Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have been linked with the Reef since time immemorial. Prior to sea level rise and the Reef forming over 7000 years ago, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples lived on what is now the seafloor, and cultural knowledge of this time’s practices and sites still remains. After the Reef formed, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples cared for their Sea Country through interweaving their culture and spirituality with sustainable use of its resources.
Despite historical events of dispossession and displacement, many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people maintain connection to their land and Sea Country. Those of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander descent who have spiritual or cultural affiliations with a site or area in the Marine Park — or are holders of native title with that site or area, and are entitled to undertake activities under custom or tradition — are termed Traditional Owners.
- There are some 70 Aboriginal Traditional Owner groups with authority for Sea Country management in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.
- Torres Strait Island Traditional Owner groups are also connected to the Reef and hold cultural knowledge of their traditional use of the Great Barrier Reef region more broadly. Three groups are directly connected to Raine Island.
- The Authority recognises Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have connection to areas of the Reef that extend beyond the official Marine Park boundary, including into Torres Strait waters.
- The eastern reefs of the Torres Strait form the intact northern extension of the Great Barrier Reef, and are increasingly recognised for their potential refugia value as well as their significant cultural value to Traditional Owners of these islands and surrounding sea estates.
European settlement led to a multitude of users and pressures on the Reef, and a major disruption to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ custodianship capacity.
At the same time as the Reef experienced new pressures, loss of land and Sea Country rights, dislocation, disease, dispersion and disadvantage disrupted the capacity of people to perform and pass on their cultural responsibilities and care for their Sea Country.
Despite this recent history, many Traditional Owners remain connected to their Sea Country and strong in their culture. A vast, rich array of components with heritage value still exists and is actively maintained by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
Many people work tirelessly through their communities and various Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations to maintain the remaining heritage values of the Reef, managing Sea Country, recording oral tradition and expressing living culture. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are increasingly re-asserting their role in managing their country through active engagement in on-country management and policy and planning programs, including the Traditional Use of Marine Resource Agreement program with the Authority.
“…we’ve had a long, long, long association with the Reef. It is one of the seven wonders of the world but we also have a common culture and obligation to it.” (Traditional Owner from Mamu Country, 202)
- Traditional Owners of the Great Barrier Reef
- Torres Strait Regional Sea Claim: Torres Strait region and Cape York region
- Darnley Island (Erub) groups: Eastern Torres Strait Islands and Northern Great Barrier Reef region including Raine Island
- Murray Island (Mer) groups: Eastern Torres Strait Islands and Northern Great Barrier Reef region including Raine Island
- Stephen Island (Ugar) groups: Eastern Torres Strait Islands and Northern Great Barrier Reef region including Raine Island
- Gudang: Newcastle Bay region
- Yadhaigana: Captain Billy Landing region
- Wuthathi: Cape Grenville region
- Kuuku Ya'u: Portland Roads region
- Kanthanumpun: Claude River region
- Uutaalgnunu (Night Island) group: Night Island region
- Umpila: Cape Sidmouth South region
- Angkum: Cape Sidmouth region
- Lama Lama: Princess Charlotte Bay region
- PaalPaal: Cape Sidmouth region
- Guugu Yimithirr Warra Nation: Lizard Island to Hopevale region
- Ngulan people: Starke River region
- Yuku-Baja-Muliku: Walker Bay to Walsh Bay region
- Jajikal people: Daintree/Cedar Bay/Hope Island/Agincourt Reef region
- Eastern Kuku Yalanji: Cedar Bay to Port Douglas region
- Wanyurr Majay: Fishery Falls, Babinda, Miriwinni, Mt Bellenden Kerr region
- Yirrganydji people: Cairns to Port Douglas region
- Gimuy Yidinji: Cairns/Trinity Inlet region
- Gunggandji: Kings Beach/Fitzroy Island region
- Guru Gulu Gunggandji: Yarrabah/Green Island region
- Mandingalbay Yidinji - Gunggandji: Cooper Point region
- Lower Coastal Yidinji: Russell River region
- Mamu people: Innisfail region
- Djiru: Mission Beach region
- Gulnay: Tully region
- Girramay: Cardwell to Murray Upper area
- Bandjin: Hinchinbrook region
- Warrgamay: Lucinda region
- Nywaigi: Halifax Bay region
- Mandubarra: Palm Island region
- Wulgurukaba: Magnetic Island/Townsville region
- Bindal: Townsville region
- Juru: Home Hill/Bowen region
- Gia: Whitsunday region (Mainland)
- Ngaro: Whitsunday region (Islands)
- Yuwibara: Mackay region
- Dharumbal: Broad Sound to Rockhampton region
- Woppaburra: Keppel Islands region
- Taribelang Bunda: Gladstone/Bundaberg region
- Bailai: Gladstone/Bundaberg region
- Gooreng Gooreng: Gladstone/Bundaberg region
- Gurang: Gladstone/Bundaberg region
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people also use art, music and dance to keep their deep connection with the land and sea alive for each generation.
