A workplace Guide

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A Workplace Guide

This Workplace Guide is a series of understandings and suggestions, not a set of instructions and can be interpreted differently by different Aboriginal nations.

Traditional aspects

  • Australian Aboriginal Society has the longest continuous cultural history in the world. Its origins date back to at least 50 000 years, possibly 70 000 years, or since the beginning of time in the Dreaming.

  • The relationship to the land is considered fundamental to the wellbeing of Aboriginal people individually and collectively. The relationship with the land is spiritually connected to the person.

  • In Aboriginal communities, there is a ‘need to accept customs and laws’.

  • Aboriginal Elders are viewed by their communities with respect. They are the holders of information and knowledge. It is often expected by the community that staff members also respect these people and acknowledge their position.

  • For many Aboriginal people it is considered impolite to make eye contact with people. Avoiding eye contact is polite behaviour and is regarded as a sign of respect by Aboriginal people.

  • For non Aboriginal people, avoiding eye contact can be difficult as it is not a natural response. In many situations sitting next to the person rather than opposite to them can limit eye contact.

  • There are differences between those with ‘traditional’ culture and those who have no interest in that aspect of culture and make it convenient to use eye contact.

  • Acknowledge that Aboriginal Australia consists of approximately 300 groups each with their own country, stories, languages or dialects and traditions.


Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara people of northwest South Australia

Koori or Koorie

New South Wales or Victoria

Murri or Murrie

parts of Queensland


some parts of South Australia but it also means ‘how are you’ in the Adnyamathanha language of the northern Flinders Ranges


southwest of Western Australia




Arnhem Land in Northern Territory

  • Work teams need to be aware of inappropriate tasks for men and women where the community understands ‘men’s business’ or ‘women’s business’.

  • Aboriginal people have a very strong sense of kinship. Family ties and connections are very important and families share resources and care for relatives. Decisions will often be made from a family or clan perspective.

  • In Aboriginal communities take care what you ask about. Be cautious and don’t pry.

  • Be aware of the use of hand signals and other non-verbal cues commonly utilised.

Helpful attitudes for workers

  • Working with Aboriginal people is like working with anyone else. Be respectful, be prepared to listen and open to learn. Compassion and patience are valuable attributes.

  • Patience is required as answers often don’t come instantaneously – you may have to wait up to a week to get answers.

  • Individuality is the key concept to understand when working with Aboriginal people. Aboriginal people come from all over Australia from all walks of life and descent. Generalisations cannot be made about anyone. Treat everyone as an individual, as unique as yourself.

  • Until you know the people, be careful about the topics you choose to talk about. However, Aboriginal people have a wonderful sense of humour.

  • Be led by the individual or community when trying to achieve something. Take steps slowly, ask how to take the appropriate steps required.

  • Many Indigenous people have both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal ancestors. Skin colour is not a valid means of identifying Aboriginal people.

  • ‘An Aboriginal person is a person of Aboriginal descent who identifies as Aboriginal and is accepted as such by the community in which they live.’ Definition provided by ATSIC (the former Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission).

  • There are differences between urban, rural and traditional communities. Different clans have different cultures. Treat each community as having different cultural expectations with:

  • eye contact

  • use of colours

  • symbols

  • dealing with death (photos and names).

  • Some Aboriginal people have cultural laws associated with death. Some groups avoid using the person’s name or photos once they have passed away. It is often expected that an Aboriginal person is obliged to attend funerals or spend time with families when there is a death in their community. As a sign of respect on the day of the funeral, most Aboriginal businesses are closed and Aboriginal people are unavailable for other matters. Accept and allow time for ‘Sorry Business’. Sometimes there can be up to a week of closure of business, depending on the status of the deceased in the community. Sometimes roads are closed for the period of mourning.

