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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Australia - statistics & facts

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have lived in Australia for over 65,000 years, making them one of the oldest living cultures in the world. That is why Indigenous Australians are also referred to as Australia’s ‘first people’ or ‘traditional owners of the land’. The term, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, represents two groups of peoples. Aboriginal people inhabited mainland Australia and Tasmania, whereas Torres Strait Islanders are from the islands between Australia and Papua New Guinea. When British settlers colonized Australia in 1788, it was estimated that there were more than 750,000 Aboriginal people living in the country, 500 clan groups and 250 different Indigenous languages spoken, each with their own unique beliefs and cultures.

Today’s Australia is home to about 800,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. They represent just under three percent of the population and most live in major cities and regional areas. Around 120 Australian Indigenous languages are still spoken, however most are considered critically endangered with only a handful being actively passed on to children. Overall, less than 20 percent of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population in Australia currently speaks an indigenous language. This loss of language and other important cultural heritage has been attributed to past government policies which saw Aboriginal children removed from their families. This has become known as the Stolen Generation, for which the Australian government officially acknowledged and apologized for in 2007.

Following the apology to Australia’s Indigenous peoples, the Closing the Gap Framework was published. The Framework specified seven targets in which the state, territory, and federal governments would work towards to close the gap in Indigenous disadvantage. These targets included improving life expectancy, education, and economic participation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Some areas appear to be improving, especially in early childhood education participation and high school completion rates, however Indigenous Australians are still underrepresented in higher education institutions and overrepresented in unemployment rates.

Indigenous health indicators are also generally poorer than that of the non-Indigenous population. Although smoking rates have dropped below 50 percent in the last decade, these rates are still much higher than that of non-Indigenous Australians and substance use appears to be increasing. Indigenous Australians have an average life expectancy of around 8 years less than non-Indigenous Australians and Indigenous child mortality rates are significantly higher. In light of these ongoing disparities, the Closing the Gap Framework has since been revised to include greater partnerships between government and Aboriginal organizations.

Cultural heritage is important to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and their knowledge, arts, ceremonies, and performances are traditionally passed on from one generation to another. Modern Aboriginal art is highly valued in Australia and the world for its unique style, symbolism, and spiritual stories from ‘the Dreaming’. Aboriginal arts also receive special recognition and support through dedicated funding, and contemporary Indigenous artforms continue to develop beyond paintings and dance and into film, television, modern music, and design.

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