The artwork depicts animals, details experiences and communicates ideas and the times, while music and dance present another avenue for storytelling and portraying elements of people's lives and their relationship to the natural environment.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have different histories and environments, reflecting the various subject matter and styles of art we see throughout Australia.
Paintings and carvings can be found in rock shelters, sorcery sites, ceremonial implements, and everyday objects. In paintings, different coloured ochres were used in other areas and, where necessary, were traded between groups.
Older artworks found in rock shelters often show people and events such as contact with Europeans and spiritual beings, patterns and abstract figures that do not physically exist in nature. Many paintings or carvings include sea creatures, reptiles, birds and other animals.
These demonstrate how the natural environment has influenced Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artisans. However, due to the age of these pieces, it is often hard to determine precisely when and why artworks were made or the meaning behind them.
Examples of rock art
The Flinders Group National Park, situated off the east coast of Cape York Peninsula in Princess Charlotte Bay, is the sea country of the Yiithuwarra Aboriginal people.
Here rock art sites on the islands depict the intensive contact between the Yiithuwarra and Europeans during the late 1800s and early 1900s.
The sites are dominated by motifs of marine creatures and post-contact ship paintings. In contrast, the rock art of the Ngaro people in the Nara Inlet of the Whitsunday is described as non-figurative art or abstract art as it does not depict animals or humans.
Other types of artwork
The mask is one of the most distinctive art forms of the Torres Strait Islander people. Each type of mask has a specific name, which describes the mask's purpose or ceremony for which it was made.
Historical records show that Torres Strait Islander people made masks for rituals to increase garden produce and hunting success and for sorcery and initiation. Masks were also created as playthings for children and effigies for canoes.
The masks were made from wood or turtle shells, designed to cover the head or face, and took the shape of birds, marine creatures, and human faces.
Artworks were also incorporated into weapons sometimes. For example, the Yidinji people of the Cairns region decorated their shields with various images and used them for ceremonies, fighting or to symbolise each of their eight clans.
Contemporary art sometimes uses modern implements but still reflects traditional elements, totems and storylines. The Balarinji artwork on some Qantas jumbo jets is an example of ancient Aboriginal culture connecting with contemporary design.
Music and dance
Dancing and traditional music are important social activities for men, women and children in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures. Traditional dancing is very energetic and often done for ceremonial purposes.
Generally, dances imitate domestic tasks and terrestrial and marine creatures, especially those representing totems or the environment. For instance, dances could mimic sharks, kangaroos and waves or could also be about courtship, hunting with spears, shooting bow and arrows or paddling out to sea.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have traditionally used their natural environment to make musical instruments, and they continue to make things like clap sticks, didgeridoos and drums this way.
The didgeridoo is an Australian Aboriginal musical instrument endemic to the northern part of the continent. Its sound is immediately recognisable and is played using a circular-breathing technique where the air is inhaled through the nose while exhaling out of the mouth.
