Cultural concepts and definition

The following concepts and definitions may assist in understanding some of the terminology commonly used by Aboriginal community members and can be used as a starting point for seeking further information.

Aboriginal person

The NSW Aboriginal Land Rights Act 1983 defines an Aboriginal person as a person who:

  • is a member of an Aboriginal race of Australia;
  • identifies as an Aboriginal person; and
  • is accepted by the Aboriginal community as an Aboriginal person.

Note that the term Aborigine has negative connotations for many Aboriginal people. Some people prefer the term Indigenous when referring to individuals or communities. The terms can be used interchangeably, but is wise to check individual preferences.

Always capitalize the “A” in Aboriginal or “I” in Indigenous. Lower case refers to aboriginal person or indigenous people in any part of the world.

Torres Strait Islander

A Torres Strait Islander is a person/descendent from the Torres Strait Islands. There are many Torres Strait Islanders living in NSW.

Nation, Tribe, Clan, Mob

These are all terms referring to a culturally distinct group of Aboriginal people associated with a particular, culturally defined area of land or country. A number of “tribes” or “clans” comprise a larger grouping of Aboriginal peoples that identify as a “Nation”.

Mob is term that being increasingly used by Aboriginal communities as a generic term.

Aboriginal people will often refer to themselves as being Koori, Goori or Murri. These are terms drawn from Aboriginal languages.

  • Goori – is usually used by Aboriginal people in northern NSW coastal regions.
  • Koori – is usually used by Aboriginal people in parts of NSW and Victoria.
  • Murri – is usually used by Aboriginal people in north-west NSW and Queensland.

Care needs to be taken to check with local communities about local acceptable terminology.


A term used by Aboriginal people to refer to the land to which they belong and their place of Dreaming. It has a much broader context than the Standard English definition.


For Aboriginal people a community is first and foremost about country, extended family ties and shared experience. It is about interrelatedness and belonging. Aboriginal people may belong to more than one community. For example it can describe where they come from, where their family is or where they work.

It is important to understand that as a result of the dislocation of Aboriginal people a community may comprise Aboriginal people of different areas. What non-Aboriginal people see as one community may not be seen as such by Aboriginal people.

Traditional Custodian or Owner

“Traditional Custodians” and “Traditional Owners” are terms that can be used interchangeably, however particular communities have specific preference about which term to use. Both terms refer to the Aboriginal people who are descendants of the original inhabitants of the land. They have a spiritual, cultural, political and often, physical connection with a particular part of the land.

Traditional Owners may be identified as being registered Aboriginal owners (see below), native title claimants or holders, or have organised themselves into incorporated (or unincorporated) groups. However, there may be several Aboriginal Corporations and groups asserting that they represent the Traditional Owners of that area. Preference must be given to Aboriginal groups with legally recognised rights and interests (that is, Aboriginal Owners and native title claimants and holders) on involvement in cultural and heritage matters.

Aboriginal Owners

Aboriginal owners are Aboriginal people who have been registered as having cultural association with certain lands (usually conservation reserves that are Aboriginal owned or earmarked for Aboriginal ownership under Part 9 of the Aboriginal Land Rights Act 1983).

Aboriginal owners have proven their cultural association through descent from the land’s original inhabitants and cultural connection through culture, custom, stories, lore, etc. The Registrar, Aboriginal Land Rights Act 1983 maintains the Register of Aboriginal Owners, and he or she must be satisfied with the applicant’s genealogical and anthropological proof of cultural association. Aboriginal Owners (and Traditional owners generally) can also be members of the relevant Local Aboriginal Land Council. Not all areas have registered Aboriginal Owners.

The Commonwealth Native Title Act 1993 – claimants and holders

The Commonwealth Native Title Act 1993 gives registered native title claimants and native title holders specific rights to be consulted on land uses or activities that may impact on their native title rights and interests. Native title are the rights and interests to lands and/or waters held by the community, a group, or an individual based on their traditional laws and customs that are recognised by the Australian law.

