The term ‘Indigenous Australians’ refers to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are the original people of mainland Australia and the islands of the Torres Strait north of Queensland. In 2005 the Indigenous Australian population was estimated to be 492,700 people, which comprises 2.4% of the total Australian population.

The Indigenous Australian population is relatively young, with a median age of 21 years, compared to 36 years for the non-Indigenous population. In 2001, 30% of the Indigenous population lived in major cities, 43% in regional areas and 26% in remote areas. The majority of Indigenous people live in New South Wales (29% of the Indigenous population) and Queensland (27%), Western Australia (14%) and the Northern Territory (12%). In most states and territories Indigenous people comprise less than 4% of the total population but they include about 30% of the Northern Territory population.

Until the early 1970s, an Aboriginal person was defined by legislation that varied from state to state. Definitions were based on a supposedly biological understanding of ‘race’, and depended on the ‘percentage’ of Aboriginal ‘blood’ a person possessed. At one time there were sixty-seven separate definitions of ‘Aboriginal’ used by various governments in Australia.

This race-based definition was abandoned in the early 1970s when the Federal Government adopted a new definition that relied on social rather than a ‘racial’ identity. The current definition of an Aboriginal person is someone who:

1) Is of Aboriginal descent;
2) Identifies as an Aboriginal person; and
3) Is accepted as such by the community in which he or she lives.

Each requirement needs to be satisfied. Colour of skin, physical appearance, and lifestyle are no longer relevant.

Indigenous Australians are multicultural – they are not a single group, with one language, culture or set of beliefs. With over 350 Indigenous nations across Australia, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have different stories about their past and ideas of their future, as well as representing a mixture of contemporary and traditional ways and practices. It is important to remember that many Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people prefer their own specific language names to identify themselves, rather than the more general term ‘Indigenous’. For example, a person might identify herself as being part of the Cadigal clan of the Eora people, or refer to herself as Koori, a collective term used for Aboriginal people of New South Wales and Victoria.

Based on information in Horton, David, ed., The Encyclopaedia of Aboriginal Australia: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander History, Society and Culture, Canberra, Aboriginal Studies Press for the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, 1994 (see ‘Aboriginal’, volume 1, page 3). Statistics sourced from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, Publication 4704.0 The Health and Welfare of Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples, 29 August 2005.