There is a widespread belief that women are taboo to play the didgeridoo, so it is respectful to ask the local Traditional Owners before you play.
From region to region, music differs in language and purpose and is still performed in the traditional ways. Meanwhile, contemporary Aboriginal recording artists like Yothu Yindi and Christine Anu combine traditional and modern instruments, like guitars, in their arrangements.
These artists sing about a wide range of topics, such as the struggle for land rights, treaty, Christianity, homelands, animals and dreaming, and their songs often include traditional language words.
At the time of European colonisation, hundreds of traditional Aboriginal languages and several geographically defined Torres Strait Islander languages were spoken in Australia.
Historically, clan groups could speak not only their own language but also the language belonging to their neighbours.
This was very important when trade and travel occurred across traditional language boundaries. Language helps us to understand and identify the many Indigenous groups in Australia.
While some languages are still spoken each day, some are not. Others have been lost or are only ever recollected by elders. Many groups are still actively researching and reviving their traditional languages and are teaching them to their younger generations.
The North Queensland Regional Aboriginal Corporation Language Centre in Cairns trains community members to document various languages and record speakers using technology.
Many regional, state, and national conferences focus on language education, survival, research, recording and teaching indigenous languages through the school curriculum.
Examples of different language names
Language groups can differ greatly. For example, the Guugu Yimmithirr language group (which originates in Cooktown and the area north of the Starke River) call a dugong Girrbithi and a turtle Ngawiya while the eastern Torres Strait Islander language groups call the dugong Deger and the turtle Nam in their Meriam Mir language.
Some other examples of the different languages spoken along the Queensland coast include:
- Meriam Mir, which is spoken throughout the eastern islands of the Torres Strait
- Kuuku Ya'u, which is one of three closely related dialects spoken at Lockhart River, situated near Iron Range on the Cape York Peninsula
- Wulguru language is spoken at the south end of Halifax Bay, around Townsville, including Magnetic Island and inland to Hervey Range.
A totem is an object or thing in nature that is adopted as a family or clan emblem. Different clans are assigned different totems; in some cases, individuals are given personal totems at birth. In the Torres Strait, people wear personal pendants, which are mostly carved out of wood, turtle shell or shells and often represent the person's totem.
- There are well-established rules about when they can wear the pendants, often only during ceremonies or rituals.
- You can identify some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people by their totems: birds (sea eagles or pelicans), reptiles, sharks, crocodiles and fish.
- They are an important part of cultural identity and are especially significant in song, dance, music, and cultural implements.
- Some clans forbid their individuals from eating the animal that is their totem, while other tribes make exceptions for special occasions such as ceremonies.
- The Diamond stingray (Yama) is the totem of the Wuthathi tribe (Shelbourne Bay, northern Queensland); the stingray is also the totem for some Torres Strait Islanders.
- Sharks are a totem of the Meriam people from Murray Islands or Mer in the eastern group of islands in the Torres Strait, and it is forbidden to hunt them.
- There is a story about a Meriam man and his son who had an accident at sea and lost their boat. While waiting to be rescued, sharks brushed past their legs during the night. The Meriam people believe that sharks did not attack the man and his son, as the shark is their totem animal and would protect them.
Storytelling is an important oral tradition of many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
Across Australia, Dreaming and Creation stories convey how ancestral spirits created all things on earth, such as our land, sea, rivers, mountains, animals, plants and other things. These stories have been handed down for thousands of years.
Stories also explain why things happen, where to go and not to go, how to find food, cultural practices, laws, history, family, associations, tribal boundaries and the relationships with every living creature and feature of land, sea and air.
Like traditional Australian languages, cultural stories belong to specific Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
Permission to tell these stories can only be given by the custodians of these stories, and this should be respected.
Story Place is a good database to search for stories about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and the Great Barrier Reef. These stories explain Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people's relationships with their land and sea country.
