Indigenous Australians - Exhibition Guide for Teachers- Interim

An outline of what you will see in the Indigenous Australians: Australia's first peoples exhibition.

Indigenous Australians Exhibition

Australian Museum Photograher  © Australian Museum

PLEASE NOTE: Our Indigenous Australians Exhibition is currently undergoing renovation. Some elements of the exhibition have been changed in format or removed.
The eastern half of the exhibition space now displays objects from the Museum’s permanent collection and the western half now hosts special Indigenous art exhibitions.


This exhibition explores what it means to be an Indigenous Australian and examines themes and issues in the lives of the Indigenous peoples of Australia today.

A major objective of the exhibition is to allow Indigenous Australians to tell their own stories, in their own words, through video and audio footage and direct quotations from primary sources.

Themes of the exhibition

The exhibition deals with four main themes:

  • spirituality
  • land
  • cultural heritage
  • and social justice.

In exploring these themes, it reflects the diversity and commonality of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and experiences. A selection of stunning objects from the Museum's vast Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islands collections are on display.


i) Background information on Spirituality

For Indigenous Australians spirituality refers to ways of being, ways of knowing. It encompasses a sense of belonging - belonging to the land, to the sea, to the people, to the culture. Spirituality links the past, the present and the future and can be expressed through dance, performance, ceremonies, art and ornaments. It is integral to Indigenous Australians' lives and is an essential part of their ways of seeing and thinking about the world.

For Aboriginal people, spirituality is linked to the Dreaming; For Torres Strait Islander people spirituality is linked to the Tagai, their major creation being, represented in the sky through a constellation of stars.

The Dreaming

The Dreaming provides a framework for the spiritual bond between Aboriginal people and the land to which they belong. The Dreaming is about the creation of the ancestral beings who shaped the earth and passed on the rules for its care. It lays down structures for society, rules for social behaviour and rituals to maintain the life of the land. The activities of Dreamtime Ancestral Beings centre around unusual features of the land. These sacred sites act as focal points for rituals, relationships between people, and connections to particular landscapes. As a result of these intimate interconnections, care and control of the land is crucial to Aboriginal ways of being in the world.

The Dreaming did not end with the arrival of Europeans, it simply entered a new phase. It survives in Aboriginal world views, and is a powerful force in contemporary Aboriginal societies. It is often expressed through contemporary arts and the ongoing issue of land rights.

The Tagai

The Tagai is represented in the sky through a constellation of stars. The Tagai governs the Torres Strait Islander people's way of life. There are four interrelated themes associated with the Tagai. First the Tagai identifies Torres Strait Islanders as sea people who share a common way of life. The second relates to the instructions of the Tagai which order the world so that everything has a place. The third theme relates to the cycle of life - the repetition of time and renewal of life through the rising of the stars. Finally the stars of Tagai are custodians of cultural traditions, linking all Torres Strait Islander people together.

ii) What's in the Spirituality section of the exhibition?

This section of the exhibition relates to:

  • The Dreaming
  • The Tagai
  • The Rainbow Serpent

The Spirituality section of the exhibition includes the following:

Computer interactive.This interactive allows a close look at eight different objects related to spirituality: riji, yachi, lightning totem, kaap dance mask, Rainbow Serpent, gujawool, Bundar spirit. Information on each object includes who made it, where it is found throughout Australia, and a story that is associated with it.

Rock shelter. Visitors can go inside the rock shelter and listen to stories about the Hairy Man and the Hungry Bunyip told by Aboriginal elders Mrs Betty French from Moree and Paul Gordon from Brewarrina in north-west New South Wales.

Rainbow Serpent paintings. The Rainbow Serpent is a consistent theme in Aboriginal painting and has been found in rock art up to 60,000 years old. It is a powerful symbol of the creative and destructive power of nature. The Rainbow Serpent paintings in the exhibition tell the story of the creation of the landscape particular to an artist's birthplace.

The Serpent and the Cross. This is a 6-minute segment from a film by Chris Hilton. It deals with the impact of Christianity on Indigenous spirituality.

