People, Health & Homes

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We make up a majority of the population in Australia’s remote areas, from Torres Strait through to the desert regions of Western Australia, and a significant population in other outback areas. In the south-east of the country, with its larger populations, we comprise only a small part of the total population.

Throughout the two centuries since colonisation, but particularly in the past few decades, we moved from remote and rural areas to urban and metropolitan centres, particularly in the south-east of Australia. Originally, this reflected the forced removals and dispossession from our lands. More recently, both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have moved in search of employment and better school and tertiary education.

About 86 per cent of Torres Strait Islanders now live on the Australian mainland, mostly in urban centres along the coast of Queensland and New South Wales, with Cairns and Townsville having lively Torres Strait Islander communities.

While it can never be known for certain, some researchers estimate that the Indigenous population at the time of colonisation was 500,000 people. By 1933, after dispossession from our lands and with the effect of introduced diseases that came with the colonists, the experts estimate that our population was at its lowest point, at only 20 per cent of what it was in 1788. We were first counted as a discrete population in the national 1971 Census, and since then an increasing number of people have identified as Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander.

Back to Country

Throughout the 1970s, there was a movement by Indigenous people to reject the living conditions of artificial communities created by the settlements, reserves and missions they had been forced onto (see ‘Resistance and Reconciliation’). People wanted to return to their ancestral country. This movement coincided with the Whitlam government’s policy of self-determination for Aboriginal people in 1972 and the development of the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976. Thousands of people left the towns and settlements and established outstations or ‘homelands’ on their traditional land. Here we could maintain our culture without the distractions and conflicts of modern town life. Today, over 12,000 people live on more than 1000 outstations. There are numerous studies documenting the physical and mental benefits of living on outstations.

While many of us live urban lives and are employed alongside other Australians, some groups have been able to continue traditional or semi-traditional lifestyles. Yet we are no less Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander if we live in towns or cities. Many who are city dwellers return to our communities for times of ceremony and family business.


Sadly, we are less healthy than other Australians. The illnesses experienced by Indigenous people require an understanding of the history of dispossession, colonisation, failed attempts at assimilation, racism and the denial of citizenship rights.

Statistics on life expectancy, infant mortality and birth weight are often used to describe the difference between people’s health. Experts estimate that we live 17 years less than do non-Indigenous people, while our infant mortality rate is two to three times higher. The Indigenous peoples of New Zealand, Canada and the USA, countries with similar colonial histories to Australia, also suffer worse health than their non-aboriginal people, but Australia has the highest differences in life expectancy and infant mortality. There are also large discrepancies in the mental health and emotional wellbeing of Indigenous Australians compared with non-Indigenous people.

For Australia to move forward as a caring society, the gap between our health and that of other Australians needs to be closed. This will require working together on both the medical and social issues that impact on our health, and long-term funding is required in a wide range of preventive and clinical services.


man with a baby in his lap

Wurbid Nabulwad with his grandson at Karbulwanamyo outstation in western Arnhem Land. Photo © Warddeken Land Management.

The Kuninjku people of western Arnhem Land have several outstations that have become increasingly prosperous. They sell artworks, work part-time in tourism and environmental management projects as well as harvesting food in the traditional way. The outstations have had a positive effect on the country as a result of traditional land care, while the transfer of cultural knowledge from old to young helps sustain Kuninjku culture. Government policies encouraging self-determination — our ability to make decisions about what is done in our community — have assisted these communities. Kabulwarnamyo was established in 2002 by Kuninjku elder and artist Lofty Bardayal Nadjamerrek. Nadjamerrek received an order of Australia in 2003.

an outstation residence at Puntawri

An outstation residence at Puntawari in the Little Sandy Desert, Western Australia, 1991. Lack of funds resulted in a combination of traditional bush materials and portable low-cost western materials. Photo © P Memmott (P Memmott 2007, Gunyah Goondie + Wurley: The Aboriginal architecture of Australia, University of Queensland Press, Qld).


In many ways our traditional forms of shelter were much better suited to the Australian landscapes and climates than much of the colonial architecture, which was designed and built for the northern hemisphere's colder climate.

Natural caves provided permanent shelter, and we built a range of shelters with stone, timber, bark, turf and foliage. In the Torres Strait we used bamboo or mangrove framework, and poles with thatched roofs and walls made of palm leaves and grass.

Diaries and official colonial records report the existence of more substantial Indigenous housing in western Victoria, but over most of the continent, our mobile adaptation meant that it was not worth the investment in time and energy to build substantial dwellings.

Today, our physical and emotional health is linked strongly to our housing conditions. In urban, regional and remote areas issues of both housing shortages and overcrowding have a large impact on our health


woman standing at a desk

Carroll Go-Sam, the first female Indigenous architect in Queensland. Photo © Carroll Go-Sam.

Indigenous architects have been taking the task of designing culturally appropriate housing and community buildings into their own hands.

Carroll Go-Sam, a descendant of the Gumbilbarra people of the Dyirrbal language group of the upper Tully River, is an Aboriginal architect and academic at the Aboriginal Environments Research Centre in Queensland. She has a strong research interest in Indigenous housing research particularly, affordable housing construction, modelling crowding in Aboriginal Australia and housing procurement.

Carroll’s previous architectural work has included Indigenous community projects, such as the Bidungu Housing Project in North Queensland, the Oorala Aboriginal Centre in regional NSW, and the Mapoon Affordable Construction project.

A paper written by Carroll on the design paradigms of Indigenous housing can be found online at the Australia Architecture website:


icon to watch a video WATCH

Bollypingu anti-smoking clip. © Miwatj Health Aboriginal Corporation, (

Many of our communities and health centres have programs aimed at getting people to quit smoking. Tobacco continues to be one of the leading causes of the gap in life expectancy between us and non-Indigenous Australians. In the 2008 National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey, 47% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people over the age of 15 were current daily smokers.

Miwatj Health Aboriginal Corporation, an independent, Aboriginal-controlled health service in north-east Arnhem Land, has developed a series of anti-smoking advertisements aimed at the Yolngu population. The clips were created by, and star Yolngu actors and are entirely in the language Yolngu Matha.