Registered native title claimants have, in the opinion of the National Native Title Tribunal, passed the administrative registration test. The registration test is that claimants have clearly identified the claimed area, the groups and individuals involved in that claim, the nature and extent of the claimed native title rights and interests and the factual basis for the claim. The claim makes a prima facie case that there is physical connection to the claimed lands and there has not been extinguishment of the claimed native title (for example through the grant of freehold title to a third party).

Native title holders have been determined by the Federal Court (or High Court) to have particular rights and interests in the lands and/or waters subject to the determination. The determination may be made with the consent of the Government or through litigation. In addition to the right to be notified or consulted enjoyed by native title claimants, native title holders may also have rights to compensation.


A term to capture large extended family groups often spread over different communities and geographic areas. Kinship groups are strong and trace their origins back to traditional owners. Kinship is of fundamental importance in Aboriginal society,


An Aboriginal Elder is someone who has gained recognition as a custodian of knowledge and lore, and who has permission to disclose cultural knowledge and beliefs.

In some instances Aboriginal people above a certain age will refer to themselves as Elders. It is important to understand that in traditional Aboriginal culture age alone does not necessarily mean that one is recognised as an Elder. Aboriginal people traditionally refer to an Elder as “aunty” or “uncle”. However it is recommended that non-Aboriginal people check the appropriateness of their use of these terms.


Consists of accepted and traditionally patterned ways of behaving shared by a community. It includes land, beliefs and spirituality, language, ways of living and working, artistic expression, relationships and identity.

Land Rights

To Aboriginal people, land is not only about hunting and gathering, it is also the basis of spiritual life. The aim of the land rights movement is to counteract the land disposition of Aboriginal peoples that occurred with European occupation.

The Aboriginal Land Rights Act 1983 gave the right for Local Aboriginal Land Councils to make claims on vacant land held under the Crown Lands Act 1989. The Aboriginal Land Rights Act also gave rights to Aboriginal peoples to seek agreement with any landowner on access to land to hunt, fish or gather.

Native Title

The Native Title Act 1993 (Commonwealth) gave legal recognition to the existence of native title, reversing the concept of “terra nullius”, the legal premise that European occupation was based on, namely that the land belongs to no-one.

Aboriginal Villages

Aboriginal villages refers to Aboriginal missions or reserves which are owned and managed by Local Aboriginal Land Councils. In effect this is private land. Aboriginal villages were established by Christian missionaries. In the late 1880s these areas were progressively taken over by the colonial government and run as stations or reserves.

There were three types of spaces formally set aside by the government specifically for Aboriginal people to live on:

  • Aboriginal reserves
  • Aboriginal missions
  • Aboriginal stations

NSW Government Aboriginal Cultural Protocols and Practices Policy Plan

Aboriginal people are the original owners of the land and it is important that this special position of Aboriginal peoples is recognised and incorporated into official protocol to enable the wider community to share in Aboriginal culture and facilitate better relationships between Aboriginal peoples and the general community.

The purpose of this policy is to assist NSW Public Sector agencies to observe the appropriate protocols for the recognition of Aboriginal people at official events or at events where the NSW Government is a major sponsor.

Official events and ceremonies engage the attention of participants, observers and the broader community. These events also symbolise the values of community and the way individuals envision themselves.

By incorporating Aboriginal cultural practices/ceremonies into official events Council:

  • recognises and pays respect to Aboriginal peoples, cultures and heritage.
  • communicates Aboriginal cultural practices to the broader community to
  • promotes respect and understanding.
  • demonstrates that Aboriginal cultures are living through maintenance and practice of ceremonies and protocols.
  • demonstrates recognition of Aboriginal peoples unique position which can assist in building relationships and partnerships.

Ownership copyright, cultural and intellectual property

Copyright and the protection of intellectual property are vital issues for Aboriginal people. They are the custodians of their culture and have the right to own and control their cultural heritage.