A bush chapel. The chapel in the exhibition is representative of a typical bush chapel.


i) Background information on Indigenous Australian land issues

The importance of the land to Indigenous Australians

The land to Indigenous Australians is not just soil, rocks or minerals but a whole environment that sustains, and is sustained by, people and culture. Indigenous Australians have a complex and deep spiritual relationship with their land - it is a source of spiritual sustenance and is the core of both their spirituality and identity. This inter-relationship between land, spirituality and identity has been misunderstood by many non-Indigenous Australians for the past 200 years.

Marking the land

Indigenous Australians use natural features of the landscape to mark and signpost the land. These natural features are connected to many Dreaming stories and spirit ancestors called Ancestral Beings. These natural features of the landscape form 'mental maps' of Indigenous Australians' countries. Learning their mental maps also includes learning about the relationships between the land and the people and their Dreamings. In urban areas, many Indigenous Australians mark the land through artistic expressions such as murals and graffiti.

Using the land

Indigenous Australians were careful to take care of the land and never exhaust it.

'A lot of people say Aboriginal people never farmed the land ... never ploughed the land, they never grew wheat and they never planted apple trees and orange trees. We never had to. Our mother, the earth, she gave herself freely to us. And because we respected her and loved her, we never had to go and do all the other things. That would have been harming our mother. So we just took what she gave us.'

Paul Gordon, Language Officer, Brewarrina, 1996

Some of the ways Indigenous peoples cared for the land included:

  • moving through different territories and taking advantage of seasonal resources;
  • hunting only for food and not for sport;
  • eating a wide variety of foods so that no particular food source was overused;
  • scattering seeds before moving on so that food sources could be helped to regenerate;
  • practising rituals to ensure a plentiful food supply;
  • burning off at the end of summer so that native plants and grasses could regrow.

Indigenous Australians also developed many methods and tools for hunting and gathering food and effectively utilising natural resources. These tools included spears, boomerangs, clubs, nets, traps and more recently, rifles. Different types of tools were made to suit every situation. For example, different fishing nets were developed for river estuaries, tidal waters, and the sea.

Terra nullius

Terra nullius is a Latin term meaning 'land belonging to no one'. When colonising Australia, the British government used this term to justify the dispossession of Indigenous Australians. British colonists did not see the land being used in the way they would use it: they saw no evidence of agricultural, social or religious structure like their own and inappropriately concluded that Indigenous people did not 'own' the land but simply roamed it. Using Terra nullius the British government claimed sovereignty of Australia, ignoring the rights of the Indigenous Australians who had lived there for over 60,000 years. On 3 June, 1992 the High Court of Australia handed down the Mabo decision and ruled that treatment of Indigenous property rights based on Terra nullius was both wrong and racist. This was a turning point in Australian history.


The history of the struggle for land rights goes back to the earliest days of European occupation of Australia. Battles were fought all over Australia. These included battles at: Waterloo Creek, Myall Creek, the Blackline, Parramatta and the Hawkesbury, Jandamarra and Kalkadoon. The struggle for land rights continues today through legal and political systems.

Native Title

Native Title is the legal recognition of Indigenous ownership of the land. There have been several important landmarks in the struggle for Native Title, in particular the Mabo and Wik cases. After the Mabo case, the Australian Federal Government enacted legislation relating to Native Title within Australia. This legislation states that Native Title exists only where it can be proved that Indigenous Australians have maintained continuous links with their land. Native Title cannot exist on freehold land (private property).

The Aboriginal Embassy

The first Aboriginal Embassy, also known as the 'Tent Embassy', was first established on the lawns of Old Parliament House on Australia Day, 26 January 1972. It was called an 'embassy' to symbolise the feeling of many Indigenous Australians that they were foreigners in their own country. The embassy has provided a focus for Indigenous Australians' campaigns for land rights and social justice as well as a meeting place. It was removed by police on several occasions but was rebuilt each time.


In 1982 Eddie Mabo and four other Torres Strait Islander people went to the High Court of Australia claiming that their island, Mer (Murray) Island had been continuously inhabited and exclusively possessed by them, therefore they were the true owners. On 3 June, 1992 the High Court decided in favour of Eddie Mabo and the other plaintiffs and found that Native Title is a common law right. But Eddie Mabo never heard the ruling as he died of cancer in January that year.