  • Do not use inappropriate or offensive language. Terms such as ‘coloured’, ‘blackfellas’, ‘blacks’, ‘half caste’, ‘half blood’, ‘full blood’, ‘primitive’, ‘stone age’, ‘tribes’, ‘nigger’, ‘coons’ should not be used and are considered culturally inappropriate. These are simply disrespectful.

  • Don’t call men ‘boys’ or boys ‘men’. This may offend men in positions of responsibility.

  • Find out what the people call themselves; for example, in Port Lincoln, people call themselves ‘Nungas’ or ‘Nunga mob’. This term can be used to discuss group issues without offence.

Work issues

  • Gain an understanding of the issues that are significant for the person and address them individually. Focus on wider issues rather than just the point of you being there. When connecting with people find out:

  • where they have come from, their ‘country’

  • their language

  • if they have issues with, for example, Stolen Generation, police, welfare, social, economic, literacy, and health

  • other history.

  • Cultural domination has resulted in hardships and still affects many Aboriginal people. Hardships may have been experienced economically, socially, with their health or education. Make no assumptions.

  • Aboriginal people are often naturally shy. People describe being easily ‘shamed’ or embarrassed by:

  • having attention drawn to them

  • suddenly being put on the spot

  • having to demonstrate in front of a group

  • people staring or intently gazing at them.

  • Many communities have transient members, be aware that people may be relatively new to a region.

  • When working with Aboriginal communities, having a well known or supportive person present can be helpful when trying to achieve something. It is preferable for women to get to know the women first and for men to get to know the men first.

  • Forms that have to be signed by a guardian may not necessarily be signed by the biological mother or father; for example, often uncles are the family disciplinarian and aunties are the authority figure.

  • Be aware that many Aboriginal people may not have access to point identification systems; for example, birth certificates, bank accounts, and licences. Generalisations cannot be made that most Aboriginal people have bank accounts and are aware of identification systems.

  • Be aware that Aboriginal people have a high incidence of health issues, substance abuse and domestic violence. Attendance, meetings and commitments may be affected by these issues.

  • Be prepared to pick up where you left off when people are absent. Do not take this personally, be flexible and understanding.

  • Avoid patronising behaviour as the people will quickly refuse assistance. Use plain terms and be precise as not all terms can be translated into language. Be honest and get straight to the point.

  • Visit the community; don’t always expect the community to visit you.

  • Set up initial meetings in familiar surroundings; for example, at the Women’s Group, community office/shop or Community Development Employment Programs (CDEP).

  • Use capital ‘A’ for Aboriginal and ‘I’ for Indigenous. ‘Aborigine’ is not accepted.

  • Many Aboriginal people have low levels of English literacy, verbal and/or written. This means that there are language differences that can become barriers to progress. Urban and rural communities use a combination of Aboriginal dialect and English which in some places is known as ‘Pidgin’ or ‘Creole’ language.

  • Some Aboriginal people cannot read or write. Observe the signs, be considerate and ask the person if they would like you to explain what is written if necessary.

  • Be aware of the role of Aboriginal agencies:

  • CDEP

  • the Local Community Council

  • Aboriginal Health

  • ALRM – Aboriginal Legal Rights Movement

  • Land Councils – NLC – Northern Land Council, CLC – Central Land Council.

  • Many Aboriginal people are still affected by both past and recent experiences due to their Aboriginality. Past Government policies have displaced, converted, isolated and assimilated Aboriginal people. Examples include:

  • forcing different Aboriginal groups to live together on missions and reserves

  • enforcing laws for Aboriginal people which excluded Aboriginal people from receiving equal pay, from entering and living within towns and going to hotels

  • assimilation policies which encouraged Aboriginal people to hide their Aboriginality and state they were not an Aboriginal person

  • the stolen generations, between 10 and 30 per cent of children were still being forcibly removed up until the 1970s. This has had an effect on all Aboriginal communities.

  • The colours of the Aboriginal flag are symbolic: red for the earth, yellow for the sun, and black for the people.

Health and services issues

  • Specialised medical, legal and education services are needed for Aboriginal people to ensure the most appropriate and accessible service is provided.

