Cultural Protocols


Aboriginal society has always changed and adapted to meet the differing needs created in our environment and society since the colonisation of Australia in 1788. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups who continue to live in remote communities, many of whom chose to remain on or near lands (country) from which they were connected, have adapted to the European way of life differently, but to no less an extent, than those living a rural or urban lifestyle. Geographically, whether communities are from urban, remote or regional land areas, the term ‘Traditional' does not apply only to the communities in remote areas; and simultaneously, the term ‘Contemporary' does not apply only to urban communities. Therefore the traditional beliefs and customs that are important in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander societies are no less important for urban Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people than they are for remote area Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.


Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are roughly divided into 200-250 distinct language groups speaking around 700 dialects. A common mistake is to refer to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages as dialects, or to talk about speaking ‘Aboriginal', when there is no such language. A dialect is a particular variety or branch of a specific language. For example, Wardandi is a dialect of the Bibelmen Nation in the South West of Western Australia. One should not view all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups as a single group with common goals and opinions. The term ‘Aborigine' is actually a European construct used from early contact time to describe the Indigenous inhabitants under a generic term without recognising their cultural diversity. People vary from those living in remote communities to urban groups, rural and regional areas. Diversity also extends to all aspects of life such as religion, political beliefs, cultural ceremonies, creation stories and history. This diversity is an integral part of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander societies and should be given due recognition.


The Commonwealth uses three criteria's to determine Aboriginality. These are; heritage, identity and acceptance. Australia's Indigenous peoples are descendents and members of Aboriginal nations and people who identify as Aboriginal and are accepted by the Aboriginal community where they live and/or come from. Be aware that there are thousands of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders who are displaced peoples. A 1989 National Indigenous survey revealed 47% of people are still in the process of tracing and/or being reunited with their immediate family and kinship ties. In the Indigenous community the degree of descent is irrelevant. The true matter is about kinship ties. The terms full blood, part or quarter Aboriginal or half caste are unacceptable and offensive to Indigenous people and should not be used.


Elders are well respected in the community. They are a good point of contact for decision making and are often the people who decide on enforcement of cultural protocols. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people come from an extended family situation and this often means that responsibilities are placed on members of the group, which are additional to those of the nuclear family. For example, cousins, uncles and aunts can often have the same relationship as brothers, sisters, father and mothers in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander society. This is particularly relevant in many remote communities. Community councils and administration can be useful in finding whereabouts or getting in contact with community members; they are vested with the authority to give permission for entering community and are a good source of information on community closures and ceremonies. They are also a point of contact for decision making.


Australian Aboriginal culture is the oldest unbroken cultural continuum in the world, and Aboriginal art is considered “one” of the most important art movements in the world today”. Many Aboriginal artists are now represented in major public and private collections, both in Australia and internationally, including the Musee du Quai Branly in Paris.

Aboriginal art is much more than an aesthetic artistic expression. It is integrally connected to a living practice of culture depicting the spiritual relationship of the artist to their country and the Dreamtime stories of the ancestral creation beings which pass on important knowledge, law and belief systems to each generation. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people record and maintain their culture through their Dreaming stories practiced in their art, ceremonies, secret rituals, song and sacred objects.


Cave paintings of animals and spirits are at least as old as the earliest examples of European cave art and in part tell the story of how the ancestral spirits made the land, animals and plants. The elegant Gyorn Gyorn (Bradshaw) highly decorated, naturalistic human figures of the Kimberley captivate all who see them and create growing interest amongst researchers seeking clues to their origins and meaning. The Dampier Rock Art Precinct, on the Burrup Peninsula on the North Western coast of Australia, is one of the world's largest and most important collections of Petroglyphs. The ancient rock carvings date back as far as the last ice age and this collection of standing stones may be the largest in the world and as important as Stonehenge; it has been listed as one of the 100 most endangered heritage sites on earth by the World Monuments Fund. Some of Australia's finest Aboriginal rock art is as accessible as a visit to a national park.


Just like Aboriginal languages, Aboriginal art also varies from nation to nation, from the cross hatching style on bark in Arnhem Land to the contemporary dot painting on canvas in the western desert. Be it an ironwood carved burial pole, a painted didgeridoo, a barrage of white, dabbed dots and circles on canvas or deep ochre cave paintings depicting man's very beginnings of life in Australia, these artworks are timeless. Visitors can witness first hand the techniques of traditional Aboriginal art, learn how to do dot painting or purchase a piece of Aboriginal art on a visit to an art gallery.


Australian Aboriginal culture continues to evolve, reflecting the lives and attitudes of Aboriginal people today. In terms of imagery, it can range from rock art and cave drawings from 40,000 years ago to the modern day western desert artists or those from the Balgo community or equally modern day urban artists using new media. There are cultural tours of historic and ancient sites such as those operated around Purnululu as well as ways to immerse yourself in Aboriginal communities and you can experience both contemporary and traditional art in our cities.


Authentic Australian Aboriginal bark paintings, musical instruments and other artefacts are different from souvenirs. For example, there is a difference between an authentic Aboriginal made didgeridoo for playing or a boomerang for throwing and a mere souvenir – which is only decorative and not functional. Genuine Aboriginal artefacts should be obtained from a registered and recognised cultural centre gallery or cooperative and be signed and authenticated as such. In the case of paintings they will be signed by the artist.


