Image and identity

Image and identity

The power of people to say who they are, to define their own identity and to relate their history. It is fundamental to their existence. In Australia Aboriginal people are hostage, in the main, to images created by non-Aboriginal Australians.

There are different stories, for example - 1788 - Aboriginal people call it the invasion and non- Aboriginal people call it British settlement.

The history since 1788 has had a dramatic impact on identity.


  • People need identity.
  • Many Aboriginal people find themselves with questions about their identity. Some Aboriginal people have strong knowledgeable identities. Others are unsure of their identity. Others are discovering their identity. Some are proud of their identity. Others are not. Some Aboriginal people feel caught between two worlds - white and black.
  • People who don’t know their stories and history may not be sure of their identity.
  • Non-aboriginal people may have stereo types of Aboriginal identity.
  • How an Aboriginal person sees their identity will have a big impact on how they relate to service providers.



Implications for service providers

1. Workers need to have an understanding of the concept of ‘identity’ and how it is shaped and influenced by a range of factors. In contrast to Western society, ‘identity’ is influenced by very different factors for Aboriginal people. For example non-Aboriginal people often identify themselves by their wealth, occupation and individual achievement. In contrast, ‘identity’ for Aboriginal people is often influenced by family and social networks.

2. Kinship and belonging to a specific family group is integral to Aboriginal ‘identity’ and culture. The concept of family is very different for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. It often includes a much wider extended family, sometimes placed across several households. It is your extended family that teaches you how to live, how to treat other people and how to interact with the land. There is a clear focus on mutual obligations and sharing within the extended family. The care and financial support of a child may also be shared by the extended family, with different members taking on different roles.

3. As the first inhabitants of Australia, Aboriginal people have been greatly impacted by events of the past 200yrs. Here is a detailed time-line of events. Traditional Aboriginal culture was disturbed when colonization occurred, with on-going separation from the land and disruption to ceremonial life, lifestyles and family ties. Aboriginal ‘identity’ has been changed or in many instances lost forever. In these circumstances Aboriginal people may have lots of questions about their identity. When working with Aboriginal people it is important to recognize the impact that ‘identity’ has on one’s life-style, work and family. It may be useful to connect them with an Aboriginal Worker who can make connections with the wider Aboriginal community to develop a support network and share their experiences.

The Government has historically implemented policies which have not been in the best interest of Aboriginal people. In many cases these policies have acted to exclude Aboriginal people from many aspects of Australian life. For example The NSW Aborigines Act 1909 gave powers to the Board for the Protection of Aborigines leading to control over many aspects of the lives of Aboriginal people including regulation of residence, employment, marriage and social life. For more information on this and other Government policies of Protection and Assimilation

These policies meant that Aboriginal people were often sent to live in designated areas, away from their country and families. This lead to the loss of ‘identity’ that many Aboriginal people experience today by pressuring them to assimilate into the European way of life. Service providers need to recognize that these policies were developed with little understanding of aboriginal culture and their way of life. Workers need to access this and other cultural sensitivity training to increase understanding and develop appropriate work practices.

4. The Stolen Generation

The Stolen Generation is a term used to describe the vast number of Aboriginal children who were removed from their families as a consequence of the Government polices expressed above. These children were often raised in State or Church institutions, away from their families and communities. In most cases their parents did not even know where their children had been taken and they were usually forbidden to make any contact. Many Aboriginal families and communities are experiencing on-going trauma from the impact of The Stolen Generation. More information on the ‘Stolen Generation’ is provided in Key Ideas – Family and Kinship

The Stolen Generation has grown up without family ties or cultural ‘identity’. Clients accessing your Service may have lost their connection to traditional land, culture and family. This may create social and financial disadvantage, feelings of insecurity, low self-esteem, depression, violence, suicide, abuse of alcohol and other drugs, crime and a general lack of trust. It is important to recognise the effects of this loss of ‘identity’ and offer support and referral where appropriate. ‘Link-Up’ is an Aboriginal organisation that works with Aboriginal adults who were separated from their families and homes when they were children. They provide counselling and support to connect with one’s family, home and culture. See Linkup

5. In the wider community many non-Indigenous Australians have a limited understanding of Aboriginal people, their culture and history. Consequently, attitudes towards Aboriginal people are based on very little knowledge, or are inaccurate because of over-generalisation. For Aboriginal people today it may be difficult to discover and be proud of their ‘identity’ when non-Indigenous people have created so many negative stereotypes, perpetuated by the Australian media. These stereotypes can be damaging to relations between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians and often lead to acts of discrimination and racism.

6. Service providers need to be aware that Aboriginal people can have many different views about their Aboriginal identity, some of which may be influenced by myths within the wider community. Factual knowledge is required to counter these myths and challenge negative public perception. You have a role in eliminating racism through education, raising public awareness and challenging misconceptions. As an employer of both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal workers in a generalist service it may be useful to develop a policy whereby all employees will participate in cultural sensitivity training.

7. As a Worker you may find yourself supporting an individual who has just learned of their Aboriginality. It is important to remember that ONLY Aboriginal people can determine who is Aboriginal and who is not. Their heritage is something that is very personal and they do not need a ‘letter of confirmation’ to identify them as an Indigenous person. However there may be circumstances when they do need verification of their Indigenous heritage, for example; applying for Indigenous specific grants, loans, University courses, Centrelink and Housing assistance, employment and school programs. The official formal criteria used by the Australian Government and most State Governments developed in consultation with Aboriginal peoples include;

  • Must be of Aboriginal descent
  • Must identify as an Aboriginal
  • Must be accepted as an Aboriginal by the community in which they live

In this case, the Indigenous person will need to link with their local Aboriginal community organization for assistance. A ‘letter of confirmation’ is usually obtained from this organization and stamped with their common seal. You may need to help them gather as much information about their family history as they can, as they will need to explain their heritage to a committee. It is important to maintain strong networks with Aboriginal Workers within Government and non-government services in your area to support your client with this process and connecting them with their traditional land.
The AIATSIS Family History Unit is able to assist you with the family history research that you may need to undertake to demonstrate your Indigenous heritage and/or the area that your family is from. For more information

8. Today many Aboriginal people live in cities, towns and other urban areas away from their Traditional lands. Many of these Aboriginal people have maintained their ‘identity’ and culture through family and Aboriginal community organizations. These networks give physical and emotional support and provide a sense of security and belonging. Aboriginal community organizations have been established with a focus on meeting specific Aboriginal needs. Generally Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are reluctant to access mainstream services, whereas the delivery of specialist services through Aboriginal organizations is more likely to be acceptable.

9. Ensure that your Service maintains accurate and up-to-date information on the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander services available in your area to enhance referrals for Indigenous clients. Maintain networks with Aboriginal Workers within Government and non-government services in your area.

Service providers should consider supporting Aboriginal communities in cultural celebrations

Service providers should consider supporting Aboriginal communities in cultural celebrations that focus on developing pride and self-esteem in their communities and individual identity. Talk to local Aboriginal organisations about days of significance to them. Ask how you can support them by having these days recognised and acknowledged. Attend functions that recognise the struggle and celebration of Aboriginal people, including Sorry Day, NAIDOC week, Reconciliation Week and National Apology Day. An example of such activities includes a display of local Aboriginal artists that Muswellbrook Regional Art Gallery exhibits each year during Reconciliation Week. These celebrations strengthen ‘identity’ and provide a better understanding of the past and how it impacts on the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people today.

For more information on NAIDOC Week
For more information on NSW Reconciliation Council