  • Gender issues, especially in the health sector, may require treatment by same gender workers (e.g. be aware some senior men may not find it suitable to be treated by female practitioners).

  • The need for Aboriginal services is also supported by social indicators, with statistics indicating that Aboriginal people are worse off than any other identifiable group of Australians. Statistics from the Australian Bureau of Statistics include:

  • Aboriginal people die on average 17 to 20 years earlier than non-Aboriginal people and are far more likely to suffer from infectious disease or chronic disease such as diabetes, renal failure, heart disease and hypertension, trachoma and ear disease 2

  • only 2.8 per cent of the Indigenous population was aged 65 years or over 3

  • coronary heart disease is 1.5 to three times higher for males and females than for non-Aboriginal people 4

  • stroke is three times higher for males and two to 2.5 times higher for females 5

  • hospitalisation rates for males and females combined were six to eight times higher than for non-Aboriginal people and the death rate, 19 times higher6

  • deaths of Indigenous people from cardiovascular disease occur at younger age groups than those of non-Indigenous people – 62 per cent of Indigenous deaths occurred prior to the age of 65 years compared with 10 per cent for other Australians7

  • the rate for diabetes as the main cause of death among Indigenous males was seven times the rate for non-Indigenous males, and the rate for Indigenous females was 14 times higher than that for non-Indigenous females.8

  • Large proportions of Aboriginal people don’t drink alcohol at all:

  • up to 35 per cent of Aboriginal males do not drink alcohol at all, compared with 12 per cent of non-Aboriginal males

  • between 40 and 80 per cent of Aboriginal females do not drink, compared to 19 to 25 per cent of non-Aboriginal females

  • surveys have shown, however, that Aboriginal people who do drink tend to do so in excess. This is often highlighted by the fact that many Aboriginal people drink in public places or in the open and not behind closed doors, as do their non-Aboriginal counterparts

  • in many areas, the communities have decided to have alcohol-free zones and are called ‘Dry Communities’.

  • The high prevalence of health risk factors found among the Indigenous population reflects the broader social and economic disadvantages faced by Aboriginal people.

  • The health risk factors summarised briefly are smoking, physical inactivity and psychological and sociological aspects. Smoking heightens the risks by affecting the functioning of the arteries; physical inactivity contributes to increased weight gain; and psychological and sociological risk factors stem from social inequalities and influence the prevalence of other risk factors.

  • Housing has been identified as a major factor affecting the health of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

  • Indigenous Youth face extreme difficulties in Australia today. A vast divide in life opportunity exists between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and the general population in Australia. Statistics suggest:

  • Indigenous youth are the most educationally disadvantaged

  • 63 per cent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people over 15 years of age are overweight or obese

  • 49 per cent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people aged 18 years and over were smokers

  • 59 per cent of Indigenous Australians aged 13 years and above identify alcohol as ‘one of the main health problems’ faced by their communities and 30 per cent identify ‘drugs’ as a problem

  • unemployment rates were highest for Indigenous people aged 15 to 17 years (31.8 per cent), and 18 to 24 years (27.3 per cent)

  • the number of children on care and protection orders nationally on 30 June 2002 was 5.9 times the non-Indigenous rate

  • Indigenous juveniles (up to age 18) remain over-represented in criminal justice processes.9

  • Participation in early childhood and primary schooling has improved dramatically. Year 12 retention rates have shifted from under 10 per cent to about 38 per cent in 2000. The participation rates of Aboriginal 15 to 24 year-olds in vocational and technical education (VTE) have reached levels about the same as those for other Australians. However, there is still a long way to go.10

Impact of government policies

  • The submission by Dr Jane McKendrick, Victorian Aboriginal Mental Health Network, (cited in Bringing them home 1997, submission 310) suggests that people removed from their families are:

  • less likely to have undertaken a post-secondary education

  • much less likely to have stable living conditions and more likely to be geographically mobile