In 1993 the Wik people of north-west Queensland took their Native Title claim before the High Court. The traditional lands of the Wik people fell under pastoral lease which allowed them access to the land for hunting, gathering food, collecting water and traditional ceremonial use. In 1996 the High Court ruled in favour of the Wik people, saying that pastoral leases do not extinguish Native Title. In other words, Native Title can coexist with pastoral leases. However in the case of a conflict of rights, the rights of pastoralists will prevail.

Other important legal milestones

Other important legal milestones have been reached which show that arrangements based on cultural sensitivity and respect can be successful for all Australians. These milestones include decisions made regarding Wave Hill, Uluru and Wreck Bay.

ii) What's in the Land section of the exhibition?

This section of the exhibition is relates to:

  • Connection to the land
  • Understanding, using and marking the land
  • Dispossession
  • Land rights

The land section of the exhibition includes the following:

Objects relating to the land
Boomerangs, woomeras, coolamons, clubs, ornaments, tools and implements, stockmen's objects, breastplates.

Social Justice

i) Background information on Social Justice issues

Social justice is

'...awakening in a house with an adequate water supply, cooking facilities and sanitation. It is the ability to nourish your children and send them to a school where their education not only equips them for employment but reinforces their knowledge and understanding of their cultural inheritance. It is the prospect of genuine employment and good health: a life of choices and opportunity, free from discrimination'.

Mick Dodson, Annual Report of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, 1993

Indigenous families

Indigenous people have a complex system of family relations, where each person knows their kin and their land. Kinship systems define where a person fits into the community, binding people together in relationships of sharing and obligation. These systems may vary across Indigenous communities but they serve a similar function.

Extended family relationships are central to the way knowledge is passed on and society is organised. They define roles and responsibilities for raising and educating children and structure systems of moral and financial support within the community. Elders, for example, are treated with respect in Indigenous societies because they teach important traditions and pass on skills, knowledge and personal experience. They bridge the past and the present and provide guidance for the future.

Children in Indigenous societies are not just the concern of the biological parents but of the whole community. Therefore, the raising, care, education and discipline of children often occurs within the wider community. This has far reaching implications for members of the Stolen Generations as they were not only removed from their families, they were also removed from their land, their kin and their entire wider community.

The Stolen Generations

The greatest assault on Indigenous cultural and family life was the forced separation or 'taking away' of Indigenous children from their families by governments. This practice occurred in every Australian state and territory from the late 1800s onward. In 1969 the practice 'officially' ended in NSW but may have continued for longer in other states.

During this time, as many as 100,000 children were taken from their families. These children have become known as the 'Stolen Generations'. Peter Read (1989) has pointed out that this figure not only refers to the people who were removed but also their descendants who may or may not know they are of Aboriginal descent.

The practice of separation took three main forms: placing Indigenous children into government-run institutions or church missions; the adoption of children by white families; and the fostering of children into white families. Many of the children who were fostered or adopted by white families were fair-skinned. The children were removed from their families as young as possible and some were taken at birth. Often they were put into homes like the ones at Kinchela, Cootamundra and Bomaderry (see for information on these).

These forced separations were part of a deliberate policy of assimilation. The aim of this policy was to sever children from their culture and have them raised to think and act as 'white' people. Assimilation was about the desire to turn Aboriginal people into 'useful' citizens such as servants. This policy was more than just heartbreaking for the individuals involved - it also stopped the passing of cultural knowledge from one generation to the next and dislocated the children from their family, their community, their land, their Dreamings, their identity, their language, their traditions, their history and their cultural heritage.

In the introduction to the book, The Lost Children, Peter Read (1989) states:

Most of the children in this book were raised by white parents who were often applauded by the press for their public-spirited actions. The attitude of such parents towards their children covered a very wide spectrum indeed. Some did their best but, because of their own mental prison about the nature of Aboriginality, it was a best which fell far short of being good enough in their children's eyes. Some parents loved their children as passionately as parents can. Yet their children did not find their homecoming any easier. It seems that while being loved as a child can help to make a better balanced adult, it does not make it any easier to become an Aboriginal adult. Nor did a loving upbringing ensure that the adult would be shielded from 'coon' or 'boong'.

The effects of separation are devastating, numerous, complex, ongoing and compounding, and best understood by reading some of the actual stories of the Stolen Generations.


