Skip links and keyboard navigation

Respecting the cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have a long history of strong kinship and cultures that have endured many thousands of years. Strong families and strong cultures form the backbone of communities and are essential foundations for successful civic and economic participation.

Integral to the spirit and pride that are features of life for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities are the special relationships between people, their identity and country.

Understanding the importance of land and sea

Land and sea are central to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture and connection to country is fundamental to people’s lives.

Thousands of years before the arrival of the First Fleet, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people had advanced systems of culture and lore that formed the basis of their relationships with the land and sea. In most Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures land, sea or waterways are fundamental to spirituality, traditional law and history that are passed down through generations. Song, dance, rituals and beliefs in relation to the sea, islands and the environment continue to be central to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander identity and spirituality.

Language groups, tribal groups or family groups manage responsibility for land and sea based on complex but effective kinship systems. Their responsibilities also reflect their social interactions.

Land and sea provide a link between historical and contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander societies. They encompass the physical use of land, and the spiritual connection to the land and sea. In contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander societies Elders and community members teach children the traditional methods of obtaining natural resources from the land, sea or waterways to survive.

When engaging with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, it is important to understand their connection to country and the significant role it plays in their lives.

Case study: Celebrating and promoting culture in the Torres Strait

Torres Strait Islander people, the state and Australian governments shared and celebrated the opening of the Torres Strait region’s first cultural centre in April 2004.

The establishment of the Gab Titui Cultural Centre, Thursday Island, has met the long-term goal of Torres Strait Islander communities to own and operate a cultural centre to support and strengthen strong families and strong cultures, and to increase regional arts and cultural industry development.

The cultural centre fulfils a dream for the Torres Strait region and for the late Mr Ephraim Bani, who is recognised as a visionary and who lobbied for many years to establish a cultural centre in the region to promote and protect Torres Strait Islander culture and identity.

Extensive consultation occurred over a long period between Torres Strait Islander communities, the Department of Education and the Arts and the Torres Strait Regional Authority to guide the development, design and establishment of the centre.

The Department of Education and the Arts and the Torres Strait Regional Authority jointly funded the Gab Titui Cultural Centre under the $3M Queensland Heritage Trails Network.

The name ‘Gab Titui’ incorporates the eastern and western languages of the Torres Strait; the combined name means ‘journey of the stars’.

The centre has dedicated space for exhibitions, artwork and workshops, with a specialised area to accommodate and display artefacts and cultural heritage material in a climate-controlled environment. Assessment will be made in the future of the centre’s potential role in the training and employment of local people in the collection, storage and preservation of arts and artefacts and the technical skills needed to store these materials will be made in the future.

Three Torres Strait Regional Authority trainees employed at the new cultural centre became the first students from the region to begin Certificate III in Tourism (Visitor Services) studies at the Tropical North Queensland TAFE Thursday Island Campus. The Torres Strait Regional Authority and TAFE collaborated in the design and development of the course.

For more information see:, or contact the Gab Titui Cultural Centre, telephone: (07) 4090 2130.

Understanding the importance of family and kinship ties

In the same way that land and sea are an integral part of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander life and culture, family and kinship ties are fundamental to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander societies. Families have been able to revitalise cultural and social systems and their diversity gives them the capacity to renew ancestral links. For example, raising children can be a responsibility shared between parents, grandparents, uncles and aunties, all of whom teach standards of behaviour and respect. This concept of extended families develops, supports and encourages children as part of a whole family and social unit.

The removal of children from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families has been a sorrowful experience and continues to have an impact on contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander societies. It is important to acknowledge that past removal practices have had a signficiant impact on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families, including in some cases loss of cultural norms for childrearing.

Concepts of time

Cultural approaches to the concept of time may be different among Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islander and mainstream communities. It is important to have a flexible timetable as sometimes more value is placed on personal or community priorities. Arrangements could be changed completely with little or no notice owing to the emergence of a range of community issues that intending visitors may not be aware of or have no control over; for example, ‘sorry business’, a death, funeral or mourning period.


Language is a critical factor in communicating and engaging with a community, so it is important to appreciate the differences in language protocols between Aboriginal communities and Torres Strait Islander communities.

English may be the second or third language for members of some communities. Before engaging with a community it is important to find out the English literacy levels of community members who may participate in any proposed engagement, and to determine whether local translators or interpreters are required. It is recommended to consult with an interpreter and relevant community interest groups before determining an appropriate engagement method.

Appropriate sharing of information

Sometimes targeted engagement is required over matters that are defined in the community as strictly male or female. Examples include engagement regarding men’s or women’s health services, sexual health and mentoring or leadership development. In this situation it is strongly advised that male and female public officials conduct the engagement activity separately with the relevant gender. Participants are likely to feel more comfortable and share information more readily if this is done. If an officer of the correct gender is not available, a search of local community-based organisations may identify a representative of the appropriate gender to assist with the engagement activity.

If information provided by participants at the separate sessions is conflicting, a balanced assessment of the community’s views and needs should be undertaken. Information of a very sensitive nature from participants should be appropriately discussed with fellow public officials to ensure all viewpoints are considered.

Case study: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander rangers boost jobs and environment

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander park rangers are bringing intimate cultural knowledge to Queensland land management, thanks to a ground-breaking agreement between the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Anti-Discrimination Commission Queensland.

Under the 2002 agreement the EPA is able, without infringing anti-discrimination laws, to seek a park ranger specifically from the tribal group of the land-and-sea country in which the park is situated. These identified and specified Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ranger positions bring the dual benefits for the EPA of increased employment for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people – 39 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander rangers were employed by the EPA by mid-2003 – and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander skills and knowledge. Eligible rangers must have generic ranger skills combined with local cultural knowledge.

Identified Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ranger positions are based on consultation with Traditional Owners about the specific Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander knowledge and skills that rangers need to manage issues within a particular park. The Traditional Owners may identify, for example, that the cultural values within a park relate to a specific gender – men’s business or women’s business. If the values related to midwifery and afterbirth practices, for example, the EPA would advertise for a female ranger with knowledge of these issues to operate in accordance with Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander protocols.

In areas of EPA responsibility, such as compliance with turtle and dugong protection laws, the availability of rangers with traditional knowledge has obvious advantages for Queensland as a whole.

For further details contact the Environmental Protection Agency, telephone (07) 3227 8185.


Last reviewed
31 May 2011
Last updated
23 June 2011