The Dhui Dhui story
The Dhui Dhui (pronounced Doo-ee Doo-ee) Story appears courtesy of Russell Butler of the Bandjin People. The sea country belonging to the Bandjin ('Saltwater') people includes Hinchinbrook Island and Lucinda Point on the adjoining mainland of north Queensland, as well as Gould and Garden Islands and part of Dunk Island.
Where you look due south toward Hinchinbrook (Muddamuddanaymy, pronounced Mudda-mud-ah-nah-me) from Dunk Island (Coonangalbah, pronounced Koo-nang-gol-bar), two boys paddled out in a canoe and dropped their stone anchor. The elders had told them not to fish on that sand spit because a big shovelnose ray (Dhui Dhui) lived there.
The boys fished anyway. The ray bit their line and started to tow them around in the canoe, but the boys wouldn't let go of the line.
It towed them around the ocean for a while before going down the Hinchinbrook channel. They disappeared into the horizon. It was getting dark then, and everyone worried about the boys.
As they were looking south with the night sky rising, the Southern Cross appeared, which was Dhui Dhui (the shovelnose ray) and the two pointers (the two warriors in the canoe).
To the Dingaal (or Dingiil) Aboriginal people of north Queensland, Lizard Island is a sacred place and is known as Jiigurru or Dyiigurra. During Dingaal Dreamtime, the Lizard Island group of islands was formed.
The Lizard group of islands is thought to be a stingray, with Jiigurru being the body and the other islands forming the tail.
The Story of Nageg and Geigi
The story of Nageg (pronounced Nar-gegg) and Geigi (pronounced Gay-gee), a mother and son, is a creation story of the Tig Dowareb Clan of Mer (Murray Island) in the Torres Strait. It tells how Nageg and Geigi became what is now known as the triggerfish and the great trevally.
Societies and Trade
The community structure and social aspects of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture are complex. It is important to understand that the social relationships and structures of communities in Aboriginal language groups are quite different to those in Torres Strait Islander language groups.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups consist of one or more families, which create the basic economic unit of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander societies.
The relationships within and between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are still strong today. Through their tribal laws, each clan has responsibilities for specific tracts of land and sea country.
Certain ceremonies and rituals can draw groups together from different areas. For example, trade, marriages, initiations and other ceremonies mean that some language groups form political and trade alliances.
In the past, some language groups would sometimes go to war with each other, and the dynamics in some areas would mean alliances between groups changed and developed over many thousands of years.
- The social structure between language groups also influenced many aspects of life, including:
- which groups could trade with each other
- the places where groups could pass across each other's territorial boundaries
- the places where meetings and ceremonies were held
- which person was chosen to provide the cross-cultural link between language groups.
Traditionally, anything done within an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander group is done for the benefit of the group.
Hunting, fishing and gathering of food still occur in groups, and the food is shared between all language group members.
Hunting, fishing and gathering of food still occur in groups, and the food is shared between all language group members. The position of a person within the social structure determines which member of the group gets served first and which member gets the best type of food.
In the past, important members, usually elders, would deal with individual behaviour that was destructive to the organisation and social well-being of the language group.
This would be made known throughout the language group to ensure other individuals did not repeat the behaviour. Tribal punishment could be inflicted and still occurs today.
Some cultural ceremonies are sensitive, and some are very sacred; these should not be discussed without a local Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person being present.
Travel and Trade
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people travelled throughout the Great Barrier Reef using canoes and outriggers for trade, warfare or to collect resources.
As maritime hunters and gatherers, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are skilled navigators using the wind, the constellations, and their intricate knowledge of the marine environment to guide them on their journeys.
Nomadic Aboriginal people of the Whitsunday Islands, the Ngaro, built sturdy three-piece bark canoes capable of open sea journeys. Evidence suggests trade links between coastal and hinterland Aboriginal people of the region.
Torres Strait Islanders also travelled through the Reef's waters for trade, covering vast distances in their outrigger canoes.
They had traditional connections with the outer islands of the Great Barrier Reef, where they collected resources such as bird and turtle eggs, bird droppings (used for fertilising garden beds), turtles and feathers.