Link-Up was formed in 1980 to work with adults who were separated as children from their families. It also provides support and counselling to adoptive parents of Aboriginal children. Most of the children separated from their families grew up knowing little about their Aboriginal names, families, culture and heritage. These circumstances made it very difficult for those who wanted to find their families. Link-Up provides counselling before, during and after the reunion of families.

Institutionalised racism
Racism is the notion that one race of people is superior to another. In Australia, the European invaders thought they were superior to Indigenous Australians and therefore believed they were entitled to make decisions, enact laws and encourage behaviour that unfairly disadvantaged Indigenous Australians.

Australia has a long history of 'institutionalised' racism towards Indigenous Australians. From the late 1800s the lives of Indigenous Australians were controlled by the state-run Aborigines Protection or Welfare Boards. These boards could make decisions about every aspect of Indigenous Australians' lives, including what jobs they could have, where they could live, who they could marry and where they could travel. Certain exemptions were made for Indigenous Australians who were thought to have reached 'acceptable' standards of European lifestyle. These exemptions began in the early 1940s, however, they could be withdrawn at any time. Indigenous Australians called exemption certificates 'dog tags' or 'dog licences'.

It should also be noted that exemptions were linked to assimilation, which became the policy of all Australian governments after the Native Welfare Conference of 1937. (Assimilation is a nineteenth century idea that Indigenous Australians should be 'improved' by being 'civilised' and Christianised). It can easily be argued that assimilation was a racist policy and still is where these attitudes survive. However, within the context of its times, assimilation was seen as an improvement on the previous policy of Protection.

To protest against and expose racial discrimination Charles Perkins, Jim Spigelman and Ted Noffs took a bus tour of northern and western NSW towns in February 1965. Thirty people went on this bus tour and the group became known as the 'freedom riders'. Their bus tour focused national attention on current racist policies: Indigenous Australians were often denied service in shops, separated from whites in cinemas, banned from hotels and clubs and excluded from swimming pools. The freedom riders experienced hostility in most towns and violence in some places. However, publicity from the freedom ride was a factor contributing to the large 'yes' vote in the national 1967 Referendum.

The 1967 Referendum altered the Australian Constitution. The referendum was passed with a record majority of over 90 per cent. The Commonwealth was now free to make laws relating to Aboriginal people. Aboriginal people also gained full citizen rights - this included the right to vote and to be counted in the national census. In 1969, as a result of the 1967 Referendum, the Commonwealth Government took over the responsibility for Indigenous affairs from the states. This meant that Indigenous Australians were entitled to the same rights as all other Australian citizens.

Aboriginal Deaths in Custody

Between 1980 and 1989, at least 99 Indigenous Australians died in prison, youth detention centres or police cells. Contrary to most expectations, foul play was not a significant factor. Many of the victims died because of negligence while in custody (inadequate diagnosis and responses to health problems or conditions relating to drug and alcohol abuse). Most victims had been arrested for minor crimes.

In August 1987 an Aboriginal man in Brewarrina, NSW, died in custody. His death was the latest in a long line of deaths that year and, a result of this, the Prime Minister, Bob Hawke, announced that a Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody would be held. In 1991 the Commission presented its report. Its fundamental finding was that racism was the major contributing factor to deaths in custody. The Commission also found that almost half the people who had died in custody had been forcibly removed from their families as a result of the government policy of assimilation.

Five years after the Commission made its recommendations, a Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission report found that at least 96 Aboriginal people had died in custody between 1989 and 1996.

Many young Indigenous Australians are caught in an escalating cycle of encounters with police and the criminal justice system. Consequently the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody recommended that the community be involved in the sentencing process and that community service orders be issued as alternatives to prison sentences for some offenders.

Two systems of law

Many Indigenous Australians live under two legal systems: the British-based, Australian legal system and the Indigenous customary law system. Customary law is the term used to describe the laws and ways of living handed down to Aboriginal peoples by Ancestral Beings. In many remote parts of Australia, Indigenous cultures are the dominant cultures. In areas such as Arnhem Land, the Western Desert and Pitjanjatjara lands, a blend of British-based Australian law and Indigenous customary law is working successfully.

ii) What's in the Social Justice section of the exhibition?

This section of the exhibition relates to:

  • Human Rights
  • Racism
  • Aboriginal Deaths in Custody
  • Reconciliation
  • The Intervention
  • The Redfern Park Address
  • The 2008 Apology to the Stolen Generations

The Social Justice section of the exhibition includes the following:
The Freedom Ride Bus. Visitors can view documentary footage of the ride.