In the past, non-Aboriginal people have appropriated Aboriginal stories, language, songs, dance and knowledge (intangible heritage). Aboriginal people have not been recognised as the owners of this knowledge. In some cases non-Aboriginal authors, who have benefited from the knowledge given to them, have claimed copyright and profited from the information. This has also occurred in relation to stolen material culture and symbolism used for commercial purposes without permission.

Any access to and use of Aboriginal cultural information must have permission from relevant individuals or organisations. Rights to use Aboriginal material may be held by an individual, but most cultural material belongs to the traditional owners of that knowledge. Regardless of physical ownership or intellectual property, traditional owners must always be consulted and involved in any decisions making concerning Aboriginal material culture and knowledge.

Councils are advised to identify the appropriate community or individuals who should be consulted from the outset of any project. Councils are advised to reach formal agreement with the owner/s of the knowledge before commencing a project that uses Aboriginal material. Best practice is to involve owners in the ongoing decisions making process and in future maintenance of the project. In some cases this should be in the form of a written contract. Aboriginal people should be afforded proper legal representation in any such contract negotiations.

Copyright and moral rights are complex issues and not always clear in relation to Aboriginal culture. Councils and Aboriginal people should seek specific legal advice when these issues arise. The Arts Law Centre of Australia can provide further advice on these issues through its Artists In The Black program.


The United Nation’s Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples states in Article 12 that:

“Indigenous peoples have the right to manifest, practice, develop and teach their spiritual and religious traditions, customs and ceremonies; the right to maintain, protect, and have access in privacy to their religious and cultural sites; the right to the use and control of their ceremonial objects; and the right to the repatriation of their human remains”

Local Government should recognise the value and importance of preserving, revitalising and strengthening Aboriginal culture and do so by facilitating not only for the return of Aboriginal ancestral remains and secret sacred objects (repatriation) but also to support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander visual arts, languages and cultural activities.

Fee for service

Aboriginal knowledge is complex and specialised, and is owned by Aboriginal people. As in Western culture, specialised knowledge is not something that is usually given away for free.

Aboriginal people who choose to work for councils in any capacity, including performing a traditional dance, giving a speech or traditional welcome, providing artwork or participating in a project, are entitled to be paid for their time and expertise.

Aboriginal Affairs NSW has resources for Government agencies to use when engaging Aboriginal people in cultural activities including Welcome to Country ceremonies, performances and cultural advice.

Naming the deceased

In NSW, Aboriginal communities may have different protocols regarding naming deceased Aboriginal persons than that which is often raised with northern Australian Aboriginal communities. The best way for councils to use the appropriate protocol for their area regarding naming the deceased or showing photographic images is to consult the Local Aboriginal Land Council in the area.

In many Aboriginal communities in northern Australia it is offensive to refer to a deceased person by name or show photographic images of the person during the mourning period, unless agreed to by the relevant family. Many organisations are now using cultural warnings to avoid causing offence to the families of decreased persons.

Gender protocols

Aboriginal society still regards some information as specific and sacred to either men or women. This knowledge is sacred and recorded in a way that only men or only women can access.

It is likely that a council will be unable to distinguish between men’s and women’s business. Councils need to be aware that such issues exist and seek advice from Aboriginal people about when they are likely to arise and how to manage such issues.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flags

The Aboriginal flag and the Torres Strait Islander flag were proclaimed as Flags of Australia under section 5 of the Flags Act 1953 in July 1995.

The Aboriginal Flag

The black top half of the flag symbolises Aboriginal people. The red bottom half represents the earth, and the yellow circle in the centre represents the sun. Mr Harold Thomas, an Aboriginal Elder, holds the copyright for the flag.

In November 2018 Mr Harold Thomas signed an exclusive license agreement for the Aboriginal flag design to a clothing company called WAM clothing. Companies who had previously been using the flag on merchandise suddenly were given cease and desist notices around the use of the flag. This has sparked a movement called the Free the Flag campaign, aiming to have the Aboriginal Flag freely available to all Australians. The issue of copyright and the use of the Aboriginal flag is being considered by various politicians, including Linda Burney MP and Ken Wyatt AM MP.