  • three times more likely to say they had no one to call on in a crisis

  • less likely to be in a stable, confiding relationship with a partner

  • twice as likely to report having been arrested by police and having been convicted of an offence

  • three times as likely to report having been in gaol

  • less likely to have a strong sense of their Aboriginal cultural identity and more likely to have discovered their Aboriginality later in life

  • twice as likely to report current use of illicit substances

  • much more likely to report intravenous use of illicit substances.11

  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples were completely overlooked as relevant parties in the formation of the Australian Federation. Many Australians believe that a treaty is an appropriate starting point towards reconciliation.

  • Self-determination is an ‘ongoing process of choice’ to ensure that Indigenous communities are able to meet their social, cultural and economic needs. It is not about creating a separate Indigenous ‘state’.

  • The right to self-determination is based on the simple acknowledgment that Aboriginal people are Australia’s first people, recognised by law in the historic Mabo judgement.

  • The loss of this right to live according to a set of common values and beliefs, and to have that right respected by others, is at the heart of the current disadvantage experienced by Indigenous Australians. Without self-determination it is not possible for Indigenous Australians to fully overcome the legacy of colonisation and dispossession.12

  • Aboriginal people have links to areas of land that date back thousands of years. The Native Title appeals are about claims for ownership of property by Aboriginal people where they have maintained a physical association with their territory.

  • The two landmark cases in Native Title Appeals are the Mabo case from the Mer (Murray) Islands (Torres Strait) and the Wik Case from Cape York Peninsula. To define the principal of Native Title, the government passed the Native Title Act in 1993 and after the Wik decision developed a controversial 10-point plan to resolve the ambiguities in Native Title legislation.13


The Steering Committee 2004

Ms Judith Welgraven, Mr Doug Milera, Mr Joey Hull, Mr Jason Butler, Ms Trudie Gibbs, Ms Barbara Clutterbuck


Australia, Department of Education, Science and Technology 2005, The Work Program: Improving outcomes for Indigenous students,

Australia, Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission 1997, Bringing them home: Report of the national inquiry into the separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families, .

Australia, Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission 2004, Social justice and human rights for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, viewed August 2004, .

Enterprise and Career Education & Aussie SchoolHouse Foundation 2001, Vocational education community online, viewed August 2004, .

Gray, Dennis & Saggers, Sherry 2006, Summary of alcohol use among Indigenous people, .

Morrissey, Philip 2001, ‘Facts about Aboriginal Australia & the Torres Strait Islands’, in Aboriginal Australia & the Torres Strait Islands: A guide to indigenous Australia, Sarina Singh et al., Lonely Planet, Footscray, Victoria, pp. 22-30.

South Australia, Centre for Rural and Remote Health 2001, Working with Aboriginal people in rural and remote South Australia: A cultural awareness handbook for people working in health professions, Whyalla, South Australia.

South Australia, Department of Education and Children’s Services 2005, Aboriginal Education for all learners in South Australia: A beginner’s guide to DECS Aboriginal Education, .

Thomson, Neil, et al. 2006, Overview of Australian Indigenous health, viewed 26 June 2006, .

The Wadu Resource .

1 SA Dept of Education and Children’s Services 2005.

2 Thomson et al. 2006, pp. 10-11.

3 Thomson et al. 2006, p. 12.

4 Thomson et al. 2006, p. 18.

5 Thomson et al. 2006, pp. 12 & 18.

6 Thomson et al. 2006, p. 18.

7 Thomson et al. 2006, p. 18.

8 Thomson et al. 2006, p. 21.

9 Gray & Saggers 2006.

10 Australia, Dept of Education, Science and Training 2005.

11 Australia, HREOC 1997, p. 22.

12 Australia, HREOC 2004.

13 Morrissey 2001, pp. 28-30.

Part of the Australian Flexible Learning Framework Interactive Ochre

© Commonwealth of Australia 2006 A Workplace Guide

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