Intricate trade networks and resource bartering were commonplace amongst societies and provided Indigenous groups with their necessities. For example, mainland Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people traded with each other and visited parties from Papua New Guinea.
Historical records also document Torres Strait Islanders trading turtle shells and pearl shells for iron and steel products with Europeans. The trade network into and out of the Torres Strait with Papua New Guinean residents is well known and recognised under the Torres Strait Treaty.
The Treaty allows traditional trade to continue and includes exchanging items such as Kundu Drums, snake skins, mats, bamboo spears, wood carvings, sea shells, fish, crab, dugong or turtle meat, yams and other things.
Due to the introduction and adoption of new technology, Indigenous people may live more modern lifestyles than in the past.
For example, Indigenous people once used wooden outrigger canoes and wooden spears for transport, fishing and hunting, but may now prefer to use small, motorized boats, fishing rods or spear guns.
This is still considered traditional use because the emphasis is not on the tools but on the cultural practices of hunting and gathering, the knowledge of where to find food resources and the preparation, social sharing and consumption of these resources.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have relied on the sea to provide food for thousands of years, and they could choose from a wide variety of food before Europeans came to Australia.
They also chose foods according to the season and the geographic area where they lived, took only what they needed, and were selective about the sex and maturity of animals taken to allow resources to replenish and prevent wastage.
Fishing and collecting marine resources, and preparing traditional meals are important parts of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture and diet.
Creeks, rivers, beaches, islands, coastal and sea areas provide barramundi, bream, jewfish, catfish, cod, eels, grunter, prawns, crayfish, oysters, periwinkles, stingrays, sharks, crabs, turtles, turtle eggs, dugongs, bird eggs, bird droppings (used as fertiliser in garden beds), clam and triton shell, amongst many other things.
Dugongs and marine turtles are significantly valuable because they strengthen Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples' culture and demonstrate the connection with traditional sea country areas. In remote coastal areas, they provide food to communities where a nourishing diet is essential but often very expensive.
Sharks and stingrays
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people seasonally harvest stingrays and sharks from the sea and estuaries. Some Aboriginal tribes in Lockhart and Hopevale on the east coast of Cape York prefer to eat specific types of rays. Favourite varieties include cow tail, thorny, long-tailed, and mangrove ray.
Some prize the livers of stingrays and sharks, considered sacred objects. They also eat the 'young' and 'fat' livers of manta rays, which contain iron and vitamins and are an important food source for babies and elders.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people also know that the liver of a stingray is suitable for eating if it is oily and pinkish white in colour, while stingrays and manta rays with two spines are inedible.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people use indicators in the environment to determine the best time to harvest their food sources.
For example, for some tribes on the east coast of Cape York, the first thunderstorm of the wet season or the sighting of Torres Strait pigeons are considered the time to harvest stingrays.
Examples of food preparation
In the Torres Strait and on the mainland, underground ovens called kup-mari (pronounced cup-ma-ree) are used for cooking food.
To make the oven, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people dig a shallow hole in the ground and fill it with rocks. They then place wood and dry leaves in a dome-shaped arrangement to make a big fire and heat the rocks.
Once the majority of the wood is burnt and the rocks are heated, they set some of the stones aside and wrap the food in banana and coconut leaves (or a combination of leaves and aluminium foil), placing it in the centre of the pit.
They then set aside the rocks and placed them on top of the food to help it cook evenly. They also place more leaves and hessian bags on the pit and sand to lock in the heat.
They remove food after several hours. Cooking times differ depending on the type of food being cooked and the temperature of the rocks.
Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority 2014, Great Barrier Reef Region Strategic Assessment 2014, Commonwealth of Australia, and Markwell 2017, Results of Traditional Owner Initial Engagement Analysis Report, internal report, Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority.
Barry, G. 2012a, Transcript of an interview with a Traditional Owner from Mamu Country, in Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority 2014, Great Barrier Reef Region Strategic Assessment 2014, Commonwealth of Australia, at section 7.24