Different groups use various instruments including boomerangs, clubs, sticks, hollow logs, drums, seed rattles and of course the didgeridoo.  Hand clapping and lap/thigh slapping are common.  Decorated drums used in the Torres Strait Islanders are made from hollow logs and some covered with reptile skins.


Music, song and dance was, and is still today a very important part of Aboriginal life and customs. There are songs for every occasion – hunting songs, funeral songs, gossip songs and songs of ancestors, landscapes, animals, seasons, myths and Dreamtime legends.


The didgeridoo is a long wooden flute, possibly the oldest musical instrument on the planet. A deep-toned woodwind instrument at the heart of much Aboriginal music, it originated in Arnhem Land in Australia's Northern Territory where it is known as the Yidaki. It is ideally made using suitable eucalypt branches hollowed out by termites. It is cut to an average length of 1.3 metres and cleaned out with a stick or hot coals. The tube is then decorated with ritual designs and fitted with a mouthpiece made from native honeybee wax. Used as an accompaniment to chants and songs, it produces a lowpitched, resonant sound with complex rhythmic patterns. It is an important ceremonial instrument that was only played by men.


Clapsticks are paired wooden sticks used as a musical instrument and are sometimes used to accompany the didgeridoo. Clapsticks are also known as click sticks or the Aboriginal word ‘bilma'. They are used as a percussion instrument and tapped together to provide a beat or rhythm. They can also be played by tapping one against the side of the didgeridoo.


The Boomerang is one of the most recognisable cultural artefacts associated with Aboriginal people. Contrary to common belief most Boomerangs did not return but were made as specific hunting, fighting and ceremonial implements. They come in an astonishing array of sizes, shapes and decorative styles from small delicate aerodynamically correct returning Boomerangs to the over 1.5 metre long hardwood two handed fighting implements of the Lake Eyre region – another reflection of the diversity of Aboriginal cultures. Although not exclusive to Australia, Aboriginal people can claim the longest continuing association with the Boomerang.


Ceremony is an integral part of Aboriginal life and can take many different forms. Most commonly known as Corroborree these can entail dramatic representations of Dreaming stories using song, dance, mime, clapsticks and in the north the Didgeridoo. Many ceremonies are sacred such as those associated with initiation and non-initiates and women are not permitted to attend. Both men and women have separate ceremonies. There are non-secret ceremonies like the Inma of Central Australia performed in camp at night before an enthusiastic audience of men, women and children and can include visitors. A group of adult men, seated around a small fire, will chant one or another of the ancient songs, while others, their bodies decorated with traditional symbols portray in a series of spectacular dances the stories of their Dreaming. Then there are the initiation ceremonies for youths, at which no adolescent males or any women are present. You can witness ceremonies, dance and song dating back thousands of years when you join in the many festivals that are celebrated each year.


Dance is an important and popular part of both traditional and contemporary Aboriginal culture. Traditional dance is often called Corroboree. Dancing styles vary throughout the hundreds of tribal groups. Dancing is done with set arm, body and foot movements with a lot of foot stamping. The best dancers and singers enjoy significant reputations and respect. Dances often imitate animals or birds. Serious ritual or sacred dancing is quite distinct from light hearted dancing that men, women and children can share. There are many Aboriginal dance groups in Australia that perform to keep culture alive, to keep passing on stories to young people and to teach non-Aboriginal people about the diversity of Aboriginal Australia.


Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people all have a sacred and important totem (spirit). A totem can be a bird, animal, plant or rock and it symbolises the group's sacred emblem. These sacred symbols never change and are said to have been chosen by ancestral spirits. In ceremonies, totems play a big role in the group's spiritual and social life. Totems create a sense of belonging and spiritual connectedness to the land and others in the clan, but they also provide clues to the individual's identity


The terms ‘Dreaming’ and ‘Dreamtime’ are often used and interchanged to describe important elements in Aboriginal history and beliefs. Though usually connected to a distant time when ancestral beings created, named and shaped the land these words also refer to living stories and creation forces that are constantly present. The Dreamtime most often relates to the creation period when the earth was a vast void and ancestral creation beings travelled across country forming the natural world, Aboriginal people and making the laws and customs that governed all subsequent life. These ancestors take the form of humans, animals, reptiles, sea creatures, insects and birds and are often interred as features in the landscape. The Torres Strait has its own set of creation heroes distinct from those of Aboriginal Australia. Each Aboriginal person is intricately connected to one or more of these ancestral Dreaming cycles and their relationship to country. These incorporate both the law and persons spirituality. Just as Aboriginal people care for their family they are obliged to care for their ancestral spirits who are alive in their country. It is the way for organising all things within the universe and a key part of Aboriginal life is to learn the Dreaming stories through travel, song, ritual, story and art. The Dreaming incorporates the past, present and future. A vast network of Dreamings exists like a giant cobweb across the continent linking neighbouring groups in sharing aspects of specific stories and totems that were periodically celebrated in large ceremonial gatherings. In many ways the key elements of Dreaming, Dreamtime and the Law were summed up by revered Kakadu elder, Big Bill Neidjie:

“Our story is in the land… it is written in those sacred places. My children will look after these places, that's the law.”

*Please note information is from the National Aboriginal Tourism Product Manual, produced by Tourism Australia.