At the AIATSIS conference (2023)

The Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) is an indigenous-led national institute that celebrates, educates and inspires people from all walks of life to connect with the knowledge, heritage and cultures of Australians. First Peoples of Australia.

But it was not always like this.

Sixty years ago, a group of white academics met at the Australian National University to discuss the state of Aboriginal studies in Australia.

The conference, convened by anthropologist and emeritus professor WEH Stanner, recommended the creation of a national institute to record aboriginal cultures "before these traditions perish in the face of European customs."

So how did a national institute evolve from one that chronicled the “disappearance of cultures” to one that reflects the resilience of Australia's Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and serves to support cultural survival and revival?

The story of AIATSIS is as much a story of the changing relationship between the First Peoples of Australia and the Australian nation. It is a story spanning sixty years of political and social transformation led primarily by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and their allies.

Look back on that journey.


At the AIATSIS conference (1)

'All Aboriginal people will live as white Australians'

Assimilationpolitics in Australia is the prevailing canon. Its purpose is to "absorb" Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples (at least those capable of becoming "civilized") into mainstream society. Racist categories based on the amount of blood are used to determine the degree to which an Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander can be "civilized".

Image: Mission Station in Bethesda Killalpaninna, SA. Photograph of the Lutheran Church of Australia, AIATSIS Collection, LUTHERAN.001.BW-N06500_24


“Study them before they die”

In the middle of the 20th century, there is a growing worldwide interest in recording cultures “before they disappear”. The consequence of colonialism is apparently inevitable and the minds of anthropologists are occupied with the need to 'preserve from oblivion the culture and language of many peoples whose way of life, traditions or means of expression can help us to know the past of the inhabitants humans of our planet.'

Much academic thought is still under the influence of Social Darwinism, which places cultures and people along an evolutionary scale from "primitive" to "advanced."


At the AIATSIS conference (2)

Against this background, Liberal MP WC Wentworth proposes, through a Cabinet presentation, a more comprehensive approach to recording Australian and Torres Strait Islander Aboriginal peoples and cultures.

Image: W. C. Wentworth presenting the Wentworth Lecture, 2000. AIATSIS Collection, AIATSIS.211.BW-N06749_22


At the AIATSIS conference (3)

In 1960 a cabinet subcommittee appointed the anthropologist WEH Stanner to organize a conference to consider "the state of Aboriginal studies in Australia".

In 1961 fifty-five academics and anthropologists attended the conference and recommended the creation of a national institute.


At the AIATSIS conference (4)

By an Act of Parliament, the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies (AIAS) is created.

Wentworth's intention is to establish an institute with a purely academic focus to record Aboriginal language, music, art, material culture, ceremonial life and social structure.

With an emphasis on 'traditional' culture, most of AIAS's research on spices takes place in remote Australia. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are positioned as “informants” for this investigation.

Image: Anthropological Society vending mashing sulks at South Creek, Narrabeen, NSW, 1932. Photograph by BL Hornshaw, AIATSIS Collection, HORNSHAW.B01.BW-N06794_09

activism and rights

During the 1960s and 1970s there was a rising wave of political and social action by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voices are becoming louder and more insistent, and White Australia is beginning to listen.

(Video) Kimberley Birds at the AIATSIS conference, Sunshine Coast, QLD. Kimberley Jiyiga Michelle Manning.


At the AIATSIS conference (5)

The Yolgnu people of Yirrkala, in north-eastern Arnhem Land (Northern Territory), present to the Australian Parliament abark request. Written in Yolngu Matha and English, the petition protests against the issuance of bauxite mining concessions on Yolgnu land.

Image: Artists from Yirrkala, Middle Dhuwa. Yirrkala Bark Petition 14.8.1963 46.9 x 21 cm, natural ocher on bark, ink on paper House of Representatives, Canberra.


At the AIATSIS conference (6)

A group of students from the University of Sydney, led by Charles Perkins, embark on a 15-day journeyfreedom walkto draw attention to the appalling living conditions and racism that is prevalent in the inner cities of New South Wales.

Image: The SAFA group in front of the chartered 'Freedom Ride' bus. Photograph reproduced with permission from Wendy Watson-Ekatein (nee Golding) and provided by Ann Curthoys.


At the AIATSIS conference (7)

After years of campaigning by Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islander and their allies, more than 90% of Australians voted "Yes" to remove two references in the Australian Constitution that discriminate against Aboriginal people.

The changes produced by1967 referendumgive the Commonwealth government the power to make Aboriginal-specific laws and allow Aboriginal people to be counted in the census.


At the AIATSIS conference (8)

During the 1970s, the urban areas of Fitzroy and Redfern became the focus of the Aboriginal agency. Aboriginal legal and medical services are established and new creative platforms such as The Black Theater emerge.

Image: Gary Williams, Lyn Thompson, Alan Cameron (unidentified), Gary Foley, Louisa Williams, Ann Weldon and Billy Craigie in front of the Aboriginal Legal Service, Redfern, 1974. Image courtesy National Archives of Australia, NAA, A8739, A2 /8/74/15.


