What Are First Nations Peoples?

Learning about First Nations peoples is the first step to achieving Aboriginal cultural sensitivity. The First Nations peoples are the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people of Australia. 

According to the proposed definition by the Commonwealth Department of Aboriginal Affairs in the 1980s, this vaguely refers to an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person who is of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent, identifies as an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person, and is accepted as such by the community in which they have lived. 

That said, this definition may be broad (and is mostly used for specific situations) and communities may have their own means of identification. To learn more about First Nations peoples and culture, Evolve Communities offers Aboriginal cultural awareness training in New South Wales and across Australia.

Who Are Australia’s First Nations Peoples?

Australia’s First Nations peoples refer to two distinct cultural groups: the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people. Aboriginal peoples are those related to the inhabitants of Australia who were already in the country before the British colonized the island in 1788, while the Torres Strait Island people are descendants of residents of the Torres Strait Islands, a group of islands that is part of modern-day Queensland.

The term ‘First Nations peoples’ is the encompassing term for Australia’s Indigenous communities (note that the term ‘Indigenous’ isn’t preferred–it is deemed as too generic and can be applied to all Indigenous peoples of the world). These persons represent their own culture, language, beliefs, and practices.

Aboriginal Peoples

Aboriginal peoples may identify with their language groups, traditional country, or their regional identities. For example, there are the Gunditjamara people of western Victoria, the ‘saltwater people’ who live on the coast or on islands, and the Koori people.

Torres Strait Islander Peoples

Torres Strait Islander peoples typically define themselves as being from specific tribes, islands, family groups, or sea countries. They may also refer to themselves as ‘Zenadth Kes,’ which comes from an amalgamation of Torres Strait language names for the four winds that pass through the region.

It’s important to remember that in the Torres Strait, a person may live in one community but may still have historical ties across different islands.

​​A Brief History of First Nations Peoples

First Nations peoples have a history spanning more than 50,000 years. Let’s trace back their timeline from then to now.

Aboriginal Origins

Aboriginal Australians inhabited the continent even before 1788. These communities were made of semi-nomadic people who moved around with the seasons; they were also hunter-gatherers who had sophisticated ways of tending to the land. Australia’s first people were great storytellers who passed on their culture and beliefs through song, paintings, dance, and stories.

European Settlement

When British settlers arrived in Australia, the population of Aboriginal Australians took a devastating hit, falling from an estimated 750,000 to 1.25 million in the late 1700s to just about 93,000 in the 1900s. Thousands died as colonizers drove people off their lands and brought in diseases like measles and smallpox, while others were forced to abandon their own culture for British customs.

The Stolen Generations

Between 1910 and 1970, government policies forcibly removed Aboriginal Australian children from their homes. Dubbed the ‘Stolen Generations,’ these children were put in adoptive families and institutions, stripped of their identity and language.

In 2008, a national apology was issued for the Stolen Generations. Since then, strides have been made to achieve cultural safety and fairness.

Moving Towards Reconciliation

While there has been progress towards the recognition of Australia’s First Nations peoples, there’s still a lot to be done. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people, who make up about three per cent of the continent’s population, still struggle to fight for justice and equality. They still lack access to some basic human rights, such as healthcare and education; they also continue to experience unjust treatment.

As individuals and organizations, we can do more to step forward towards true reconciliation–and that starts with cultural competency and ally training.

Evolve Communities, Australia’s trusted authority for Indigenous cultural awareness and ally training is ready to help you learn more about First Nations peoples and how to help build a stronger and more inclusive environment for them. Check out our available courses, workshops, and accreditation options that you can choose from to work towards cultural sensitivity and cultural safety today!

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