Australia's secret histories. Some important case studies in the struggle for Indigenous land rights are featured in the exhibition as text panels with accompanying maps. They include: Waterloo Creek, Myall Creek, the Blackline, Pemulwuy, Jandamarra and Kalkadoon cases.

Cultural Heritage

i) Background information on Cultural Heritage

Archaeological sites

The long history of Indigenous Australians is found in many significant archaeological sites throughout Australia. Archaeological sites provide information on how Indigenous Australians lived, used resources and were able to adapt to environmental changes in the past. Archaeological investigations in the north-west of Australia indicate that Indigenous Australians may have occupied Australia for as long as 100,000 years.

Indigenous multiculturalism

There are many different Indigenous cultures in Australia. These Indigenous cultures are made up of people from different Indigenous 'nations' speaking different languages. Over thousands of years, communities of Indigenous Australians have exchanged ideas, technology and cultural practices with each other. As a result, many communities share certain technologies but use them in different ways. Thus objects such as shields or baskets vary markedly in their design, decoration and meaning from region to region.

Living languages

At the time of invasion, there were over 700 different Aboriginal languages spoken in Australia.
Now there are less than 250 still in use. One of the major strategies of colonisation was to suppress Aboriginal languages by killing the people who spoke them. Furthermore when Indigenous people were institutionalised and put into homes and missions, they were forbidden to speak their languages. Taking children away from their families meant they lost contact with speakers of their languages. All of these strategies were part of the policy of assimilation and interrupted the passing of language from one generation to another.

Today many Indigenous languages are not spoken as first languages. However they live on through individual words and through varieties of Aboriginal English which incorporate the structures of Aboriginal languages. The impact of colonisation on language has been the longest and most severe in NSW. It is estimated that less than 10% of all NSW Aboriginal people now speak part of their Indigenous language. Despite this the Bundjalung, Gamilaroi and Wiradjuri people of NSW have maintained their languages.

In recent years, Aboriginal communities and governments have worked together to revive and maintain Aboriginal languages using a number of strategies. These strategies include: establishing Aboriginal language centres across the country to record Aboriginal languages, restoring the original Aboriginal names of Australian places, producing Aboriginal language programs through community TV and radio stations and teaching Aboriginal languages in schools and pre-schools. In NSW, Aboriginal languages are being taught in Broken Hill, Moree and on the central coast. Some Aboriginal bands such as Yothu Yindi are also singing and recording in their own languages.

Copyrights - protecting cultural property

The appeal of Indigenous arts has resulted in many cases of exploitation. Indigenous artists' work has, at times, been reproduced without permission and without regard for the cultural and spiritual significance of the designs to the artist. To protect the integrity of their work and share it with others, many Indigenous artists now make licensing agreements with manufacturers so that their designs can be reproduced and the artist can be fairly rewarded.

ii) What's in the Cultural Heritage section of the exhibition?

This section of the exhibition relates to:

  • Diversity and survival of Indigenous cultural heritage
  • Contemporary expressions of Indigenous cultural heritage
  • Heritage legislation and protection
  • Languages

The Cultural Heritage section of the exhibition includes the following:
A reconstruction of an Anthropologist's desk.

Flaked and ground stone objects, shell and bone obects found in campsites, rock shelters and shell middens.

Objects showing the influence of other cultures (the Macassans, Melanesians, Dutch, English and Portuguese explorers).

Objects exemplifying the need to protect Indigenous cultural property. Two particular cases are featured in the exhibition. They are the commemorative ten dollar note and the olive python carpet case. The ten dollar note uses the image of the 'Morning Star Pole'. In this case, the Australian government asked permission from only one person, not the whole clan. In the olive python carpet case, the carpet illegally uses the design of artist Paddy Lilipiyane.

Women's objects such as baskets, dilly bags, bark containers and a wooden coolamon.

A variety of knives and spear points made from glass, stones and bone.

A variety of shields which were used by men in dances, ceremonies and combat.

"Didjeridus" - musical instruments which were traditionally called by their Aboriginal name e.g. yidaki, mago, yiraga in the local language.


Ms Helen Wheeler , Education Project Officer
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