Philip Roberts becomes the first Aboriginal member appointed to the AIAS Board.


At the AIATSIS conference (9)

The first national magazine administered by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples is published.identity magazineprovides a space for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to engage in robust political debate on Aboriginal issues.

Image: coverIdentity, vol. 1, No. 5, July 1972, with a photograph of Ambrose Golden-Brown, Alan Sharply and others at the Aboriginal Store Embassy, ​​Canberra.


At the AIATSIS conference (10)

Senator Neville Bonner is the second Aboriginal to be appointed to the AIAS Board. He served on the Council until 1974 and for a second term in the late 1970s. Senator Bonner is the first Aboriginal to sit in the Commonwealth Parliament.

The appointment of Roberts and Bonner reflects the growing pressure for greater Aboriginal representation within the Institute.

Image: Senator Neville Bonner, circa December 18, 1979. National Archives of Australia.


At the AIATSIS conference (11)

Four Aboriginal men (Michael Anderson, Billy Craigie, Tony Coorey and Bertie Williams) pitch a tent on the lawn of the old Parliament House to demand that the government grant land rights to Australia's First Peoples.

Image: Michael Anderson, Billy Craigie and Bert Williams sitting in front of the embassy tent. AIATSIS Collection, IDENTITY.001.DF-D0002919


Self-determination becomes government policy after the Whitlam government's election in December 1972.

(Video) AIATSIS Conference - FDIO Presentation - Questions 1

In its most basic form, self-determination refers to the rights of peoples to freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.

At the AIATSIS conference (12)

In 1972, Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam dumped land into the hands of Vincent Lingiari in a symbolic gesture of returning land to the Gurindji people. Courtesy of the National Archives of Australia.


At the AIATSIS conference (13)

Under the pseudonym Eaglehawk and Crow, five Aboriginal people and one non-Aboriginal person sent a letter of protest against a 17-day conference organized by the AIAS.

The authors of the letter call for greater Aboriginal participation in the running of the Institute and greater Aboriginal control over the implementation and funding of research.

'...the conference will provide, at its best, an opportunity for scholars to meet, socialize, exchange esoteric facts and abstract theories on their "fascinating subject"'.

'It's a scandal when they invited the country's intellectual elite and people from abroad to attend the conference, but they won't have Aboriginal people there... In the future, they will have to get information about Aboriginal culture from someone else because we won't give them '. —Charles Perkins in response to the situation.

This document represents a seminal moment in the evolution of the Institute.


In 1974, the AIAS Board approves initial funding for the training of Aboriginal people participating in the Institute's research projects.


Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser and his government enact the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territories) Act. This law allows Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory to claim rights to their traditional lands.


Adhi Ephraim Bani is the first Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander to be appointed to the AIAS Board.

Recognition and reconciliation

The 1980s and 1990s marked a new era of reconciliation and recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander rights. Australians come together to acknowledge and apologize for the pain and loss experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Various organizations emerge with a primary focus on reconciliation efforts.


At the AIATSIS conference (14)

On May 20, 1982,strong maboand fellow Mer Islanders Reverend David Passi, Celuia Mapo Salee, Sam Passi and James Rice are taking legal action in the High Court of Australia over ownership of their land on Mer Island.

That same year, the Institute established a task force to look at ways to increase Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander employment at the Institute. At the time, there were four Aboriginal employees, making up around 7% of the total staff.

Image: Eddie Mabo. Image courtesy of the Mabo family.


At the AIATSIS conference (15)

The Lord. Ken Colbung AM MBE becomes the first Aboriginal Chairman of the AIATSIS Council.

Image: Ken Colbung, 1998, Perth, WA. Photograph by Kevin Ballantine, AIATSIS Collection, PERTH.001.BW-B00985_03.


The Governor-General, Sir Ninian Stephen, hands over the title deeds to Uluru (formerly known as Ayers Rock) to the traditional owners. Five minutes later, the Traditional Owners sign a 99-year lease for the park with the Australian Parks and Wildlife Service.

As of 2019, this sacred site of Anangu is closed to climbing.


At the AIATSIS conference (16)

The Northern and Central Land Councils present the Barunga Declaration to Prime Minister Bob Hawke as a statement of the aspirations of “Australia's indigenous landowners and occupiers” and a call on the Australian government and people to “recognize our rights”.

The Prime Minister responds with a commitment to negotiate a treaty with the aborigines. It is an unfulfilled commitment.

(Video) Natasha Short, Kimberley Birds, at the AIATSIS Conference with Cherie Sibasado

The Barunga Declaration of 1988. Natural pigments on composition board with accompanying printed text on paper submitted by the Central Land Council and Northern Land Council in 1988. Gift Collection, House of Parliament Art Collection.


At the AIATSIS conference (17)

On January 26, thousands of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people from across Australia arrive in Sydney to protest encroachment on Aboriginal land and celebrate their survival after 200 years of British colonization.

Image: Reconciliation walk across the Sydney Harbor Bridge on May 28, 2000. Photograph by C Moore Hardy, courtesy Sydney City Archives.