The Torres Strait Island flag

This flag has three horizontal panels; the top and bottom are green and the middle one blue. The panels are divided by thin black lines. The green represents the land, the blue represents the sea, and the black represents the Torres Strait Islander people. In the centre is a white dari (dancer’s head dress), which is a symbol of the Torres Strait Islander people. Underneath the dari is a white five-pointed star. This represents the island groups in the Torres Strait and the white represents peace. Mr Bernard Namok of Thursday Island created this flag.

The order in which flags should be flown is (from the left)

  1. Australian flag
  2. State Flag
  3. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flags
  4. Council flag

Always make sure that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flags are reproduced hung and depicted in the correct way and are used for business relating to Indigenous communities.

Permission needs to be sought if councils intend reproducing either Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander flags for commercial use. Further information is available from NSW Aboriginal Affairs.

Welcome to Country

A “Welcome to Country” is where an Aboriginal custodian welcomes people to their land at the beginning of a meeting, event or ceremony. An appropriate person such as a recognised Elder within the local area needs to conduct this welcome. Welcome to Country enables Traditional Custodians to give their blessing for the event. It is an important mark of respect for Aboriginal peoples.

Acknowledgement of Country

Acknowledgement of Country is where other people acknowledge and show respect for the Traditional Custodians of the land on which the event is taking place. It is a sign of respect. The following is considered appropriate wording for this acknowledgement:

 “I would like to acknowledge that we are here today on the land of the (insert local clan) people. The (insert local clan) are the Traditional Custodians of this land and form part of the wider Aboriginal nation known as the (insert name of Nation). I would also like to acknowledge the present Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who now reside within this area.”

It should be noted that the acknowledgement includes Aboriginal people whose origins are from other places, as per the NSW Government’s Policy on Aboriginal Cultural Protocols and Practice, downloadable from the Department of Premier and Cabinet website.


Councils are also encouraged to include Welcome to Country signs welcoming visitors and locals into towns and signposting major features that include some kind of acknowledgement of the traditional owners of that area. For example, “Welcome to _____ Country – Traditional lands of the _____ People”

Smoking ceremonies

Smoking ceremonies are undertaken in Aboriginal communities in order to cleanse a space. The Smoking Ceremony is a purification ritual and is always undertaken by an Aboriginal person with specialised cultural knowledge. Aboriginal people may request a Smoking Ceremony in a workplace where a death or other traumatic event has occurred. This request is of tremendous significance to them and should be respected. Failure to do so may cause significant distress. More information is available in the NSW Government’s Policy on Aboriginal Cultural Protocols and Practice.

Significant dates for Aboriginal communities

Cultural Days of significance:

  • The Apology, 13 February – anniversary of former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s Apology to Australia’s Aboriginal Peoples
  • Harmony Day, 21 March – International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination
  • National Close the Gap Day, 22 March – campaign for Indigenous health equality
  • Sorry Day, 26 May – commemorating the Stolen Generation
  • Reconciliation Week, 27 May to 3 June – marking two significant events, the 1967 Referendum (27 May 1967); and the Mabo decision (3 June 1992)
  • NAIDOC Week, from the first to the second Sunday in July – celebration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, culture, history, and achievements
  • National Aboriginal and Islander Children’s Day, 4 August – a celebration of children
  • Indigenous Literacy Day 3 September – Indigenous Literacy Foundation, raising national literacy levels.

NAIDOC Award entitlement

Clause 20(ii) of the Local Government (State) Award 2014 provides employees who are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders with an entitlement to a single day’s holiday during NAIDOC week. The purpose of this Award holiday is to enable Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders to participate in National Aboriginal and Islander Day celebrations.

An eligible employee can give less than seven days’ notice of their intention to take the single day during NAIDOC week, and such leave shall not be unreasonably refused.

LGNSW encourages councils to remind employees of the entitlement and to establish procedures for application and approval of the taking of the holiday appropriate to each council’s circumstances.