenous people in Australia are not a homogenous group. Before the arrival of Europeans, there were approximately 600 nations in Australia, each with its own territory, language and customs.

In 2011, there were 548,370 people identified as being of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander origin and counted in the Census. This represents 2.5% of the population as recorded in the 2011 Census.

Indigenous people often use different terms to describe themselves, depending on where they are from. Some Indigenous people prefer to call themselves Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islanders. If you are unsure, ask if and how people identify themselves. This will be seen as a sign of respect.

This page outlines some general advice to serve as a starting point for thinking and discussing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture, history and protocols.

Protocols are the standards of behaviour that people use to show respect to each other. Every culture has different ways of communicating. To work respectfully with someone from a different background or culture, it helps to understand how people might express, see or value things differently.

We urge you to learn more about Aboriginal and Torre Strait Islander culture and protocols by informing yourself.

There are many ways to do this. As a starting point, we have outlined some resources, training and advice that will help you. Remember, this is a journey.

Welcome to Country

A Welcome to Country is a ceremony performed by Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people to welcome visitors to their traditional land. It can take many forms, depending on the particular culture of the traditional owners. It can include singing, dancing, smoking ceremonies or a speech in traditional language or English.

Protocols for welcoming visitors to Country have been a part of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures for thousands of years. Despite the absence of fences or visible borders, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups had clear boundaries separating their Country from that of other groups. Crossing into another group’s Country required a request for permission to enter—like gaining a visa—and when that permission was granted the hosting group would welcome the visitors, offering them safe passage. For example, in some areas visitors would sit outside the boundary of another group’s land and light a fire to signal their request to enter. A fire lit in response would indicate approval and welcome from the land owning group and often, on meeting, gifts would be exchanged. While visitors were provided with a safe passage, they also had to respect the protocols and rules of the land owner group while on their Country. Today, obviously much has changed and these protocols have been adapted to contemporary circumstances but the essential ingredients of welcoming visitors and offering safe passage remain in place.

Source: Reconciliation Australia.

Acknowledgment of Country

An Acknowledgement of Country is a way of showing awareness of and respect for the traditional Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander owners of the land on which a meeting or event is being held, and of recognising the continuing connection of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to their Country.

An Acknowledgment of Country can be informal or formal and involves visitors acknowledging the Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander owners of the land as well as the long and continuing relationship between Indigenous peoples and their Country.

At a meeting, speech or formal occasion the speaker can begin their proceedings by offering an Acknowledgement of Country. Unlike a Welcome to Country, it can be performed by a non-Indigenous person.

Source: Reconciliation Australia.