At the AIATSIS conference (18)

The Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies becomes the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS). A new law is passed which sees a reduced board of nine members with a mandatory minimum of five Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander members.

In 2020, AIATSIS would name its building on the Acton peninsula 'Maraga'; an Ngunnawal word for a strong and robust shield.


The Torres Strait Islander and Aboriginal Commission (ATSIC) is formed, allowing Torres Strait Islander and Aboriginal peoples to formally participate in governmental processes. In 2004 ATSIC was suppressed.


The government establishes the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation to promote reconciliation and advise the government on the formal ways in which reconciliation can be achieved.


At the AIATSIS conference (19)

On June 3, the Australian High Court rules in favor of Koiki Mabo and his fellow plaintiffs. The decision in this landmark case recognizes in Australian law for the first time the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to their land based on their traditional connection and occupancy with their country; a decision that goes against the British claim that Australia was 'terra nullius' (land that belongs to no one).

Eddie Mabo with other claimants outside the High Court of Australia. 'Land Bilong Islanders,' courtesy of Trevor Graham-Yarra Bank Films.


At the AIATSIS conference (20)

In the same year, Marcia Langton, a prominent Aboriginal academic and activist, becomes the first female president of the AIATSIS Council.

Image: Marcia Langton in her office, Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies Library, Canberra, 1983. AIATSIS Collection, AIAS.045.BW-N03050_17A.


At the AIATSIS conference (21)

Prime Minister Paul Keating delivers a speech in Redfern Park, Sydney. In it, he acknowledges that “it was we [non-Aboriginal Australians] who took the traditional lands. We commit the murders. We take children from their mothers. It was our ignorance and our prejudice. And our inability to imagine these things being done to us.

Prime Minister Paul Keating giving his Redfern speech, Redfern Park, 1992. Courtesy City of Sydney Archives.


The following year, the Australian Parliament passes the Native Title Act 1993 to create a system for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to assert native title to their land.


At the AIATSIS conference (22)

Following the approval of the Native Title Law, AIATSIS establishes the Native Title Search Unit.

AIATSIS' annual native title conference, first convened in 2001, would grow from 200 attendees to over 900 by 2018, becoming Australia's largest Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander policy conference.


At the AIATSIS conference (23)

The National Inquiry Report into the separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families was presented to the Federal Parliament. The report sheds light on the scope and devastating impact of forced eviction policies that existed in Australia in one form or another for over 150 years and well into the 1970s.

(Video) AIATSIS: Preserving the oldest continuing cultures in the world


At the AIATSIS conference (24)

The first Sea of ​​Hands takes place outside Parliament in Canberra, where 70,000 people demonstrated in opposition to the government's proposed amendments to the Native Title Act 1993. Since then, the Sea of ​​Hands facilities Hands have been used to symbolize solidarity with First Peoples. through Australia. Nearly 400,000 Australians have put their signatures on a hand at Sea of ​​Hands and have created thousands of installations.


At the AIATSIS conference (25)

Thousands of Australians participate in thesorry bookcampaign culminating in the first National Apology Day on May 26, 1998. This grassroots movement is described as "the people's apology."

The public was invited to sign their names and leave messages in the apology books that ANTAR and volunteer networks distributed in Australia.


At the AIATSIS conference (26)

On February 13, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd offers a formal apology to Stolen Generations members on behalf of the Australian Parliament.


The National Congress of Australia's First Peoples is created. Congress provides a national voice for decision-making and policy.


The Australian Government establishes the Referendum Council to advise on progress and steps towards a successful referendum to recognize Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the Constitution.

In 2017 he delivered his final report on'Uluru Statement from the Heart'which requires a treaty with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and a truth-seeking process.


At the AIATSIS conference (27)

The Lord. Russell Taylor OAM retires as CEO of AIATSIS. A Kamilaroi man, Mr. Taylor is the Institute's longest-serving CEO and director, having served two terms, the first from 1997 to 2003 and the second from 2009 to 2016.


The Australian government provides $10 million over three years to establish an Indigenous Research Fund. The fund, which is administered by AIATSIS, supports indigenous-led research that brings real and direct benefits to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.


At the AIATSIS conference (28)

The Minister for Indigenous Australians, Hon Ken Wyatt AM, MP, is the first Aboriginal appointed to this cabinet role.

Image: Ken Wyatt speaking in Parliament, Canberra, 2019. Courtesy of Australian Associated Press.


At the AIATSIS conference (29)

The coronavirus pandemic reaches Australian shores. Borders are closed and communities lock down.


At the AIATSIS conference (30)

The government announces the introduction of the Cultural Heritage Return Initiative. The programme, run by AIATSIS with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, facilitates and ensures the return of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural heritage material held in collections abroad.


At the AIATSIS conference (31)

AIATSIS, the South Australian Native Title Services and hospitality of the Kaurna Yerta Aboriginal CorporationAIATSIS Summit. The Summit marks sixty years since the first conference that led to the establishment of the Institute.

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