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.
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.